Abdullahi Osman El-Tom
This article deals with the theoretical aspects of Sudan’s Revolution that brought an end to Al-Bashir’s three decades of dictatorship. The author attempts here to place this Revolution in the context of popular social science theories of revolution.
Broadly speaking, there are two groups of theories of revolution: peaceful revolutions (non-violent) and violent revolutions. There is no doubt that the Sudanese December 2018 Revolution belongs to the first category, of peaceful revolutions. So, what does the first category stands for?
Leapfrogging history, we can say this school is based on philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Its present bastion is Gene Sharp of the Einstein Institute, USA. In a nutshell, the theory argues that power is not inherent in dictatorship but engendered through obedience given by the subjects of the unjust regime. Hence the system can be toppled by withdrawal of obedience without resort to violence or negotiations. Denial of cooperation takes various actions like industrial strikes, work-slow, graffiti, songs, etc. Sharp warns against resort to violence as that is where the strength of the enemy lies. Dictatorship is stronger in means of violent as it possesses armies, weapons, prisons and other avenues of oppression. Negotiations, too, put the revolutionaries in weaker position and hence Sharp advises against. I will refer to further teachings of Sharp as the article progresses.
The second school, and that proposes violent means maintains that peaceful revolutions depend on variables that defy planning; that poor people cannot sustain lengthy industrial strikes and; that dictators are delusionary, not open for reasoning, and willing to use lethal measures to defend their power. Furthermore, this school maintains that violent means of toppling dictatorship do involve loss of lives. However, that loss is smaller compared to what is brought about by ills of structural violence, like poverty, malnutrition, lack of medicine, etc. Let us go back to the first school, the preferred choice of the Sudanese Revolution.
We are fortunate that the Sudanese Revolution had left behind a plethora of slogans that the people sang in the process of their revolt. These slogans were simple, composed in Sudanese colloquial Arabic and had avoided sophisticated terms that required some level of education. Terms derived from modern European languages like liberalism, secularism, socialism were avoided. This genius construction of revolutionary slogans enabled all participants to memorise and repeat them without feeling intimidated and gave people a sense of ownership of the Revolution. No wonder, December Revolution surpassed previous revolutions of 1964 and 1985 in many ways. While Earlier revolutions were urban and elite-based, December Revolution was all-encompassing, engulfing the whole country, rural and urban, elite and commoners, rich and poor and men and women.
While the slogan “freedom, peace and justice” accurately encapsulated the spirit of December Revolution, it was its peacefulness that captured the imagination of the world. The slogan “peaceful against the thieves” firmly placed the action in the non-violent camp of Gene Sharp. The protests remained peaceful in the face of killings, crashing cars into crowds and summary executions. Perhaps Al-Bashir’s experts never heard of what is called Halliday’s rule: “do not invade a revolution”, as it mobilizes people more. Thus, every time the government resorted to lethal measures against the protestors, the streets swelled with more of them.
The early days following overthrow of Al-Bashir witnessed no reprisals or extra-judicial attacks on families or properties of members of the defunct government. Al-Bashir was lucky to have escaped the fate of deposed dictators like Gadhafi and Ali Abdalla Saleh. Indeed, the nature of Sudan’s Revolution contradicts experiences of many past revolutions in Russia, France, England and China. Much more it is at odd with many theories of revolution. For example, Huntington, Brinton and others see violence as a key in defining revolution. Chairman Mao puts it rather crudely that “revolution is not a tea party”, and it is naïve to expect it to proceed peacefully.
A causal connection between poverty and revolutions has been assumed and debated for several centuries. Long ago, both Aristotle and Plato argued that poverty leads to revolutions. Months before the outbreak of December Revolution, former Prime Minister of Sudan Al-Mahdi and the Islamist Hasan Turabi warned Al-Bashir against “revolution of hungry people. Al-Bashir’s too seemed to have heeded to this message. In February 2018, he gave some promises to ease economic hardship in the country, among other reconciliatory measures. Once again, the dictator exposed his poor knowledge of history of revolutions. As Machiavelli advised: “undertake reform from position of power. At weakness, it only raises level of demand”, and that was what the dictator had to endure later.
Recent theories have challenged the causal connection between poverty and revolutions. Todd states that if poverty and oppression were sufficient recipe for revolt, then the whole of human history would be one of continuous revolutions. Other scholars add that traditional societies are poor, nonetheless, they cherish continuity with the same system that reproduces their poverty. The Sudanese protestors were quick to tell Al-Bashir that their revolt was not caused by hunger. This was evident in their new slogan: “if you offer bread for free, we don’t want you, the dancer”. The term dancer is derogatory nickname for the dictator who liked to dance at his public ralies. So, if the poverty thesis is set aside, what, then, is the cause of a revolution?
Scholars have now agreed that it is not poverty, prolonged or otherwise, but discontinuation of economic progress that matters. Todd says, revolutions are likely to occur when things are improving rather than when poverty is getting severe. Davies puts it differently: that it is the improvement in economic conditions rather than economic degradation that forms a precondition for revolt. Hence, it is the desire to become rich that raises the potential for an outbreak of a revolution. A review of past revolutions confirms this view. Revolutions of France (1788-89), England (1688) and Russia (1917), were all preceded by boom years. Now, how are these insights reflected in the Sudanese scenario?
Sudan experienced an unprecedented growth in the 1990, mainly due to discovery and outflow of oil. This economic growth came to a halt following separation of the now Republic of South Sudan and which robbed north Sudan of 75% of oil revenue. The progress raised expectations, only to be dampened by the sudden disappearance of the new wealth. Modernisation and now globalisation too played a factor in raising expectations. More recently, it has become possible for Sudanese people to compare achievements of their government with other countries which were until a few decades ago, in similar developmental conditions to Sudan. Davies says we are moving now into a psychological approach to revolutions as it is the growing gap between expectations and actual reality that matters. In other sense, when the gap between the two reaches a certain level, revolution takes place.
Sudan’s Revolution poses a formidable challenge to Marxist theories of social change. Marx takes revolution as a product of irresistible historical forces that culminate in a confrontation between bourgeois and proletariat. Successful revolution leads to a shift of power from bourgeois to proletariat and creates a condition in which the state itself might wither away.
Well, the Sudanese revolution challenges this vision. To begin with, the struggle had never been between the so-called bourgeois and proletariat classes. Rather, it was a coalition of classes across the power ladder and was not a contest between upper and lower tranches. Instead, the divide was vertical, splitting the pyramid top to bottom. Both sides of the divide contained elements from every class or profession in the country. The shift of power did not do away with the whole class which was hegemonic before. The new leaders came out of the same ruling elite that presided over the country prior to the Revolution. To add insult to injury to the Marxist vision, the state did not wither away, and it was not abolished either.
The French President, Macron, addressed Sudan’s Prime Minster Hamdok, October 2019: “the Sudanese December Revolution will pose a source of inspiration to the entire world”. The Sudanese countered by declaring themselves as: “revolution teacher of the world- Mualim Alshaoub”. The question is: Can we export the Sudanese experience to other countries in the region?
December 21st, 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu, President of Romania, addressed a public rally in Bucharest. The rally attracted 80,000 celebrants, most of whom were planted by the authority and with strict instruction of where to stand, when to applaud and what to sing. Security was tight as it followed a massacre that took place in the country weeks before the rally. Moments into the speech, someone took a high risk and booed. Before the security police could take a move, another person followed and then another and then another. Within seconds, thousands of rally attendees were booing at the same time. The President panicked and appealed for calm, but the game was over. The rebellion was carried live on State TV and had already spread all over the country. Four days later, the dictator and his wife faced a firing squad.
December 17th, 2010, Tarek Bouazizi hit the streets of Tunis in Tunisia selling his wares. He was an illegal street vender. A female municipal officer confronted him and confiscated his cart and humiliated him. Bouazizi’s shame and anger were exacerbated by refusal of city authority to review his case. Less than an hour later, self-immolation of Bouazizi went viral in national and international media and that was the start of the Arab Spring. A month later, Bin Ali, the Tunisian Dictator fled the country.
December 19th, 2018, secondary students went to the cafeteria for lunch in the city of Atbara, Sudan. They discovered that the price of their falafel sandwiches more than doubled. Rather than spending their day without lunch, they went on the rampage in the city and burnt down the HQ of the ruling party. The incident, reported live in social media, had a copy-cat effect and was repeated across the nation.
Looking at the three scenarios: it was the booing in Romania, the self-immolation in Tunisia and the sudden rise of sandwiches in Sudan that constituted the spark that ignited the revolutions. It is true that conditions were ripe for such spark or “precipitant” to use Coccia’s concept, to be effective. Without these sparks, revolution could have been aborted and/or delayed in the three countries. Following Coccia, these precipitants could be personal, nonrecurrent or accidental and it is here we get a clue regarding transferability of the Revolution to other countries. The picture becomes hazier when we note that the precipitants, whether triggered by personal, nonrecurrent or accidental, connect with other forces that are totally out of control of the actor. The Romania case connects with massacre that took place prior to the incident, live TV coverage, presence of an adventuresome attendee and others who had the courage to repeat the booing.
As for Bouazizi’s case, there were numerous factors involved: his personal circumstances, Wikileaks that exposed corruption of the system, invention of mobile phones fitted with cameras; invention of YouTube, global TVs, etc. The case of Sudan can also be explained similarly. The three cases involve personal, accidental or external factors that cannot be planned or staged. History too affirms this reading. Europe experienced peaceful revolutions in 1848. Despite arduous and expensive planning to repeat these revolutions, the continent had to wait 150 years to finally witness the Eastern Block Uprisings of 1990. Sudan too had a long wait between its revolutions of 1964, 1985 and 2018.
Shortly after demise of Al-Bashir in Sudan, some neighbouring countries wanted to emulate December Revolution. Some youth organised protests in Ndjamena, Juba and Asmara using, exactly, the same slogans, like: “just fall, that is all” and “peace, freedom and Justice”. Their dream did not take off simply because revolutions defy planning. I raise my hat to Skocpol for stating: “Revolutions are not made, they come”.