02 May Talking About Revolution
To discuss the extraordinary events in Sudan and Algeria that have shaken these countries – and the continent – to the core in recent months, roape.net has asked some of our contributors to debate the significance and meaning of these revolutions. Both countries are confronted by a challenge: are the movements pacified in the interests of the local and global ruling classes or do the revolutionary movements successfully take-on and overturn these deep-rooted and brutal states. The contributions below look at the challenges faced by these revolutions and the possibilities of creating lasting and fundamental transformation.
Revolution and counter-revolution in Algeria
By Tin Hinane El Kadi
The counter-revolution in Algeria is well on its way. Under mass popular pressure, the army has decided to sacrifice former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to keep the regime alive. Bouteflika’s removal on 2 April represents a significant victory for the popular movement, yet it falls short from fulfilling the people’s central demand of radical regime change. In New York in 1917, while large numbers of Russian migrants in New York celebrated the fall of the Tsar, Leon Trotsky and a few radicals around him, remained skeptical. Genuine transformation in people’s lives was still far away. In Algeria today, the challenge of profound change is elusive.
The regime insists on the need for Algeria to remain in a situation of constitutional legality to avoid ‘state collapse.’ In its attempt to survive, the army, which has historically been a core centre of power, has favoured activating article 102 of the constitution which posits that in case of the president’s incapacity to rule, or in case he resigns, the head of the Senate becomes the head of state for a period of 90 days to organize elections. As such, the regime has announced that presidential elections will take place on 4 July this year. By remaining within the constitutional framework, the regime sacrifices a few figures, but largely maintains power.
The constitutional solutions suggested by the army, headed by General Gaid Saleh, does not seem to satisfy Algerians who have remained mobilized in their millions demanding a complete rupture with the old system. The emblematic slogan of ‘Yetnahaw ga3’ (all of them will be removed) resonates in the streets as strongly as ever. Algerians seem to have learned from their past, and the experiences of neighboring countries and are determined to continue the struggle until meaningful change is achieved. Change that would positively transform the lives of the people who made the revolutionary movement possible.
On the other hand, since Bouteflika stepped down the regime has shown an increased willingness to repress the mobilization. The peaceful demonstrations of 12 April were ruthlessly repressed by the police causing the tragic death of Ramzi Yettou, a 23-year-old protestor. Recent student protests were marked by police brutality and excessive use of tea-gas. Political activists and human rights lawyers have been arbitrarily arrested for several hours in an attempt to intimidate them. The message from the regime is clear: ‘We have removed Bouteflika, and promised the organization of elections scheduled soon, so now go home.’
While the people’s level of political consciousness and capacity to gather in spectacular numbers is reassuring, the lack of structures able to represent the movement pauses a severe threat for the success of the revolution. Parties, trade unions, local NGOs and associations have for the most part been repressed or co-opted during Bouteflika’s years in power, creating a vacuum in representation. In Tunisia the Tunisian General Labour Union played a crucial role in the transition and in Sudan, the Sudanese Professional Association is currently emerging as a leading force, structuring the movement. However, in Algeria, the movement has so far remained unrepresented. The absence of an organization with the capacity to define the movement’s demands and bargain on its behalf puts the revolutionary movement at high risk. Until some structure emerges, let us hope that this historical mobilization persists and achieves real popular sovereignty, social justice and emancipation.
Tin Hinane El Kadi is a member of Le Collectif des Jeunes Engagés (The Collective of Young Algerian Activists), an Algerian organisation advocating political change and youth involvement in public affairs. Her detailed analysis of Algeria’s revolution on roape.net is here.
Mass protests and strikes in Sudan (and across the continent)
By Lee Wengraf
The revolutionary movement in Sudan has re-ignited hopes and aspirations for the Arab Spring and struggles from below across the African continent. Suffering under three decades of repression and austerity, the imposition of fuel and bread price hikes in December was a bridge too far. Mass protests and strikes had been gathering strength since early 2018, and over the past five months exploded across Sudanese society – beginning outside the capital, then spreading to Khartoum – bringing down the hated President Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019.
With the Sudanese Professional Association and other unions and civil society organizations at the helm, mobilizations have been sustained and organized. The umbrella coalition have issued nine demands under the banner of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, including complete civilian rule, demands backed up with a powerful show of force on the streets. Centered on the Ministry of Defense, Reem Abbas describes the occupation begun in early April in the lead-up to Bashir’s overthrow: ‘In the next few days, the sit-in turned into a republic of its own. Demonstrators set up a tent dispensing food and drinks, as well as other tents to shelter people from the scorching sun during the day and act as makeshift rooms at night. Families would arrive with food, and so would trucks loaded with goods. The sit-in turned into a revolutionary carnival as people chanted, sang revolutionary songs, and held discussions…. By the third day of the sit-in, it was evident that a significant number of junior army officers were siding with the people’. The ongoing sit-in has held fast even as Bashir and his successor, Lt. General Awad Ibn Auf have fallen, and the area has emerged as a key revolutionary space not unlike Tahrir Square in Cairo or Taksim Square in Istanbul, with the resiliency of the mass sit-in drawing out millions on April 25.
Despite the determination of the resistance, their demands are running up against the intransigence of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the entrenched military infrastructure. Decades of military rule have conferred them massive social and economic power, including significant control over the government budget. Needless to say, the stakes for the military leadership and its state apparatus are high.
Likewise, the TMC has regional allies on its side. The Saudi and United Arab Emirates regimes have offered their support in the form of a $3 billion aid package, to include a $500 million deposit into the Sudanese central bank, a move rejected by protesters as shoring up the military regime. Meanwhile, the African Union (AU) has eased the pressure on the TMC for an immediate handover to a civilian government, granting an extension of three months. Headed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, AU objectives reflect the urgency for stability on the part of the region’s ruling classes and fears of the spread of the uprsing, not least among them Sisi’s concerns of revolution on the southern border and the overthrow of longstanding Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to their west.
The precariousness of the Sudanese economy dependent on oil only reinforces the political will of the local and international ruling classes reliant on its extraction. The economic crisis underpinning the revolution is an expression, to an important extent, of the deep contradictions of the secession agreement of 2011 between Sudan and South Sudan.
Today’s uprising must be seen in that context and its ongoing reverberations, not least of which are a drastic revenue shortage resulting from the ongoing South Sudanese civil war and the shortfall of oil passing through Sudanese pipeline. Since the 2011 secession, Khartoum set about to repair relations with the United States and the Gulf States, meaning a wider network of states now have an interest in its political stability, including reliable oil production. Whether that ‘stability’ resolves itself in the interests of the local and global ruling classes or the revolutionary movement hangs in the balance, and necessarily rests on the ability of the revolution to successfully confront and uproot the entrenched military state.
The millions of ordinary Sudanese taking to the streets and staying off the job have wide support across the globe. On the African continent, the potential for far-reaching solidarity lies in the upheavals from Algeria to Zimbabwe – where a three-day general strike shut down the country in January – to Nigeria, home to strikes by educators and healthcare workers over the past year, much like Sudan. South Africa, over the past month, has likewise seen a renewed explosion of service delivery protests. At this moment, the TMC has pushed back against the sit-in, declaring that the roadblocks will be cleared. Protesters have rejected this call as the military attempts to up the ante. The vital importance of the Sudanese revolution – its overthrow of Bashir’s chokehold and economic immiseration – offers hope for those in struggle everywhere.
Lee Wengraf writes on Africa for the International Socialist Review, Counterpunch, Pambazuka News and AllAfrica.com. Her new Extracting Profit: Neoliberalism, Imperialism and the New Scramble for Africa was published last year. Lee is a regular contributor to roape.net.
The Inspiration of Young African Revolts
By Heike Becker
That iconic picture from Sudan – twenty-two year old architecture student Alaa Saleh, clad in bright white, standing atop a car and leading protests against al-Bashir’s thirty-year authoritarian rule – has come to symbolise the uprising that forced the Sudanese president’s resignation, and now embodying the hope inspired by the continuous protests and sit-ins of young activists who have been on the streets of Sudanese cities and towns since the protests began in December 2018, initially focused on the steep rises of food prices. Was this a classic ‘bread riot’, or was there more than that from the start?
With young Africans, and students and young professionals at the forefront this was bound to be more than just about the price of everyday living. This wasn’t the first time either that young Africans have taken to the streets in the 21st century. Everywhere they have come out with their anger and their hope – carrying with them their phones, their posts and tweets and cell phone videos, their blogs and music and creative energy. In Sudan and Algeria, like a few years ago in Burkina Faso and Senegal, young people-led revolts have challenged old men in power.
In the southern parts of the continent too a young generation has taken to the streets – from the much publicised ‘Everything-must-fall’ movements in South Africa (the title of Rehad Desai’s thought-provoking documentary about the 2015-16 student protests at Wits University in Johannesburg) to Zimbabwe’s new social movements, through to Namibia where activists of an inspiring radical movement address each other as ‘young friends’ rather than as ‘comrades’.
The specific demands may differ in different postcolonial circumstances, but everywhere young Africans are deeply angry at the postcolonial condition and austerity, at unreformed global racism and corrupt, authoritarian postcolonial elites; they share a great desire for democracy and social justice. In the 21st century young Africans with their smartphones and their music, arguably, have been at the forefront of alternative global movements from the south.
I teach in Cape Town at the University of the Western Cape, once known as the ‘intellectual home of the left’. In the 1980s the massive popular uprising of the anti-apartheid struggle, led by a generation of students and youth, surged with hopes and aspirations for a free South Africa. For the past ten weeks I have been teaching an energetic class of postgraduate students. We have been delving into the extraordinary connections of thought and activism between the Caribbean and the African continent. Thirteen of the fifteen in the class are young women of Alaa Saleh’s age; they hail from South Africa, from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Tanzania, and Gabon. We have had spirited discussions about global racism, social inequality and decolonisation. Students have raised strident questions about how the critical scholarship they are engaged in is connected to activism and the city’s townships, to Cape Town’s water crisis, the devastations wrought by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, the ever-present spectre of violence that haunts life in Southern Africa, and the spaces black women negotiate on the volatile urban periphery.
The popular uprisings in Sudan and Algeria are arguably not about a trip back to revolutionary Russia in 1917, or even to ‘Global 1968’. Inspiring as they are, the involvement and political language of young activists point to another future, and contain an urgent sense of crisis. More than being just a revolt against the intertwined perils of authoritarianism, neoliberalism and global apartheid, they claim life and the future. My students, like the protesters in Sudan and Algeria, like the increasingly militant extinction rebellion protests around the globe, are part of a new generation that are leading global activism for their future, for democracy, social equality and the end of racism and global apartheid, for the future of our species and others, the future of the planet and for life worth living. For all of us.
Heike Becker teaches social and cultural anthropology at the University of the Western Cape. She writes about the interface of culture and politics, with special attention to the politics of memory, popular culture and social movements of resistance in southern Africa (South Africa and Namibia)
Mastering its own contradictions: Sudan’s revolutionary praxis
By Magdi El Gizouli
The anonymous script writer of Sudan’s official television station is yet to identify a suitable epithet to describe Sudan’s former president Bashir. The neutral choice of ‘former’ president was often used in the first days after the 11 April coup orchestrated by Bashir’s generals, the very men who had constituted the so called ‘security committee’, now rebranded the ‘transitional military council’. When he read the coup declaration, Bashir’s defence minister, Lieutenant General Awad ibn Ouf, referred to the unseated dictator as the head of the former regime.
It took another week or so for the script writer to muster the vocabulary of change. Instead of former president, Bashir was referred to as the ‘ousted’ president and the ‘deposed’ head of state, while the protesters received the official designation of ‘revolutionaries’. The first post-Bashir televised propaganda song was a celebratory ballad of Sudanese machismo performed by a gona (urban Sudanese slang for an attractive mature female performer) accompanied by three female hijab-free dancers in bridal dress and a-preadolescent male child in a jellabiya, the traditional attire of Sudanese men.
The perplexity of the script writer is understandable. The protest movement that began in December 2018 coalesced into a broad coalition of the salaried urban classes and attracted into its orbit broad segments of the pauperised urban workforce burdened by the lift of bread and fuel subsidies. Thousands upon thousands of people assembled in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum on 6 April calling for the army leadership to step in and eliminate the regime of president Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
The surgical removal of Bashir and grafting of Ibn Ouf energised the protesters rather than satisfied them. The Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), so far, the spearhead of the protest movement and its trusted voice, called upon the masses to hold their ground until the SPA’s basic demand of the transfer of power to a transitional government of civilian composition was achieved. Within less than 48 hours Ibn Ouf appeared again on state television, this time to announce that he was stepping down as head of the transitional military council. Ibn Ouf named Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan as his successor, another army general with no known past record of association with the Islamic Movement.
Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (aka Himeidti), the leader of the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) emerged as the deputy chairman of the transitional military council and the critical agent of ‘change’ at the top. In times of crisis memories can be notoriously short. Himeidti’s militia gained its reputation as a brutally efficient counter-insurgency force in Sudan’s peripheral war zones, foremost in Darfur, on commission of Sudan’s military leaders. Back in 2013, the same forces proved their loyalty by crushing a wave of anti-government protests in Khartoum claiming the lives of over a hundred civilians in the process. Beyond Khartoum though, Himeidti’s forces were soon entangled in global security machinations as a privatised army, on commission to the EU to guard its borders against African migrants by whatever means it wishes in the blind silence of the African Sahara and by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to carry out their war against Yemen. With Brussels, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as happy paying customers, Himeidti was also no longer in need of the bankrupt autocrat in Khartoum.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia and the UAE announced their unconditional support for the transitional military council with a pay cheque of a US$3 bn loan to equip Khartoum’s new-old rulers. The junta emerged in the alliance of counter-revolutionary forces in the region and was rewarded almost immediately with generous political support and funding but it could not wish away the explosion of popular politics at its doorstep.
The protesters who had creatively woven in elements of Sudan’s experience of popular uprising in 1964 and 1985 as well as the 2011 Egyptian revolution in their own praxis remained healthily suspicious of the junta’s moves. The massive protest in front of the army headquarters became a new city as it were, where mostly young women and men live out their identities as free citizens acting in solidarity. For much of Sudan’s population it became a site of pilgrimage and catharsis. Hierarchies were temporarily suspended, and an equality founded in the unity of purpose prevailed.
Egypt’s activist, Alaa Abd al-Fattah, published a few days ago a reluctant piece of advice to protesters in Sudan and Algeria. He asked difficult questions about the lasting power of protest, negotiations with the successors of the ousted president and the state bureaucracy, relations with established political forces and the trappings of the vocabulary of nationalism and patriotism. The fate of Sudan’s protest movement in its confrontation with the forces of reaction assembled to extinguish its flare is in part contingent on its ability to productively master its own contradictions and to imagine a new politics that factors in Alaa’s questions and deliver a cogent response from the actuality of praxis.
The most pressing of these questions I presume is the absent response to the challenge of the Bonapartist figure of Himeidti. Pilgrims to the qiada (Arabic for headquarters) cannot miss the propaganda banners raised up high praising the militia leader for siding with the people. For now, the SPA and its allies have chosen to actively ignore this glaring contradiction of an urbanite popular movement for ‘freedom, peace and justice’ safeguarded by a brutal privatised army that emerged out of the subsistence crisis of Sudan’s pastoral zones.
Featured Photograph: protest in central Algiers earlier this year (Tin Hinane El Kadi).