For years, the work of opposing the Sudanese government had been undertaken by traditional political parties and rebel groups, who formed everchanging alliances. In 2011, though, those who sought to ignite popular opposition to Bashir’s rule were mostly young activists and college students. Their domains were the country’s universities and upper middle-class neighborhoods. Though their efforts were short-lived—in a matter of weeks, they were defeated, with demonstrators arrested, tortured, or forced into exile—protests took place again in 2012 and 2013.
This year, the Sudanese Professionals Association, an independent trade union, took the lead. Its may be comprised of activists who belong to various political groups, but the appearance and appeal of an unaffiliated, non-ideological body has been instrumental in mobilizing masses of people, reigniting the historically important role of trade unions in Sudanese politics. And they are courting others, too. “We learned the importance of unity,” Sarah Abdeljalil, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Professionals Association, told me.
Young Sudanese women in particular have played a critical role, and have been labeled kandakas, the title of the queens of ancient Sudan. In some ways, their participation reflects the country’s changing demographics, but it is also an effort to publicly reject what is widely perceived to be a submissive role for women in Sudanese society. The widely shared photograph of activist Alaa Salah chanting while stood on top of a car, taken by Lana Haroun, has become the uprising’s iconic image.
Protesters have also taken inspiration from nationalist moments in their countries’ histories. For Algerians, that has meant looking toward pro-democracy protests in 1988 along with a history of anti-colonial resistance. In Sudan, demonstrators point to examples of civic resistance including 1964 protests when students stood up to a military government, eventually overthrowing it, as well as a similar movement in 1985 that again ended army rule.
When the protests first erupted, the Sudanese government initially accusedDarfurian university student activists of inciting violence, linking them to rebel groups connected to Israel. Sudanese protesters rejected that claim in what they saw as an age-old method to use ethnicity to deflect attention from real problems. “You Arrogant Racist We Are All Darfur!” became a rallying cry in the capital, Khartoum, a city whose residents had long looked down on people from the conflict-wracked region.
In fact, the protesters in Sudan, whether or not they are affiliated with political groups, come from diverse backgrounds. It is telling that the initial rallies started outside of Khartoum, beginning late last year in the northern town of Atbara in River Nile State, a traditional stronghold for Bashir, when high school students saw that the price of bread had tripled. Other cities and villages soon joined.