The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sudan’s protesters dodge crackdowns before ‘million march’ against military rule

Policemen stand guard as supporters of Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo attend a military-backed rally in Sudan on Saturday. (Hussein Malla/AP)
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KHARTOUM NORTH, Sudan — Ahead of a giant protest planned for Sunday in Sudan’s capital, the Sons of Shambhat, a group of men from one of the city’s most rebellious neighborhoods, wanted to discuss the best ways to avoid arrest.

Right as they were about to gather, the meeting’s host was whisked away by the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF, a paramilitary group.

Then, at a new meeting spot, four pickup trucks loaded with soldiers rolled up. The men scattered out into a maze of dirt streets and brick houses, ducking into whatever door was open.

Sunday’s march could become a pivotal moment in Sudan’s six-month-old uprising that brought down longtime ruler Omar Hassan al-Bashir but is struggling against a military council that took his place.

Protest leaders are hoping to draw 1 million people to the streets — a fifth of greater Khartoum’s population. It would be the first major protest since the RSF and other security forces brutally dispersed a vast sit-in outside the military’s headquarters on June 3, killing more than 130, according to protest leaders. 

The date of the “million march” is infused with significance. Sunday is the 30th anniversary of the coup that brought Bashir to power. The protests are largely aimed at replacing the military council with civilian leaders.

“We will show them that the revolution has only just begun,” said Awab Ibrahim, 30, who normally works as a travel agent but whose house was the Sons of Shambhat’s eventual meeting spot. “We will never stop until we bring our martyrs’ dreams to life.”

Security forces are cracking down again on protest leaders.

High-profile leaders have been arrested, and Ali Madani, the Sons of Shambhat’s original host, says he was electrocuted, beaten and thrown out of a vehicle in a distant neighborhood across the Nile River.

In a speech on Saturday, the RSF’s head and military council’s deputy leader, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti, warned protest leaders that he would hold them accountable for any loss of life on Sunday. Despite the march’s imminence, the military council’s spokesman asked for more time to comment. 

The sit-in had been the uprising’s focal point, and its demise diffused the movement’s energy across the city. Some of the revolutionary art remains at the site, though most of the walls have been painted over.

The march’s organizers are hoping that Sunday marks a return to the level of street pressure the military council faced in April and May. 

They face many obstacles. The country’s Internet has been shut down for almost a month, preventing easy mass communication. The military council has repeatedly rejected demands that they hand over any real levers of power to civilian leaders.

In conversations over Sudanese sweet tea and at fish restaurants along the river, a sense of both great hope and foreboding hangs over Sunday’s march. 

“I am afraid that chaos is their strategy,” said Sara Mouawia, 20, a medical student and protest organizer. “But they should know that more violence will be like putting fuel on our movement. We will not be like Egypt.”

Sudan’s uprising has called to mind Egypt’s in 2011, when a massive outpouring of protesters brought down the autocrat Hosni Mubarak, leading to elections. Egypt’s military then deposed the elected president, Mohamed Morsi, who was part of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi died earlier this month after collapsing in court.

While Sudan’s military council is nominally led by Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a former infantry division leader, Dagalo is seen by many as the protest movement’s biggest adversary, especially since the RSF’s leading role in the breakup of the sit-in. 

As Mouawia spoke, she was constantly wary of military informants. While describing her fear of Dagalo’s seemingly unbridled power, the power suddenly went out.

“See, that was him, too,” she said, laughing nervously. 

Dagalo has received support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose offensive in Yemen is bolstered by more than 15,000 RSF troops that largely hail from his native Darfur region.

Dagalo also signed a $6 million lobbying deal with a Canadian firm in May aimed at polishing his international image, according to reporting by Toronto’s Globe and Mail. 

 Sudan’s stability is seen as crucial by Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian leaders and they have vocally backed the military council. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates jointly announced $3 billion in aid shortly after Bashir’s overthrow.

American trade sanctions on Sudan were lifted in 2017, but the country remains on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, preventing the military council’s access to international lending institutions. Trump administration officials have said Sudan, where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once lived, will stay on the list until the military leaves power.

Makila James, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for East Africa and the Sudans, told a U.S. House of Representatives hearing that more sanctions would be on the table if Sunday’s march is met with violence.

Without Internet, advertising for the protest has been constrained to more traditional means. Some neighborhood organizations, like the Sons of Shambhat, have gotten the word out using megaphones. Graffiti has taken the place of the Facebook news feed. 

Across the Nile in Omdurman, protest organizers built up support by holding a community service day. Volunteers cleared a large open area of trash under a blazing sun, wearing bandannas that said: “We will build what we are dreaming of.” Temperatures soared above 110 degrees. 

Passersby, like Idris Gantur Bakr Hamid, who was walking with his 5-year-old daughter, chipped in a few cents as a tip.

“I’ve lived here 10 years and this is one of the few times anyone has cleaned this place up,” he said. 

“I’m sure Dagalo’s government will be as bad as Bashir’s, but if we stick together, we can produce a wind strong enough to blow them away once and for all.”

Sudan’s women are protesting for equal rights denied during Bashir era

The one-day rule of Sudan’s defense minister

Sudan’s military has shut down the Internet. Here’s how that could backfire.

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