Hazem Saghieh

Coups Against Revolutions … Revolutions Against Coups

The modern history of Sudan could perhaps be summed up as a struggle between revolutions and coups:

- Revolutions that bring the citizens down to the streets, leaving the public sphere to them and their voice, and spontaneously giving rise to democratic structures that later take the form of elected institutions.

- Coups that push them back to their homes, killing and imprisoning scores of people and establishing a closed regime that is everything the open regime promised by the revolution is not.

This duality might not have shaped any country in the world to the extent that it shaped Sudan: citizens against soldiers and soldiers against citizens. For their part, the citizens, the drivers of revolution, have always been diverse and plural, demanding freedoms, rights, and bread. As for the military, its ideological cover, be it Nasserite, Communist, or Islamist, is not so important. What matters is that it suppresses freedoms, rights, and bread, and it hijacks society after nationalizing politics.

Like its counterparts in the Arab Levant, the military in Sudan presents itself as spearheading progress and leading the march toward modernity. Unlike these counterparts, however, the Sudanese military has not managed to conquer “eternity” and close history.

In 1964, the country’s first revolution toppled the regime of Lieutenant General Ibrahim Abboud. Some see this revolution as the first to break out in the Arab world, as well as Africa. The musical and artistic works that put it into words and images left it engraved in the collective national memory of the Sudanese like it had been a second independence.

It was dubbed the “Glorious Revolution” - perhaps after the English “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which was celebrated by the “father of liberalism,” John Locke, because it expanded the powers of Parliament and strengthened its influence over decision-making after having toppled King James II.

As for this revolution, it was sparked in the University of Khartoum but swiftly drew support from a broad front that included, in addition to the students, political parties, associations and unions of doctors, teachers, judges, workers, employees, professionals, regional representatives, civil society organizations, and women and youth communities...

In 1969, this experiment ended with the coup of Nasserite and communist officers led by Field Marshal Jaafar Nimeiri. But then came the second revolution against a coup in 1985. Sparked by the Nimeiri regime’s declaration of a state of emergency in response to mass protests against rising prices, it broke out amid a tense atmosphere created by the war in the South. And so, for the first time in 17 years, the country held general elections and the ban on political parties was lifted.

The Umma Party and Sadiq al-Mahdi were the backbone of the parliamentary system, which was marred by many deficiencies and flaws, some of which stemmed from the frailty of the country’s democratic traditions. However, the military exploited this system’s shortcomings to topple democracy itself. Field Marshal Omar al-Bashir thus led a coup launched by Islamist officers in 1989, reinstating the ban on political parties and leaving political life paralyzed once again.

In 2019, the country’s third revolution erupted against the Bashir regime. It followed two uprisings, one triggered by inflation in 2013 and another that came to be known as the doctors’ strike in 2016. This revolution, which culminated with broad mass protests, ended with the overthrow of Bashir and his regime and the establishment of a Transitional Military Council.

A few months later, another revolution broke out. This time, the aim was to liberate politics from the grasp of the military, and it ended with the signing of the “Constitutional Document” and then the “Framework Agreement.” As for the coup against the latter, it was manifested in evading its implementation until the war of the two armies broke out and left the Sudanese caught in the crossfires.

This succession of popular revolutions and military coups, and the rate at which they follow one another, make clear just how tense and critical the situation in Sudan is. However, it also demonstrates just how determined the military establishment remains, generation after generation, and under a broad array of pretexts, to prevent the rule of people by the people.

Corruption, which the military often claims it came to power to curtail, then exacerbates at its hands, growing to astronomical heights. While the failure of the regimes established by the revolutions to end the war in the South did much to undermine them and contributed strongly to their downfall, this hellish cycle did not stop after this war ended in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese military’s continued hold on power, whoever the aspiring officer and whatever his ideology, cannot be understood in isolation of the legacy of wars that were launched against the South since the 1950s and against the Darfurians since 2003, to say nothing about its war with Chad in 2005. Wars often strengthen the propensity of the armies that wage them to fight their people and subdue them like they had the enemy.

Sudan’s modern history was split along these lines, leaving it with 56 years of military rule compared to just 11 of civilian rule. The difference between these two numbers eloquently speaks to the difference in degrees of responsibility for the poverty and war we now see in Sudan.