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The Mass Movement That Toppled Omar Al-Bashir

  • Caitlin L.
  • July, 2019
  • 172
  • Sudan situation


Kober is the largest prison in Sudan. Constructed in Khartoum in the early 1900s by British colonizers, for the past thirty years it has housed political opponents of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir. As of last week, al-Bashir allegedly sits there behind its bars.

Two weeks ago, what previously seemed unimaginable happened: a mass movement toppled al-Bashir after three decades in power. The army ultimately removed al-Bashir, who himself took over in a 1989 military coup, ousting a civilian government.

The importance of a mass movement in bringing about al-Bashir’s downfall cannot be overstated. On December 13, people took to the streets in ad-Damazin and then a few days later in Atbara to protest that basic food was unaffordable; inflation was over 70 percent. People were frustrated with the government’s violent and incompetent rule, during decades of war and protracted conflicts with South Sudan, Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and the Blue Nile. The protests grew from hundreds to thousands, reaching across the vast country, almost one-fifth the size of the United States.

When the protests began, many outside Sudan were skeptical that they’d lead to change. Al-Bashir was the only living ruler indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, for directing attacks against civilians in Darfur during the 2003-2008 conflict. For years he defiantly evaded arrest and sought allies in the Gulf states; he held onto power through constructing a brutal security state. At home, his regime tried to silence the media and all opposition through torture, arrest, and sometimes murder.

Abroad, al-Bashir had become Europe’s partner in stemming migration from Africa across the Mediterranean. EU countries funneled money into Sudan to stop refugees and migrants from traveling further north. When I reported from Khartoum in November 2017, European diplomats told me it was time to work with the “good guys” in the regime (unsurprisingly, the Sudanese activists and politicians I spoke to were of a different opinion). Although the United States had shunned al-Bashir after Darfur, they were willing to work with the head of Sudan’s secret police, Salah Gosh, reportedly a favorite of the CIA, and continued to discuss cooperating against terrorism (surprising given that Sudan harbored Osama bin Laden in the 1990s). Gosh has recently resigned.

What skeptics outside Sudan failed to take into account was that the protests built on a long history of active opposition to the al-Bashir regime. Although not extensively reported on outside Sudan, there had also been prior movements-like in 2012, 2013, and early 2018-and though these were crushed by the regime, activists honed their mobilization skills. This time around, after regular people began protesting, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) got involved as a coordinating group. The SPA is an umbrella trade union composed of lawyers, doctors, and journalists, without a prior role as an opposition party. The SPA’s involvement helped unite people of all backgrounds; it made clear the movement was inclusive and rooted in working-class struggles.

For years al-Bashir had blamed Sudan’s struggling economy on U.S. sanctions. The United States lifted these in 2017, but the economy only deteriorated further. Something had to give. While al-Bashir tried to blame the uprising on “Darfuri terrorists and rebels”-arresting and torturing ten Darfuri students until they made false confessions and then parading them on television in late December-other students were quick to publicize that these were innocent young people. “You racist egomaniac, we are all Darfur,” shouted protesters at rallies.

As people took to the streets, news filtered out slowly to the mainstream media. Few journalists had consistent access on the ground (with exceptions like Hiba Morgan and Yousra Elbagir who did excellent reporting). But inside Sudan, many citizen journalists and protesters documented events in real time on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram; activists in the diaspora reposted and amplified their reach. Sudanese artists found ways to release revolutionary messages through graffiti and street art. In response, the government shut down social media and deployed the army to curtail protesters using live ammunition, tear gas, and stun grenades.

On the morning of January 21, I was getting ready for work in Berlin when a Dutch journalist who also reported on Sudan messaged me, “Hey are you awake?”

I knew instantly that it was bad news. We had several friends in common, among them Ahmad (last name ...

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