Sudan’s Democratic Revolution: How They Did It by Stephen Zunes

By Stephen Zunes who thanks the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict for supporting his research.

Sudan’s Democratic Revolution: How They Did It
Sudans new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok at a press conference in Khartoum, Sudan, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019 (AP Photo, File)

When the turbulent and often tragic history of the past decade in the Middle East and North Africa is written, the 2019 pro-democracy revolution in Sudan will likely be considered one of the few bright spots. One of the world’s most brutal dictatorships—in power for over 30 years—was overthrown in a massive nonviolent civil insurrection involving millions of Sudanese, and a liberal technocratic civilian administration put into place. Whether civilian democratic rule will survive the serious challenges still facing the country remains to be seen, but for now a key question is:  how did they do it?

One of the world’s most brutal dictatorships was overthrown in a massive nonviolent civil insurrection, and a liberal technocratic civilian administration put into place.

Sudan did not fit into what some Western analysts see as the conditions for a successful pro-democracy civil resistance movement. The regime was thought to be too oppressive, too entrenched, and too successful in their divide-and-rule tactics of the large and ethnically heterogeneous nation. Their reactionary Islamist rule disempowered women. Civil society had been decimated under the three decades of military rule and the Sudanese people were seen as too impoverished, uneducated, and isolated. Over five million of the country’s brightest, most educated, and most ambitious potential leaders had emigrated. Wealthy Gulf monarchies were helping to prop up the military regime.  And most of the West had largely written off Sudan as a hopeless case.

Despite this, starting in December 2018, a movement emerged which eventually brought millions of Sudanese into the streets. By April 2019, General Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by fellow military officers. Protests continued and, despite hundreds of additional deaths, by August the military stepped down in favor of a civilian-led transitional government.

The reasons for their success appear to include the following:

There was precedence: Long before the Arab Spring, the Eastern European revolutions, and other popular democratic uprisings which caught the world’s attention, the Sudanese had toppled dictatorships in 1964 and 1985 through massive civil resistance campaigns.

One advantage was that some of the main elements of the repressive apparatus of the regime—the police, intelligence, military, and special forces—were divided, and the opposition did an excellent job of exacerbating those divisions and using them to the movement’s advantage. Another factor was that the African Union and the Europeans were on the movement’s side, thanks in part to efforts of the exile community and others to mobilize their support. An additional factor was that business people, even those who had supported the ruling party, realized that—for the sake of the economy and therefore their own self-interest—they had to end their support for military rule and support democratic governance.

The Sudanese regime was also simply incompetent. The economy was in shambles.

The Sudanese regime was also simply incompetent. The economy was in shambles. Education, transport, health care, agriculture and other basic infrastructure had deteriorated significantly during their three decades in power. They had lost the southern third of the country along with most of the oil reserves when South Sudan became independent in 2011. International sanctions added to chronic corruption and mismanagement in weakening the economy of an already impoverished nation. Despite its brutality, the state was in many respects weak. Young Sudanese had had enough. They felt they had no future and they had nothing more to lose.

More important was what happened on the ground. A critical factor was the scope and the scale of the movement. Unlike some civil insurrections—which were almost exclusively in the capital with mostly middle class support—the Sudanese revolution took place all over country, in all the different regions, with diverse class and ethnic participation. Professional associations played a key leadership role, but popular resistance committees were also active in even the poorest neighborhoods. Indeed, the ability to build such a broad coalition of forces was vitally important, given the size and complexity of the country.

For decades, the regime tried to divide Sudanese by North and South, Arab and non-Arab, Muslim and non-Muslim. The pro-democracy protesters recognized that national unity was critically important and consciously resisted efforts at divide-and-rule.

For example, though historically in the Arab-dominated part of the Sudan, greater Khartoum is a multi-ethnic urban area, as those from minority regions fleeing violence and poverty have flocked to the capital area. When the protests began, the regime tried to blame the uprising on Furs, the people indigenous to the Darfur region who have been subjected to a genocidal campaign by the regime. In response, the largely-Arab but multi-ethnic protesters began chanting “We are all Darfur!” In solidarity, protesters in Al Fashir, the Darfur capital, started chanting “We are all Khartoum!”

Related to this diversity was the strong participation and leadership by women, which not only helped increase the numbers of protesters, but provided a perspective that encouraged nonviolent discipline.

Related to this diversity was the strong participation and leadership by women, which not only helped increase the numbers of protesters, but provided a perspective that encouraged nonviolent discipline, democratic process, greater credibility, and better popular perception of the movement and its goals. Under al-Bashir’s rule, women had been severely repressed in terms of dress codes, employment, and even the ability to leave home without the accompaniment of a close male relative. A frequent theme illustrated in murals, signs, and elsewhere during the revolution involved the Kandaka, a matrilineal dynasty of powerful queens from the first millennium BCE. It served as an inspiration for women and a reminder that the ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam, which severely circumscribed their rights was not inherent to Sudanese history or culture.

Perhaps the single most important factor was nonviolent discipline. Remaining nonviolent despite enormous provocation made it difficult for the regime to depict the movement in a negative light. Nonviolence gained the movement sympathy it would have otherwise lost through violent tactics and made it possible for people to feel more comfortable joining the protests, thereby increasing their numbers.

The opposition stressed the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline not out of any moral commitment to nonviolence per se, but because of an understanding that tactically and strategically it was the best way they could win. If they had used violence, the regime would always have the advantage. By choosing what amounted to a different weapons system—peaceful protests, sit-tins, strikes, and more—they were unable to depict the protesters as terrorists who would bring violence and chaos.

The Sudanese opposition had engaged in violent struggle previously. Beginning in 1993, operating out of bases in Eritrea, an armed guerrilla movement was launched but it never got far, failing to provoke a more widespread popular uprising. The rebellion formally ended in 2005. Similarly, repression against the civil insurrection of 2013 resulted in many protesters fighting back and was crushed within days after scores of civilian deaths.

Recognizing that both armed struggle and rioting played into the regime’s hands, the opposition recognized that nonviolent discipline was critical.

Recognizing that both armed struggle and rioting played into the regime’s hands, the opposition recognized that nonviolent discipline was critical.

Importantly, the pro-democracy movement did not stop when al-Bashir was pushed aside by the military in April.  Unlike in Egypt, where the opposition naively trusted the military, the Sudanese demanded they step down and allow for civilian leadership. A result was the June 3 massacre, causing well over 100 deaths. But this seemed to underscore to the military that they would have to engage in massive violence to suppress the rebellion which would discredit them further and put them in an even more untenable situation.

There is still much to do to consolidate democracy and civilian rule in Sudan. Though civilians dominate the transitional government, the military and other elements of the old guard are still part of the system.

The toppling of al-Bashir and his military backers is still an amazing accomplishment, however. It demonstrates that whatever the structural obstacles may be, good strategic thinking and tenacity by a popular opposition movement can ultimately win. This should be a lesson to those struggling for greater political freedom and social justice through the greater Middle East. Indeed, if an unarmed democratic civil insurrection can succeed in a country like Sudan, it can succeed almost anywhere.


Dr. Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, and a contributing editor of Tikkun.


For a quick post about a mural in Sudan thanking Stephen Zunes and NVI's longtime Executive Director Michael Beer, please see: https://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/sudan_mural

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