Image courtesy of artist Khalid alBaih
Feature article from the summer 2019 issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine. Download a pdf or order a print copy here
Bolstered by the support of their regional allies, El Bashir’s generals are trying to snuff out the mass movement, warns Anne Alexander
For nearly two months, thousands of protesters had been camped in the street outside the Sudanese army General Command in Khartoum, calling on ousted dictator Omar el Bashir’s old generals to hand over power to a civilian government. On 3 June, the generals struck back, sending the Rapid Support Forces militia to kill, rape, injure and terrify protesters in a bid to crush the mass movement which has grown up to challenge their power. According to sources in the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors (CCSD) at least 113 people were killed between 3 June and 7 June.
The RSF troops pursued their injured victims into hospital, beating up and threatening the medical staff who tried to treat them. At least five major hospitals were shut down by militia action in the aftermath of the attack, according to CCSD. The trail of death and destruction left by the RSF, which is commanded by Mohamed Dagalo, better known as ‘Hemedti’, is no aberration. The RSF was formed out of the Janjaweed, the brutal paramilitary forces which terrorised Darfur on the orders of El Bashir’s government in Khartoum a decade and a half ago.
Despite the short memories of Western diplomats and some of the international media who seem to have fallen for the RSF commander’s reinvention as a statesman following his elevation to the vice-presidency of the Transitional Military Council which took power on El Bashir’s ouster, Hemedti is nothing more than a jumped-up bandit, a small-scale warlord turned counter-revolutionary henchman who has ambitions to ply his murderous trade from the helm of the state. Hemedti’s admirers are not only to be found among the military leaders at the core of El Bashir’s regime. He has won the backing of regional powers who are betting on counter-revolution to halt the march of a mass movement which might threaten their economic and political influence over Sudan.
Hemedti went to Saudi Arabia in on 23 May, where he promised to continue supplying Sudanese soldiers to fight as cannon-fodder in the Saudi-led war on Yemen. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman pledged “vast investment” in Sudan in return. While Hemedti made final preparations for the attack on the sit-in, Transitional Military Council president Abdelfattah al-Burhan toured Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt for advice and support. If they hoped for a swift end to the protest movement which has rocked Sudan since December 2018, they were to be disappointed. Opposition groups led by the Sudanese Professionals Association and the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, called for a general strike in defiance of the RSF’s terror on 9, 10 and 11 June.
According reports from the SPA’s media team, the strike shut down many sectors of the economy, ranging from education to transport, including Khartoum international airport, food industries, telecommunications, hospitals and over 60 percent of the banking sector. The three-day strike followed another general strike on 28 and 29 May, immediately before the assault on the sit-in which also mobilised massive support across Sudan. The strikes have only been one part of the opposition alliance’s strategy, however, and followed weeks of direct negotiations over the exact composition of a future transitional government.
Talks broke down over the question of whether generals should outnumber civilians in the “sovereignty council” at the top of the state. On this point, Al-Burhan and Hemedti refused to give way, and bolstered by support from their regional allies unleashed the RSF against protesters, declaring the talks were over. The June general strike seemed to change their mind: Al-Burhan first said that if the protests ended, negotiations could begin again. Then he dropped conditions on talks altogether a few days later. Meanwhile, the African Union and neighbouring Ethiopia made their own proposals and counterproposals to the TMC and opposition forces about ways to break the deadlock.
The Ethiopian proposal, which accorded to media reports was accepted by the opposition negotiating team, would see civilian and military figures equally balanced in the sovereignty council, with a “neutral” chair. Yet, while the repressive heart of El Bashir’s state remains intact, it is hard to see how negotiations can achieve anything except buy time for the generals to plan a more effective crackdown in future. Civilians and generals do not have equal weight in the state apparatus, and “balancing” between them in reality means perpetuating military rule behind a civilian cover.
One of the military council’s vulnerabilities is the wavering loyalty of the lower ranks in the regular army, and the resentment of its junior officers towards the RSF and its leadership. At the height of the mass mobilisations, such as the 6 April protests which established the Khartoum sit-in, there were signs that the army was beginning to crack. Further general strikes will have to do the same again, if the revolution is to reach the next phase in the struggle.
Image info: Khalid is a Sudanese artist and political cartoonist that was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1980. He currently lives and works in Doha, Qatar, where he has been based since 1990. His work features in publications such as The Guardian and Al Jazeera. Find more of Khalid’s work in this issue of Middle East Solidarity on the inside front page and on page 14. Instagram: @khalidalbaih