‘The country is collapsing’

Asmaa Waguih · In Khartoum

Last week, on Monday 3 June, Sudanese paramilitaries attacked the protest camp outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, killing dozens of people, injuring hundreds and destroying their two-month-old sit-in. There is a government blackout on internet and phone services, but activists from the Alliance for Freedom and Change, who have been leading the protests that saw the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir in April, are asking people to keep each other informed, and have called for a general strike and ongoing civil disobedience. The strike began on Sunday.

I visited the protest camp in late April and early May. People told me they didn’t trust the Transitional Military Council, whose leaders were in Bashir’s government. The protesters said they weren’t even sure if Bashir was really in custody, or it was all an act.

As an Egyptian, I faced a certain amount of anger. People told me they didn’t want Egypt to interfere in their country. Shortly after Bashir was removed from power and replaced by the TMC, the African Union threatened to suspend Sudan’s membership unless power was transferred to a civilian government within 15 days. But the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is currently chair of the AU, intervened and the deadline was extended to three months.

‘We're staying put,’ the protesters in front of the military compound chanted. ‘Thirty years you've been dancing,’ they sang, ‘tonight is our dance.’ (Bashir used to dance after making speeches, waving his stick in the air.)

Protesters came to Khartoum from outlying states, including Darfur, a thousand miles away. Businessmen donated money and food to the sit-in. Sudanese in the diaspora sent donations too. Muhamed Sharaf had travelled from Arizona. He told me that there was an operations room in Phoenix, where they had collected money from around the US and organised protests in Washington and New York. They urged Congress not to recognise the military government in Khartoum and to put pressure on the United Nations Security Council.

After last week’s crackdown, China and Russia blocked a Security Council bid to condemn the violence. The UN withdrew civilian staff from the country and the AU suspended Sudan’s membership.

I spoke to a former soldier at the sit-in. ‘Many soldiers aren’t satisfied with the current council,’ he told me, ‘and their monthly salaries aren’t enough to live on for ten days. There’s a lot of anger in the army.’ But the army is only one of several heavily armed security forces in Sudan. The TMC is headed by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who has his own shadow militia, and plenty of experience killing people in Darfur and South Sudan. His deputy is Mohamed Hamdan Hemeti, the leader of the Rapid Support Force, which grew out of the Darfurian Arab militia known as the Janjaweed, and was at the forefront of the deadly assault last week.

A few days ago, when I couldn’t reach anyone using the internet, I phoned the former soldier I’d spoken to at the sit-in. ‘The country is collapsing,’ he told me, then said he had to hang up.

Since the massacre, protesters have been urging each other to stay at home. News has been spreading on social media of the killing of demonstrators in Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, and of artillery being set up in the northeastern town of Atbara, where the first sparks of the uprising took place last December after hikes in the price of bread.

There have also been calls on social media to join the armed militias that oppose the TMC. There were representatives of opposition militias at the sit-in. They had gone into the protests without their guns but said they were ready to take up arms if peaceful methods did not work.

Regional powers, above all Saudi Arabia and Turkey, are jostling for access to Sudan’s natural resources. After the lifting of US sanctions in October 2017, Bashir did deals with both Ankara and Riyadh; the activists I met in Khartoum last month weren’t happy about either. And it seems likely that both Erdoğan and Mohammad Bin Salman would rather see a strong man in power in Sudan than support democratic change that could destabilise their investments.