Sudan and the Problem of Revolutionary Politics
An intra-elite conflict highlights the cul-de-sac facing revolutionary politics worldwide. Is there a way to break out of this predicament?
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On April 15, a violent power struggle broke out in Sudan, pitting the Sudanese Armed Forces under General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces under General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemedti. The violence, which has blighted the capital Khartoum and affected the rest of the country as well, is the latest tragic episode in a series of disappointments for the citizens whose mobilization sparked the coup that overthrew Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 after thirty years of rule.
Let me signal right away that this essay gives no answers for a way out of what appears to be a cul-de-sac for revolutionary politics in Sudan and worldwide. For one thing, it would be presumptuous of me to give advice to protesters and revolutionaries on the front lines of violence, repression, and predation. And for another thing, some of the smartest activists in the world are breaking their brains over the question of how to achieve and sustain genuine systemic overhauls, and are coming up short. The contest between protesters and elites is deeply unequal, and the supposed “pro-democracy” West has often deliberately, or inadvertently and sloppily, empowered elites against revolutionaries, a dynamic now under the microscope as violence shakes Sudan. The best I can do is to take stock of where global revolutionary dynamics stand, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
Sudan, the Arab Spring(s), and Beyond
The defeat (hopefully only temporary) of revolutionary aspirations in Sudan feels much bigger than that country. In rough parallel to the setbacks for justice and democracy in Sudan have come the blatant power grabs by President Kais Saied of Tunisia. Elected in 2019, the year that Sudanese protesters helped bring down Bashir, Saied had run as an independent, seeming (at least to his supporters) to offer competence, fairness, and humility. Receiving less than a fifth of the vote in the first round, he nevertheless won a smashing second round victory with over 72 percent of the runoff vote.
Into 2021, Tunisia was still being hailed as the Arab Spring’s only “success story,” with Egypt’s revolutionary awakening long over and with Libya, Syria, and Yemen wracked by civil wars. Yet in June 2021, Saied perpetrated what has widely been called a “self-coup,” suspending the legislature and sacking the cabinet. A few months later in Sudan, Burhan and Hemedti—at the time still allies—perpetrated a coup of their own, overthrowing a civilian prime minister. Now, at the very moment that Burhan and Hemedti are clashing for control of Sudan, Saied is lashing out at the Tunisian opposition and stoking racist hatred against black-skinned Tunisians and expatriates. Amid these setbacks for democratic forces in Tunisia and Sudan, the Arab Spring—and some have counted 2019 uprisings in Sudan and Algeria (and even Iraq) as part of a “second wave” of the Arab Spring—has no successes left.
We can go broader in perceiving a pattern of defeat for revolutionary aspirations. We live in what one 2020 study called “the age of mass protests”—an era with more protests than the 1960s or the 1980s. Many of these protests target autocratic regimes and call for a life of dignity for ordinary people. The Arab Spring protests are the most famous example, but revolutionary protest waves have also occurred in countries such as Burkina Faso (2014), Algeria (2019), and Iran (2009, 2022). Looking even further afield, one could add examples of mass anti-systemic protests from Hong Kong (2019-2020), the United States (2011, 2014, 2020), and France (2023). Many protests have yielded breathtaking accomplishments, rocking regime foundations and even toppling long-ruling leaders. Yet many of those same protests have given way to crushing disappointments, especially the re-consolidation of authoritarian regimes or clone-like successors. Even in so-called “advanced Western democracies,” it has been much easier to elicit conciliatory rhetoric from elites than to bring about deep institutional change.
Table 1 captures some of those highs and lows, drawing on African and Middle Eastern examples from 2009-present. I have simplified the dynamics considerably for the sake of brevity.
For those who sympathize with these protest movements, surveying the outcomes could make one despair. Some of the most hopeful arguments that both researchers and protesters have made in recent years—that digital tools enable revolutionary mobilization, that longstanding barriers to youth and women’s participation in politics are crumbling, that authoritarian regimes are more brittle and vulnerable than they appear—can appear naïve in light of these events. The creativity and courage of ordinary people has been outmatched, time and again, by the forces arrayed against them: the ability of regimes to offer up hated rulers as sacrificial offerings while preserving the system itself; the hesitation and fence-sitting of “gray people” who end up backing the regime by default; other authoritarian regimes’ support for vulnerable peers and allies, such as Russian and Iranian support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad; the clumsiness of Western governments attempting to shape post-revolutionary politics; and more.
Some accounts place some blame on protesters themselves, and not without justification. The merits and drawbacks of “leaderless” movements have been hotly debated. “Leaderless” movements are more difficult for regimes to co-opt and repress, and broad slogans and goals facilitate mass mobilization and coalition-building. But that breadth can also represent vagueness, which can cause a lack of clarity or, in the worst case, factional infighting once a longtime ruler is overthrown. When protesters cannot coalesce around specific goals and visions, the post-revolutionary situation becomes vulnerable to cooptation by civilian and military elites who have little organic connection to the protesters. Sudan’s situation is especially disappointing given that civilians did their utmost to remain on a permanent activist footing through local “resistance committees,” which remain active even during the present crisis. It would be hard to imagine greater or more sustained levels of popular mobilization, yet even there the grassroots appear outmatched by the political-military actors at the top.
Elsewhere, resistance continues in the sphere of everyday life. But does that shift—from street power to more subtle and dispersed activism—not signal “the impossibility of actual politics”? Nihal El Aasar writes, “What we need to think about here, what we need to prioritize, is the project of building collectiveness—the radical restructuring of society rather than acts of individual agency.” But how can society be restructured in an environment hostile to change?
Dilemmas of Power, Ideology, and Identity
In some ways, the contest is simple and clear across many theaters: ordinary people’s power lies in their ability to summon numbers into the streets, while elites can draw on their control of institutions, security forces, money, and foreign support to push back. Ordinary people can use numbers to disrupt the status quo, at which point elites must either deploy repression or reshuffle the deck in order to convince ordinary people to return to normalcy. Security forces sometimes balk at using force against civilians but rarely defect to the protesters’ side en masse, and when a country’s security forces do fragment protesters seldom benefit, especially in the long run.
In other ways, the contest is ferociously complex. For starters, the elites’ ability to “reshuffle the deck” can create all sorts of ambiguities. Indeed, even the idea of a cohesive elite coordinating to “reshuffle the deck” is too simplistic in some circumstances, because elites may be competing for power even if the net effect is often the preservation of the elite class, albeit with some winners and losers. Protesters, or the civilian population more broadly, are then confronted with the dilemma of whether to trust any individual politician, institutional player, military leader, etc., to actually carry out reforms. Deciding whether and whom to trust can fragment protest movements, and yet protesters have little prospect of exercising power directly. Almost invariably they need proxies within the elite, whether existing members of the elite or members of their own ranks who are elevated to positions of power, to have any prospect of achieving reform, let alone broader systemic change.
Then there is the question of ideology. I would say that rather than living in a “post-ideological era,” we live in a time when pre-ideologies, ideologies, and post-ideologies coexist, overlap, and compete. Some of the protests are pre-ideological in my view in that a call, in broad terms, for an open society where people can live with dignity does not represent a detailed program. Yet some of those same protests contain ideological currents that can then show up vividly and divisively in the immediate post-revolutionary phase—liberalism, Islamism, socialism, feminism, and so forth. As an ideological person myself, I’m pro-ideology in the sense that I don’t think a broad call for dignity can be translated into effective revolutionary change without some kind of detailed platform and blueprint. Yet it’s easy to see how the competition and clash between ideologies divided the citizenry in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere, making counterrevolution even easier than it might otherwise have been.
Meanwhile, the elite can often be post-ideological in the sense of deploying a vague and cynical nationalism and the “thin ideology” of right-wing populism in order to rally a base of conservative, reactionary, and ambivalent citizens to the banner of counterrevolution. Negotiating these interactions—between tapping the broad mobilizing potential of pre-ideological calls for dignity and survival, advancing concrete programs of action without fracturing coalitions, and resisting the allure of reactionary post-ideologies—is a key dilemma for revolutionary protesters today. And then, too, ideology’s relevance can become clearer or blurrier depending on the moment; in the heat of crisis, some civilians may adhere to a broad principle while others may feel that they have to choose between the flawed, even outright malevolent actors who monopolize center stage at any given moment.
The politics of identities is a closely related issue. Again, mobilization requires the activation of a broadly shared sense of common purpose, a “we.” And yet that “we” subsumes and often erases some of the components that make it up. Amid Iran’s “Women, Life, Freedom” protests in 2022, for example, two authors warned that the woman whose death had sparked the protests, Jîna (Mahsa) Amini, was being subjected to a form of erasure with wider implications for conceiving of politics and belonging in Iran: “Dismissing Jîna’s Kurdish identity, downplaying the systematic and structural oppression of ethnic minorities, and ignoring the origins of the now popularized chant, ‘Women, Life, Freedom,’ risks fueling rifts, distrust, and resentment among Kurdish populations.”
Meanwhile, Tobi Haslett, in a wide-ranging essay on the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 that deserves to be read in full, points in one passage to the “layers [and contradictions]” surrounding gender, sexuality, and class within the wider movement: “[Breonna] Taylor’s murder took place two months before [George] Floyd’s. But his was the one that stirred popular passion, lending further credence to the black feminist claim that, although almost every media-friendly voice in this movement has belonged to a woman, victims such as Rekia Boyd and Sandra Bland are tacitly deemed less significant communal losses and thus less worthy of mass grief.”
“Who speaks for whom?” is one of the key political questions of our time. The downtrodden, almost definitionally, need more powerful people to speak on their behalf. But as people with wider platforms (upper-class or middle-class, diasporic, English-speaking, etc.) speak on others’ behalf, problems of authenticity, power, and cooptation come to the fore. As international media elevate certain individuals as the faces of movements, there is serious risk of distortion; the New Yorker’s fixation on a diasporic Iranian activist in 2022 seemed to subordinate the “Women, Life, Freedom” protests to a particular liberal feminist ideal of what that movement should be—a framing that another group of Iranian activists eloquently rejected. Some would-be spokespersons are obviously inorganic to the movements they seek to lead. Yet the broader issue remains: is there a way to build mass unity from below without either erasing identities on the one hand or giving way to cacophony of claims and counter-claims on the other hand?
Foreign Actors and Revolution
The mention of diaspora and international media brings us to the role of outsiders (and who is an outsider?), particularly foreign governments, in reacting to and influencing revolutions and would-be revolutions. On Twitter, Sudanese activists in real time are saying everything from blanket calls for Western non-interference (to paraphrase, “you’ve done enough harm”) to pleas for the West to impose peace (diplomatically and through sanctions—I have not seen a single call for armed intervention).
Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, Sudanese on the ground and in the diaspora, as well as Western government officials and commentators, are reviewing the Western diplomatic efforts (or lack thereof) from the past four years. Little consensus has emerged so far except that Western governments bungled the transition and hastened the present conflict. What the Western governments could have or should have done differently remains debated, but with relatively little imagination (one exchange between a former Trump administration policymaker and a keen analyst is notable for a kind of circularity, with the analyst arguing that the former policymaker’s idea of what could have been done differently is, in fact, what actually happened). Even regarding the past, I’ve seen no one with an out of the box policy idea, let alone someone proposing something imaginative for the future. There is a kind of defaulting to stock phrases, even from the analysts I respect the most—a call for “political dialogue,” for example, says little about a roadmap for the country.
On the whole, Western governments and the international “system” as a whole have been counterrevolutionary. Despite tepid support from the Obama administration for Egypt’s 2011 revolution, for example, the 2013 military coup in Egypt prompted a return to the mean—a transactional relationship between Washington and the Egyptian military. Returning to the present, as I write, the International Monetary Fund is moving towards a bailout for Tunisia, and thereby surrendering one of the international community’s few points of leverage over Saied.
Whether it comes about by design or default, this counterrevolutionary posture gives the lie to much of the discourse around “democratic backsliding” and the threats to the “liberal order.” In many of the countries that have seen brief and mesmerizing revolutionary breakthroughs, there was no democracy and little political liberalism to begin with—often, in part, because Western governments had abetted the very dictators that grassroots revolutionaries were seeking to oust. The discourse around “democratic backsliding” and the “liberal order” emanates above all from the anxieties afflicting liberal elites in Western capitals, anxieties that have to do with (1) shock electoral outcomes within the West, such as Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, (2) the rise of autocrats within what used to be called “Second World” countries, and (3) the economic rise of China and the military adventurism of Russia. Anxiety over those trends does not necessarily translate into sustained sympathy, let alone support, for the revolutionary aspirations of peoples in Africa or the Middle East.
When a place such as Burkina Faso is discussed in Washington now, for example, it is either as a zone of potential Russian influence or as a zone of jihadist violence. Recent discussions about nearby Chad highlight that Washington is highly comfortable with autocrats in such regions so long as they reject Russia and fight al-Qaida and ISIS. In the world’s most geopolitically peripheral places (peripheral, that is, from the vantage point of Washington or Brussels), pro-democracy forces, much less full-blown revolutionaries, struggle to clear even the initial hurdles of regime repression—and the world’s most powerful governments barely notice.
Prospects for Revolutionaries?
When the dust settles in Sudan, it is highly likely either that one of the two main generals will be in power, or that some uneasy power-sharing agreement will provide a few years of illusory hope that the power struggle is resolved. Not without justification are some referring to Sudan’s Burhan and Hemedti as “Kiir and Machar,” a reference to the rival politicians in neighboring South Sudan whose power struggle has been the top story in that country’s politics since 2013. A victory for one side or the other in Sudan, or another top-down “transitional framework” with lukewarm support from abroad, will not mean that grassroots activists have no chance of making a breakthrough. But obviously such activists face tremendous obstacles, both in Sudan and elsewhere, to their project of not just removing longtime rulers but dismantling entire systems. And in the Western “core,” there remains a yawning gap between flashes of revolutionary, anti-systemic protest and the conventional politics that periodically offers to citizens an opportunity to choose between a centrist and a reactionary. Revolutionary moments burn out in the “core” even more quickly than they do in dictatorships.
Are there hopeful signs in any of this? I struggle to find any. The courage and imagination of ordinary people, and the solidarity that activists exhibit amid crises, remain inspiring, sometimes breathtaking. Yet the failure of revolutionary projects over the last decade and more is now undeniable. The main glimmer of hope would appear to be in the fact that there are few new ideas emanating from the forces of authoritarianism and repression either. Neither Burhan nor Hemedti, for example, has made any convincing argument so far that they represent anything larger than their own ambitions. That doesn’t mean that leaders, or elite contestants for power, cannot mobilize people, whether out of fear or misdirection or exclusionary solidarities—witness Saied’s appeals to racism in Tunisia. Yet the realities of self-interested rule are clearer than ever. Revolutionaries now understand, perhaps better than ever, what they are up against.
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