A power-sharing deal struck last week between civilian and military forces in Sudan will split rule between the two sides until elections are held three years from now. But women—who took a strikingly prominent part in the revolution that forced the agreement—were absent from the negotiating table.
The students and other young people who forced the departure of long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir in April are also wondering if they will be represented during the interim rule. All who tracked the country’s rise to a shaky form of freedom are carefully monitoring progress.
“Women were well represented in the streets, which was something not easy,” said Tasneem Dahab, a Sudanese journalist. “But we were totally surprised about our weak representation on media platforms and in negotiation rooms.”
“Women were well represented in the streets, which was something not easy. But we were totally surprised about our weak representation on media platforms and in negotiation rooms. I am sure this can’t continue.”Tasneem Dahab , A Sudanese journalist
“I am sure this can’t continue,” she added. “If the caretaker government doesn’t have a fair representation of women, I am sure the protesters in the streets will take it down.”
The seven-month uprising met with brutal violence from the government, including a June 3 crackdown in which at least 113 protestors were killed and over 40 bodies dumped into the Nile River, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors, which has tracked the medical effects of the violence. (The agreement struck last week called for an investigation into the government-sponsored attacks.)
The ‘Bread Protests’
The first scattered demonstrations in Sudan—sometimes labeled “the bread protests”—broke out in December. The economy had hit rock bottom, and long lines were forming for fuel, bread, and cash. But beyond that, observers said, citizens resented brazen corruption by the government in the midst of widespread poverty. Many Sudanese felt they had nothing left to lose by protesting.
In early April, protesters numbering in the tens of thousands gathered around military headquarters in Khartoum. The government had already shut down higher education institutions, in an attempt to stamp out the revolutionary spark spreading among young people. (See a related article, “Sudan Shutters All Its Universities.”)
But in the midst of the protests, education of an informal sort still flourished—political discussions, informal teach-ins, and art displays.
An “art corner” in the main protest area that included a library where the organizer was giving away books became popular. Political posters, graphic designs, graffiti, and protest-inspired murals began covering the city’s dusty walls and filling up the country’s social media. The protestors created their own radio station and set up a school for street children. Mobile clinics treated the sick and injured. At times the atmosphere was more like a football match or a music festival than a protest, said the journalist Mohanad Hashim in a report on the BBC World Service.
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“I don’t think that it was like anything that anyone has seen, ever,” said Yousra Elbagir, a Channel 4 news reporter in the United Kingdom who was born in Sudan and has reported on the protests. She and some other journalists who have covered the Sudanese uprisings spoke last week at the Frontline Club, in London.
“I don’t think that pictures or words can encapsulate what that space meant,” Elbagir said of the main protest area outside military headquarters. “It was the most magical place. But it was also very organized.”
Men and women lined up in separate queues up for security searches before entering the protest area. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, large pots of food were cooked and shared for iftar, the meal after sunset when the daily fast is broken.
The Women Arrive
Under al-Bashir’s rule, many women say that they couldn’t venture onto the street for fear of facing hostility, sexual harassment, or punishment for violating religious law. But women quickly began joining the protests, as word got out that it was safe. The first reaction of some male protesters to the women joining them was: “They are coming to cheer us on,” said Elbagir. But the men quickly realized, she said, “They are not your cheerleaders, mate, they are coming to fight the fight.
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Nuha El- Zein Mohamed, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which helped to organize the protests, said in an e-mail interview that it was disappointing that women were not represented at the negotiating table. She said in the last 30 years the country had gotten used to a situation in which “women were invisible and silent in the political field.”
While it was relatively easy for women to join protests in the streets, she said, in institutions and organizations, change will be harder to achieve. The association will conduct seminars with neighborhood committees and street leaders to help women into the political arena and to encourage all organizations to include women.
During the protests, debates focused not just on politics, the Sudanese journalists at the Frontline Club said, but about the features of Sudanese society that may have contributed to autocratic rule. “It was amazing after 30 years,” said Othaylat Suliman, a television journalist and chairperson of the Sudanese Journalists Forum, to see the Sudanese having such intense cultural and political discussions.
Elbagir said social divisions have contributed to the country’s problems. “There’s a lot of racism in Sudan,” she said. “There’s a lot of Arab supremacy. We were colonized, so there’s a lot of white supremacy.”
Residents of Khartoum may not always hear about the government’s actions in putting down rebellions elsewhere in the sprawling country, where it is a three-hour flight from Khartoum to Darfur. Many in the country’s outskirts are both geographically and economically marginalized. Around 1,500 protesters arrived from Darfur to join those in the protest zone outside military headquarters. That was a momentous occasion, protesters said, with chants of “We are all Darfur.”
Protesters were concerned about the presence on the transitional ruling military council of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by the nickname “Hemeti.” Hemeti is the leader of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, which guards Sudan’s borders and puts down rebellions. He is regarded as complicit in the government’s brutality in Darfur and other rebellious territories where the RSF has been synonymous with the hated Janjaweed militia. Although Hemeti was the vice chair of the ruling military council, those familiar with Sudanese politics say he has been in charge. “He’s the man with the money, he’s the man with the troops, he’s the man with the regional usefulness,” said Elbagir. “Everyone has taken his lead.”
The Rapid Support Forces are independent from the Sudanese army. European Union funds for efforts to end northwards migration are rumored to have trickled down into Hemeti’s hands and the Rapid Support Forces have been enriched by supplying troops to fight for the Saudi Arabian-led coalition in Yemen. Hemeti did not rise to leadership by some of the traditional educational routes—the University of Khartoum or a military staff college. “Hemeti is a war criminal,” said Elbagir. “He is the regime’s rebellion crusher and attack dog.”
June 3: The Darkest Day
Hemeti and his loyalists lived up to their fearsome reputation at dawn on June 3, in the final hours of Ramadan. The Rapid Support Forces attacked the protesters with no warning. No safe corridors existed that the protesters could escape through. As army soldiers watched, RSF troops shot, whipped, beat, and raped protestors and burned their tents. An early estimate by Sudanese doctors found that 70 women went to Khartoum hospitals to be treated for rape—with the actual number of rapes expected to be far higher than that. The RSF troops only made crude efforts to cover their tracks, such as throwing bodies into the Nile. “What they did was so unbelievably, profoundly cruel,” said Elbagir.
Human rights groups are still struggling to piece together a full picture of the June 3 atrocities. The immediate shutdown of the Internet in Sudan after the protest—a move condemned by the U.N. Human Rights Council—has made assembling evidence more difficult.
But blocking the Internet did not stop protests. Activists have been organizing by meeting in mosques, football stadiums, buses, and at wakes for those who have been killed in protests, said Mohanad Hashim, the BBC journalist. Said Elbagir: “The revolution has gone analog.”
Now the international diplomats who pushed Sudanese negotiators to work with Ethiopia and the African Union to come to a power-sharing agreement are applying pressure for compliance with its terms. “We look forward to immediate resumption of access to the Internet, establishment of the new legislature, accountability for the violent suppression of peaceful protests, and progress toward free and fair elections,” said a U.S. government statement.
For their part, the protesters, said Elbagir, “may have gotten “addicted to the feeling of liberation and equality.”
That addiction to freedom may well expand but whether the Sudanese women and youth craving freedom and wanting to build on it are represented in government, future negotiations, and elections remains to be seen.