Counterrevolution in Sudan
A History of Military Coups and Mass Struggle
November 7, 2021
On October 25, 2021, Sudan’s military, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, arrested members of the transitional government and declared a state of emergency, staging a coup to reassert military rule over the country. Since then, Sudan has erupted in mass protest and a general strike, with millions of people refusing to return to life as normal under military rule, and demonstrating their refusal by erecting barricades, organizing in resistance committees, and recommitting to Sudan’s stalled revolution of 2018-19 even under a near-total internet blackout.
These two weeks of intense battle between the streets and the military come in the wake of two years of counterrevolutionary impasse – ever since the representatives of the 2018-2019 uprising (ending the thirty-year rule of Omar al-Bashir) came to a tenuous power-sharing agreement with the military in late 2019. This was a dangerous concession that put a halt to the revolutionary process and set the stage for a military takeover to be all but inevitable. As the balance of forces hangs in the air today, with the military facing profound levels of resistance and the Revolution as of yet unable to implement the civilian government demanded by the Sudanese people, Sudanese writer and political analyst Magdi el Gizouli writes about the historical background to the current moment. He describes Sudan today as the culmination of a rich and long history of anti-imperialist, labor, and anti-regime struggle, combined with a particular political economy created largely by conditions of imperialism.
Precursors to Today’s Coup: Aid, Cotton, and Anti-Imperialist Unions in 1950s Sudan
Some are calling what took place on October 25 a “coup attempt.” But I would call a spade a spade. This was (and is) a military coup – not a coup attempt. One reason for the confusion is probably that it is a coup designed and executed by the army leadership rather than a scheming cohort of disgruntled officers of petty bourgeois character operating in defiance of the chain of command and in alliance with their peers in the civilian realm, university graduates and professionals. In this regard, it falls in the first of these two categories of coups in Sudan’s modern history, namely the coup of the commander in chief.
But to properly make sense of these developments, we need to take an historical detour. The parallel here is with the November 1958 coup of General Ibrahim Abboud, who assumed power at a moment of fracture in the ruling bloc, and who was actually invited by the sitting prime minister at the time, Abdalla Khalil, himself a former officer, to take power, silence the bickering political parties, and enforce a singular leadership on the ruling bloc.
Abdalla Khalil assumed power in June 1956 after the collapse of the first post-independence cabinet led by Ismail Al-Azhari. At the time, Sudan’s government budget depended on a singular export item, cotton, grown in the vast state-owned Gezira Scheme between the two Niles. Cotton returns were threatened by an increasingly radicalising movement of tenants in Gezira who were demanding a greater share of profits and reworking of production relations. A union of Gezira tenants came into being in 1953 with the assistance of the communist Anti-Imperialist Front, which subsequently developed into the Communist Party. Thousands of Gezira tenants marched to the capital Khartoum in December 1953 and occupied a major square in the city demanding recognition of their newly born union by the transitional self-government under British colonial yoke, a prescient form of “Occupy” in distant and dusty Sudan.
The radical spark flamed in Jouda near Kosti on the White Nile in January 1956, a few weeks after Sudan’s independence celebrations. Farmers of the White Nile region followed the Gezira tenants’ example of unionization and formed their own union by mid-1955. Cotton workers of the Jouda private pump scheme went on strike in protest against delays in deliverance of their meagre shares of cotton proceeds. The anxious independent state responded with lethal violence to the challenge of the striking labor force, who were threatening, with their bold example, to upend the system of exploitation on which the state existentially relied. Over 300 tenant farmers were shot on the fields or suffocated in overcrowded and poorly ventilated detention cells.
Sudan’s cotton exports were jeopardized by the closure of the Suez Canal – a consequence of the tripartite British-French-Israeli war on Egypt after Nasser declared the nationalization of the Canal. The Suez Canal was closed to shipping traffic from October 1956 to March 1957. Sudan produced 441,000 bales of cotton in the season 1955-56, up 9% from the previous season. Export sales amounted to 559,000 bales due to stock carryover from the 1954-55 season, but shipments to Europe were interrupted by the closure of the canal. The year 1957 witnessed a sharp decline in export proceeds. Cotton prices dropped from 77 US cents a pound in March 1957 before the new crop was available for sale to as low as 30 US cents a pound in February 1959. The volume of cotton exports dropped by 50% in 1957 and the cotton crop harvest was the lowest on record in the year 1958.
This was translated immediately into a budgetary crisis. During the two year period 1957-58, Sudan had trade deficits aggregating 27.4 million Sudanese pounds and a current account deficit of 34.3 million Sudanese pounds. Part of Abdalla Khalil’s response to these crises was orientation of Sudan’s foreign policy firmly towards the capitalist West including overtures to Israel. Abdalla Khalil approached the US government in February 1957 asking for economic aid and military armament. Sudan’s communist Anti-Imperialist Front outside parliament and the National Unionist Party (NUP), the opposition in parliament, launched a fierce campaign against the proposed US aid. Abdalla Khalil eventually snapped and asked the military leadership to take matters into its own hands. The prime minister welcomed the November 1958 coup that ended the brief parliamentary period saying had the army leadership not intervened Sudan would have been annexed by Nasser’s Egypt.
General Ibrahim Abboud and his junta proceeded with Abdalla Khalil’s plan for US aid and negotiated with Nasser’s Egypt monetary compensation for the drowning of Sudan’s Wadi Halfa under the lake of the Aswan High Dam. Thanks to these inflows, Sudan registered a net transfer payments surplus of 22.5 million Sudanese pounds in the period 1959-62. The junta ramped up cotton production by suppression of labour and horizontal expansion of the Gezira Scheme – the Managil South-Western extension inaugurated in 1962 – pushing up Sudan’s exports from 44.7 million Sudanese pounds in the crisis year of 1958 to 68 million Sudanese pounds in 1959, 64 million Sudanese pounds in 1960, 61.3 million Sudanese pounds in 1961 and 79.7 million Sudanese pounds in 1962.
What we observe, then, is that the military has consistently intervened to override factional disputes within the ruling bloc, as well as to protect their interests during periods of budgetary squeeze and popular radicalization. Characteristic of these moments are increased exploitation at home paired with extroverted foreign policy geared toward the short-term management of budgetary troubles.
General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan might well have considered Abboud’s precedent. In his remarks on October 25 announcing his centralization of authority, he mentioned that he had offered the transitional prime minister Abdalla Hamdok the opportunity to work together with him and facilitate a smoother consolidation of power. He was, however, acutely aware of another commander in chief’s coup in Sudan’s modern history, the April 6, 1985 palace coup of General Abd Al-Rahman Siwar Al-Dahab that deposed General Nimeiri and mentioned the precedent as a model to pursue “democratization.” Siwar Al-Dahab was Nimeiri’s defense minister. He stepped in to oust the 16-year long (1969-85) dictator at the height of the March/April popular uprising against the regime and announced a new dispensation as chairman of a transitional military council. Siwar Al-Dahab oversaw a brief one-year transitional period and eventually handed over power to the elected government of prime minister Sadiq Al-Mahdi.
During this brief transition, the military council of Siwar al-Dahab made sure to stall the radical demands of the popular uprising, including the quest for a negotiated settlement to the civil war in southern Sudan, rejection of the austerity measures imposed by Nimeiri’s regime, dissolution of Nimeiri’s security apparatus, and prosecution of the regime’s stalwarts. Siwar Al-Dahab entered the history books as a benevolent army officer who sided with the will of the people. But he managed to shield the leaders of the National Islamic Front (NIF), who were in alliance with Nimeiri against the wrath of the March/April uprising. Siwar Al-Dahab went on to become chairman of the Islamic Call Organisation, a humanitarian and proselytization arm of the NIF in 1987 and played an important role in facilitating the 30 June 1989 NIF-orchestrated coup that brought Omar Al-Bashir to power.
Coups as Counterrevolutionary Restorations
Siwar Al-Dahab’s 1985 coup granted the military veto power over the decision making processes of the transitional period and placed considerable breaks on the popular momentum ignited by the March/April uprising. A similar scenario played out in 2019. The military leadership pushed Omar Al-Bashir aside on April 11, 2019 under pressure from the protest movement with the aim of securing veto power over the post-Bashir dispensation. Al-Burhan’s 25 October coup is the realization of the partially stalled 11 April 2019 coup carried out by the leaders of the military-militia-security complex that evolved under Al-Bashir’s rule. It took two years of cohabitation between the military and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance to clarify its form. The interlude was the army’s defensive posture toward the broad revolutionary movement of 2018-19 until it was in a position to go on the offensive. In that sense, Al-Burhan’s October 25 coup qualifies as a restoration.
The interlude was nevertheless beneficial from the perspective of the ruling bloc. Speaking on the day of the coup, October 25, General Al-Burhan praised the person of prime minister Hamdok and expressed appreciation for the achievements of their partnership. Al-Burhan named the “economic reforms” carried out by Hamdok’s cabinet, a harsh austerity package prescribed by the International Monetary Fund that included the abolition of fuel subsidies, the severe downscaling of subsidies for wheat, electricity, and medicines, the abolition of multiple exchange rates for the US dollar, and the floating of the Sudanese currency.
Moreover, Hamdok’s cabinet managed to normalize relations with the US. Washington struck Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and lifted long-term sanctions in return for Sudan’s reorientation of foreign policy towards alignment with the US-sponsored regimes in the Middle East. The military took the lead in the elemental component of this pact when Al-Burhan met with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February 2020, initiating the normalization of relations between Khartoum and Tel Aviv that culminated in Sudan’s signing of the US-sponsored Abraham Accords in January 2021. In return, the US provided Sudan with urgently needed financial aid, a debt relief package under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) initiative, and wheat supplies to feed the bread-hungry cities.
When Al-Bashir embarked on the same austerity measures enforced by the transitional government, he faced stiff resistance in the cities, initially in September 2013 when he called on the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia to shoot at protestors on the streets of Khartoum, and again in 2018-19 when the military-security-militia complex eventually dropped him as a liability. Similarly, Al-Bashir attempted to sort matters out with the US first by offering the services of his security regime to the CIA, and then by trashing his ties with Iran in favor of an alliance with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In an attempt to satisfy his new patrons, Al-Bashir dispatched the military and the RSF to fight Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen. Senior officials of the ruling National Congress Party under Al-Bashir even flirted with the idea of normalizing ties with Israel. Al-Bashir’s attempts did not save him. The aging autocrat could not rid himself of the baggage of the Islamic Movement, and his pariah status was hard to rub off. Despite his best efforts, he could not transform into a reliable ally in the US-aligned regional security architecture.
Al-Burhan also mentioned the “Juba Agreement for Peace in Sudan” among Hamdok’s achievements, a series of wealth and power-sharing settlements signed in August 2020 between the government and major Darfur rebel movements: the Justice and Equality Movement led by Jibreel Ibrahim and the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement led by Minni Minawi, as well as a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M) in Northern Sudan led by Malik Agar and Yasir Arman, and several smaller factions, including a freshly minted army-sponsored militia. These members of Prime Minister Hamdok’s cabinet and the politicians of the FFC were crucial in the conclusion of these deals. Al-Bashir had made and broken several agreements with the same rebel groups already and a credible peace process was unlikely under his dominion.
The Political Economy of the Transitional Government
The transitional period started off as a Faustian pact between the leaders of Sudan’s military-militia-security complex and the politicians of the FFC, the alliance of political parties and professionals’ associations that was thrust to the forefront by the momentum of the revolutionary momentum of the 2018-19 protest movement. The Juba deals introduced a third party to what was initially conceived as a bilateral accommodation. In diagnostic terms, Al-Burhan’s coup swapped out the FFC politicians in favor of the Juba partners. The animosity between the two sides, the FFC politicians and the former rebels, played out on the streets of Khartoum for some time before the coup in the form of rallies and counter-rallies, and in print and online in the form of an acrimonious media campaign of insult-hurling.
The basic fissure between the FFC politicians and the rebel leaders overlaps to a great degree with standard lines of division in Sudan: the periphery versus the center, rural versus urban, the riverain Arabic speakers and the gharaba (people from western Sudan), or Khartoum versus the rest. Indeed, the FFC politicians and the rebel leaders belong to two distinct and competing social and political networks. The first spans the social world of university-educated cosmopolitan Khartoum and the English-speaking diaspora armed with postgraduate degrees and experiences in the international job market and the second extends into Sudan’s conflict-scorched hinterlands where guns have essentially become means of production.
The material basis of the dialectical contradiction between urban and rural Sudan is best gleaned from the records of Sudan’s exports and imports. A cursory look at Sudan’s foreign trade balance would clarify a great portion of the ideological mystification regarding the “transitional period” and the “civilian-military partnership” applauded by the world powers. In the first six months of 2021, the value of Sudan’s total exports stood at 2.5 billion US dollars, compared to an import bill of 4.1 billion US dollars. This gaping deficit is an effectively permanent feature of Sudan’s economy in most of its recent history. It was partially plugged during the oil boom for some 10 years between 1998 to 2011. But with the secession of South Sudan in 2011, the government of Sudan lost 75% of its foreign exchange earnings. Today Sudan depends on a set of basic export commodities to acquire foreign exchange and finance its imports. Between January and June 2021, Sudan exported groundnuts worth 406 million US dollars, livestock worth 319 million US dollars, sesame worth 301 million US dollars, gold worth 1 billion US dollars, and cotton worth 92 million US dollars.
Most of Sudan’s groundnuts and sesame are grown in the rain-fed traditional sector of the economy that occupies the greater portion of Sudan’s farmers in the plains of the western regions Kordofan and Darfur. Livestock is equally concentrated in Kordofan and Darfur in the custody of Sudan’s transhumant pastoral peoples. The commercialization of these livelihood systems is a violent and bloody extractive process that has engulfed millions of peoples in Sudan’s peripheries and recrafted their relations in contradictory ways beyond the oft referenced communal conflicts between farmers and herders, and tied them intimately to the vicissitudes of export markets.
By and large, both agricultural and livestock production have become militarized ventures in an environment of rural insecurity. The militia, the RSF, and the rebel armies, as well as the government army, operate in part as privatized policing agencies that guard and exploit these systems, including through the guarantee of credits and the enforcement of trade contracts. Surplus extraction from Sudan’s peripheries relies on the expansion of horizontal production rather than the upgrading of chronically low crop productivity, land dispossession, and the capture and hyper-exploitation of an impoverished and increasingly feminized agricultural labor force, itself drawn from conflict-devastated communities who survive on daily wages that barely scratch 1 US dollar. As a consequence, many can barely afford to buy the staple sorghum and millet that they themselves produce for capitalist entrepreneurs and absentee landlords, and so they are cyclically forced into hunger and the liquidation of limited assets.
Escape from this crushing labor regime involves migration to the cities for some as hawkers, casual laborers, and petty traders; and for many others, recruitment into militias and rebel groups or, more recently, the exodus of male labor to artisanal gold mining sites on the frontiers of Sudan cash geographies. The millions of artisanal miners furnish Sudan with around half of its foreign currency earnings.
Between Sudan’s producers – sesame and groundnut farmers, gum Arabic pickers, herders, and artisanal gold miners – and export markets are chains of racketeers and swindlers: militiamen, army officers, creditors, merchants, foreign currency traders, bankers, financiers, CEOs of export companies, as well as World Bank and IMF experts and their native informants. For a good portion of Sudan’s post-independence history, this system of exploitation was partially engineered and maintained through ideological means including the racialization of ethnic difference, the secular authority of communal figureheads, and the religious power of Sufi sheikhs and higher order patricians who commanded a considerable share of merchant capital and were in a position to compete with the urban elite of government officials and army officers for power.
The Seeds of an Alternative to Military Rule
The erosion of the political system that governed rural Sudan through warfare resulted in a situation where ambitious players, like the RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo or the leaders of rebel groups JEM and SLA/M Gibreel Ibrahim and Mini Minawi, need to command mighty fighting forces to grab a share of the surplus.
These nexuses of militarized exploitation obviously extend to Sudan’s export markets, the sources of its export earnings, foremost the Arab Gulf. In the period January to June 2021, Sudan exported commodities valued at 1.1 billion US dollars to the UAE (the primary market for Sudan’s gold), 299 million US dollars to Egypt, 207 million US dollars to Saudi Arabia, and 497 million US dollars to China. In comparison, Sudan’s exports to the US and major Western powers valued a meagre 65 million US dollars.
The dispute over central power in Khartoum boils down to infighting within the ruling bloc over who spends these earnings and how. Over the first six months of 2021, Sudan imported foodstuffs worth 953 million US dollars, including wheat and wheat flour, the staple diet of the cities, at the cost of 239 million US dollars, sugar worth 246 million US dollars, and other foodstuffs worth 294 million US dollars. The import bill for manufactured goods was 821 US dollars, for petroleum products 215 million US dollars, and for machinery and equipment 851 million US dollars. Further breakdown of these figures reveals the striking urban bias of consumption. Sudan imported during the first half of 2021 in the category chemicals perfumes and cosmetics worth 39 million US dollars, compared to fertilizers worth 43 million US dollars. In the category manufactured goods, iron, and steel destined for urban construction topped the list at 178 million US dollars, followed by manufactured plastics at 104 million US dollars. Likewise, the category machinery and equipment included electrical appliances for 203 million US dollars compared to tractors for 186 million US dollars. In other words, Sudan rural producers sweat and bleed in a militarized system of surplus extraction to sustain voracious urban consumption.
An exclusive focus on the strict distinction in political science between evil military rule and good civilian governance might confuse this obvious relationship between the devastation of rural life and the consumption-oriented demands of the cities. The 2018-19 revolution and the subsequent developments up to the October 25 coup and its aftermath demonstrate these fissures in the composition of the body politic. The predominantly petite bourgeois leadership of the protest movement that stood up to Al-Bashir and is now challenging Al-Burhan, i.e. the politicians of the FFC, are yet to discover a formula that ties up urban struggles framed around the opposition of dictatorship and democracy or military and civilian rule, with the lot of Sudan’s rural producers. The aggressive impulse from the figureheads of the military-militia-security complex, Al-Burhan, and company is that these politicians are oblivious to the mechanisms that sustain the hegemony of the ruling bloc and incapable of leading it and furthering its interests.
Upending this system is a tall order, but the praxis of the 2018-19 revolution provided the losers in the urban and rural realms with the resistance committees, a nucleus for organization that bypasses the high politics of the FFC politicians and could possibly challenge the militarized system of exploitation in the countryside with popular democratic organizing. The resistance committee was invented during the September 2013 protests against Al-Bashir’s austerity measures as cells for mobilization at neighborhood level in urban Khartoum. They evolved with the experience of the 2018-19 revolution to become successful, open access, horizontally organized units of politicization, mobilization, maneuvering in Khartoum, as well as in many of Sudan’s smaller towns.
The resilience of the protest movement during the high tide of the 2018-19 revolution that continues today in the courageous and tenacious opposition to Al-Burhan’s October 25 coup draws largely from molar character of the resistance committees. Thousands of young women and men have been drawn into political life as a consequence, mostly free from the shackles of Sudan’s ancien regime of patrician lords, scheming military officers, and campus politicians. Even Al-Burhan was obliged to manufacture some alleged “resistance committee” leaders from the shatter zones of Sudan’s political and social media scene, planting them as an obedient audience in a spacious hall in the army headquarters as he proceeded to rant about the prospects of a transition to democracy by military means.
Shireen Akram-Boshar solicited and contributed to this article. She is a socialist activist and writer who focuses on revolution and anti-imperialism in the Middle East and North Africa.