By Anne Alexander
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All power to Sudan’s resistance committees?

This article is over 1 years, 10 months old
In Sudan’s revolution over 5,000 resistance committees mobilise opposition to the generals and step in to meet people’s everyday needs. Anne Alexander asks if the grassroots bodies could become alternative organs of political power to the present capitalist state
A group of women with flags and banners on a solidarity protest with Sudan

A protest in solidarity with the Sudanese revolution in Oxford last year (Picture: (Picture: Hala Kheir)

  • Read in Arabic here

Sudan’s “endless revolution” largely dropped off the front pages of much of the world’s media in the final weeks of 2021. The protests ebbed and flowed, drenched in tear gas and harassed by the security forces. But the crisis at the heart of the state deepened. 

The generals, who so confidently disposed of their civilian “partners” in the Transitional Government through the coup of 25 October, found themselves unable to calm the streets. 

Deposed prime minister Abdalla Hamdok negotiated his way back out of house arrest by agreeing to most of the military’s demands on 21 November. The deal was backed by Western governments and the counter-revolutionary quartet of regional powers—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Israel. But it was widely decried—and, in a victory for protest, he finally resigned on 2 January. 

Yet the civilian opposition groups gathered in the Forces of Freedom and Change have so far been unable to strike a decisive blow against the military. Their participation in the Transitional Government and previous compromises with the generals have cost them much of their influence in the streets. 

The same could be said of the Sudanese Professionals Association. It played an important role in the 2019 uprising against dictator Omar El Bashir, but split into two factions and has been tarnished by the failures of the Transitional Government that its leaders helped to create.  

Into this gap, the power of a new political force is growing— the neighbourhood-based resistance committees. They continue to call out hundreds of thousands onto the streets to challenge the coup, mobilising for days of civil disobedience, strikes and major street protests. Organised through district-wide “coordinations”—tansiqiyyat in Arabic—the committees now command a formidable machinery of collective action. 

Grassroots organisation has come a long way since the first gatherings of desperate people in December 2018 shouting for bread and cooking gas on street corners. Their Facebook pages count “likes” in the tens of thousands, they have their own media teams and press officers. Their networks gather intelligence on the location of the police and adjust the location of barricades or the route of marches. 

This is not simply a product of revolutionary activity in the capital Khartoum. A report by the Carter Center, based on a large-scale survey carried out in March 2021 mapped 5,289 Resistance Committees across Sudan. The researchers found committees were a nation-wide phenomenon (see table below).

Resistance committees have intervened to oversee the supply of flour to bakeries and the distribution of bread and cooking gas. At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic some sent out teams of activists to spread public health messages and distribute face masks and sanitiser. 

In many areas there is a formal division of labour between the neighbourhood political leadership in the Resistance Committee and a Change and Services Committee. This body brings together revolutionary activists working specifically on improving the delivery of services. Often this division of labour reflects a generational divide, with younger activists leading the resistance committee. 

Then there is the political education and movement-building work in the background. It draws in different generations of people to discuss and debate slogans, tactics and strategy at local level. 

In some cases, resistance committees have grown over from bootstrapped organisation on protests into democratic mass movement. They have elected general assemblies and executive committees, and delegates representing the neighbourhood on the local coordination. 

In the months before the military coup, resistance committees in the capital city, Gadaref, Port Sudan and other major centres went through a process of “basic construction”. This process—al-bina’a al-qa’idi in Arabic—involved refreshing or setting up internal structures on a more democratic basis through convening general assemblies and electing leadership bodies. 

Some unions and workplace-based networks of activists, including university teachers, pharmacists and media workers, were reported to be undergoing similar processes. 

According to activist Khalid al-Sheikh’s Facebook, resistance committees in Khartoum Bahri district launched a campaign of basic construction following the failed coup attempt on 21 September 2021. The committees in Um Duwwan Ban, a small town 40 kilometres south of Khartoum, declared basic construction was the “real coup” against the military’s “state of the ghouls”. 

The photos accompanying Khalid’s report provide a glimpse of the scope of the discussions taking place in the first few weeks of October. Some are of the young men and women, on the frontlines of the protests, in a discussion circle. Middle-aged women pack out one meeting in their colourful headscarves, and workers in overalls and plastic sandals are engaged in earnest debate under the tin roof of a workshop or garage in others. 

Within a few weeks of the coup the resistance committees would take another leap forward, announcing that they were preparing their first political programme. Its ambition and scope were made clear in a media report by Ayin network on 8 December. Sami Muhammad Abd-al-Halim, official spokesperson for the Coordinations of Resistance Committees in Khartoum told the website that the programme would address “the economy, reform of the military and security apparatus, national borders and foreign relations and living conditions”.

Taking advantage of the political space created by their defiance in the streets, thousands across the country are engaged in debates about the topics outlined by Abd-al-Halim.

Province  Number of resistance committees
Blue Nile  338
South and West Kordofan  199
Eastern Sudan 705
Greater Darfur 809
White Nile and Greater Kordofan 601
Central Sudan  1,173
North Sudan  650
Khartoum  814
Total  5,289

Questions about the role of the state in matters of everyday survival takes on greater urgency in working class and poor areas. 

Sudanese activists tell me that proposals to use the resistance committees’ programme to advance more radical demands for economic and social justice are gaining support in poor neighbourhoods while the more affluent areas have tended to privilege questions of political reform. “All power and wealth to the people” has become a popular slogan of the protests, but there is a constant pressure to drop the second part of the demand and concentrate on the first. 

There is also a missing connection to the revolutionary movement in the workplaces. The neighbourhood-based committees do not seem to have included workplace delegates formally in their structures. Instead, they have worked alongside independent unions and workplace resistance committees, which have also mobilised against the military. 

In general, mobilisations in workplaces have been weaker during the wave of protest since October 2021 than in 2019. This may reflect the political choices of the major activist bodies. They have concentrated on street protests and civil disobedience rather than the general strikes which proved highly effective in 2019. 

The scale of repression directed at workplace activists in the early phases of the coup has probably also taken its toll. For example, the military arrested hundreds of activists in the Sudanese Teachers’ Committee and workers in the education ministry in one of these crackdowns last November. 

There are recent signs that both economic and political struggles in the workplaces are accelerating again. Court workers across Sudan announced a four-day strike beginning on 2 January over a series of demands including higher wages and cost-of-living allowances.

According to the Sudanese Alliance for the Restoration of Trade Unions’ Facebook page, strike committees in almost every province are reporting participation levels from 60 to 100 percent. Pictures of the mass meetings show the strikers are largely women workers at the bottom of the pile. 

Bank workers have also built a mass movement spanning multiple workplaces, demanding a democratic transformation. This isn’t significant just because of the potential for disruption. The old ruling alliance between the Islamist movement and the military was rooted in the rise of a new layer of capitalists in the 1980s, enriched by the expansion of the financial sector. 

The uneven growth of the revolutionary movement between the neighbourhoods and workplaces points to a difficult road ahead. Time will remain on the side of the generals and the ghouls unless new forms of revolutionary organisation emerge. Forms of revolutionary organisation which harness workers’ strategic power to disrupt production, distribution and services and direct it at the repressive core of the state. 

This power must be the politically conscious, self-aware power of the ordinary people whose labour makes the world work. It cannot simply be an instrument in the hands of “civilian” politicians that they use to negotiate their way back into the corridors of power. It must make itself through its own efforts to change the world. 

This would raise questions about “dual power”—an idea that goes back to the Russian Revolution. In February 1917, the revolution toppled the old Tsarist dictatorship. It brought to power a Provisional Government of liberals and “moderate” socialists, who aimed to turn Russia into a parliamentary democracy and modern capitalist state. 

But at the same time the working class had set up its own democratic organisations—workers councils, known as “soviets”—in the course of the struggle. 

The revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin identified it as a situation of “dual power” with the “existence of two governments”. His key argument was that the councils of workers and soldiers already constituted an alternative locus of state power to the liberal Provisional Government. In April 1917 Lenin launched the slogan, “Peace, bread, land”—and argued that this could only be met with “All power to the soviets.” 

Leon Trotsky, who had been the first to identify the soviets’ revolutionary role in the wake of the 1905 Revolution, fleshed out the concept. He argued dual power was an aspect of social revolutions—revolutions that change the social order, not just the political set up. The destruction of the social equilibrium between classes during the course of the revolution splits the superstructure of the state and creates conditions for the rise of rival governments. 

The Russian Revolution was characterised by a form of dual power where the capitalist class was too weak to consolidate victory over the old ruling class. Its efforts to create a democratic capitalist republic were menaced by the emergence of a third force, the embryonic alternative government of the workers’ councils. They pointed the way towards a leap from a democratic to a socialist revolution. 

Trotsky warned that moments of dual power moments in revolutions are temporary and unstable. And where they involve contests between antagonistic classes, they can only be resolved by civil war. 

The current moment in Sudan’s revolutionary process is marked by an acute political crisis, which has engulfed not only the military but their civilian opponents. The section of the Sudanese ruling class, which has put its faith in the restoration of military rule, has seen its political plans stalled for more than six weeks by popular mobilisation. The weakness of the smaller section of the Sudanese ruling class, which is backing a “democratic transition”, has been exposed In the coup. The generals removed with ease their representatives from the transitional government, and they lost influence on the streets. 

The political movements of the middle class are caught in a version of the same dilemma. They support the struggle for a “civil” state, where the army returns to its “proper place” in the barracks and leaves government to the experts and technocrats. These layers are not strong enough to dominate the mass movement in the streets. They need the sacrifices of the poor and the working class on the barricades, but they have not yet found a way to offer anything in return. 

The emptiness of their strategy was exposed by the failures of the Transitional Government to undermine or even constrain the generals’ economic power. 

General Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan, the paramilitary leader turned vice-president, has repeatedly flaunted his ability to bail out the cash-strapped central bank. Meanwhile, inflation soared over the past year as the Transitional Government devalued the currency and began lifting the subsidies on basic goods and fuel in line with free market orthodoxy. 

The cost of food imports, which underpin the consumption of much of the urban population, spiralled out of control. 

Magdi el-Gizouli and Edward Thomas argue a social crisis, which has been structured into the fabric of Sudanese society throughout the country’s modern history, underlies the present political one. This sees a divide between the “centre”—meaning the river valley around Khartoum and its fertile agricultural lands—and the “peripheries”. These include the plains of the West and South, which support valuable livestock farming and are rich in resources such as oil in the South and gold in North Darfur. This divide takes the form of predatory and extractive state policies by the “centre” towards the “peripheries”. 

In the first generation after independence, this dynamic generated armed rebel movements in the peripheries. The biggest successfully forced the creation of an independent state in South Sudan in 2011. 

Former dictator Omar el-Bashir created powerful militias—such as the Darfur-based Janjaweed which later transformed into Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). They would oversee resource extraction and act as a political and military counter-weight to urban-based opposition movements. Hemedti was a lynchpin of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which replaced el-Bashir in April 2019. 

The TMC has wooed some of the remaining rebel armed movements through the Juba Peace Agreement, which paved the way for their inclusion in the Transitional Government. 

The TMC did not simply give Darfurian rebel commander Gibreil Ibrahim a seat in the cabinet. They gave him a key role in enforcing “fiscal discipline” on Khartoum and Omdurman’s unruly masses by attacking subsidies as finance minister. Ibrahim and Minni Minnawi, another former rebel leader, were also the key instigators of a sit-in demanding the restoration of military rule just before the 25 October coup. 

El-Gizouli and Thomas argue that urban revolutionaries should ignore at their peril how the rural militias were coopted by the military. The cities’ bread is baked from imported wheat paid for through the livestock and gold exports from the peripheries. The question of peace, the supply of bread, and who controls the land and its resources, are intimately connected.   

Could the resistance committees offer an alternative to the long history of pillage and plunder connecting the centre and periphery in Sudan? At a political level there is hope that they might. The fact that Hemedti’s paramilitary forces continue to terrorise and kill in both Darfur and the major cities has helped to create a sense of unity. The anti-racist slogan—“The whole country is Darfur”—has been revived again recently, after government forces raped and assaulted women protesters during demonstrations at the Republican Palace. 

Building a stable political alliance between the poor of the towns and the countryside will pose much greater challenges. One of the conditions for such an alliance to develop must surely be for the revolutionary movement in the towns to build forms of self-organisation. This would have to cross the threshold from demands placed upon those in power to the execution of those demands under their own authority. 

Could this open the door to feeding the cities without leaving the countryside hungry? How could the machinery which currently generates profits for Gulf investors and their Sudanese cronies through agricultural and mineral exports be altered by such democratic, revolutionary authorities to meet the needs of ordinary people? 

This is precisely where the underdevelopment of the revolutionary movement in the workplaces will become a fatal weakness. Resistance committees in their current form are organised on a geographical basis, and this limits their capacity to directly influence what happens outside their own districts. 

The more radical committees can attempt to shape the broader movement through the demands they raise or through the energy of their protests. But, unlike a workers’ council, they can’t take direct decisions to halt or increase production or change service delivery. Workers’ power to disrupt and build at the same time makes it essential that they take the lead in the confrontation with the state. 

In many ways Sudan’s revolution at present seems to have more in common with the conundrum Karl Marx was grappling with in 1850 than April 1917. The liberals had betrayed more radical demands in the 1848 wave of revolutions. In an address to the members of the Communist League, he mapped out a strategy which recognised the need for a process of “protracted revolutionary development”. Workers would build their own independent class organisations and nurture a form of dual power rather than “applauding” the victory of the liberal capitalists over the old order.

Such a comparison might seem premature, when Sudan’s liberals still sit outside the Palace walls. In fact, Marx’s hopes of a long period of republican democracy turned out to be misplaced. His sense that the priority for the revolutionary left at such a time was to build an “an independently organised party” of the working class was not. And he was clear that workers and the poor shouldn’t rely on the liberal capitalists to concede democratic rights in order to build their class organisations and advance their class interests. Instead, workers would need to take their rights by storm and defend them by force if necessary. 

Laying the foundations of such an intransigent, independent power will take time – the question now is how to gain it? Repression is increasing, with leading figures from the resistance committees targeted for arrest. 

In Sudan, there are three axes that the “permanent revolution” Marx advocated could develop around. The first lies between mobilisation against the existing order and the construction of alternative forms of government. 

As outlined above, the beginnings of this process can already be glimpsed at work in Sudan. The resistance committees are evolving from being protest mobilisers to political actors. They are now courted by the established parties as potential allies and are developing positions and demands on questions far beyond their original remit. 

This process has not yet moved to a self-conscious intervention into the realm of government. But some of the seeds from which such an intervention could grow have already been planted. 

This is not a linear process, but a back-and-forth motion. The resistance committees have grown in stature and political confidence because they became the leadership of the movement in the streets in response to the military’s coup. “Alternative” service delivery to local neighbourhoods—separated from this engine of confrontation with the state through mass collective action—will not produce the same effect. 

A second axis of permanent revolution lies between the “political” and “economic” aspects of the revolutionary struggle. 

The embryonic outline of this process is visible in the Sudanese Revolution and some currents in the revolutionary movement have instinctively grasped the need to deepen it. Strikes which leverage the economic power of workers in key services and production for political goals, such as the general strikes in May and June 2019, accelerated this process. 

As the revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg warned, expecting it to follow a linear trajectory from economic to political demands is naive. Each step forward in the political struggle leads to a fresh wave of “economic” struggles. There is always a temptation to see the flowering of demands for better pay and conditions in the midst of a revolution as a diversion. 

In reality, the same back-and-forth momentum between economic and political struggles can carry the revolution forward. But that’s provided it builds organisations which work across these two areas of revolutionary process and aim to fuse them. 

But even outside moments when dual power is conceivable, it is possible to develop and generalise experiences of struggle that work towards this goal. For example, insisting on forms of democratic organisation during strikes that mean union representatives’ authority is always accountable to the mass of strikers is one way to do it. 

Part of the challenge to revolutionary leadership is working out what you can achieve using the organisations that already exist—particularly those ordinary people create during their own struggles. And where you need to make a break and set up something new. 

The resistance committees and the committees coordinating the justice workers’ strikes appear to be rooted in different spheres. One concentrates on the political struggle against the military, the other raises economic demands for better pay. Yet a strike paralysing the operation of courts across the entire country will deal a heavy political blow at the generals’ hopes of restoring normality. 

Back in November, proposals were circulating on Facebook for an expanded Coordinating Committee across Khartoum including representatives from trade unions and resistance committee delegates. A body like this, especially if it was composed of delegates from striking workplaces, would be able to use a massively expanded range of tactics and strategies. 

It would accelerate the cross-fertilisation of economic and political demands, the exchange of ideas and the circulation of people between revolutionary organisations in workplaces and neighbourhoods.  

The third axis of permanent revolution is the uneven development between the centre and periphery of the capitalist system. 

Trotsky’s argument that permanent revolution turned Russia’s political and cultural “backwardness” in capitalist terms to the advantage of revolutionaries is particularly relevant in Sudan. Uneven economic development created concentrations of factory workers—with a social power disproportionate to their number—in a largely peasant country. And the ruling class relied on a combination of political and religious institutions from the Middle Ages with elements of a modern authoritarian state. 

This created a combustible mixture, unleashing a revolution which leapt from the struggle for a capitalist democracy to socialism in the space of a few months. 

In the context of Sudan, there are several ways that reciprocal action across the centre and periphery of capitalism may start to develop. 

One clearly relates to the regional and international aspects of the revolution. The four regional powers—Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt and Israel—are susceptible to challenges from below. Building and deepening practical alliances with movements which oppose the rulers of these countries is one way to work across this third axis. 

More immediate though, is developing revolutionary coordination and solidarity within Sudan, across the divide between “centre” and “periphery” over the questions of peace and bread and land. At this stage, we are talking more about movement-building than encroaching on elements of state power. But its demands and declarations can at least point out the direction of travel. 

Across all three axes, the consolidation of a real counter-power to the “state of the ghouls” will provide the key to unlock the doors of the barracks. It will make it possible to split the armed bodies of men at the core of the Sudanese state along class lines. This is what will turn the soldiers against their commanders. It will shift their calculations about the risks of mutiny from something that only isolated, courageous individuals may contemplate to the conscious choice of the majority. 

How can the idea of a revolutionary counter-power gain traction, if no one can see beyond the barrack walls of the current power? The historic party of the left in Sudan, the Communist Party (CP), traces its history back through many decades of struggle against authoritarian regimes. It lost leaders to the gallows in the process. 

Yet according to an eyewitness to the negotiations over the formation of the Transitional Government, the CP’s representative insisted the generals retain the ministries of defence and the interior. They argued generals would be best equipped to deal with such “military matters.” 

Dual power, as Trotsky noted, is “not a constitutional, but a revolutionary fact”. It requires not only the paralysis and crisis of the old forces, but the growth and development of the new.

 If the experience of history is anything to go by, that means more than the emergence of embryonic forms of workers’ councils fusing the struggle against the generals and their state with the struggle against the wider capitalist class. Though that would be important. It will also demand the creation of a revolutionary party, one which recognises the need to break the existing state and organises for its downfall. As Marx suggested back in 1850, it’s battle cry should be—“The Permanent Revolution”. 

There are moments in history which demand a leap into the unknown. Times when a question needs to be posed in order to test what answers are possible. Peace, bread, land, all power to the Resistance Committees? Could the young women and men on the barricades in Sudan build a popular counter-power to the state of the ghouls? Could it open the road to the creation of a “power of the same type as the Paris Commune” as Lenin put it in 1917? Unless they begin to ask themselves this question, we will never know. 

  • Read in Arabic here

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