ON APRIL 23rd I stood amid throngs of Sudanese as a train carrying hundreds of people arrived in the heart of Khartoum. The carriages were crammed with passengers from Atbara, the town where anti-government demonstrations had begun five months earlier. They had come to join the swelling ranks of protesters against military rule. As we watched these reinforcements arrive, a fellow journalist remarked that the scene reminded him of Russia in 1917. (He’s an old hand but I don’t think he was there.) More than a century ago Vladimir Ilyich Lenin arrived in Russia on a train from Switzerland, intent on seizing power for the Bolsheviks. Yet, train aside, it is an inapt parallel. For unlike Lenin’s coup d’etat, what I saw in Sudan was peaceful, joyous and leaderless.
Less than a fortnight earlier, on April 11th, civilians had forced Sudan’s army into ending the 30-year reign of the dictator, Omar al-Bashir, who is indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and genocide. That was not enough, however, to end the sit-in. In the weeks after Mr Bashir’s ouster ordinary Sudanese kept up pressure on the junta to cede power. More than a month after my visit, the protestors remain dug in.
On my first day in Khartoum, I went to the sit-in with Abbas, a member of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a coalition of trade unions that has spearheaded the protests. It was midnight, and the 40-degree heat of the day had mercifully waned. As we walked among those on the streets Abbas explained that: “There was an atmosphere of darkness, now there is hope.”
Like many Sudanese, Abbas was still processing the demise of a figure that seemed immovable. He still spoke of President Bashir’s rule in the present tense. Osman Mirghani, a local journalist, explained: “After 30 years of dictatorship nobody thought the regime could be removed.” Day after day, young Sudanese had shown incredible courage to occupy the demonstration site. Dozens were killed by security forces before the army itself turned on Mr Bashir.
As Abbas took me on a tour he pointed to places where his comrades had been shot. By now, though, the area seemed more like a festival than a warzone. Small groups of students were singing a capella. Abbas translated the lyrics: “We have questions for Bashir”, went one. A “mobile mosque” shone a spotlight on those kneeling to pray. Children waited at stalls to have their faces painted with the colours of the Sudanese flag. Job done, their parents would hoist them on their shoulders so they could take a look at the vast crowds. “All of these kids believe one thing,” said Abbas, “the power of peaceful protest to bring down the regime.”
Since most of those at the sit-in were under 30 years old, and since this is 2019, smartphones were everywhere. There was a feedback loop between the online and offline worlds: protesters at the sit-in would take photos and post them on Facebook, which would encourage friends to come down to the site; or they would take videos and have them broadcast on the screen by the main stage. All this intensified the feeling of being part of history.
During the week I was in Khartoum the days fell into a familiar pattern: I would spend the daylight hours trying to figure out what was going on between the civilian and military negotiators, then in the evening I would return to the sit-in. As Africa Correspondent for The Economist I cover 50-plus countries, and I am forever trying to quickly understand the spirit of a place. It is often easy to get trapped in air-conditioned offices getting the official spiel, when the real happenings are out on the street. This is especially true in times of flux. But by returning to the sit-in every night I was able to track the protesters’ views of what was happening in the corridors of power.
I left awestruck by the determination of young Sudanese. One evening I sat down on a patch of grass to talk to three women who had been coming to the protests for weeks. “At the start we were lying to our parents about going here,” explained Eman Suliman, a 23-year-old engineer (who lives at home). Now their mothers and fathers support them. “They don’t have the energy to come but they feel the injustice,” said Ms Suliman. How long will you stay here? I asked. “We Sudanese have big reserves of endurance,” answered Nuha Elamien, a doctor.
For Sudanese women the sit-in seemed to be a site of particular catharsis. Under Mr Bashir women were harassed for wearing the “wrong” clothes or being on the street alone. Roan Kheir, a 23-year-old who returned from studying in England to join the protests, recalled when she was interrogated outside a cake shop for having the temerity to wear short sleeves. She listed many reasons why she came back to protest: corruption, an economy that makes it hard for young people to start a family, and solidarity with Sudan’s persecuted ethnic groups. But “female inequality” was critical. Civilian rule, she hoped, would allow more young Sudanese to live how they choose.
At the protest I noticed many young couples holding hands. Such public displays of intimacy may have been dangerous under the old regime. In protests in Cairo in 2011 there were reports of sexual assaults. Here in Khartoum, though, the atmosphere struck me as different, more wholesome. In some ways it resembled the Tiananmen Square protests in China in 1989, where young couples were unofficially married at the sites of sit-ins.
With the partial exception of Tunisia, most of the mass protests that came under the banner of the Arab spring of 2011 ultimately failed. When one side has the guns and the other has placards, the former usually wins. President Bashir was nearly toppled in 2013. But this time he was overwhelmed by the sheer weight of protestors, fortified by the knowledge that twice before, in 1964 and 1985, Sudan’s dictators had been swept away by people power. The army has now been forced at least to share power, a testament to the resilience of ordinary young Sudanese. It has yet to be seen whether the generals are willing to hand over completely to civilian rule.
Talking to Abbas after the Atbara train passed I wondered aloud whether the mood was too celebratory, too soon. He said, politely, that I should not confuse elation of with a sense of a job completed. “We Sudanese”, he said, “we cover pain with joy.”