Disorder reigns in Khartoum

Issue: 179

Anne Alexander

Sudan is no stranger to war, but the conflict that erupted on 15 April 2023 between the two generals who earlier led the military coup of October 2021 has shattered the capital city and thrown ­millions of people into crisis.1 Hospitals and schools lie in ruins; around 1.3 ­million people have fled the fighting; millions more lack essentials such as water, electricity and food; and thousands have been killed and injured. The United Nations’ situation report for 17 May makes for grim reading—24.7 million people, more than half of Sudan’s population, require humanitarian assistance, and continued war threatens the main planting season, presaging worse hunger to come.2

The UN’s humanitarian agencies are scrambling to secure pledges of funding to stave off—or at least delay—unfolding disaster. Yet, the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the ­organisation’s political mission to Sudan, like the rest of the representatives of the “international community”, is ­complicit in creating the conditions for this carnage. On several occasions, the ­warring generals, Abdelfattah al-Burhan of the Sudanese Armed Forces and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known as Hemedti) of the Rapid Support Forces, crossed red lines. Whether it was murdering protesters in June 2019 or kidnapping the prime minister in October 2021 while installing themselves in power with a military and militia government, the generals knew, however, that the chorus of condemnation would soon die down. Within a few weeks or months, the UN, the United States, Britain, the European Union and the various regional powers would resume cajoling the generals’ civilian opponents back to the negotiating table to discuss arrangements for a supposed political “transition”. Yet, neither ­al-Burhan nor Hemedti cared much for the efforts of the head of UNITAMS, Volker Perthes, to convince them to “return to a meaningful transition to ­civilian rule”. They ignored his pleas for de-escalation and “chose war”, as Perthes rather plaintively explained to the UN Security Council.3 The two men laid much greater store by the advice, arms and funding they were receiving from partners in the wider region, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel—all staunch allies of the same Western governments that have echoed calls for “dialogue” and “negotiations” between civilians and those leading the fighting.

Responses from below

There is potentially a real alternative to the rule of “the men with guns” in Sudan. Revolutionary activists have certainly shown immense ­determination to create such an alternative. They have built a mass movement on an ­extraordinary scale in the five years since the Sudanese Revolution first erupted. As the war broke out, debates continued to rage, and activists discussed the way forward. From messages exchanged on social media, through WhatsApp and Telegram, and via intermittent phone calls, a picture has emerged of courage and ­resourcefulness, rooted in the networks of self-organisation from below that have developed during the ­revolutionary process. According to Sudanese revolutionary Muzan Alneel:

Since the early hours of the war, neighbourhood groups have formed on ­messaging apps such as WhatsApp. Some neighbourhoods have reactivated old groups or resistance committees, while others regrouped in more logical forms based on neighbourhood geography and connection of services.4

These groups exchanged information about the security situation and the availability of water and electricity, and they helped with the search for missing persons. They also coordinated lists of health workers, medical supplies and functioning health centres:

Specialised groups working in ambulances or delivering food and medicine also emerged, as did emergency response teams that coordinated with electricity workers to restore power to areas affected by the criminals’ war. These organised ­revolutionary efforts were not confined to the battlefield—the capital city, Khartoum—but also ensured the operation of hospitals in El Fasher (a city in the state of North Darfur) and provided water, food and shelter for those displaced from Khartoum.5

In some areas, “emergency committees” took on even bigger tasks. Two days after the outbreak of war, activists from the resistance committee in the Kalakla Sanqat area of Khartoum met and agreed to create the “Kalakla Sanqat ­emergency office”. This included a medical clinic, a community office, a media office, a ­fundraising office and a monitoring office, which was tasked with ­monitoring “abnormal movements around residential neighbourhoods”.6 The young activists behind this initiative established contact with the Turkish Hospital, one of the ­largest in region, and the local police department agreed to communicate directly with the emergency committee in the event of threatening security developments. Activists also worked with the head of the local ­council in Jebel Awliya, an outlying village, to temporarily solve the water crisis by ­bringing water from a well by truck.7

As the authors of an account of the Kalakla Sanqat emergency office explain, the conditions of war made the emergency committees necessary:

The disappearance of services, which were already poor, is what necessitated the emergency committees. The disappearance of the police made guarding neighbourhoods a necessity. The disappearance of the Ministry of Health made operating hospitals a necessity.

When people suddenly faced stark choices, solidarity was key to survival:

Whoever runs out of supplies finds themselves facing starvation or becoming a thief, and whoever has stocks of supplies finds himself a target for looting and theft in light of the lawlessness. Everyone’s interest lies in cooperation and teamwork, in the sharing of effort and material goods, and in providing security, supplies and services.

The authors go on to argue that continuing and developing the model of the emergency committees will be ordinary people’s only alternative to living in a society where “there is not even anything left to loot”:

The model of emergency committees based on cooperation and sharing everything becomes the only way to keep society alive and protect it from rotting and turning into a society of plunder and robbery. With cooperation, security is available for all. The doctor provides services for free, the electrician provides services for free, and the water service technician provides services for free. Whoever owns a car puts it at the service of people for free, and whoever can participate in neighbourhood guard shifts participates for free. Everyone who can make a contribution provides it for free and gets paid, when needed, depending on the contributions of others.8

Is the solidarity and resourcefulness of the emergency committees just a temporary flash of hope, soon to be snuffed out by war? Alneel sees them as potentially paving the way for a much deeper transformation:

This path taken by the Sudanese people against the war is truly revolutionary. It is possible, by logical analysis, to trace the steps of its development from the current “firefighting”, that is, improvised forms of popular organisation, towards a vision of a new sustainable structure for the provision of services and a space for political and economic decision-making. These “people’s councils” will inevitably emerge and, in line with the revolution, will be spaces of real political debate, as opposed to the empty debates of the elites, which are detached from the lives of the people.9

The example from Kalakla shows how revolutionary organisation can establish real political authority through its practical activities when there is a crisis in which the state is not only absent but actually hostile to people’s survival. Yet, the experiment was short-lived. The continued fighting and the lack of resources for dealing with the massive tasks confronting the emergency committee saw its efforts grind to a halt within weeks:

The lesson learned from this experience is the difficulty or impossibility of ­meeting all these needs through effort and self-help alone. Before this war, people were already suffering from poverty and lack of resources. The question here is, then, where are these resources located? Simply put, these resources are found in the local authorities. In any of the local authorities in Khartoum, there is a health office, a social welfare office, zakat offices and others.10

It was not enough to win cooperation from friendly state officials. To really fulfil their role, the emergency committees would need to take charge of the resources administered by state institutions and ensure they were used to meet people’s urgent needs. As the authors point out, part of the solution to this problem could lie in revolutionary activists working together with organisations representing the workers who deliver crucial services. This sort of ­collaboration might open the way to taking over government headquarters and schools in order to provide shelter for local people during military clashes as well as to help access and distribute medical supplies. The authors also emphasise the need to organise politically:

The committees should try to invite and involve a broader spectrum of people in the emergency committees. This work is achieved through political discourse, making speeches in the markets and neighbourhoods, daily discussion sessions, and more engagement with the people. All of this will certainly create a real impetus towards the revolutionary transformation of society.11

The contrast between the life-sustaining work of these embryonic popular, democratic institutions and the trail of death and destruction left across the capital by the only Sudanese state institutions that still function—the rival military and militia forces—could not be starker. Yet, is the degeneration of the state into warring factions and the almost complete abandonment of its social, administrative and political roles a reflection of Sudan’s particular history or a sign of a broader, perhaps global, problem? On this question activists in the revolutionary movement are sharply divided.

For some, the core of the issue is the bitter legacy of Sudan’s history of ­colonial oppression and how this has warped and distorted the development of the state itself. According to advocates of this viewpoint, despite their criticism of its current leadership, the Sudanese Armed Forces is a qualitatively ­different kind of institution to the Rapid Support Forces militia. They claim that a “national, professional and united army” is an essential component of the “state of institutions” that Sudan’s democratic revolution seeks to create.

A document adopted by the resistance committees of Al-Ma’amoura in Khartoum on 4 May, and widely circulated among wider revolutionary networks, puts this point across forcefully. It acknowledges that the conflict is “a struggle over the privileges and gains of power, and over who will take the largest share”. However, it continues, “It is also a struggle over the nature and alignment of the Sudanese state and whether it will become a state of institutions or a state of militias”.12 The ­document argues that the resistance committees should adopt “a strategic ­orientation towards the state”. It goes on to assert the need for a reformed, ­professional and national military, safely confined to its barracks rather than ­dominating the state’s political ­institutions. At the same time, the document ­maintains its distance from the actual army and its leadership, which is constantly seeking to co-opt the resistance ­committees for its war with the Rapid Support Forces:

As for the position of the resistance committees towards the army, they affirm the necessity of a unified, professional and national army, but this will not make them agree to blackmail and offer unconditional support for the armed forces. These armed forces are engaged in the subjugation of the state and the protection of the corrupt political system as well as the privileges of the top brass and their allies among local capitalist and civilian elites. At the same time, they squander the resources of the Sudanese people and repress their revolutionary movements.13

The problem with this kind of approach, as Alneel explains, is that it makes far too many concessions to the “morals of the elite”, which claim precedence for those with “qualifications” and the other kinds of legitimacy derived from the institutions they represent:

This corrupt morality is the same that supports the government militia (the Sudanese Armed Forces) over the private militia (the Rapid Support Forces) on the basis that the commander of the latter is an unqualified livestock farmer, while the commander of the former is a military academy graduate, among other similar bureaucratic differences. Some maintain this preference despite their inability to identify any differences between the crimes of the two militias, current and historical, and even agree that the government militia produced and trained the private militia and provided it with resources and funding.14

The aspiration for a well-behaved army that abides by the “rule of law” and does the bidding of democratic politicians is certainly understandable in the context of Sudan’s corrupt, kleptocratic and violent political system. However, does the ­position sketched out by the Al-Ma’amoura resistance committees really set the scene for the expansion of “popular power” and the strengthening of “the people” as the “third side” in the conflict, independent of the two warring generals?15

The experience of previous revolutions suggests otherwise. Tunisian trade union leaders, for example, stepped in as guarantors of the state during the ­political crisis that engulfed the country’s ruling class in the wake of the revolution in 2011. Key to the democratic compromise hammered out in negotiations over the shape of the transitional period was the idea that Tunisia’s small, professional and national army would stay out of political life and remain in the barracks (except when pursuing jihadist fighters). A decade later, the army backed racist, populist politician Kais Saied’s seizure of power, and it is now a key force propping up his regime. Saied has stoked up virulent racism against black Africans in his speeches, used the police to harass, beat and detain migrants, and encouraged mobs to attack them in the streets.16

Tunisia’s short-lived “democratic transition” was the only example of even temporary progress towards the establishment of something resembling the liberal ideal of a “state of institutions” that has emerged from wave of revolutions and uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa since late 2010. In all the others, the ­generals either re-asserted their dominance over the state through a revived ­authoritarian dictatorship or unleashed a brutal civil war aimed at achieving the same result (illustrated perfectly by the return of Bashar al-Assad to the Arab League in May 2023, where he took his place alongside the other thieves and murderers).

Does this simply underscore the shortcomings of the state in the Middle East? Is the overweening influence of the region’s armies the product of some specific cultural or historical factor? Or is it rather a feature of the way that all states behave when faced with a revolutionary crisis? Does the terrifying trajectory towards a “state of militias” in Sudan reflect general trends within the capitalist system as well as those specific to the country’s history? I will argue here that the answer to both of these latter two questions is yes.

This is not to say that every state behaves like the Sudanese state all of the time. Nor do I mean that there is no difference between the forms taken by a state’s violence depending on whether it dominates a rich, powerful country at the centre of the global economy or a weak and poor one on the system’s margins. Yet, it is crucial to acknowledge that such factors cause the phenomena outlined here to differ in degree rather than in kind. They are reflections of the nature of the state in capitalist societies. That nature, in turn, reflects some of the most fundamental processes at work in the capitalist system.

Generals at war

There are two main protagonists in the war over what remains of the Sudanese state and the three constituent areas of the country’s tripartite capital (made up of Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri). On one side stands the Sudanese Armed Forces, led by al-Burhan, who commands troops equipped with a panoply of arms, aircraft and armour geared towards conventional warfare. This includes main battle tanks of Soviet and Chinese origin, MiG jets and helicopters.17

Facing al-Burhan are Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces. This formation’s origins lie in the Janjaweed militias, recruited by the former dictator, Omar El Bashir, from the early 2000s to pillage, murder and rape their way across Darfur as part of a ­genocidal “counter-insurgency” campaign that devastated the region.18 This paved the way for the Hemedti’s ascent through the Sudanese state. His men served ­alternately as El Bashir praetorian guard, as crack riot troops when he needed dependable forces to quell protests in Khartoum and as mercenaries earning hard currency for the cash-strapped regime in the war in Yemen. In their guise as ­professionalised “border guards”, Rapid Support Force fighters gave the regime ­leverage to extract millions of pounds in funding for “migration ­management” from the EU states and Britain. Their income was supplemented with ­extortion and people-smuggling along the dangerous routes towards Libya traversed by desperate refugees.19 According to Janes Information Services, their weaponry and armour is light and mobile: armoured personnel carriers, pickup trucks mounted with weapons such as rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns, and “mine-resistant ambush-protected” vehicles that originate from the UAE.20

The number of troops under the Rapid Support Forces’ command is hard to verify. Media reports in 2023 estimated the figure at around 100,000.21 This represents a dramatic increase compared to the maximum figure of 20,000 reported at the end of 2016 and the roughly 9,000 militia members brought to Khartoum to murder protesters in 2013.22 The Sudanese Armed Forces has also boosted its troop numbers massively during recent years; numbers in the regular army stood at 104,000 in 2019, but had reportedly risen to 240,000 by the outbreak of the current conflict.23

The contrast between the two forces is, however, misleading. This is not a battle between a conventional army and tooled-up warlords. The ­commanders of the Sudanese Armed Forces have long embraced a flexible approach to ­working with paramilitary forces of various kinds, including both those they actually set up and those with whom they have forged alliances. In the wake of the 1989 coup that brought El Bashir to power, the Islamist generals who dominated the Sudanese Armed Force’s top command relied heavily on the paramilitary Popular Defence Forces (PDF) in their ultimately doomed attempt to militarily defeat the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which would lead to the secession of South Sudan in 2005. The PDF was a complex organisation, incorporating both “tribal militias”, whose role was to protect the government’s interests in the rural peripheries, and a highly ideological “party militia”. In the wake of the coup, this party militia conscripted school and university students and public sector employees in an attempt to break the remnants of urban political resistance movements. Conscripts from both rural and urban areas were then used as cannon fodder in the war against the people of the South. This war was styled a “jihad” by the Islamist leaders.

Although in practice PDF commanders enjoyed a large degree of autonomy, they were operationally accountable to a brigadier general from the Sudanese Armed Forces.24 This autonomy was not accidental, as the PDF developed in ­parallel with purges of the demoralised leadership of the Sudanese Armed Forces and the replacement of large numbers of officers and rank and file soldiers with graduates from the military academy who supported the ruling National Islamic Front.25

The vision of the National Islamic Front’s leaders, such as veteran Islamist Hassan al-Turabi, was to mobilise an armed “tribal belt” to repel the SPLA’s attacks into North Sudan and to raise an ideologically coherent, ­Islamist-dominated “citizen army”. This would create a mass popular base for the new regime, thus reducing the danger of revolts in the urban centres similar to the uprising that toppled the previous dictator, Jaafar al-Nimeiri, in 1985.

The problem with this plan was that the “jihad” failed both militarily and politically. Teenage conscripts rebelled and deserted en masse, with dozens paying the terrible price of being gunned down by PDF officers while trying to escape. Al-Turabi fell out with the regime and made his peace with the SPLA leaders. A few years later, El Bashir followed suit. In 2011, he swallowed the bitter pill of the South’s secession, creating the new state of South Sudan. This took with it most of the country’s oil reserves, the Sudanese state’s most important source of revenue.

The genesis of the Rapid Support Forces was in El Bashir’s search for new ways to “manage” security and preserve his own power across multiple dimensions of Sudan’s state and society. The PDF had tried to integrate foot soldiers from both central and peripheral regions into a single ideologically ­coherent force (even if those from the peripheries continued to be led largely by local ­commanders). The emergence of the Rapid Support Forces, by contrast, marked an important moment of reconfiguration within the Sudanese ruling class, as it expanded to incorporate men such as Hemedti and other militia leaders from Sudan’s peripheries. The organisation’s role as El Bashir’s his praetorian guard (a classic “counterbalancing” strategy, partially designed to keep both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the state security forces on their toes) was combined with stints policing the unruly capital city.26 This provided part of the rationale for Hemedti’s ascent. However, none of this would have been possible without a parallel shift in Sudan’s wealth production—or rather wealth extraction—towards the gold-mining areas of Darfur and other areas on the periphery.27 Researcher Alex de Waal notes:

Hemedti is not from the well-mannered Khartoum “community of the state”. We should not be misled by his identity as an “Arab”—there is a vast social divide between the metropolitan Sudanese elites, whose Arabism looks to Egypt, and the Bedouin communities of the Sahara. He and his men are feared and ridiculed as illiterate, ill-spoken hoodlums. True, the top Rapid Support Forces commanders are from Hemedti’s own Mahariya Arab clan, but the rank and file are from a range of tribes, united in their conviction that they have been deprived of the spoils of the state. Like the South Sudanese people who voted to secede, they are enraged subjects of the Sudanese imperium.28

Yet, de Waal’s framing of the Rapid Support’s bid to seize control of Khartoum as a “revolution that nobody wanted” misses the crucial point—the elites in the “centre” of Sudan have for decades worked hand-in-mailed-fist with commanders from the “peripheries” to enforce their rule over ordinary people in both locations.

The privatisation of warfare and security in the neoliberal era

It is tempting to see the relentless “paramilitarisation” of the bodies of armed men attached to Sudan’s state as being driven by dynamics specific to “late-developing”, “fragile” states and societies on the periphery of the capitalist system. Although such dynamics certainly play a role, it is a dangerous misconception to believe that somehow Hemedti and al-Burhan are solely the products of the “incompleteness” of Sudan’s wrenching transformation into a capitalist society. It is also wrong to believe that the sprawling ganglions of paramilitary and military capital that feed off the body of Sudanese society are a disease curable by courses in “institutional ­capacity building” and anti-graft training. This is because the forces driving the growth of “Warlord Inc”, as one US Congress report on subcontracting by US armed forces in Afghanistan memorably described the problem, emanate from the very centre of world ­capitalism and the practices of its strongest military and economic powers.29

Sean McFate, currently a professor at the US National Defense University but also a former mercenary, outlines the shift that took place in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and has been accelerating ever since. Contractors performing a wide range of tasks comprised “over 50 percent of the US force structure in Iraq and 70 percent in Afghanistan” at the height of these wars, compared with just 10 percent during the Second World War.30 Most of these contractors were in ­non-combat roles, with only a small number of actual mercenaries. Yet, as McFate points out, the contracting-out process proliferated layers of private security and military operators who, though not officially “on the books” of the US military, benefitted from the superpower’s outsourcing of war.

The “host nation trucking” (HNT) contract in Afghanistan provides an example of the impact of the US military’s policy of requiring corporate ­partners to be responsible for their own security. The aim of this ­requirement was to reduce demands on overstretched US troops. However, the effect was that the “principal private subcontractors on the contract were warlords, ­strongmen commanders and militia leaders, who competed with the Afghan central ­government for power and authority. Providing ‘protection’ services for the US supply chain empowered these warlords with money, legitimacy and a raison d’etre for their private armies”.31 The amount of money involved and the centrality of this contract to the US war effort in Afghanistan should not be underestimated. The HNT contract was worth $2.16 billion, which was split among eight companies. Over 70 percent of the goods and materiel distributed to US troops in the field was carried by the HNT contractors. At its height, HNT contractors ran between 6,000 and 8,000 truck missions per month, with 300-vehicle convoys protected by up to 500 guards. The ­commanders of these guards told the US Congress that they spent $1.5 million on ammunition per month.32

The “private armies” were not just raised by Afghans but also by former US soldiers, many from so-called elite regiments such as the 82nd Airborne Division, the Navy SEALS and Delta Force. In fact, these private spin-off companies of the US military were the pioneers of the subcontracting process. Indeed, they were often themselves involved in further subcontracting of local “hired guns”, sometimes inflating risks to take a bigger cut of the profits.33

US-based “private military security companies” (PMSCs) are also ­embedded in the military and security complexes of US allies. The UAE’s military and security sector, for example, is heavily dependent on former US military and security personnel working for PMSCs such as Knowledge International. Research by Transparency International discovered more than 40 former US military personnel working for the UAE’s military in roles as diverse as developing logistics capability, mentoring high-ranking intelligence officers, training artillery and ­cyberwarfare units, and developing training for commanders.34 The Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces were also integrated into the UAE’s transnational supply chain for ­military services; in 2019, around 30,000 Sudanese troops were fighting in Yemen as part of the coalition led by Saudi Arabi and the UAE, reportedly sustaining heavy losses in fighting with rebel Houthi forces.35

The militarisation of “homeland security”

A similar structure of subcontracting also dominates the private security industry, with some firms active in both the military and security arenas. Once again, US government policies and the State Department’s spending are often ­trendsetters at a global level. In the 2022 financial year, the State Department reported spending $1.6 billion on just three accounts related to foreign military and police training in more than 60 countries, often using PMSCs to fulfil these contracts.36 It is not just authoritarian regimes in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East who are keen to purchase private security services. US corporations have also been eager customers of PMSCs such as TigerSwan, which provided security for the Dakota Access Pipeline during months of protests against it. TigerSwan has also received over $60 million in US government contracts, mostly for services delivered in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

According to investigations by the American Civil Liberties Union and journalists, TigerSwan’s personnel engaged in “counterterrorism” methods during the protests in North Dakota, including infiltration of protest camps and urging local police departments to employ more repressive tactics. This was legitimated by Islamophobic comparisons between the demonstrators and “jihadists”.37 The behaviour of TigerSwan’s contractors is part of a wider picture of militarisation and privatisation of “homeland security” in the US, where police forces have received $7 billion in military hardware since 1996 under the so-called 1033 Program.38 This equipment is often justified by references to high-risk “counterterrorism” and “counter-drug” operations, but in reality has often been deployed against protesters and black communities. Those using the second hand assault rifles and grenade launchers and driving the cast-off armoured vehicles provided by this programme are ­increasingly targeted by the far right’s recruitment drives. A quick internet search on links between armed far-right militias and the US police and military returns a slew of stories about current officers recruited by white supremacist groups.39

The counter-revolutionary militia

Here we come back to the theme of the role of paramilitary forces when the state is gripped by crisis. There can be no doubt that the assault on the US Capitol building in Washington DC by armed supporters of Donald Trump in January 2021 is a sign of the deepening crisis in the US, even if, for the moment, the country’s military is not convinced of the need to dispense with ­democracy.40 What happens to these “bodies of armed men” when revolution from below threatens not just the political system but the very fabric of the social order? What happens when military discipline cracks under the pressure of the class struggle, breaking the unity between officers and their men? At just such a time, Rosa Luxemburg noted in an article, written just a few hours before her own murder in January 1919, that those who wish to restore “order” often rely on paramilitary butchers to do their dirty work.41 It was not troops under the leadership of Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the old chief of the imperial general staff, who would carry out Luxemburg’s execution, but the Freikorps, a paramilitary force composed of ex-soldiers under the command of Social Democratic Party politician Gustav Noske.42

The key lesson here is not that Luxemburg should have trusted Hindenburg and appealed to the tottering structures of the German army to reassert the “rule of law” in the face of the violence of the Freikorps. Rather, it is that Noske and Hindenburg, like Hemedti and al-Burhan, are different faces of the same basic phenomenon: the violence that those in power are prepared to unleash when their rule is threatened. In such moments of crisis, the state’s “bodies of armed men” are always flexibly configured, traversing blurred lines of public function, private profit, ideological fervour and class vengeance.

The current bloodbath in Khartoum is not a response to an armed uprising by revolutionary activists, unlike the doomed “Spartacus” revolt in Berlin, which Luxemburg had cautioned against but still defended to her last breath. Nevertheless, the war begun by the two generals is no less counter-revolutionary than the “bloody week” that crushed the Paris Commune in May 1871 and the massacres of Islamist protesters in Cairo organised by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, through which he consolidated a new military regime. Each passing week brings news that the space created by the mass Sudanese revolutionary movements of the past five years is inexorably shrinking. The self-projection of the Sudanese Armed Forces as the “saviour of the nation” in the face of Rapid Support Forces aggression is winning support among the ranks of activists who just a few weeks ago were opposed to both the coup leaders. Proclamations from the Sudanese Armed Forces praise the role of the resistance committees in providing for the civilian population, showing the growing danger of co-option and compromise with the military. Sudanese Armed Forces propaganda, meanwhile, concentrates on the “foreign origins” of Rapid Support Forces troops, painting them as interlopers from Chad and Niger.

What is the alternative?

How did the road towards the deepening of Sudan’s revolution divert towards a protracted civil war? Was the turning point the resistance committees’ failed call for a general strike in August 2022? Alternatively, was it perhaps the lack of coordination between the waves of mass strikes in the months after the coup of October 2021? Do the roots lie further back in 2019, when opposition ­politicians persuaded the revolutionary movement to demobilise in exchange for a ­worthless commitment by the generals to engage in “power sharing” during a ­“transitional period”? Asking such questions in no way undermines the ­courage of those ­activists still fighting for the future, who will continue to surprise the world with the creativity of their responses to these desperate times. Indeed, they can only be answered in full by the new generation of revolutionaries in Sudan, who will build on the victories and defeats of the present to make the world anew.

Nevertheless, it is possible to suggest the outlines of a reply. The vision of the people as a “third side”, capable of acting as a counterweight to both the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces, has been tantalisingly close to the surface at times but has never quite broken through. As long as the state remained on its pedestal as the ultimate arbiter in all disputes, and the “national army” as the guardian of the political order, this counterpower could never fully emerge. Recognising this was an organisational task as much as a political one. It did not require the majority of ordinary people in Sudan to be convinced of it, but the lack of any organised force capable of fighting for this perspective remains a major obstacle to the realisation of popular power.

Anne Alexander is the author of Revolution is the Choice of the People: Crisis and Revolt in the Middle East and North Africa (Bookmarks, 2022). 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.


Al Ma’amoura Resistance Committees, 2023, “A Visualisation of the Position of Ma’amoura Resistance Committees in Relation to the Ongoing Political Conflict”.

Alneel, Muzan, 2023, “Sudan’s Revolutionary Path Against War”, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (2 June), https://revsoc.me/arab-and-international/45415

Amin, Mohammed, 2019, “30,000 Sudanese Forces Fighting in Yemen: Official”, AA (22 June), www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/30-000-sudanese-forces-fighting-in-yemen-official/1512989

Amnesty International UK, 2023, “Tunisia: Wave of Attacks on Black African Migrants has been Fuelled by President’s Racism” (10 March), www.amnesty.org.uk/press-releases/tunisia-wave-attacks-black-african-migrants-has-been-fuelled-presidents-racism

Associated Press, 2022, “Oath Keepers Membership Rolls Feature Police, Military and Elected Officials”, Guardian (7 September), www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/sep/07/oath-keepers-membership-rolls-police-military-elected-officials

Callinicos, Alex, 2023, The New Age of Catastrophe (Polity).

Dakwar, Jamil, 2017, “Why did a Private Security Contractor Treat Standing Rock Protesters like ‘Jihadists’?”, American Civil Liberties Union (2 June), www.aclu.org/news/free-speech/why-did-private-security-contractor-treat-standing-rock

De Waal, Alex, 2023, “The Revolution No One Wanted”, London Review of Books (18 May), www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v45/n10/alex-de-waal/the-revolution-no-one-wanted

Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023, “What Is to Be Done?”

Harman, Chris, 1997, The Lost Revolution (Bookmarks).

Harte, Julia, and Alexandra Ulmer, 2022, “US Police Trainers with Far-right Ties Are Teaching Hundreds of Cops”, Reuters (6 May), https://tinyurl.com/75zzzcrt

Human Rights Watch, 2015, “‘Men with No Mercy’: Rapid Support Forces Attacks Against Civilians in Darfur, Sudan” (9 September), www.hrw.org/report/2015/09/09/men-no-mercy/rapid-support-forces-attacks-against-civilians-darfur-sudan

Lawrence, Charlotte, and Cyrus O’Brien, 2021, “Federal Militarization of Law Enforcement Must End”, American Civil Liberties Union (12 May), www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/federal-militarization-of-law-enforcement-must-end

Levin, Sam, 2020, “White Supremacists and Militias Have Infiltrated Police Across US, Report Says”, Guardian (27 August), www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/27/white-supremacists-militias-infiltrate-us-police-report

Luxemburg, Rosa, 1999 [1919], “Order Prevails in Berlin”, www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1919/01/14.htm

Mahé, Anne-Laure, 2019, “The Security Apparatus and the Political Transition in Sudan”, Institute for Strategic Research (5 September), www.irsem.fr/data/files/irsem/documents/document/file/3228/RP_IRSEM_78.pdf

McFate, Sean, 2019, Mercenaries and War: Understanding Private Armies Today (National Defense University Press), https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/strat-monograph/mercenaries-and-war.pdf

Middle East Eye, 2019, “Huge Sudanese Losses in Yemen Highlight Fighters’ Role in the Conflict” (10 November), www.middleeasteye.net/news/thousands-saudi-paid-sudanese-mercenaries-die-frontline-yemen

Perthes, Volker, 2023, “UNITAMS SRSG Mr Volker Perthes Remarks to the Security Council, 22 May 2023”, UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (23 May), https://tinyurl.com/3er25xn3

Picard, Michael, and Colby Goodman, 2022, Hidden Costs: US Private Military and Security Companies and the Risks of Corruption and Conflict (Transparency International), https://tinyurl.com/2p9jpcaj

Reuters, 2023, “Factbox: Who are Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces?”, Reuters (15 April), www.reuters.com/world/africa/who-are-sudans-rapid-support-forces-2023-04-13

Salmon, Jago, 2007, Sudan: A Paramilitary Revolution—The Popular Defence Forces (Small Arms Survey), https://reliefweb.int/report/sudan/sudan-paramilitary-revolution-popular-defence-forces

Stevens, Jordan, 2023, “Military Clashes in Sudan Threaten to Become Protracted Conflict Following Attempted Coup by Rapid Support Forces”, Janes Information Services (19 April), www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/military-clashes-in-sudan-threaten-to-become-protracted-conflict-following-attempted-coup-by-rapid-support-forces

Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, 2010, “Warlord, Inc: Extortion and Corruption Along the US Supply Chain in Afghanistan” (United States House of Representatives), www.cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/HNT_Report.pdf

Thomas, Edward, and Magdi El Gizouli, 2021, “Creatures of the Deposed: Connecting Sudan’s Rural and Urban Struggles”, African Arguments (11 November), http://africanarguments.org/2021/11/creatures-of-the-deposed-connecting-sudans-rural-and-urban-struggles

Tubiana, Jérôme, Clotilde Warin and Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen, 2018, “Multilateral Damage the Impact of EU Migration Policies on Central Saharan Routes” (Clingendael), www.clingendael.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/multilateral-damage.pdf

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1 Many thanks to a number of Sudanese comrades, especially Muzan Alneel, for reading drafts of this article and sending thoughtful comments. I have learnt—as always—a great deal from these conversations, and I hope to develop some of the points here more thoroughly in future. The title of this piece echoes Rosa Luxemburg’s famous last article before her execution in the wake of the failed uprising in Berlin in January 1919. The original German was “Die Ordnung herrscht in Berlin”. I think this is better captured by “Order reigns in Berlin” rather than by “Order prevails in Berlin”, which is the translation used in the version available online at the Marxists Internet Archive. Nonetheless, that version is the most accessible, so it is the one I have chosen to cite throughout this article—see Luxemburg, 1999.

2 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2023.

3 Perthes, 2023.

4 Alneel, 2023. Alneel’s original Arabic-language article can be found at https://revsoc.me/arab-and-international/45415. Resistance committees, which first emerged in 2013, are neighbourhood-based organisations for mobilising protests. During the revolutionary process beginning in 2019, and especially since the military coup of 2021, they have taken on broader political and social roles, developing into the organisational foundations of a country-wide popular revolutionary movement that has remained relatively independent of the main political parties.

5 Alneel, 2023.

6 Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023.

7 Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023.

8 Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023.

9 Alneel, 2023.

10 Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023. The zakat office is a government department tasked with allocating Muslim charitable donations (“zakat”). The dictatorship of Omar El Bashir, which ended in 2019, often used this as a mechanism for distributing wealth to its supporters.

11 Gidaam and the editors of Al-Darb magazine, 2023.

12 Al Ma’amoura Resistance Committees, 2023.

13 Al Ma’amoura Resistance Committees, 2023.

14 Alneel, 2023. Hemedti is reputed to have been a camel trader before rising to a leadership position within the Janjaweed militia that helped prosecute the Sudanese regime’s genocidal war in Darfur from 2003 onwards.

15 Al Ma’amoura Resistance Committees, 2023.

16 Amnesty International UK, 2023.

17 Stevens, 2023.

18 Human Rights Watch, 2015.

19 Tubiana, Warin and Saeneen, 2018.

20 Stevens, 2023.

21 Reuters, 2023.

22 Mahé, 2019, p3.

23 Mahé, 2019, p5; Stevens, 2023.

24 Salmon, 2007, p14.

25 Salmon, 2007, pp16-17.

26 Mahé, 2019.

27 Thomas and El Gizouli, 2021.

28 De Waal, 2023.

29 Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, 2010.

30 McFate, 2019, p18.

31 Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, 2010.

32 Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, 2010.

33 McFate, 2019.

34 Picard and Goodman, 2022.

35 Amin, 2019; Middle East Eye, 2019.

36 Picard and Goodman, 2022.

37 Dakwar, 2017.

38 Lawrence and O’Brien, 2021.

39 Levin, 2020; Harte and Ulmer, 2022; Associated Press, 2022.

40 Callinicos, 2023.

41 Luxemburg, 1999.

42 Harman, 1997.