Protest and the Transition in Sudan - An Interview with Mayada Hassanain

Mayada Hassanain is an independent researcher on poverty reduction, economic pluralism, and feminist political economy based in Sudan. In 2019, she spent months protesting and organizing in the movement that ultimately removed Sudan’s long- time president, Omar al-Bashir. The Journal spoke with Ms. Hassanain about the protest movement and the future of Sudan.

October 29, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): What was it like growing up under the Bashir regime? How did it affect your relationship with the Sudanese state?

Mayada Hassanain (MH): I became very aware of how the country was governed around the 2010 elections, which were supposed to be the first open, free elections in the country. I was in my second year of university then. I was definitely opposed to the Bashir regime at the time; it seemed like the natural position because of the poor state of the country. Things were supposed to be good then; there was prosperity because of the oil boom and the 2005 peace agreement with South Sudan. We had a stable currency and a low exchange rate. But these things were not felt outside the capital [Khartoum]. And the one thing everyone knew about the government— and the reason the prosperity was so concentrated—was corruption. We  would hear stories that sometimes bordered on the absurd about government officials having villas in Dubai or owning hotels in Malaysia. These things were never verified, but there was some truth there because they were living very lavish lives; they had fancy houses and sent their kids to really good schools at a time when the country was not doing very well.

But there was no alternative to the government we had. Because of decades of extreme repression, all the opposing parties were weakened in their ability to campaign and advocate for their manifestos. And the Bashir regime had created an anti-leftist sentiment, saying that everyone who wasn’t with them was an infidel, a lefty who would worship America and destroy our religious values. So people were not ready to move against the Bashir regime. People I talked to about their votes would say, “They are  the best of the worst.” Or they were just hostile to politics in general; these things that were happening to us all weren’t registering.

On a personal level, I think I began to also feel the burn of the regime as I exited the sheltered life of college and started working for a living. I began to come face to face with so many issues: the poor infrastructure, the poor job opportunities, and the general difficulty of living in Sudan. I wanted to travel, do a master’s, and figure out my career. But with sanctions, all this became more complicated. Slowly, it became obvious to me that the Bashir regime was the reason Sudan was such a difficult place to live.

JIA: Bashir was in power for 30 years and survived several popular movements against him. What changed in 2019 that caused the people of Sudan to decide to overthrow him?

MH: I think it was a mixture of things. The main driver was the economic situation. Yes, the government cut bread subsidies. But everyone was adamant that these weren’t bread protests—this was not about food, not about people being hungry, they said. It was about dignity and freedom. I found this narrative a bit unsettling because I don’t know why these things have to be separate. If I am unable to purchase bread, there’s no dignity, there’s no talk of freedom. My ability to sustain myself economically is a fundamental pillar of my freedom and of my dignity.

Ever since the independence of South Sudan, the country has been on an economic free fall. With the loss of the oil export reserves, short term fixes just weren’t working anymore. We had essentially reached a stage where there was no liquid cash. You couldn’t get your money from the bank. You had to wait in line for ages to get fuel. You had to wait in line to get bread. Everyday life became very, very difficult and people grew frustrated. It was clear that the government was running out of people to blame for all the issues. There was no more propaganda to placate people.

The younger generations played a huge role. The average age of the pro- testers was between 18 and 21. I think they felt they had the most to lose. They were inheriting a failed state. They were let down by older generations—not just the politicians and the political class, but those who were silent while the regime was wreaking havoc.

A last, and a very important, driver was that the political and economic crisis that had gripped the country for years finally reached Khartoum. The Bashir regime had, for years, held on to power by keeping the center happy at the expense of the periphery. When they subsidized fuel, that was good for car owners who were predominantly in Khartoum. They kept bread available; bread consumption is highest in the urban centers. The country was essentially run to favor the upper middle class. Even the business class who knew that the government was corrupt, who knew that the government was not competent, they stayed quiet because they could still manage their business. They could still secure profits as the rest of the country suffered. But when the liquidity crisis happened, these people started to feel the burden. They themselves started to sympathize with the protests. When the marches happened these companies started to send support in the form of money, water, tents, or food supplies. The middle and the upper middle classes that were not affiliated with the regime finally had a stake in the regime’s downfall.

JIA: In addition to young people, women played a leading role in the protests. Why was this the case?

MH: The presence of women was very prominent. Beyond the general hardship that fell on the entire city’s population, women faced a unique experience of oppression and mistreatment. Young women in particular were disrespected by so many of the city’s laws. In the protests, they were also coming out against societal problems. For the past 30 years, the Bashir regime had compounded these problems in the media, the school curricula, and in the laws. There were members of Parliament openly saying that they were pro-female genital mutilation. The criminal code did not criminalize the marriage of minors. You would frequently hear sensational stories of women being mistreated in the news.

Another part of it was that women were overrepresented amongst the poor. A lot of [internally displaced persons] were women: refugees coming in from war zones, having lost access to their land and what used to sustain them. These women were feeling the brunt of the Bashir regime in different layers, essentially, to their male counterparts. I think they showed immense courage because they definitely were up against more danger than their male counterparts. Because when you’re out on the streets, you’re not only up against this oppressive regime that might shoot you; you’re also up against the regime where the soldiers might harass you, might rape you. And if that happens to you, you might not even get any sympathy from those around you. Despite the unity amongst protesters, women still had ‘enemies’ from within and without the movement. The decision to participate came with complications and risks of exposure that may come back and hurt them given the unequal gender relations that mark society and politics as a whole.

JIA: How do you think the presence of women in the protest changed the outcome? What was the significance of having them there?

MH: It showed that the makeup or the content of the movement was different. This was no longer political activists just talking about issues with no one listening. It wasn’t just the political class trying to gain support from the people. It was a genuine, well-mobilized, grassroots political movement. I think that was very, very significant. The presence of non-politicized women validated that and verified that truth. Many of the women had not participated in any protest before. Having them on the streets signified a break with the old way of protesting in Sudan. You can see this in the way people are reacting now. People are no longer standing for the old sexist narratives that said women should not protest. For example, there was a recent incident where people told the imam of a particular mosque to step down because he was saying sexist stuff. Essentially, there was a noticeable shift in how people talked about the protests, and about women. And there is   a shift in the way women themselves are choosing to participate, with less fear and more determination.

JIA: What was your involvement in these protests? What motivated you to lend your voice?

MH: I was a simple participant. I would join the protests when and where people said they would occur. Sometimes I wouldn’t know what to expect, but I would just try to blend in, just scream and chant with everyone else. I also designed flyers and posters that could be disseminated online. At each demonstration, we worried that this would be the last protest. So we tried to constantly widen the base so people would keep coming out. Mostly I went to the streets to support my friends and colleagues who were already part of established groups.

JIA: You referenced the earlier protests in 2013. Those protests were ultimately met with repression and failed to remove the president. Why was 2019 different? Do you consider it to have been a successful protest movement?

MH: I think it was different because the base was a lot wider. This wasn’t a top-down movement; no one was telling the protesters to take to the street. They were school-age kids who found that the prices of the sandwiches in the school cafeteria had doubled or tripled. They had nothing they could do except take to the streets and protest. There was this anger and frustration that went beyond the usual political narratives about authoritarianism. People were saying, “We cannot live. Our children cannot go to school. We don’t have anything to rely on.”

The rise of the SPA, the Sudanese Professionals Association, was important too. It was a fresh new body that wasn’t historically affiliated with a political party. People don’t like political parties. They think they’re all the same. They think they’re all failures. The SPA represented a different way of pushing back against the political environment. It would support the demonstrations and come up with a weekly schedule of protests, along with the protest route. This was done with the support of neighborhood committees, who played a huge role—and continue to do so—in the successful toppling of the regime. In the SPA, the protesters on the street found a sort of faceless leader.

JIA: Bashir’s presidency ended in April 2019. There is some disagreement over whether his departure represented a grassroots-driven regime overthrow, or a coup d’etat. Where do you stand on this?

MH: It’s a hard one, and I shift between both narratives myself. Essentially, what happened on 11 April was a toppling of Bashir and some of his associates. But the agreement that was reached to remove him didn’t represent  a complete overhaul because Abdel Fattah al-Burhan (now head of the Sovereign Council) and Hemedti (head of the Janjaweed, now formally known as Rapid Support Forces), and even Shamseddine Kabbashi (Military Council spokesman), were all prominent figures in the Bashir government. They were not at the top of the government, but they were witnesses to many of the crimes that happened under Bashir’s rule, including in Darfur. When the [Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a coalition of Sudanese political actors, including parties and activist groups] signed an agreement with Bashir’s inner circle, it left the post-Bashir period very uncertain. It wasn’t a clean slate. This is disappointing because it doesn’t match the aspirations of the protesters. It didn’t match all the hard work and the sacrifices that went into making these protests successful. That is why you still see some protests today.

But on the other hand, it’s hard to imagine what else could have happened. The unfortunate reality of Sudan, and the past 60 years of government there, is that I don’t know what else could have been the outcome besides an agreement between the FFC and Bashir’s security team. However, that does not mean that the contents of the agreement couldn’t have been better. I think the agreement that was finally signed in August is not a strong one. I think it is because of the weaknesses in that deal that we are facing the obstacles and troubles that we’re facing today. The political class missed a few opportunities in strengthening their position and they didn’t take advantage of the power that was given to them by the protesters.

After 3 June, with the violence in Khartoum, it seemed like we had lost. It seemed like Hemedti and Burhan had won by riding the wave of the revolution, but also crushing the real resistance. So it was fascinating when people came out again on 30 June. I think there were about 10 million people on the streets that day. I think the FFC didn’t appreciate how much power that gave them, and how much they could use it to negotiate better terms for the deal. I think that they compromised, perhaps for ideological reasons, perhaps because they’re just a weak political class. Sometimes I think they themselves were afraid of this resistance movement, afraid that it might threaten their status quo.

And so we ended up with this agreement. You asked the question of whether I consider these protests successful. It is hard to say “yes” or “no.” Sometimes I feel like we’ve come a long way from where we were. There’s a lot of positive changes that are happening. There is a lot more space to develop civil society or civic engagement that did not exist under Bashir’s regime. But on the other hand, I still wonder how we can move forward if the people who are currently in power are some of the same people who caused so much misery in the past. Will they go unpunished? How are we supposed to be happy with this change if the money is essentially still circulating through the same hands as before? Are we actually going to get the military-industrial complex under the governance of the cabinet where it belongs? Or are we always going to have this kind of parallel state, where the military has so much control over the resources and keeps the rest of us out?

JIA: So many times, for example in Egypt and Zimbabwe, we have seen popular protests remove a corrupt leader and then be co-opted by the military and political elite to further their own power. How can the people of Sudan avoid that fate? How do you make the transitional government achieve what you want it to achieve?

MH: I think it’s by supporting the transitional government—especially the civilian side of it—but also keeping them in check. By reminding them that the power they were granted still lies within these local resistance groups. By showing them that we are ready to pounce if they try to co-opt the movement and change into something it wasn’t meant to be. But we must tread a very thin line between being critical of the transitional government and losing hope in it.

We have an advantage over what happened in Egypt because we had time to organize the grassroots movement to a more advanced level. But we need to build a stronger civil society. By civil society, I mean labor unions and neighborhood committees, for example—groups that are flexible and disciplined, but also close to the actual problems that people are facing.

The elephant in the room is the international response. [U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo visited a few days ago to talk about American issues, such as normalizing ties with Israel and taking Sudan out of the “state sponsors of terror” group. These things are important. There is also the issue between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan of the [Grand Ethiopia Renaissance] Dam on the Nile. These issues put pressure on the government and will greatly influence the outcome of the deal and the outcome of the transitional period.

JIA: Recently, Bashir has been facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court. What is the significance of this case? What does it mean to the people of Sudan?

MH: It’s very significant. It signifies to the protesters that their efforts have not gone in vain. Seeing that makes them think that he is being held accountable for all the crimes he committed. It feels pretty good to see him in that position, being asked all these difficult questions. It also comes as a win for the government at a difficult time when it’s facing pressures from COVID, from the flooding, and from the economic situation.

JIA: What do you see as the future of this protest movement?

MH: We’re not done yet. The protesters are still mobilizing, they’re still meeting, they’re still asking for things. They’re still trying to meet with ministers and governors, and putting forth specific demands. They’re not ready to let go of the revolution just yet. I think that is a very, very significant thing. It makes this revolution a different one. The difficult work of keeping the government accountable continues to happen. This is creating new forms of resistance that are not just limited to protesting, civic engagement, political activism, and solidarity. It’s forging a new relationship between the government and the people in the country. We’re on the path to forging a new relationship with the government so that we can direct the future of this country.

JIA: Are you hopeful for this process?

MH: It depends on the day. It depends on the day. Sometimes it doesn’t feel good. Sometimes it feels like we’re losing grip. It feels like the obstacles are more powerful than we are. Other times there is hope again. You see the energy of people, you see the determination of people, and you think we can move past this. But it’s an up-and-down situation, overall.

This Featue appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.

Photo Credit: David Peterson, licensed under Pixabay License