From Algiers to Beirut and Baghdad to Khartoum, it appears that revolution is once again “the choice of the people”—as a slogan echoed by tens of thousands on protests in Sudan puts it.1 Meanwhile, the temperature of social and political struggles has been visibly rising in Iran, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan. The most significant mobilisations from below have triggered major political crises for the ruling class in the past year—claiming the scalps of two presidents and two prime ministers. In the case of Sudan, the mass movement forced a negotiated transfer of power to a transitional government composed of representatives of opposition parties and protest leaders in an uneasy coalition with some of the old regime’s generals and militia bosses. While mainstream commentators and analysts have tended to scoff at claims that this latest round of uprisings will achieve any lasting change at the level of the state or society, there is no doubt that the return of popular revolts to the Middle East is bringing a new sense of purpose and hope to millions across the region, after the bloody drama of counter-revolution and war that seemed to have buried the hopes of 2011.
It is right to celebrate the return of revolutionary possibilities, and to salute the creativity and resilience of the protesters whose courage is driving these mobilisations forward. But there are also crucial questions to debate. How will these revolts avoid the fate of the previous round of uprisings? As Asef Bayat has noted, these uprisings were rich in the experience of “revolution as movement”, but produced a meagre harvest of “revolution as change”, whether measured in terms of reforms to the existing state, or in terms of the creation of alternative institutions of state power.2 In comparison with the revolutions of the 1970s, Bayat argues, those in the wave of 2010-12 lacked any serious drive to redistribute wealth and power downwards, gave birth to few experiences of self-management and control of production or land by workers or the poor and did not generate “new state institutions or novel means of government that could embody any vision of deep change”.3 Was this because the “revolutionaries” who emerged in the course of these epic struggles were more interested in revolutionary performance in the streets than seizing the state and working out how to change it? If so, was that because their imaginations had been stunted by the various forms of neoliberal sensibility that enveloped them in their everyday lives, meaning that the separation of “the economic” from “the political” was simply taken for granted, along with the existence of the free market?4 Will this cycle simply repeat itself in the current and future waves of uprisings, through the endless succession of ecstatic moments of community, solidarity and sacrifice? Or is there another way out?
This article will argue that there is, but that it requires the further development of these kinds of popular revolt into revolutions where collective action by the organised working class is more than an engine of mass mobilisation, but also provides a real and democratically accountable leadership for “the people” in their battle against the state. It is possible to catch glimpses of what that might look like, but this requires a conscious departure from contemporary ways of thinking about revolution, and a rediscovery of the Marxist tradition. Lenin’s famous formula from 1915 outlines “symptoms” of a revolutionary situation including “a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth,” an increase in the “suffering and want of the oppressed classes” and “a considerable increase in the activity of the masses”.5 As Daniel Bensaïd notes, both Lenin and Trotsky’s definitions of revolutionary crises involve the “interplay of elements which interact in complex and variable ways” and a process of “reciprocal conditioning”.6
Lenin’s sketch of the revolutionary situation contains three ideas which we can try to build up a little further. Firstly, there is the notion that crises are developing at the top and bottom of society simultaneously. Secondly, the polarisation between rulers and ruled—between “them” and “us”—is driven by the agency of the masses. It isn’t enough for people to be angry, frustrated or miserable. They have to start taking action and trying to change things for themselves, not simply wait passively for someone else to do it for them. Finally, there is the question of consummation. Lenin warns:
Not every revolutionary situation…gives rise to a revolution; revolution arises only out of a situation in which the above-mentioned objective changes are accompanied by a subjective change, namely, the ability of the revolutionary class to take revolutionary mass action strong enough to break (or dislocate) the old government, which never, not even in a period of crisis, “falls”, if it is not toppled over.7
This third point underscores why it is not enough to rely on mapping out the forces on the battlefield according to whether they are part of “them” (the ruling class) or with “us” (the people). We also need to know which classes or fractions of classes are arrayed on either side. This is because the conflict will not be decided by weight of numbers alone (otherwise “our” side would already have won, as how could the 1 percent withstand the 99 percent?). It will be won by those who are able to deploy the “shared capacities and interests” that objectively define social classes because they arise out of the relations of production, as a weapon in battle to break the political resolve of their antagonists and ultimately to overthrow them.8
These twin aspects of class—its objective roots in the relations of production, and its ability to become a weapon—are crucial to revolutionary strategy in the Marxist tradition, but alien to mainstream sociology. They are also alien to much of the thinking about crisis and revolution that has dominated the radical left during the long “retreat from class” over the past 40 years or so (unsurprisingly coinciding with the rise of neoliberalism).9 Versions of the idea that the revolutionary subject is a “multitude” of the oppressed and exploited, or even just very large numbers of “ordinary citizens”, permeate both academic left analysis and much of the “common sense” of theorising by social movement activists.10
In contrast, this article argues that the strategic power of class as a weapon in the hands of workers has the ability to transform political revolt and social discontent into social revolution. Despite the changes wrought by decades of neoliberalism and war in the structure of the societies now in revolutionary ferment, the proletariat, the “special class”, as Hal Draper put it, is still the only class that “by the conditions of its existence, embodies a social programme pointing to an alternative to capitalism”.11
It flows from this argument, therefore, that struggles by workers in their workplaces are exceptionally important to the development of the mass movements of our age. Strikes are not just another kind of protest, but can transform the whole trajectory of the mobilisation from below. When workers begin to test their power as workers, and not just as angry citizens, this has two effects. Firstly, it reveals workers’ own power to themselves:
Class organisation brings class characteristics to the fore, and as a function of organisation, class characteristics increasingly take precedence over merely individual reactions, the greater the scale of class involvement. There is a feedback effect, in which class reactions can also reshape and re-educate individual reactions. Thus class consciousness develops.12
However, it also “reveals the emerging class forces”.13 In other words, it brings the ruling class into sharp focus and tears the veil of neutrality off the state and its bureaucratic and military institutions.
This process of revelation, of re-making ideas in the course of practical action to change the world is the only thing that can cut through the fug of “neoliberal sensibility” enveloping us. Bayat’s tentative answer to his questions, which seems to focus on trying to sort out the problem in the realm of ideas alone through the development of intellectual radicalism disconnected organically from working class struggle, misses the point. He also therefore misses the signs that workers as workers are playing a central role in shaping these mass revolts, even if they have not yet developed forms of independent organisation that turn what is latent into reality. In order to both understand and act on this potential we need two things. Firstly, a thoroughgoing investigation into the “internal mechanism” of the developing revolution, as Trotsky started to undertake in the wake of the 1905 Revolution in Russia.14 Secondly, to nurture and encourage those elements which point the way we want to go, recognising that, as Magdi El Gizouli perceptively notes, although “the compass indicates the direction of what seems today impossible objectively, the revolution brought with it the coordinates of its possibility”.15
In the current wave of revolts in the Middle East, the revolution in Sudan provides some of the most important insights into both of these things. This article attempts a sketch of the Sudanese ruling class and its relations with the state and explores the development of class organisation and consciousness among the people on the other side of the barricades. Not all of them are workers, of course, but I will argue that an orientation on developing working class organisation and political confidence will be crucial for Sudanese revolutionaries who want to go beyond the acute limitations imposed by the politics of the “transitional period” and defend themselves and their revolution from a brutal reassertion of the old order’s power.
From popular revolt to half-made revolution
Sudan’s revolutionary crisis began with a popular revolt in December 2018 in response to the government’s desperate austerity measures which tripled the price of bread overnight. Spontaneous protests erupted in several provincial cities and the capital in the week of 18 December. Within a few days the uprising began to take on more organised forms, with strikes by doctors in Port Sudan and on 1 January a wide spectrum of opposition organisations launched the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a set of principles for the transfer of power to a new civilian government.16 The political forces that signed onto the Declaration were quite heterogenous, including opposition parties led by figures in the traditional elite, representatives of some of the movements that continue to wage armed struggle against the regime and newer networks of civil society activists, independent trade unions and professional associations. Crucially they included the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), which would become a key organiser of the uprising over the coming months.
The tempo of protests accelerated significantly in early March with the first attempted general strike, followed by the initiation of huge popular sit-ins outside army headquarters in Khartoum and provincial capitals on 6 April, the anniversary of the overthrow of Jaafar al-Nimeiri, Sudan’s military dictator, in 1985. The sit-in outside the Sudanese Armed Forces’ General Command in Khartoum rapidly exposed the growing disunity at the top of the state: Omar El Bashir, who had ruled Sudan since seizing power in 1989, was deposed by his own generals on 11 April. However, the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which had taken over state power from El Bashir, was unable to demobilise the popular movement now in command of the streets. The sit-ins swelled further and key protest leaders including the SPA continued to demand a handover of power to a civilian government, beginning negotiations with the TMC on 13 April. The revolutionary process reached a new turning point in late May, as an effective two-day general strike on 28 and 29 May increased the pressure on the TMC to make concessions to protesters’ demands for civilian rule.
The response by the TMC was to mobilise the armed men at its command to try to halt the advancing mass movement. They brutally cleared the Khartoum sit-in on 3 June, killing hundreds and beating, assaulting and raping demonstrators.17 The chief instigator and organiser of the crackdown was General Mohamed Dagalo, known as Hemedti, head of the regime’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia who became vice-chair of the TMC on El Bashir’s fall. Hemedti’s RSF were already a byword for murder, rape, extortion and smuggling across Sudan, where they were deployed by El Bashir to fight his dirty wars in Darfur and South Kordofan. The massacre at the sit-in, coupled with an internet shutdown, did not stop the movement, and following a further general strike on 9-11 June and mass mobilisation for protest marches on 30 June, a final deal on the exact composition of a transitional government was signed on 17 August.18
Although many Sudanese people celebrated the agreement, the leaders of the protest movement had made major concessions. Rather than fight on for the fully civilian-led government for the transitional period envisioned in the Declaration of Freedom and Change, they agreed to share power with the TMC. The highest body in the new governmental structures, the “Sovereignty Council”, would be balanced between military and civilian members, with the chairman’s role during the first 21 months going to the military.19 Moreover, far from being held to account for their role in the killings of protesters, including the 3 June massacre, Lieutenant General Abdelfattah al-Burhan and Hemedti were confirmed in key roles in the Sovereign Council—as chairman and vice-chairman respectively.20
Workers’ organisation at the heart of the revolution
The shoddy compromise which brought the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change into government—alongside the very men who for months worked to crush the popular movement—stands in stark contrast to the hopes of social and political transformation that the Sudanese revolution has begun to unleash among ordinary people after decades of war, dictatorship and grinding poverty. An essential source of strength for the mass movement has been its ability to mobilise not just in the streets, but also in the workplaces.
Could the organised working class transform the Sudanese revolution into a real challenge to the state? In order to even open a debate on this question, we have to ask first where are the people, without whose labour the whole system of pillage and profit grinds to a halt? The picture has been complicated by decades of war and displacement of refugees, and by the asset stripping of Sudan’s public infrastructure by the El Bashir regime. Nevertheless, there are points where concentrations of workers continue to enjoy enormous potential power, including over the basic necessities of life which neither the transitional government, nor the El Bashir regime, were able to provide for millions of Sudanese people. Moreover, collective intervention by organised workers in the unfolding revolutionary process follows several years of strikes and workplace organising, some of which fed directly into the formation of organisations such as the SPA, the main body leading the mass movement against El Bashir’s regime on a day-to-day basis last year.21 This revival of working class combativity and consciousness is interwoven with the popular uprising but has begun to develop a dynamic of its own. And crucially it reaches far beyond the “professionals” such as doctors and lawyers whose role in the mass protest movement caught the world’s attention as El Bashir tottered and fell.
Workers in the ports shipping the crops grown on Nile valley farms to market and receiving the wheat imports that keep the flour mills in business can seriously disrupt the flow of profits to the Sudanese ruling class. Unsurprisingly, the cargo workers and stevedores in Port Sudan have been one of the major groups of workers involved in strikes and protests to defend their jobs against plans to privatise the port. Attempts by the state-run port company to bring in new private investors on long-term concessionary contracts has met with determined resistance, including mass strikes involving 20,000 workers in May 2018.22 Around 1,800 Port Sudan workers also walked out on 28 January 2019, again demanding a halt to the privatisation of the southern port. Videos of the workers bringing a shipping container to blockade the port circulated on social media, as activists mobilising for anti-government protests embraced the port workers’ action as part of the generalised rebellion against the regime.
Workers walked out again on 18 February, repeating demands to halt the privatisation process.23 In an attempt to contain the crisis in the port, newly-appointed Prime Minister Mohamed Tahir Ayala sacked the head of the Maritime Ports Authority.24 The battle to halt the privatisation of the port has given birth to an independent union, set up following a mass meeting by workers in 2016 and charged with organising against the government’s plans to sell off the profitable parts of the port to multinationals, after the existing government-backed union refused to fight.25 Port workers explicitly connected their battle to defend their livelihoods and jobs to the wider struggle against the regime. The city was one of the first to join the protest movement in December 2018, and picketing workers on 28 January combined their strike with the commemoration of a massacre of protesters from the Beja ethnic minority by government troops in 2005. Striking workers and tribesmen commemorating the massacre reportedly joined forces in a demonstration that chanted “freedom, peace, justice,” the main slogan of the anti-government movement.26
As the uprising gathered pace in March, April and May 2019, workers in key agricultural processing industries such as the flour mills and sugar refineries began to mobilise. Workers at the Sayga Flour Mills went on strike on 5 March in response to a general strike call by the SPA. Sudanese activists told Egyptian independent news website Mada Masr that participation in the strike was around 60 percent, with more than 30 professional sectors taking action.27 These included health services, public and private schools, and pharmacies. Strike action by lawyers shut the civil courts, while journalists walked out at seven major newspapers. Private sector companies reported to be affected by strike action included telecoms and mobile phone companies such as Zein, MTN and Ericsson. Strikes were also reported at the Sakhr Cement company.28 Kenana Sugar Company, with its more than 6,000 workers housed in a “company town,” was also hit by a wave of strikes in early May. Posts on social media listed workers’ demands for the return of sacked workers to their jobs, the resignation of the company’s human resources director, the dissolution of the pro-government trade union and the formation of a new one, and an end to the security forces’ repression of protests.29
Strike action by doctors and health professionals has played a key role in developing combative forms of union and strike organisation in the health service. A major strike by doctors in 2016 demanding protection from assault for frontline health staff spread to 65 hospitals across the country by 9 October.30 The road from “economic” to “political” demands was short. In the same month as the doctors’ strike, one of the key coordinating bodies, the Sudan Doctors’ Central Committee (SDCC) joined with the Sudanese Journalists’ Network and the Alliance of Democratic Lawyers to form the SPA.31 Unsurprisingly, doctors and other health professionals formed one of the strongest and most visibly-organised groups spearheading the four-month uprising which led to the fall of El Bashir in April 2019. A few days after the eruption of protests in late December 2018, the SDCC called a strike in solidarity with the demonstrations which quickly spread to dozens of hospitals. Doctors themselves became targets of repression, as the security forces stormed hospitals, arrested doctors and even killed Dr Babiker Abdelhamid while he was treating injured protesters.32 Data on the protests from December 2018 to March 2019 collected by Isra’a Sirag-al-Din shows a wide variety of health professions involved in organising through their workplaces and professional networks. In addition to doctors, Sirag-al-Din noted protests and strikes by pharmacists, anaesthetists, radiologists, workers in the Health Ministry, health officials and medical students.33
Workers in the banking and financial sector also emerged as important players in the developing revolutionary movement during the first part of 2019. Again, Sirag al-Din’s data, which only covers the first three months of the uprising, documents a range of actions by different groups of financial sector workers in support of the revolution, including protests, civil disobedience and strikes.34
The general strike of 28-29 May brought all of these incipient elements of class organisation into a cohesive revolutionary force for the first time, as this report from MENA Solidarity Network illustrates:
Public sector employees walked out across the country, defying threats by General Hemeti, the deputy head of the transitional military council, and commander of the notorious Rapid Support Forces, a brutal militia formed out of the Janjaweed forces which terrorised Darfur a few years ago. On Tuesday 23 May, Hemeti said he would sack government workers for taking part in the strike. The strike was also strong in Sudan’s small industrial sector, with major flour mills shut, cigarette and edible oils manufacturers on strike, and cement workers joining the action. Workers in the military production sector were reported to have walked out, according to independent news station Radio Dabanga. Workers in the financial sector joined the strike in droves: the SPA listed 27 separate banks and financial services companies on its Facebook page which took action on 28 May. Pharmacies were shut across the country, alongside hospitals and clinics. Healthworkers have played a crucial role in the revolutionary movement, with doctors’ organisations providing much of the organisational backbone for the first phase of the uprising. Teachers joined the strike and organised street protests. Crucial transport hubs were paralysed by workers’ action, including the main ports. Pictures on the SPA’s Facebook page showed the docks empty of workers and signs proclaiming 100 percent support for the strike. Airport workers and civil aviation engineers also joined the strike, with large protests taking place at Khartoum airport.35
It was of course this general strike which led to the assault on the sit-in outside the army headquarters in Khartoum by the full spectrum of the state’s “armed bodies of men” (and not just those of the key instigator, Hemedti and his RSF). Significantly, though, the military and militias did not attack organised workers directly, but rather went for the symbolic heart of the uprising, seeking to force the strikers into submission by killing and maiming their allies, mainly the young men and women from impoverished neighbourhoods such as Kalakla and Columbia, on the barricades. RSF forces did occupy the Central Bank, telecoms exchanges and key transport hubs, but they did not have the confidence or the numbers to gun down workers in the ports, flour mills and public services. This is a major reason why the massacre at the sit-in did not, as Hemedti and his thugs hoped, halt the movement from below, but polarised it as discussed above, pushing its leaders to hold out for further compromises from the generals.
Mapping class and power in Sudan
Returning to Lenin’s sketch of the revolutionary crisis, what then is the Sudanese ruling class, which can no longer “rule in the old way”? It has been profoundly shaped by the patterns of uneven and combined economic development in Sudan that emerged during the country’s integration into the global capitalist system. The Sudanese state and the ruling class that has been formed out of the struggles to control and use the land, its products and its people are still dominated by the persistent inequalities between the centre and periphery. These patterns have deep historical roots in the period of Ottoman rule during the 19th century followed by the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium which created a “central zone of accumulation” at the heart of which lay a “system of big estates that were part of a globally networked, export-oriented cotton and grain agricultural economy.” The “peripheral zones of predation” were originally raided to feed the slave trade and later functioned as closed labour reserves for the plantation economy.36
During the colonial era, the struggle against the joint British-Egyptian occupation of Sudan tended to subsume or suppress conflicts between parts of Sudanese society that hoped to either maintain or undo these patterns of uneven development. However, they exploded during the 1960s under the independent state with the emergence of armed movements in the South demanding redress for decades of economic inequality and political marginalisation. With incomes in the South only one third of the level in the central provinces, the economic basis for these grievances was plain to see.37 The army officers led by Ja’afar al-Nimeiri who seized power in 1969 attempted to solve “the Southern Question” by building a state that would manage the resources of the South through investment in large-scale agricultural projects and at the same time offer those Southern political and military leaders who were prepared to ally with them a place within the system. Strongly influenced by the state capitalist regimes of the Soviet bloc and by similar attempts taking place in Egypt, Iraq, Syria and Libya to solve the problems of uneven development through massive state investment in agriculture and industry, the Nimeiri regime, however, initially also held out the promise of redistribution of some wealth to the periphery through parallel state investment in public services and social development projects.
Within barely ten years, Nimeiri’s project was foundering, and he began to look for new allies inside Sudan and ways to reorient his economic policies towards more dynamic hubs of capital accumulation, in particular the powerful regional bloc of capital emerging in the Gulf. He formed a political alliance with the Islamist politician Hassan al-Turabi in the late 1970s which neatly provided the opportunity to do both. Nimeiri and al-Turabi’s first joint project was the creation of an Islamic banking sector, with the eager support of Gulf capital.
The banks helped this alliance to build a new constituency of urban merchants who had hitherto had little access to capital, and to establish a commanding position in finance, managing remittances for Sudanese migrant workers in the Arabian peninsula, and the import-export trade in consumer goods—just as a new global economy based on labour migration, finance capital and international trade was coming into fashion. Turabi’s movement used the language of sharia to align the interests of new social forces with new global economic trends. The invisible hand backed the Islamists.38
Nimeiri was unable to ride out the storms, which saw the downfall of his regime in a wave of mass protests in strikes in 1985, but the military-Islamist alliance survived and took power again in 1989 with Omar El Bashir’s successful coup.
Meanwhile the centre of gravity in agriculture has now shifted from the South back to the riverine centre with the emergence of a new plantation economy producing animal fodder for export to investors from cash-rich, food-poor countries in the Gulf and the Middle East.39 Investors have leased land cheaply and accessed plentiful supplies of water from the Nile while violently dispossessing local farmers and local small-scale industries with the help of military or paramilitary bodies allied with the Sudanese regime.
Not all of the new agricultural investments followed this model, which seems to hark back to an earlier era of land-grabbing colonial capitalism where profits were extracted while paying local landowners rent. The White Nile Sugar Company (WNSC), 170 km from Khartoum, was established in 2007 and opened for commercial production in 2012. The $1 billion invested in the factory, which produces sugar, ethanol and animal feed, and cultivates more than 150,000 acres of sugar cane and other cash crops, came from a nexus of local and regional state and private capital. Key local players included the Government of Sudan, the Sudanese Central Bank, the Bank of Khartoum and the Kenana Sugar Company, one of Sudan’s biggest agricultural companies.40 The project was also funded by the Arab Authority for Agricultural Investment and Development, Abu Dhabi Development Fund, Saudi Development Fund, the OPEC Fund for International Development and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development. The Islamic Development Bank in Jeddah provided a €41 million loan. Kenana Sugar Company’s board of directors illustrates a similar web of interactions between Sudanese state capital and the Gulf: the majority of active directors are either Kuwaiti or Saudi.41
The deep connections between the El Bashir regime and the major players in the food-processing industry is also illustrated by an exchange between El Bashir himself and the judge in his trial for corruption. A central exhibit in the prosecution’s case was the discovery of millions of dollars in El Bashir’s residence which the ex-president confessed were a personal gift from Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman. When asked why he did not deposit the money in the Sudanese Central Bank, El Bashir told the judge the official paperwork would have been cumbersome (and would have lost him a considerable amount of money given the difference between the official exchange rate and the black market one). Luckily, for El Bashir, he could turn to his personal network to help him out:
“I called on Tariq”, he said. The surprised judge asked and who is Tariq? The president behind bars answered: “Tariq… He is married to a relative of mine.” The man in question is Tariq Sir al-Khatim, manager of Seen Wheat Mills, a company with alleged ties to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). It has a major share in Sudan’s highly profitable wheat import market and Tariq would have had sufficient sums of cash at his disposal to exchange the presidential dollars.42
The wheat import market may be profitable for men like Tariq, but the gyrations of international commodity and financial markets cause misery for millions of Sudanese citizens. Squabbles between the management of Sayga, Sudan’s largest private sector flour mill and the government over the gap between the official dollar rate for wheat imports and prices on the black market led to the shutdown of Sayga’s mills and severe shortages of flour in 2015.43
Any sketch of the Sudanese ruling class would not be complete without a mention of the oil boom which fuelled a heady period of economic growth from the 1990s to the mid-2000s, and the slump which followed the secession of South Sudan, taking with it a third of government income. With the vast majority of oil reserves in the South but the pipelines, refineries and oil export terminals in the North, the division of the spoils between the two countries’ elites made fortunes for officials and fuelled corruption in both regimes, with precious little trickling down to ordinary people. The peace agreement signed between the major armed movements of the South and the Khartoum government in 2005, which paved the way for a referendum and South Sudan’s eventual independence in 2011, included a revenue sharing agreement for the oil.44
The sudden drop in oil revenues to Bashir’s regime led to a desperate scramble to find new extractive industries, including gold mines, to fill the gap. The government’s decision to open up large areas of the country to prospectors in 2015 propelled 200 local firms and hundreds of thousands of “artisanal” miners using rudimentary tools and dangerous methods into a gold rush.45 One of the biggest beneficiaries of the gold rush has been Hemedti and his RSF militia.46 Hemedti’s rise to power, first under El Bashir, who used the RSF to fight his dirty wars both inside and outside Sudan, and then under the Transitional Military Council, which ousted the dictator, has been funded by revenues from the Jebel Amir gold mine in North Darfur, which the RSF seized in 2017.47
Hemedti is the lynchpin of what NGO Global Witness describes as a “paramilitary-industrial complex,” a network of companies headed up by members of his family with interests in transport, tourism, infrastructure, iron and steel, in addition to gold mining and illicit activities such as drug smuggling and human trafficking.48 However, the RSF’s economic clout is based on its brutal efficiency in another kind of business: the business of ethnic cleansing and war. Its roots lie in the “Janjaweed” militias formed by El Bashir’s regime as the state sought to stamp out an armed rebellion in the Darfur region in 2003 triggered by long-term government neglect and marginalisation of the area. The regime mobilised Arabs largely drawn from traditionally nomadic groups to attack farming communities in a racist campaign of terror which has killed hundreds of thousands and led to millions of Darfuris fleeing their homes since 2003. As a report by the Enough Project in 2013 makes clear, these campaigns have developed a remorseless economic logic fuelled by “land grabbing; consolidating control of recently discovered gold mines; manipulating reconciliation conferences for increased “blood money”; expanding protection rackets and smuggling networks; demanding ransoms; undertaking bank robberies; and resuming the large-scale looting that marked earlier periods of the conflict”.49
Both the RSF leaders and El Bashir’s regime also proved adept at commoditising the bodies of the young men who joined the militia, hiring them out as mercenaries to regional allies, such as Saudi Arabia, which was desperate for cannon-fodder to deploy in Yemen.50 El Bashir charged a hefty fee for his services in funnelling desperate young men from Darfur into the Yemeni civil war: he told prosecutors at his corruption trial that he had been given £73.8 million pounds in cash by Saudi Arabia for “personal use”.51 The RSF was also reported in August 2019 as being contracted to provide security for Libyan oil installations.52
The RSF’s economic empire is so wealthy that Hemedti boasted in April 2019 that he had deposited $1 billion in the Sudanese Central Bank in order to stave off economic collapse in the wake of El Bashir’s fall.53 Later in the year, he was said to have stepped in to ease Sudan’s cash flow problems by meeting the cost of printing new bank notes.54 In his new role as vice-chairman of the Sovereignty Council in the transitional government, Hemedti has been quick to stress his loyalty to the state, even apparently promising to hand back Jebel Amir to central government control and to turn its revenues over to the state budget.55
Will absorption by the state tame Hemedti and the rest of his paramilitary-industrial complex, turning them into respectable businessmen, civil servants and military officers? The problem with this kind of wishful thinking is that it ignores the relationship between the state and the wider ruling class of which Hemedti is now an integral part. It is service to the machinery of capital accumulation and not simply skill at lining his own pockets that has propelled the former camel trader and Janjaweed mutineer into the heart of the Sudanese state. He also sits neatly at the nexus between the interests of the ruling class which has formed in Sudan around agro-business, the import trade, financial services and extractive industries and their senior partners in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
So the question is not whether Sudan’s half-made revolution can contain Hemedti’s passions within the framework of the existing state, but rather what could turn the popular movement that fractured El Bashir’s power into a force capable of breaking the political and social power of the whole ruling class?
Taking on the “deep state”?
At the time of writing, the urgency of answering this question was becoming more urgent by the day. Sudan’s currency hit record lows against world currencies on 27 February, feeding into further sharp rises in the price of basic goods and acute shortages of bread and fuel in some provinces.56 In El Gezira the price of a loaf of bread on the black market was reported to be as high as 5 Sudanese pounds on 10 February, up from 3-4 pounds the previous week, and more than double the price in September 2019.57 Demonstrations calling both for access to bread and fuel and the sacking of members of the old regime, who still wield enormous power inside the state apparatus, took place in Khartoum and White Nile state.58 As the bread and fuel queues continued to grow, experts argued about the best way to tackle the economic crisis. Predictably, the message from those following the script set by international financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF was to call for the deepening of neoliberal economic reforms including the lifting of subsidies on bread and fuel.59
Meanwhile, measures to root out some elements of the old regime from financial and media institutions gathered pace. The transitional government’s anti-corruption committee has dissolved the administrative boards of the Central Bank of Sudan and 11 other banks, and frozen accounts in the name of 47 leaders of the El Bashir regime.60 Newspapers and media organisations connected with former regime officials have also been shut down.61
The purge of the old regime has so far barely touched the repressive institutions of the state, however. Senior figures in the security apparatus, such as the National Intelligence Security Service (NISS) chief Salah Gosh were early casualties of the revolution: Gosh resigned on 13 April, two days after El Bashir was overthrown, and the Transitional Military Council “retired” 98 other senior NISS officers on 11 June.62 Nevertheless in January, armed former NISS agents were confident enough to seize control of security buildings near Khartoum Airport, leading to a firefight with the armed forces lasting several hours, while other NISS agents shut down oilfields in Darfur in protest over their dismissal by the transitional government.63
But the regime’s other bodies of armed men, including both the armed forces and the RSF militia led by Hemedti are firmly ensconced in the transitional government. Far from reforming itself, the army leadership has cracked down on junior officers and soldiers who risked their lives to defend protestors before El Bashir fell from power. Thousands took to the streets of Khartoum and other cities on 20 February in protest, and were met by massive police violence, which the SPA and the Sudanese Congress Party likened to the repression of protests under the El Bashir regime. The SPA called for the dismissal of the interior minister and the chief of police.64 Human rights organisations have documented how the RSF has taken on NISS’s old role in repressing critics of the government.65
El Bashir’s generals have also been working to enhance their international lines of support, as the surprise meeting between al-Burhan, chairman of the transitional government’s Sovereignty Council, and Israeli president Binyamin Netanyahu on 3 February illustrates. Acting on direct prompting by United States secretary of state Mike Pompeo, and with the support of UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, al-Burhan is clearly looking to tap into the flows of weapons and funding which are the usual price tag for such public displays of homage to Israel’s role as a pillar of US imperial domination in the Middle East.66 Meanwhile, protests by families of young Sudanese men tricked into signing contracts with a UAE security firm which wanted to deploy them to Libya to protect oil installations forced an abrupt turnaround and the evacuation of 50 recruits from UAE. Desperate to escape the spiralling economic crisis, the young men had signed contracts believing they would be protecting shopping malls in the Gulf state, only to be told they faced three months military training and deployment as mercenaries to Libya.67
Poulantzas, Lenin and comrade Khamis: theories and practices of “dual power”
As El Gizouli rightly notes, these incidents all bring the question of state power into sharp focus for revolutionaries in Sudan. Moreover they underscore the problems of limiting the revolution to a narrowly-defined struggle against El Bashir’s “National Salvation” regime, without addressing more fundamental questions about how the state works and its relationship with the ruling class of which El Bashir and his immediate cronies were only one part. Thus discussion of the “re-establishment” or “re-configuration” of the state, or “return to foundational principles”, serves to conceal the fundamental problem, he argues.
The Salvation regime has gone, but the state remains, and it has retained its depth, that is to say, all of the interests and network of relationships which support the dominance of the ruling social forces and which impose the strategic bias of the state in their favour.68
Drawing on Juan Carlos Monedero’s theorisation of the retreat and collapse of left-wing governments with the ebb of the “Pink Tide” in Latin America, El Gizouli turns to the writings of Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas to shed light on the relationship between ruling class power and the state.
The state is not a neutral instrument in the hands of the owners of political power or an empty house for rent. Every new resident of the house of the state finds a trace of their predecessors in its architecture, furniture and décor. Barricades await them in the entrances, and booby traps in the corners, while snipers lie in wait behind the kitchen door.69
For El Gizouli, those who imagine that “re-setting the counter to zero” in the institutions of the existing Sudanese state will solve the problem of its “strategic bias” are profoundly mistaken. If they want to grasp what is really at stake during the “transition period”, instead of adapting themselves to the existing state, El Gizouli argues that Sudanese revolutionaries should turn back to the concept of “dual power”, first outlined by Lenin after his return to Russia in April 1917.
Lenin identified in the soviets (councils) of workers’ and soldiers’ deputies, “another government…that actually exists and is growing” alongside the provisional government that took power following the fall of the Tsar in February 1917. In April 1917, this alternative government was still “weak and incipient”. Nevertheless, Lenin argued that it could become:
A revolutionary dictatorship…a power directly based on revolutionary seizure, on the direct initiative of the people from below, and not on a law enacted by a centralised state power. It is an entirely different kind of power from the one that generally exists in the parliamentary bourgeois-democratic republics of the usual type still prevailing in the advanced countries of Europe and America… This power is of the same type as the Paris Commune of 1871.70
What does it mean concretely to talk of “soviets” in Sudan? As El Gizouli notes, historic figures on the Sudanese left have previously dismissed the idea that such forms of organisation could arise in Sudan. In 1963, Sudanese Communist Party general secretary Abdel Khaleq Mahjoub famously excoriated an unfortunate party member called Comrade Khamis, who had apparently attempted to persuade the workers of Port Sudan to set up a soviet, for his “petty bourgeois” expectations that organisational forms from Russia in 1917 could be transplanted to a new set of conditions.71
Comrade Khamis may indeed have been somewhat premature—a better moment to test out whether soviet-type organisation fitted the needs of developing the class struggle in Sudan would have been the following year during the mass protests that swept the country during the “October Revolution” of 1964.72 However, El Gizouli is right to open up a debate on the question of dual power, even if at this stage we are still in the realm of taking a bearing on what are still developing possibilities.73 There are two key ideas here that need emphasising. Firstly, it is the revolution itself, not the subjective desires of revolutionaries, that maps out a route to making the impossible real. Secondly, just like Lenin in April 1917, revolutionaries in Sudan today have to decide whether to make a “wager of hope” on those possibilities and work towards realising them in practice.74
One of Lenin’s important insights is worth reiterating here. Rather than seeing dual power as an expression of Russia’s distinctive social and political conditions, he insisted that the substitution of the insurgent people for the existing state was bound up in the process of swift politicisation of millions of ordinary people during all revolutionary crises:
From the point of view of science and practical politics, one of the chief symptoms of every real revolution is the unusually rapid, sudden, and abrupt increase in the number of “ordinary citizens” who begin to participate actively, independently and effectively in political life and in the organisation of the state.75
It could be added here that this politicisation is in turn bound up with the nature of the state in capitalist society, in particular how it is embedded in people’s everyday lives, providing them with services and work, regulating their commercial interactions with each other, as well as subjecting them to repression and surveillance. When “the people” begin to move in a revolutionary crisis it is all but impossible to sort out the specifics of where the regime ends, and the state begins. The effectiveness of mass protests, civil disobedience and strikes all eventually turn on the powers of ordinary people to disrupt the machinery of government itself, not just to isolate the “bad apples” in the barrel. Moreover, something has to fill the void left by the disruption or the social fabric quickly begins to tear: people have to put food on the table, look after their kids, get medical treatment, access power and water and communicate with each other. When the state’s functioning is impaired or disrupted, ordinary people naturally begin to draw on their own collective resources to provide these things.
This is why, in every “real revolution”, as Lenin puts it, a situation of dual power is possible. His assertion that revolutionary crises lead to the mass of ordinary people beginning to “participate actively, independently and effectively in political life and in the organisation of the state” has been demonstrated repeatedly since 1917—from Spain in 1936, Chile in 1973, Iran in 1979, Poland in 1980, Bolivia in 2003, Egypt, Tunisia and Syria in 2011-2 to Algeria and Sudan itself over the past year. In all of these revolutionary crises, ordinary people have briefly taken over, to some degree or other, the powers and functions of the state in everyday life. What they did not achieve, was to repeat the outcome of dual power in Russia by forcibly supplanting the bourgeois state and replacing it. This was because in most of these examples, these conditions of possibility did not translate into effective institutions, capable of collectivising and organising the energies unleashed by revolution among ordinary people in forms able to act as a genuine counterpower to the existing state.
In Sudan, as El Gizouli rightly hints in his recent articles, the neighbourhood-based “resistance committees” have at times taken on aspects of local revolutionary government, and some of them remain key organising nodes for a popular movement that still seeks to deepen the revolution and continues to confront and resist the security and military apparatus. From its roots as a “neighbourhood manoeuvre and logistics unit responsible for planning and execution of protests”, the resistance committee evolved into a “novel form of political authority challenging and often displacing the micro-organs of state power,” during the course of the 2019 uprising.76 The path from mobilisation to local revolutionary government was driven by confrontation with what could be called the “shallow state”, the manifestations of the dictatorship in everyday life. In Sudan, the primary organisational form of the “shallow state” was the so-called “popular committee”.
The popular committees and their petty patriarchs penetrated the everyday life of citizens. They issued residence, death and poverty certificates, monitored moral and political conduct. Their judgements even determined which women were deemed sexually promiscuous and socially outcast, and which were deserving single mothers eligible for welfare benefits. The committees also had the authority to dispense common resources—the neighbourhood square or football field, or the local clinic or dispensary unit—to investors, which often involved cycles of kickbacks and speculation. Politically, they functioned as the long arm of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and were responsible for electoral mobilisation and the micromanagement of patronage networks.77
Disrupting and then breaking the power of the popular committees was crucial to the success of the uprising as its leaders called insurgent citizens into a head-on confrontation with the armed bodies of men at the core of the state. Resistance committees supplied the huge sit-ins outside army headquarters across Sudan, such as the massive protest camp established outside the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces in Khartoum on 6 April. They mobilised people for protests, raised money to treat the injured, organised food and created open spaces in the neighbourhoods for discussion and debate. As the popular protests and strikes reached their peak and the generals who had overthrown El Bashir began to waver and look for a compromise with the opposition groups leading the mass movement, many resistance committees made a bid for local power, physically seizing the assets of the popular committees and displacing them.
However, as El Gizouli documents, the political character of resistance committees, and in particular where they are likely to stand in relation to the issues that will determine the fate of the revolution, are shaped by the social character of the areas they represent. Kalakla, an impoverished neighbourhood that had provided many of the young men for the barricades at the height of the uprising, could not match the degree of organisation and social clout of middle-class Riyadh, which formed its resistance committee through a Twitter campaign and boasts a minister or two in the transitional government.78 The role of class in shaping the politics of the resistance committees came through most strongly in the crisis that gripped the mass movement after the massacre of protesters on 3 June by the army and militias who cleared the sit-in outside the army headquarters and dumped bodies of those who resisted in the Nile. Fearing (rightly) that the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition of opposition groups leading the uprising, were about to compromise and negotiate a deal that would renege on their original demands of a wholly civilian government, resistance committees organised mass rallies and demanded that the leaders of the FFC, and in particular the SPA, come and explain themselves.
The Burri Lions, champions of Khartoum’s epicentre of protest, were hard to convince and shouted down one speaker after another. Only the SPA star, Mohamed Naji al-Assam, an able communicator, could manage their disappointment with the compromise that the SPA and its allies were about to make with the establishment. Nobody showed up to soothe the anger of Kalakla.79
The visible political polarisation between poor and working-class neighbourhoods and middle-class areas has continued to sharpen since the formation of the transitional government. Kalakla’s heroes of the revolution were back on the barricades in November, this time demanding the sacking of the local administrator and the involvement of the resistance committees in the reconstitution of local government. Resistance committees have also been involved in mobilising against attempts to whitewash the role of Hemedti’s RSF in the massacre on 3 June, with individual committees or alliances of committees declaring their independence from the FFC.80 The response from the transitional government has been to openly advocate co-option, essentially transforming the resistance committees into the equivalent of the old popular committees, nominated in consultation with the FFC and approved by the local administration, shorn of their popular mandate and political independence.81
El Gizouli is right to bring into the open both the promise embodied by the resistance committees and the challenges to realising their emancipatory potential. Some of these challenges are related to subjective problems facing the popular revolutionary movement in Sudan, such as the weakness of political forces independent of the FFC that are prepared to organise for the next phase in the revolutionary process and the next round of confrontation with the state. But some of the problems are objectively rooted in the resistance committees’ character as bodies of insurgent citizens representing a geographical location. If the committees interact with each other as neighbourhoods, then their power remains bound up with class in a sociological, rather than a strategic sense. Although temporarily they may upend the social hierarchy to an extent within particular neighbourhoods, giving political voice and limited forms of social power to the downtrodden and oppressed, there are sharp limits to what individual committees can achieve when they try to bargain with the central state. Redistributing wealth and power in a poor neighbourhood by displacing some of the petty tyrants who used to make residents’ lives a misery will only go so far, but Kalakla’s resistance committee needs allies to effect the kind of shifts in wealth and power for which its young men died on the barricades. Of course, those alliances can be built through horizontal connections with other poor and marginalised areas, aggregating their mobilisations, disrupting the working of the state, establishing a string of miniature revolutionary republics in places that the transitional government’s meritocrats and militiamen will fear to tread.
There are multiple problems with this kind of approach, but the most basic is also the reason why Lenin is a better guide to revolutionary strategy than Poulantzas. As Colin Barker points out in a review of Poulantzas’s 1978 work State, Power, Socialism, actual class struggle plays no role in his vision of the transformation of society.82 Thus, in Poulantzas’s version of “democratic socialism”, parliamentary institutions and the whole panoply of bourgeois parties co-exist with “forms of direct democracy and the mushrooming of self-management bodies”.83 However, Poulantzas opposes the idea that workers’ councils (or any bodies organised on principles of direct democracy) should take power, instead proposing they remain subordinated to the representative democracy of the central state.84 Poulantzas’s hostility to the idea that revolution should be an act of self-emancipation by the working class stands in contrast to Lenin’s insistence that the soviets are the embryo of a “revolutionary dictatorship” which “consists of the proletariat and the peasants (in soldiers’ uniforms)”.85
The problem with opposing the idea of workers taking power is that, without the organised working class, the revolutionary energies and heroism of the poor and the dispossessed and radicalised sections of the middle classes are not enough to break down the cohesion of the state apparatus on their own. That is why the crucial question is whether the resistance committees have or are able to develop an organic connection to the workplaces as well as neighbourhoods. The fact that the soviets were bodies of workers’ delegates, not just deriving their authority from a local-level revolutionary seizure of power by the poor, provides the clue as to why they were able to emerge victorious from the period of “dual power”.
The coordinates of working class power
One of the key conclusions we can draw from the sketch above of the relationship between state, class power and revolution in Sudan is that it is impossible to separate regimes neatly from states. Nor is it possible to separate either the ruling class or its opponents from the capitalist system that produced them. This does not mean that, for example, the individual members of the ruling class are all capitalists, or that the totality of the capitalist class owes its political allegiance to the governments currently in power (this shouldn’t be a surprise since one of the features of capitalism as a system is the ability for the capitalist class to delegate the political tasks of ruling to others). Yet tracing the evolution of the ruling class produces a dense map of interconnections between the shifting processes of capital accumulation across productive, commercial and financial circuits and networks of political and military power. The men who occupy positions of wealth and influence in such systems are not there just because they are bigger crooks than the rest, or because they have better guns than their competitors (although both of these things are no doubt helpful). They may work at the intersection between the financial sector and the paramilitary economy or they may leverage their government roles in order to cream off profits from the sale of telecoms licenses or construction projects (often they will do all of these things). They frequently mediate between the interests of stronger, more predatory states and capitals and their “own” state/capital nexus, facilitating the extraction of resources from their “home” countries towards the Gulf states, Europe and the US, but retaining a proportion of the profits for themselves.
The instincts of the mass movement from below are sound: “get rid of them all!” The “gang” in power must all go, or nothing can change. But the question then remains: where is the force in society that can achieve this? This article has argued that the working class alone has “the social weight and power to carry through the abolition of the old order and to build a new society”.86 Hal Draper’s classic account of what makes workers “the special class”, provides a multi-dimensional view of how capitalism imbues the working class with unique powers.87 These include the power of being the numerical majority in advanced capitalist societies, the power that arises from capitalism’s dependence on workers to produce the goods and provide the services that keep society functioning. In addition, capitalism concentrates workers through urbanisation and in the workplace, while at the same time placing workers in a situation of collective antagonism to their bosses. Finally, by both raising and then failing to meet the needs and aspirations of workers, capitalism has an inbuilt tendency to generate struggles from below.88
Workers’ class power is already shaping and defining the trajectory of the Sudanese revolution, but the experiences of the previous revolutionary wave in the region nearly a decade ago underscore that this on its own is not enough to shift the balance of forces decisively in favour of deepening the revolutionary process. That will also require working to rebuild a revolutionary left in Sudan and elsewhere out of the current wave of struggles from below. This left will need a clear understanding of which forms of organisation and what kinds of politics give us the best chance of transforming revolt into social revolution.
Anne Alexander is the co-author, with Mostafa Bassiouny, of Bread, Freedom, Social Justice: Workers and the Egyptian Revolution (Zed, 2014). She is a founder member of MENA Solidarity Network, the co-editor of Middle East Solidarity and a member of the University and College Union.
1 This article was largely completed before the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic was clear and so it does not take into account the impact of the virus on the revolutionary process in Sudan. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for comments on the draft.
2 Bayat, 2017.
3 Bayat, 2017, p156.
4 Bayat, 2017, p11.
5 Lenin, 1915.
6 Bensaïd, 1968.
7 Lenin, 1915.
8 Choonara, 2019.
9 Choonara, 2019.
10 Hardt and Negri, 2001; Standing, 2017.
11 Draper, 1978, p47.
12 Draper, 1978, p40.
13 Choonara, 2020.
14 Trotsky, 1931.
15 El Gizouli, 2020a.
16 Forces of the Declaration and Freedom and Change, 2019.
17 Al Jazeera English, 2020a.
18 Al Jazeera English, 2019a.
19 Al Jazeera English, 2019b.
20 Reuters, 2019a.
21 El Gizouli, 2019; Alexander, 2019.
22 Radio Dabanga, 2018.
23 Middle East Eye, 2019.
24 Anadolu Agency, 2019.
25 Al-Tareeq, 2016.
26 Amin, 2019.
27 Mada Masr, 2019.
28 Mada Masr, 2019.
29 Civil Disobedience in Sudan Facebook, 2019.
30 Radio Dabanga, 2016a.
32 Hummaida and Dousa, 2019.
33 Sirag-al-Din, 2019.
34 Sirag-al-Din, 2019.
35 MENA Solidarity Network, 2019.
36 Thomas, 2017, p18-19.
37 Thomas, 2017, p19.
38 Thomas 2017, p10–11.
39 Schwartzstein, 2019.
40 See www.foodprocessing-technology.com/projects/white-nile; Reuters, 2010.
41 Companies House, 2020.
42 El Gizouli, 2020b, p3.
43 Radio Dabanga, 2016b.
44 International Crisis Group, 2011.
45 Schwartzstein and Cecco, 2015; Amin, 2018.
46 Michaelson, 2020.
47 Reuters, 2019b; Global Witness, 2019.
48 Global Witness, 2019; Sudan in the News, 2019.
49 Prendergast, 2013.
50 Kirkpatrick, 2018.
51 Burke and Salih, 2019.
52 McGregor, 2019; Sudan in the News, 2019.
53 Global Witness, 2019.
54 Radio Dabanga, 2019a.
55 Radio Dabanga, 2019a.
56 Radio Dabanga, 2020a.
57 Radio Dabanga, 2020b.
58 Radio Dabanga, 2020b.
59 International Monetary Fund, 2019; Radio Dabanga 2020c.
60 Radio Dabanga, 2020d.
61 Amin, 2020a.
62 Radio Dabanga, 2019b.
63 Reuters, 2020.
64 Radio Dabanga, 2020e.
65 Human Rights Watch, 2019.
66 El Gizouli, 2020c.
67 Amin, 2020b;AFP, 2020.
68 El Gizouli, 2020d.
69 Monedero, 2019; El Gizouli 2020d.
70 Lenin, 1917a.
71 El Gizouli, 2020d.
72 Berridge, 2016.
73 El Gizouli 2020a.
74 Davidson 2009.
75 Lenin 1917b.
76 El Gizouli 2020f, p2.
77 El Gizouli, 2020f, p2.
78 El Gizouli, 2020a.
79 El Gizouli, 2020f.
80 El Gizouli, 2020f, p4-5.
81 El Gizouli, 2020f, p6.
82 Barker, 1979.
83 Poulantzas 1978, p256.
84 Barker, 1979.
85 Lenin, 1917a.
86 Draper, 1978, p46.
87 Choonara, 2019.
88 See Choonara, 2019 for a summary.
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