“Hands in the air, the search is fair,” young Sudanese men and women would chant as they welcomed newcomers at entrances to the square in front of the Armed Forces General Command where demonstrators began their sit-in on 6 April.
They appealed to the army to defend them as they protested against the tyranny of president Omar Al-Bashir and the army responded. On 11 April the General Command disobeyed Al-Bashir’s orders to forcibly disperse the sit-in. Demonstrators and other democratic forces responded with relief.
The area around the General Command headquarters became a pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of Sudanese who had experienced repression, exclusion, corruption and warfare under an Islamist military dictatorship that had clung to power for 30 years.
The square became a breathing space for a people who had suffered oppression, a space for creativity, free expression, the fertile exchange of views and dreams of a better future.
Women and men, children and the elderly, representatives from across the spectrum of Sudanese society came together to chant in unison, “Freedom, peace, justice... The revolution is the people’s choice”.
The protesters resolved to remain in the square to safeguard their revolution while negotiations were in progress with the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that had assumed control following Al-Bashir’s ouster. The sit-in remained peaceful, civilised, committed.
Then came 3 June, the 29th of Ramadan, and a dawn raid by heavily armed forces. They stormed the square, tore down tents, terrorised and attacked civilians. More than 100 people were killed and dozens wounded in what was universally described as a massacre.
The dispersal of the sit-in brought Sudan to a political standstill. Fear and suspicion of the army was reignited. Now the people’s hope is vested in an ongoing campaign of civil disobedience.
The violent break-up of the sit-in ended a negotiating process representatives from both sides say had accomplished 80 to 90 per cent of its agenda.
The only outstanding point of difference concerned the make-up of the ruling transitional council and its presidency. Each side insisted it should have the majority.
Before the break-up, there had been repeated warnings against the bloody scenario that came to pass. Rational heads had counselled that once an agreement was reached the majority of demonstrators would leave of their own accord.
There had been signs aplenty that remnants of the old regime — its militias and henchmen — were waiting for a moment in which to pounce and disrupt the forces of change.
That opportunity may have presented itself as differences began to emerge among the ranks of the military, with some switching sides from being partners in the political process to being opponents.
In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly (see p.8), Mubarak Al-Fadel Al-Mahdi, head of the Umma Party, said both the TMC and the opposition Alliance of Freedom and Change (AFC) committed mistakes that led Sudan to the current impasse. (Al-Mahdi’s party itself broke ranks with the National Umma Party, led by his uncle Al-Sadek Al-Mahdi.)
Now that negotiations have collapsed popular forces are relying on an open-ended campaign of civil disobedience to pressure the TMC. The TMC, in turn, has escalated measures against the opposition and the Sudanese people.
Dozens of activists have been arrested. Leaders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North were deported to South Sudan’s Juba after being detained for several days.
Internet services have been cut off across the country. The Sudanese are under siege.
Everywhere you hear complaints that the situation is intolerable. The vast majority struggle under economic conditions that militate against an indefinite campaign of civil disobedience. Many are deeply worried by the security situation.
Sadek Al-Mahdi, head of the National Umma Party, says he is working to contain the crisis created by the dangerous escalation between opposition forces and the TMC.
Opposition activists agree that the situation is critical. Obvious pathways to a solution are now closed. The carnage of the break-up of the sit-in has further aggravated an already difficult situation.
It has been reported that the deputy leader of the TMC, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti) — he is also the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — told the US ambassador to Sudan his forces were not responsible for the massacre.
A source close to Hemedti said that the decision to break-up the sit-in was taken by the TMC, though Hemedti insists his soldiers did not kill demonstrators.
He called for the creation of a commission to investigate the massacre and bring its perpetrators to light.
Some Sudanese figures and eyewitnesses suggest the massacre was the work of paramilitary brigades and security forces that had served the former regime and were intent on taking revenge on the RSF which sided with the military in ousting Al-Bashir.
According to this narrative, the RSF was tasked with dispersing demonstrators using whips and cudgels but as soon as the operation started paramilitary brigades, wearing the same uniforms as the RSF, moved in and began to fire live ammunition into the crowds.
Hemedti’s supporters insist the military commander fell into a trap and, from being a military leader who had sided with the revolution, is now the object of censure at home and abroad.
A senior figure in the AFC says an impartial, internationally monitored investigation into the massacre is now one of the Sudanese uprising’s main demands and until it is met it will be impossible to rebuild trust and make any progress in negotiations.
“If a just and transparent investigation takes place it will open the door to the resumption of negotiations,” the source said. He cautioned against any “recourse to other options that will be destructive for both sides and for the country”.
Other sources argue, in light of mounting anger towards the RSF, that the activists’ campaign of civil disobedience and escalating clampdowns by the TMC will precipitate a rift in the security establishment.
“Divisions in the security establishment could be the harbinger of uncontainable evil and war in Khartoum,” one source said, adding that there were reports of major disputes within the TMC.
Another source believes the gap between the TMC and the movement for change has grown so large “the crisis can only get worse if the TMC does not heed the alliance’s call for an internationally monitored, if not internationally supervised, investigation.”
As one source put it, the situation in Sudan is now “open to all possibilities”.
Members of the international community concerned for the stability of Sudan must do everything they can to keep the crisis from spiralling out of control.
Local, regional and international stakeholders need to rise above partisan affiliation, political division and self-interest in order to reduce tensions and promote a peaceful and consensual transition to civilian government.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Khartoum’s blame game