Living on revolution time: understanding the dynamics of the uprisings in Sudan and Algeria

Issue: 163

Anne Alexander

We meet at 4pm: revolution time.” This sentence in a call by the Sudanese Professionals Association on its Facebook page for mass protests on 12 April probably makes little sense to those who want to reduce the role of the mass movement to a footnote in another dreary succession of military coups.1 But to those breathing what Rosa Luxemburg called “the sultry air of revolution” it expresses something profound.2 They understand that “revolution time” is ­different to other times.

“Revolution time” is something that the hundreds of thousands at the heart of the uprisings in Algeria and Sudan have won back from history. From one perspective it is exhilaratingly fast time; movements grow like weeds in the summer, people change their ideas overnight, old certainties dissolve. What took years of struggle to achieve in the past can be accomplished in weeks, days or even hours. It took four months of protests to oust Omar El Bashir from the presidency he occupied for 30 years. His minister of defence, Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf, lasted only 30 hours as head of the military’s transitional authority in the face of mass protests demanding the handover of power to a civilian government.

Yet the scale of these processes also can make “revolution time” feel slow. The “end” of the dictator turned out to be just the beginning of a much larger struggle, as the process continued of challenging and removing from office those who exercised power on his behalf. Who knows how long “revolution time” will last? The cycle of revolution and counter-revolution in Egypt between 2011 and 2013 was only just over two years. The collective agency of millions of people suddenly awakened to political consciousness can throw the existing rulers into a profound crisis. However, they will always seek to tip the scales back, to restore their capacity to rule by any means they can. In a very real sense, therefore, “revolution time” is always borrowed time.

So the question then arises: if time is short, what can revolutionaries do to make the most of it?

This article proposes three areas of analysis and three questions of strategy where the revolutionary socialist tradition has a distinctive contribution to make. The first of the areas where we can deploy the resources of the Marxist tradition to understand better the mass movements that have erupted in Sudan and Algeria is in uncovering the relationship between the “economic” and “political” aspects of the struggles that are shaking both societies to the core. Secondly, however, we need to uncover the roots of this process in the particular forms of uneven and combined economic development characteristic of both societies, building on the theoretical model proposed by Leon Trotsky for Russia’s development in the early 20th century. Thirdly, we will examine the question of the state, drawing on the work of the classical Marxist tradition including Lenin’s pamphlet, The State and Revolution: The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution.

This leads us onto revolutionary strategy. When is it necessary to fight for partial changes to the system? And when does the achievement of reforms become the means by which the revolutionary process is contained and aborted? A second set of questions concerns the development of modes of democratic organisation from below which can point the way towards alternative forms of government and even to a different form of society. The final issue explored here relates to self-conscious revolutionary socialist organisation, and why I believe that the lessons from the wave of uprisings in 2010-11 point towards the need not only for broad forms of organisation but also the “narrow”, concentrated force of a revolutionary party, capable of providing leadership in the struggle in order to break the existing state and open up possibilities for a social revolution from below.

“Reciprocal action:” from the economic to the political and back again

The Sudanese uprising began in Damazin State in December 2018 with protests over the tripling of the price of bread, but as it spread it rapidly adopted anti-regime slogans such as tasgot bas! (“just fall!”). In January, a wide spectrum of opposition organisations, including the Sudanese Professionals Association, a coalition of eight independent trade unions and professional associations including doctors, teachers, journalists and lawyers, launched the “Declaration of Freedom and Change”, an agenda for a transition to democratic, civilian rule.3 By May, negotiators representing the signatories to the declaration were engaged in talks with the Transitional Military Council (TMC), a body formed by the former dictator’s old generals over the exact form of the future institutions of government, amid a backdrop of continuing mass protests, sit-ins and strikes.

In Algeria, the spark for the mass mobilisations that toppled president Abdelaziz Bouteflika on 2 April was the political issue of a fifth presidential term after 20 years in power. Yet behind this political crisis lay a much deeper social one. Algeria’s rate of youth unemployment runs at 29 percent, among a population where 70 percent are under the age of 30. The power of the street protests that exploded on Fridays after 22 February also expressed pent-up fury over crumbling public services, poverty pay, precarious working conditions and resentment over the mafia-like clans of businessmen and generals who loot the country’s wealth. As Gianni del Panta points out, there were three main components to the social revolt which heralded the coming storm: public sector workers, in particular teachers and junior doctors; workers in Algeria’s remaining citadels of heavy industry with long traditions of militancy such as the SNVI car plant in Rouïba; and the unemployed and marginalised in areas such the South, where grievances over social exclusion and poverty combined with resistance to the threat of environmental devastation as a result of shale gas fracking by the state oil company Sonatrach.4

Luxemburg’s classic analysis of mass strikes in early 20th century Russia provides a framework to analyse how economic and political struggles are feeding into each other in Sudan and Algeria today. As Luxemburg noted, rather than proceeding in linear stages, between the two “interlacing sides” of the ­revolutionary process, “there is the most complete reciprocal action”.5

Uneven and combined development

Where is this dynamic of “reciprocal action” between economic and political aspects of the class struggle rooted? At a very basic level, it expresses the relationship between economics and politics at the heart of capitalist society. Strikes temporarily usurp the economic power of capital over labour, carrying with them at least a latent challenge to the domination of the capitalist ruling class over the working class. In Sudan and Algeria today, as in Russia in the early 20th century, the repression of independent unions in particular, and political organisation in general, has a tendency to politicise strikes. Yet the brief sketch above shows a much more complicated picture than a simple clash between organised workers on one side and their bosses and the state on the other.

Trotsky, who like Luxemburg was a participant in the 1905 revolution in Russia, proposed his theory of uneven and combined development in order to explain the peculiarities of social and economic formations in Russia, which he argued facilitated the collapse of several “stages” in the revolution (specifically the shift between a revolution that aimed at establishing a capitalist democratic republic in place of the Tsarist autocracy, and a social revolution against capitalism) into a seamless process of “permanent revolution”.6

The specific dynamics of reciprocal action in the Algerian and Sudanese uprisings reflect comparable processes of uneven and combined development. Uneven development can be seen at work in the way some sectors of the economy are integrated into global and regional markets, attracting investment from multinational corporations such as the European oil and gas companies that have been driving the creation of a fracking industry in the Algerian Sahara, or the Gulf-based agro-exporters which have engaged in a massive land grab in Sudan’s fertile Nile valley, while other sectors lag behind.7 The benefits of this investment are of course also highly unevenly distributed, lining the pockets of local businessmen and army officers close to the regime. Development that combines different phases of capitalism (not pre-capitalist and capitalist social formations as in Trotsky’s example), has also created a readily combustible mix.

These processes have produced a working class that is also uneven and combined. Workers and the poor are the majority, but those in formal employment or in large workplaces are often the minority. The trajectory of the uprisings and the social struggles that preceded them in Algeria and Sudan confirms what was clear from the experience of Tunisia and Egypt in 2011: that it is possible to build unity in collective action between the employed and unemployed, between those who are relatively “privileged” (whether in terms of pay or levels of education and professional status) and those who are marginalised and socially excluded. That kind of class unity is more than possible, it is powerful. Workers in “old” industries or in traditionally strategic economic sectors such as transport and communications (railways, public bus services, post and telecommunications) bring the powers of concentration in large workplaces or relatively large workforces which retain real disruptive effects. They may also draw on traditions of working class organisation going back decades which have a symbolic resonance beyond their sector. This has been the case with the strikes at SNVI in Algeria and the participation of Port Sudan workers and rail workers in the Sudanese uprising. Meanwhile, the new unions led by teachers and junior doctors are rooted in the struggle to resist the relentless pressure of neoliberal “reforms” aimed at creating new markets and new opportunities for profit-making inside and alongside the decaying carcass of the welfare state.

What about the unemployed and those scratching a living at the margins as hustlers and petty traders? Their role as spectres disciplining those in work into submission can be reversed; in some cases because their own self-organised movements have lit fires “inside” the workplaces.

The combination of battles to defend the livelihoods and working conditions in the economy’s old industrial heartlands with the struggle to resist the marketisation of public services and the fight for dignity and social justice for the unemployed reflects the shape of the economy and society under “real-existing neoliberalism”. These hybrid forms of the old and the new, the grafting together of elements from both state-capitalist and neoliberal phases of capitalist development, with their contradictory pressures towards the concentration and fragmentation of the working class, and constant shifts in what constitutes work, self-employment and unemployment, can endlessly reproduce themselves. Yet the revolutionary waves of 2010-13 and 2018-19 show that the explosive quality of the amalgam that the social, political and ideological forms of uneven and combined development represents still holds out the promise of unleashing much deeper processes of change.

Oppression and liberation

The dynamic of reciprocal action between economic and political struggles in an unfolding revolutionary crisis also immediately raises questions of oppression. This point was clear to Russian revolutionary socialists in the 20th century, who made the commitment to fight the Tsarist state’s organised bigotry against religious minorities (including Jews and non-Orthodox Christians) an integral part of their struggle to build revolutionary organisation.8 The Algerian and Sudanese uprisings today have also taken on the character of “festivals of the oppressed”. Women have taken the streets by storm and groups subject to systematic discrimination justified by ideologies of racial or cultural superiority have become an integral part of the mass movements.

One concrete example is the triumphant arrival of delegations from Darfur at the mass sit-in outside the Army General Command in Khartoum, in defiance of the regime’s long history of using racism against Darfuris in order to foment division and suspicion between different sections of the opposition.9 Images of the rainbow colours of the Amazigh flag brandished by striking workers and over the mass protests in Algeria alongside the ubiquitous presence of the white, red and green of the national flag provide another. The death in custody on 28 May of Kamaleddine Fekhar, a human rights activist who had been imprisoned many times for campaigning for the rights of the Mzab minority triggered a wave of solidarity on the round of mass protests the following Friday, with demonstrators across the country observing minutes of silence in his memory and many wearing the distinctive white skull cap of the Mozabite community.10

The visibility of women in the mass protests and strikes has even captivated the interest of the mainstream media. As Sara Abdelgalil points out, the appropriation of women as icons for the revolution could be misused to erase their long and often unnoticed history of struggle before the uprisings.11 Yet, there are also deeper reasons why women emerge as leaders from below in the course of popular uprisings such as these, embedded in the ways in which the old regimes’ rule was not only propped up by coercion, but also by the careful creation of divisions between their opponents. El Bashir’s regime, Sara Abbas notes, weaponised the question of how women dress and enforced public dress codes through brutal repression under the guise of implementing “Sharia Law”.12 This served more than one function. It not only encouraged men who were not part of the regime to forget their other social and political grievances and concentrate instead on the need to control “disobedient” women in partnership with other men. It also created powerful examples of the regime’s ability to police public spaces and served as a warning to all would-be opponents of the penalties for transgression. In Algeria, too, there is a long and painful history of women’s dress being turned into a weapon of divide and rule—although from the opposite perspective, with the military and “secularist” reformists posing as the liberators of women from Islamist oppression during the 1990s. As Selma Oumari argues, some on the left in Algeria during this period fell into the trap of providing cover for the military by erecting barriers within the women’s movement to women who chose to wear the hijab rather than fighting for unity against repression.13 In neither Sudan nor Algeria can there be any room for complacency about the need to fight within the mass movements against oppression and for the demands raised by oppressed groups against the state. Algerian feminist activists who organised a bloc on the demonstrations on 29 March raising demands about gender equality alongside the demands of the hirak (movement) as a whole, were harassed by some participants in the protest, and grossly misogynistic images were posted in comments on their Facebook pages.14 Meanwhile, in Sudan although the opposition charter for the proposed transition period, the Declaration of Freedom and Change, calls for the empowerment of Sudanese women, barriers to women’s full participation in all areas of political and social life will not disappear overnight.15 Moreover, in both cases, the progress that has been won is dependent on a deepening and broadening of the revolution, and in particular on the fracturing of the existing state.

Self-organisation at scale

As we outlined above, it is naïve to characterise the mass mobilisations in Sudan and Algeria as erupting in a vacuum. On the contrary, in both cases there is a pre-history of activism that fed directly into the development of the new cycle of protest.

The Sudanese Professionals Association, which is itself a coalition of independent trade unions and professional bodies, has played a critical role in forging the protests into a mass movement, precisely through proposing demands, coordinating slogans and pushing for the use of particular tactics through its networks of activists, such as coordinated strikes in early March, and the launch of the mass sit-ins outside army headquarters in Khartoum on 6 April, and the two-day general strike on 28-29 May. The SPA existed before the eruption of this movement, but it has also been transformed by the movement from below, to the extent that its leaders are playing a key role in negotiations with the military alongside long-established opposition parties. The way in which mass mobilisations require and build organisation at the same time can be illustrated by the changing scope of neighbourhood-based committees in Sudan, which have played a crucial role in repeatedly bringing hundreds of thousands onto the streets. The “Resistance Committees” (lijan al-muqawama) were an organisational form which pre-dated the uprising, but have mushroomed over the past few months.16 Facebook pages for Resistance Committees across Sudan show activists holding political meetings in the street, discussing and debating the way forward for the revolution.17

In Algeria, the hirak appears more diffuse in many ways. A Reuters reporter, looking for “protest leaders” to comment on developments at the height of the general strike in mid-March, came up with the names of former prime minister Ahmed Benbitour, outspoken academic Fodil Boumala, and well-known lawyers Zoubida Assoul and Mustapha Bouchachi.18 Along with Benbitour, Assoul is one of the founders of Mouwatana, an organisation which launched in 2018 with a declaration of opposition to Bouteflika’s fifth term in office. At the time, authors of the declaration were careful to stress their modest aims, emphasising the point that the departure of Bouteflika would “not mean a change in the system of government”.19

To designate liberal and left-wing opposition politicians as leaders of the popular movement misunderstands the scale of the mobilisation from below and the radicalisation of demands taking place in Algeria through the rhythm of regular Friday protests (complemented by Tuesday demonstrations organised by students). For Algerian activist and writer Hamza Hamouchene, the hirak has “no clear identifiable leaders or organised structures, it is a pluralised popular uprising”.20 As Hamouchene points out, the slogans for the Friday ­protests—popularised through social media, which has also acted as an important organising platform for the protests—began with a narrow focus on rejecting Bouteflika’s fifth term, moved on to “they must all go”, and by May 2019 had begun to target the military directly: “Algeria is a republic, not a military barracks.”

It is important to locate and analyse the forms of self-organisation that power these mobilisations. The student movement in Algeria offers one example of how the regular series of Tuesday protests led by students has, in some cases, developed its own democratic forms of organisation, including public assemblies to decide on questions related to the student movement and its relationship to the broader mobilisation.21

Independent unions are also a critical component of the hirak, and their capacity to mobilise in the workplaces has sometimes proved decisive for the overall trajectory of the struggle. Bouteflika notably withdrew his candidacy for a fifth term on the second day of a five-day general strike between 10 and 15 March, which won sweeping support from workers in strategic sectors including the oil and gas fields, air transport, railways and ports as well as public services, the tax administration, education, health, the professions and small trades.22 Yet despite the potential power of the workers’ movement in Algeria, its actual political role remains constrained to supporting, rather than leading, the hirak.

As well as providing tens of thousands of people with experience in ­mobilising for protests and strikes, the Sudanese uprising has created laboratories for more radical forms of experimentation in self-organisation from below. The mass sit-in outside the Army General Command in Khartoum was the most important of these. Until 3 June, when it was attacked by troops from the Rapid Support Forces militia on the orders of the Transitional Military Council, the sit-in was protected by barricades and guarded by its own security committees and checkpoints. This allowed the emergence of a space which helped to consolidate the movement from within, through debate and discussion between activists from different parts of the country and different workplaces, professions and layers of society. Inside the sit-in, a complex arrangement of “Revolutionary Committees” looked after everything from political education, to medical aid, provisions and cleaning up after the hundreds of thousands who flood the square each evening.23 At the same time, it amplified the uprising’s demands to the outside world, particularly the army leadership, of course, but also to other governments (including the United States and the European Union), and to the international media.

Both in terms of scale and in its role in the revolutionary process, the General Command sit-in invites comparisons with the experience of the Egyptian Revolution during 2011, and in particular the way in which the Tahrir Square sit-in became synonymous for many people with the revolution itself. However, reducing the Egyptian revolutionary experience to Tahrir is also misleading. The decisive turning point in the uprising in 2011 was the eruption of the strike-wave which began a few days before Hosni Mubarak fell, and which carried the revolution out of Tahrir and began to paralyse key sectors of the economy and government.24 Just as significantly, the strike-wave continued after the Tahrir sit-in dispersed following Mubarak’s removal from power, despite the efforts of liberal and Islamist politicians to insist that the time for mobilisation from below was over.25 Moreover, the Egyptian experience also encompasses the horrific example of the massacres at the Rabaa and al-Nahda Square sit-ins in August 2013, as the Egyptian army and security forces killed hundreds of unarmed supporters of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Mursi who had been overthrown in a military coup on 3 July by minister of defence Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi.26

“Special bodies of armed men”

The spectre of the role of the military coup and massacres in Egypt in 2013 looms large over the movements in both Sudan and Algeria, with chants against military rule appearing ever more frequently on protests and sit-ins, and explicit demands for a “civil state”. In the case of Sudan, the Forces of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, a coalition of opposition parties that includes the Sudanese Professionals Association, entered formal negotiations with the TMC over the question of a transfer of power to civilians. Although the military was prepared to agree a plan for the lower levels of the proposed transitional government, by late May the talks reached a deadlock over the balance of civilian and military representatives at the top, the TMC insisting on retaining an overwhelming majority.27 Deadlock in the talks was followed swiftly by an attempt by the TMC to abort the revolution through exemplary violence: over 100 activists were killed in attacks on sit-ins and in the streets by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), militias and other military forces in the space of a few days after 3 June, with horrific reports of troops raping and torturing detainees documented by Sudanese organisations.28 The struggle over the “civil” character of any “new republic” that may emerge from the uprisings thus poses crucial questions. Can the existing army and security services be forced by the mass movements to conform to their “proper” role in society?

The perspective proposed here is very different. Drawing on the work of Karl Marx and Lenin on the question of the state, we will put forward arguments as to why what Marx, writing at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871, called the “bureaucratic-military machine” cannot simply be taken over by revolutionaries and remade according to their desires, but that it has to be smashed.29

In brief, Lenin’s key points were simple. In contrast to those who hoped that it could be tamed by revolution, and reformed from within, he stressed that the state was the product of the “irreconcilability of class antagonisms”, which made the presence of “special bodies of armed men” standing apart from the rest of society essential.30 The state’s character as an instrument of exploitation and oppression, wielded by the ruling class in order to ensure the continuation of its power, meant that such bodies of armed men had dual roles to play. Not only did they act as internal gendarmes to repress by force attempts by workers and the poor to alter the distribution of wealth and power, but they could be deployed in competition over access to resources, territory and markets with other capitalist states—typified for Lenin by the fusion of economic and military competition in the imperialist war which was raging across the world as he wrote.

Some notes of clarification are important here. First, the precision of the phrase “special bodies of armed men” is crucial. The institutions we are talking about here go beyond the army to encompass any bodies of armed men (and sometimes women), standing apart from society as a whole, and under the command of a public power alienated from the rest of society (in other words the state). As we will discuss in more detail below, one of the characteristics of popular revolutions is that they often expose the real role of the armed forces, which are normally presented as serving functions of “defence” against external threats, while the dirty work of internal repression is left to the security forces and police. Secondly, it is worthwhile expanding on Lenin’s exposition of the role that the bodies of armed men play in the state and for the ruling class as a whole, to think about its institutional and class dimensions. These bodies of armed men are not simply weapons wielded by the ruling class in battle against its enemies (both those among the people it exploits and oppresses, but also against its competitors among other ruling classes—or even to settle scores within its own ranks). Their upper layers are embedded into the ruling class in multiple ways; through business interests, through family connections and through webs of patronage and privilege.

The internal repressive role played by the military and security forces in Algeria and Sudan is not difficult to illustrate. The military coup of 1992 in Algeria that cancelled parliamentary elections and drove the Islamist opposition underground, and the numerous military interventions in the government of Sudan, including the coup led by El Bashir himself in 1989, are obvious examples. The collective nature of the army’s and security forces’ role as internal gendarmes is also underlined by the matrix of relations between the various military and security bodies in the two countries. In Algeria, the principal internal security force, the DRS (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité), answered directly to the Ministry of Defence until 2015. Bouteflika’s sacking of the powerful head of the DRS, General Mohamed Mediène, known as Toufik, led to the appointment of one of Toufik’s former subordinates to lead the new internal security apparatus, this time under the authority of the presidency.31

In Sudan El Bashir was notorious for the intricate balancing act he maintained between the national army, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the Rapid Support Forces militia and the riot police. As the mass movement surged ahead in April 2019, reports emerged of army soldiers and officers protecting protesters who were camped outside the Ministry of Defence from attacks by other security forces, said to have been sent by the NISS.32 Salah Gosh was induced to retire as head of NISS a few days after El Bashir’s fall, but the leaders of the self-appointed military junta that assumed power on 11 April quickly showed their support for General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (better known by his nickname “Hemedti”), commander of the RSF militia. Hemedti was appointed deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, sending a chilling message to the thousands of Sudanese who have suffered at the hands of the RSF which, according to human rights organisations, has carried out war crimes in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan regions, as well as being heavily involved in repression of protests.33

The military and security apparatus in Sudan and Algeria have captured vast amounts of the state’s wealth, diverting scarce resources towards their own institutions and often generating personal profits for the top brass at the same time. In the Algerian case, the end of the civil war in 1999 was followed by a huge arms buying spree, which propelled Algeria from the world’s 27th largest arms importer to the 8th largest in 2014. Between them, the Defence Ministry and the Interior Ministry accounted for $20 billion of the state budget that year.34 Years of war within Sudan have likewise bloated the budget allocated to the military and security. As the economic crisis deepened, El Bashir became increasingly reliant on providing Sudanese troops as mercenaries to fight in regional wars in order to bring in funding. The deployment of RSF troops in Yemen through the Saudi and United Arab Emirates-led military intervention earned the Sudanese government an estimated $2.5 billion in 2015-6.35 Perhaps unsurprisingly, the generals responsible for leading Sudanese troops in Yemen, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Hemedti also head up the Transitional Military Council.36

This is one example of how the dynamics of imperialism work their way out inside the national state, and the military and security services are one of the main conduits for these pressures. Despite the fact that El Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court and his regime designated as a “sponsor of terrorism” by the US, his security services have been bolstered by the Khartoum Process, which brings together European states, including Britain, to enhance cooperation around policing migration.37 As the multiple roles played by Sudan’s bodies of armed men for the ruling classes of the Gulf demonstrates, it is not just the global imperialist powers that prop up the repressive apparatuses of weaker states, but also regional sub-imperial powers.38

None of this is news to revolutionary activists in Sudan and Algeria today. In Algeria, a critique of the army and DRS as constituent parts of the regime, embedded in what activists describe as a rapacious, and often criminal oligarchy, can be heard in chants and placards on demonstrations. In Sudan, the leaders of the protest movement have made the question of how to contain the power of the military and security forces central to negotiations with the same generals who head these bodies. Yet if Lenin was right that the military and security forces’ service to the old regimes is not an aberration, but actually an expression of their role as guarantors of class power, the question remains, can the uprisings create a “civil state” without also taking on the ruling class as a whole?

Reformism and revolution: Faust’s bargain with the devil

This illustrates neatly that one of the paradoxes of revolution is that it opens up the prospect of “real” reforms in societies where the space for any incremental or gradual improvement to the system was practically non-existent. Once intermediate goals have been achieved—the old dictator bundled off to exile or house arrest—tension becomes more acute between those for whom the masses are something of a stage army, to be mobilised and demobilised to wring concessions out of those in power, and those for whom revolution means an authentic process of self-liberation from below and who are not prepared to stop within the confines of the existing constitution, the existing state structures, or even the existing economic system.

In Algeria, the issue of elections has been dominated by the question of whether the regime can contain and ultimately diffuse the pressure from below within the bounds of the existing constitution, through the mechanism of electing a new head of state on 4 July, thus meeting the constitutional requirement of a 90-day transition period following the departure of Bouteflika. The ­continuation of mass protests and strikes rejecting the presidential elections has signalled the problems for the regime in continuing down this route. Pressure from below is also forcing its way into the higher reaches of the state machine: with thousands of magistrates refusing to supervise the polls.39 On 2 June, with only two unknown candidates having registered for the vote, the Constitutional Council announced the cancellation of the 4 July elections.40

Sudanese opposition forces have also demanded no elections until after a lengthy transitional period (4 years, according to the Declaration of Freedom and Change), in order to have time to dismantle the former ruling party’s networks throughout the state and wider society.41 Unlike in Algeria, however, this strategy has gone hand-in-hand with an attempt to create new state structures from the top down through negotiations with the TMC. This does not mean that the Sudanese Professionals Association and the other opposition forces closest to the mass movement see no role for self-activity from below in the process of transition. The SPA, for example, proposed that representatives of local revolutionary committees, which have played a key role in mobilising protests, should form a third of members of the transitional legislature.42 Yet the fact remains that the very strategy of negotiations and the wrangle over the balance between civil and military membership of the institutions at the top of the state is predicated on the idea that El Bashir’s old generals (and their armed men) can be tamed through dialogue. In the wake of the brutal crackdown on the movement in the streets after 3 June, those pushing for more negotiations with the TMC will find it more difficult to justify this ­assumption. Yet there will be huge pressure on those leading the uprising to “get back around the negotiating table”, not least from international actors, whether regional or global powers.

It is important to stress here as well that the uneven nature of “revolution time” complicates the picture further. Among workers, the poor and the oppressed, there can be gigantic leaps in self-confidence and self-organisation in short periods. But not everyone reaches the same conclusions at the same speed. Revolutions are processes of self-liberation for ordinary people; their direct experience of struggle to change the world is the best and quickest teacher. Even in the midst of revolutions, it is necessary to make a sober assessment of whether participation in flawed elections is better than a boycott, in order to gain time to win wider layers of the population to revolutionary goals.

The experience of the revolutionary wave in 2011-13, and the close alignment between the forces of counter-revolution in Sudan with the regimes in Egypt and the Gulf underscores, however, that whatever the twists and turns in the drama of revolution, the outcome of reformist strategies is unlikely to result in the creation of a stable democratic regime. Instead it will more likely turn out to be a tragic version of Faust’s bargain with the devil. Rather than securing immortality, negotiation and compromise with the military risk allowing the forces of counter-revolution and reaction a breathing space in order to reorganise themselves before a devastating counter-attack; one that undoes all the political and social reforms conceded in the heat of revolution in an orgy of repression aimed at the destruction of all forms of organised opposition.

A further point is necessary here. These outcomes are not determined by the specific ideological character of the reformists involved. For the left, the Chilean socialist Salvador Allende is a much more attractive version of Faust than the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi, who played an ill-fated role as Egypt’s first—and so far only—democratically elected president before being overthrown by the military in 2013. Yet in the drama of counter-revolution in Chile in 1970-3 and Egypt in 2011-13 they played analogous roles, even down to the detail of appointing the minister of defence and army chief who would overthrow them and drown the mass movement in blood.

Organising for the offensive against the state

The activists building the mass movements in Sudan and Algeria know who they are fighting. The violence of the state has been written into popular memory through the experience of the “Black Decade” following the military coup in 1992 and El Bashir’s genocidal wars. This makes the development of movements that prioritise non-violent forms of mass mobilisation over a strategy determined by an armed elite all the more remarkable and hopeful. They have already activated movements at a scale not seen in their societies for generations (helped by the effective use of social media as a mobilising platform), which have unleashed a dynamic of reciprocal action between economic and political struggles to shake the state. They are showing us all the potential of the political general strike, of street assemblies, student gatherings, resistance committees and mass meetings of strikers as tools to change the world.

Yet, if the arguments that Lenin put forward are right, they cannot stop there if they want to win. Unless the state fractures further and, in particular, unless the cohesion of the “special bodies of armed men” begins to break down, the revolutionary process may quickly go into reverse. This danger is particularly visible in Sudan, following the cycle of events at the end of May and beginning of June, which saw both a revolutionary general strike on 28 and 29 May and the first major counter-revolutionary offensive by Hemedti’s RSF militia.

It is crucial to draw the right lessons from this period. Across the country, workers in the public sector, banks, factories, ports and airport answered the call to join the strike. In the case of public sector workers, they openly defied a threat by General Hemedti to dismiss them for taking part; many brought signs to the picket lines reading “Come on and sack me!”43 From the ­cohesion, discipline and defiance of the strikers arises the vision of a society torn between two poles of attraction: the power of the existing state and the organised counter-power of the great popular movement that has risen against it. The second pole still lacks definition, and it urgently needs to create forms of leadership and self-organisation capable of organising effectively for an offensive against the state.

Drawing on the experience of the past, we can say that there are two shifts in the balance of forces on the revolutionary side that must take place. First, the strategy and tactics for the general strike have to be under the democratic control of the people who are taking action, through coordination between delegates representing striking workplaces and sectors and not used as bargaining chips in order to force open the doors of negotiations (or to strengthen the negotiators’ hands). Secondly, the revolutionary movement needs to embrace “the mass of the people, their majority, the very lowest social groups, crushed by oppression and exploitation” (as Lenin put it), to allow them to rise independently and “stamp…on the entire course of the revolution the imprint of their own demands, their attempt to build in their own way a new society in place of the old society that was being destroyed”.44 As Magdi el-Gizouli notes, the constitution of the SPA by highly-skilled public sector employees meant that at least during the earlier phases in the uprising, the poorest sections of Sudanese society were not the driving force behind the protest movement.45 As the revolution hangs in the balance, it is precisely the vast majority of Sudan’s people—those who have nothing to lose and nowhere to go—who need to drive it forward against the generals and their state.

The most effective mechanism for ensuring democratic control from below over the strategy and tactics of the general strike is through the formation of workers’ councils. The crux of Lenin’s argument in The State and Revolution was that this form of revolutionary self-government was not only the most effective weapon for smashing the existing state, but also could form the embryo of a different kind of state altogether. By creating a direct connection with the base of the strike movement through the principle of subjecting delegates to recall, workers’ councils give millions of strikers real power over their leaders, and an experience of self-organisation that can quickly “grow over” into self-government.46

Finding a form of organisation which has the ability to combine decisions and action is also crucial in the heat of a revolutionary crisis. A workers’ council can ensure that electricity keeps flowing to the hospital and ordinary people’s homes, while turning off the lights in the presidential palace and the army barracks—provided the electricity workers are represented in its ranks. It can ensure that bread gets baked and transport bringing in essential food supplies is exempt from the strike. Workers’ councils have done all these things in the past (without the help of mobile phones or social media to communicate between delegates and their workplaces). One of the weapons that regimes always deploy as soon as their grip on power weakens is to sow the seeds of fear of chaos and the breakdown of society.47

In the context of Sudan today, the last point is crucial. Workers’ councils in Sudan would give substance to the declaration by the SPA and Freedom and Change Forces that the revolutionary movement is a real counter-power to the state, one capable of running society without the generals. More than that, they would point the way towards the creation of a different kind of state altogether; a workers’ state dedicated to preventing the restoration of capitalist power and paving the way for a socialist society.

Let’s return to Marx’s point about the Paris Commune: “The next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another, but to smash it [Marx’s italics—the original is zerbrechen], and this is the precondition for every real people’s revolution on the continent”.48

What would “smashing the state” mean in Sudan and Algeria today? The old regime’s mouthpieces invoke the spectre of anarchy in order to assert their claim to power. Yet breaking the state by means of a mass political strike, with the democracy of a workers’ council at the heart and head of it, is not a replacement of order with chaos, but the institution of a new kind of order. Essentially it is the fracturing of the state horizontally, not vertically, with the people in the bottom layers of state institutions—the people who make the state function—­voluntarily and democratically withdrawing their allegiance from it and beginning to forge alternative institutions of their own.

In its early stages this process would be interwoven with the process of “tathir” (cleansing) of state institutions from the bottom up as employees across the public sector organise themselves to kick out their old bosses and subject the delivery of services to democratic control from below. In Egypt during 2011 the struggle for tathir from below played a crucial role in paralysing the state apparatus. It bogged down the generals and their cronies for months in skirmishes that sapped their ability to strike back at the movement on the streets.49 A revolutionary strategy which incorporates the struggle for tathir as one of its basic modes of action has nothing in common, however, with reformist efforts to conquer the state from within, as outlined theoretically in the work of writers such as Nicos Poulantzas, and attempted in practice by Syriza in Greece.50

The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt also underlines the futility of simply changing a few ministers at the top. Counter-revolutionary resistance from within the state apparatus has to be smashed from below and from outside simultaneously. The precondition for the success of tathir is not the creation of a void at the top of the state apparatus, which can be filled by a new layer of “better” bureaucrats who are more in touch with “the people”. It is the development of alternative organs of revolutionary government in the form of workers’ councils, which express the political will of the people at the bottom of the state, alongside other sections of the working class and its allies among the exploited and oppressed.

Finally, the process of breaking the state has to extend to the military itself, breaking the rank-and-file soldiers from their superior officers and persuading them to take sides with their brothers and sisters in the streets and workplaces. Once again, the development of workers’ councils as an organised counter-power to the existing state is crucial. Only the horizontal fracturing of the “special bodies of armed men” and the emergence of revolutionary institutions of self-government which can win the political allegiance of the rank-and-file soldiers will guard against a repetition of the fate of the Syrian and Libyan revolutions. In Syria, large sections of the rank-and-file did break their allegiance to the state, but the inability of the revolutionary movement to paralyse the heart of the state apparatus through mass strikes in the capital meant that their armed struggle became a series of localised revolts and was unable to make a decisive breakthrough.51 In Libya, the army split vertically, but combined with the disastrous impact of imperialist intervention by NATO, this accelerated the degeneration of popular revolution into civil war.

Thus we can see that when Lenin talks about the need for a “real people’s revolution”, in a sense he reverses Marx: the real people’s revolution becomes also a precondition for smashing the state. Why? Because only a people’s revolution in the sense that Marx and Lenin meant it (that is to say one with the organised working class at its heart) has both the masses and the democratic organisation to take on and break the capitalist state.

“Revolution is the choice of the people”

Who are “the people” in Lenin’s formulation? This is not “the people” as imagined by liberals and Western diplomats, who wait mutely in line to cast their votes for minor alterations in the terms of their exploitation every five years or so. This is a vision of the people with the organised working class as its strategic core, the spinal column around which the wider layers of the dispossessed, the marginalised and oppressed cohere.

Yet, as Mostafa Bassiouny and I noted back in 2014: “From the earliest hours of the Egyptian Revolution a question was waiting to be asked: would the people remake the state in their image, or would the state remake the people?”52 That is why, if revolution is really to become the choice of the people, an organisation of revolutionaries is necessary to steer the struggle to its conclusion. “Revolution time” is uneven—the struggle can take an enormous leap either forward or backward in the space of a few hours. A relatively tightly-knit, centralised organisation of revolutionaries which has already discussed and agreed on the need to break the state is much more likely to be able to seize opportunities as they arise, and provide clear leadership for the mass movement at moments of crisis when reformist forces are in the throes of compromise or collapse in the face of an offensive by the ruling class. It should go without saying that this narrow form of organisation is not a substitute for the mass organisations of the working class and the poor that are the engine of the revolutionary movement.

We also know all too well why an organisation of revolutionaries which is utterly uncompromising on questions of oppression is essential. The counter-revolution works its way into any and all the cracks and fissures in the unity of its opponents, turning the oppressed against each other, or the majority of the exploited against the oppressed. This issue has an international dimension too. The very generals who offer ordinary people’s sons as cannon-fodder for wars abroad, or accept cash and arms from other states, will whip up a frenzy of ­suspicion against “foreign hands” and “external intervention”.

Finally, there is another sense in which a revolutionary party is vital: it provides a means to take all the concentrated learning and experience which ordinary people cram into “revolution time” about their capacity to remake society—their sense of their own power and beauty and purpose which our rulers are desperate to destroy—and preserve it for the next time so that others can learn from it too. This is not an act of memorialisation or an exercise in nostalgia, but a way in which we can build on the sacrifices and struggles of those who fought before us and turn the defeats from the past into victories for the future.

Anne Alexander is 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 magazine and a member of the University and College Union.


1 This article could not have been written without many hours of discussion with activists deeply involved in revolutionary and opposition movements in Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Security concerns mean I cannot thank the comrades by name who have given their time to help me understand better some of the questions addressed here, but my debt to them remains incalculable. Any errors or omissions of course remain my own. Thanks also to Selma Oumari, Jad Bouharoun, Charlie Kimber and Alex Callinicos for comments on the draft.

2 Luxemburg, 1964.

3 Forces of Declaration and Freedom and Change, 2019.

4 Del Panta, 2017.

5 Luxemburg, 1964, p39.

6 Trotsky, 1931; Trotsky, 1992.

7 Hamouchene and Pérez, 2016, Schwartzstein, 2019, Hamouchene, 2019a.

8 Lenin, 1909; Crouch, 2006.

9 Walsh, 2019.

10 TSA, 2019.

11 Abdelgalil, 2019.

12 Abbas, 2019.

13 Oumari, 2019.

14 HuffPost Algérie, 2019.

15 Forces of Declaration and Freedom and Change, 2019.

16 Sudanese Communist Party, 2017, Sudanese Professionals Association, 2019a.

17 Lijan al-muqawama Port Sudan on Facebook:

18 Chikhi, 2019.

19 Kebir, 2018.

20 Hamouchene, 2019b.

21 Boutayeb, 2019.

22 Boutayeb, 2019.

23 Alexander, 2019.

24 Naguib, 2011; Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014.

25 Alexander, 2011.

26 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014.

27 Sudanese Professionals Association, 2019b.

28 Scharf and Bak, 2019.

29 Lenin, 1917.

30 Lenin, 1917.

31 Tlemçani, 2017.

32 BBC News, 2019.

33 Human Rights Watch, 2015; Radio Dabanga, 2019. The Rapid Support Forces are an evolution of the Janjaweed militias mobilised by the Sudanese government in order to rape and kill people in Darfur a decade and a half ago. Hemedti was a Janjaweed leader and then an advisor to the regional government in Darfur and the RSF have continued to use similar methods to the Janjaweed in their violent crackdown on the uprising—Tubiana, 2019.

34 Tlemçani, 2014.

35 ICG, 2019.

36 Soliman, 2019.

37 Tubiana, Warin and Saeneen, 2018.

38 Alexander, 2018.

39 AfricaNews, 2019.

40 Djama, 2019.

41 Forces of Declaration and Freedom and Change, 2019.

42 Sudanese Professionals Association, 2019c.

43 MENA Solidarity, 2019.

44 Lenin, 1917.

45 El-Gizouli, 2019a; El-Gizouli, 2019b.

46 Trotsky, 1931b.

47 Molyneux, 2017, pp102-111.

48 Lenin, 1917.

49 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, pp284-318.

50 Molyneux, 2017, pp141-146.

51 Alexander and Bouharoun, 2016.

52 Alexander and Bassiouny, 2014, p321.


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