In Sudan, neighbourhoods mobilised against al-Bashir
Local, grassroots ‘resistance committees’ organised protests and marches to remove former President Omar al-Bashir.
Khartoum, Sudan – It was late evening and the sit-in outside the military headquarters was buzzing with people. Several trade union groups were holding events, while the big screens set-up by the protesters in the area displayed an image of Ayman Mao, a hip-hop artist who was due to play a concert the following day.
In the crowd outside the engineers association tent was Roaa Ahmed, who first took part in protests against Sudan’s longtime ruler Omar al-Bashir in February, when she helped establish a so-called “resistance committee” in the Street 60 neighbourhood in east Khartoum.
The 20-year-old student, who has been attending the ongoing sit-in regularly since it began on April 6, said the committee was planning more activities to pressure Sudan‘s military leaders to hand over power to civilians.
“The revolution has not succeeded yet. We want to start working again,” she said.
Ahmed organises one of many such resistance groups – informal, grassroots, neighbourhood-wide networks of residents who opposed al-Bashir’s rule. They have used non-violent tactics such as peaceful protests, graffiti writing and distributed pamphlets to express their opposition to the government.
Call for protests
While the ongoing uprising that led to al-Bashir’s removal in a military coup on April 11 has been guided by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA,) a network of independent trade unions, it lacked representatives on the ground. People received the SPA’s messages via Facebook and Twitter and then organised protests and marches themselves via the committees.
When the SPA first called for anti-al-Bashir demonstrations in Street 60 in early February, Ahmed decided to join. She went to the meeting point with a friend and waited for a few hours but too few people arrived and a march failed to materialise.
“On the same day, I sent a message in a Telegram group of students from my faculty asking them to private message me if they live in Arkweet and Al-Mamoura neighbourhoods,” she said.
Ahmed received replies from colleagues living in those neighbourhoods, who were all eager to take part in the protests. They decided the first protest would be held on a side street in Arkweet.
“I was not sure that people would come but they did – and each person brought at least two people. For security reasons, I only sent them the meeting point two hours before the protest,” she told Al Jazeera.
She said the protest attracted just 18 people, but the fact that it took place encouraged others to join.
“The next time we took to the streets, 32 people showed up from our circle and strangers kept joining them.”
Ahmed organised protests in the same area throughout the month and the size of the crowds continued to rise. On February 28, the protest was so big that it took over the three-lane road that heads north to Burri.
‘Graffiti was dangerous’
While several groups like Ahmed’s were set-up during the current uprising, the formation of resistance committees in Sudan dates back to 2013, when anti-government demonstrations against cuts to fuel and gas subsidies were brutally put down by security forces. More than 200 protesters were shot dead and hundreds more detained.
In the aftermath of the crackdown, activists began forming neighbourhood groups in order to organise people who opposed the government. Each group typically consisted of three to five members who were part of the same social circle.
From 2013 to 2016, many of these groups joined together in a loose coalition, which later became known as the Sudanese resistance committee, supporting each other to engage in small-scale resistance in their neighbourhoods. But their work on the ground was slow amid fears of a renewed crackdown by the security forces.
At the end of 2016, two key events unfolded that inspired those groups to improve their organisation. In November, activists carried out a three-day civil disobedience campaign. Around the same time, doctors and pharmacists went on strike over the deteriorating medical environment and the rising cost of medicine.
“In 2017, we wanted to activate the work and called for a meeting and formed the Sudanese resistance committees and began building committees at the town and neighbourhood level and began working based on an action plan,” said Khalid Fahmy, a former member of the resistance committee’s leadership council.
Today, the Sudanese resistance committee is an organised body with an elected leadership council and branches in many towns across the country. It has a Facebook page with 60,000 likes, while individual towns also have their own pages.
The group is one of the signatories of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which expresses the vision of the SPA, civil society groups and opposition political parties for the country.
The committee began working on the ground in 2017 with a graffiti campaign. It distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets that reflected issues faced by their communities, such as water access and government land seizures.
“At that time, graffiti was dangerous. The area would be watched for three days and after the graffiti is finished, we would bury the canisters,” added Fahmy, who is now a tour guide in Malaysia, over a Whatsapp call.
By December 2018, there were over 30 active resistance groups in Khartoum, but as the protests began, dormant groups began to rise and contacted the larger, established committee.
“Over time, we accumulated paper, tires and spray cans in storage and we began using them and also supporting other groups and bodies with tools we have,” stated Fahmy.
Gafaar Abdullhafeez, 30, and Yasir Ghazi, 29, have been friends since kindergarten. They both live in Wad Nobawi, an old neighbourhood in central Omdurman, a city that sits across the bridge from Khartoum. Its residents participated heavily in the 2013 anti-government protests.
In February 2019, when the SPA began calling for neighbourhood-based marches, Abdullhafeez began mobilising inside the neighbourhood and formed a committee with other neighbours. They began assigning tasks and also coordinated with two nearby neighbourhoods, Beit Al-Mall and Abu-Rouf.
Their plan was simple. If Wad Nobawi was out on the streets and came under the grip of the police and security, they relied on the committee in the other two neighbourhoods to hit the streets and take the pressure off them.
“We called Wad Nobawi, Beit Al-Mall and Abu Rouf the ‘terror triangle’ because we were organised and had each other’s back,” said Abdulhafeez.
The two men are not involved in political parties, but were unhappy with the state of the country and said they related to the SPA’s demands. Ghazi quit his sales job during the protests because he wanted to put all his energy in the uprising, while Abdellhafeez only returned to Sudan in December after losing his job in Saudi Arabia. He now runs a business with a friend and organises meetings and tasks around the SPA’s protest timetable.
“I could’ve stayed and looked for another opportunity, but I wanted to return home and I came back at the right time,” he said.
They said their committee did not coordinate with the wider coalition of groups because they feared that the security forces were looking for protest leaders.
“In the beginning, we were just relying on our circle and making calls, then after the state of emergency was announced, we began organising to protect each other and because trust facilitated our ability to organise,” said Abdulhafeez.
When the protests intensified in Wad Nobawi, the neighbourhood came under attack. For 14 days in a row, security forces used tear gas in the neighbourhood – the men said tear gas was thrown inside residents’ homes.
It was a difficult period and the two men worried about their young and elderly relatives in the area. At the time, the friends went into hiding, using a back-up phone and sleeping at different locations. They feared their own families might pressure them to stop protesting, until the opposite happened.
“Our families and our larger community was more supportive than ever and told us to continue protesting because if you stop, things would get worse and the regime would become more brutal,” said Ghazi.
“This government took our friends. Our brothers died on boats crossing the Mediterranean and they were shot dead in the 2013 protests. We were out to die like them or bring them justice,” he said.