Lamentations for Sudan

Sudanese scholar Ali Ali-Dinar, a senior lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies, discusses the ongoing uprising in the East African country and the Sudan massacre.

Dr. Ali Ali-Dinar sits at a table in his office.

People are being slaughtered in Sudan as you read this. 

On June 3, the Sudanese police and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) attacked thousands of protesters engaged in a peaceful sit-in in the capital city of Khartoum, resulting in more than 100 deaths, dozens of rapes, and hundreds of injuries.

The nonviolent sit-in began last December when masses of Sudanese people, enraged by soaring prices, sky-high inflation, and a banking calamity, began protesting in Khartoum against the military regime that has ruled the country since the late 1980s. Demonstrators called for an end to the regime and a transition to democracy.

Ali Ali-Dinar, a Sudanese scholar and a senior lecturer in the Department of Africana Studies, says the uprising has been years in the making, arising from people’s exasperation with endless wars and worsening economic conditions. 

“The government has spent all the money on security and the army, and ignored the other sectors like health and education,” he says. “That has been going on for decades. It is a combination of many things, of mismanagement, of corruption, of opening the country to foreign intervention and foreign interests. It’s a multitude of events that have been in the works for a long time.”

Months of protests by the Sudanese people brought an end to the 30-year rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who was overthrown by a military coup in April. The Transitional Military Council, which took over the country, at first negotiated with the protestors and even agreed to some of their demands—before unleashing a reign of terror in the form of the RSF. The situation is at a standstill.

Ali-Dinar, who is originally from the Darfur region of Sudan and attended the University of Khartoum, talks with Penn Today about the people’s revolt, the vicious response by the government, international and continental responses, and why he is optimistic despite the bloodshed.

Protesters in Khartoum in front of the Sudanese Army headquarters.
Protesters in Khartoum in front of the Sudanese Army headquarters. (Photo: M. Saleh)


Is the revolt among the Sudanese people similar to what occurred during the Arab Spring?

It’s just a coincidence; it is not the same as the Arab Spring. In Sudan, we have a history of demonstrations and sit-ins that peacefully toppled dictatorial governments. That is something that has been in the history of Sudan that has not been in other places in the Arab world. In 1964, a military dictator was toppled by sit-ins and a civil strike, and then again in 1985. History has caused people to believe, regardless of all the things that are going on, that they can topple the government through peaceful means. I don’t think it’s a copycat of the Arab Spring. This is something that is 100 percent Sudanese. It has been proven and tested by the Sudanese people. What is unique about the current situation is its longevity. People have been on strike for more than six months. That never happened in the Arab Spring. 

Are you surprised that the Sudanese government reacted so brutally to the protests?

I’m not surprised that the government tried to cling to power by whatever means, and was buying time so that the energy within the people and the demonstrators would just wither. That is something I expected would happen, that they would not give in immediately. I was not surprised that the government tried to elongate the negotiations and put all these kinds of obstacles in front of the people. But for them to use the Rapid Support Forces in the way in which these killings happened was not expected. It was a complete surprise. I was surprised by the sheer power that they unleashed against the sitting demonstrators. We never expected that they would resort to this kind of power.

Why do you think the government resorted to such brutal tactics?

I think it was a grave mistake. I think they see the protestors as a complete nuisance and wanted to break it up because the sit-ins became like a mecca. People from all over Sudan would come and show their support. But the way in which they used that force has gotten them into a lot of trouble. There were a lot of other ways in which they could disperse the people without shooting them. Shooting people and doing all these things could be the work of the army, specifically these militias called Rapid Support Forces and remnants of the security organs of the regime. I think it just complicated things more than easing them for the military council. They will be held responsible.

Is the Sudanese military doing the killing, or the militias, or a combination of both?

I think a combination of many. The militias are definitely a big one, but it is not only the militias. The past regime has a lot of paramilitary groups so the people who are against the sit-ins are not just the militias, these Rapid Support Forces. While the president and his top advisers were forced to resign, the whole body of the government is still intact and so the security organs are intact. It was not dissolved. So these demonstrations, since they are against the government, they have a lot of enemies from the remnants of the regime. It’s not like it’s only one force that has a problem with the sit-ins, many, many military groups that are part of the regime, part of the ruling party, are involved in this dispersal. The dispersal or the ending of the protests is good for the military council, and it’s also good for the past regime because it could just be a continuation. 

Protestors chant and rally at night in front of the the Sudanese Army headquarters in Khartoum.
Protestors chant and rally at night in front of the the Sudanese Army headquarters in Khartoum. (Photo: M. Saleh)


So even though the president was forced to resign, nothing really changed?

No, because it’s just the president. It’s just the top people. Other than that, there hasn’t been any change in the system of the government. Nothing changed. It’s the same kind of policies in the media, the security forces are still there and flexing their muscles. The foreign policies are still there. The internal policies are still there. The president and his top ministers are out but the central government itself and all its organs remained intact.

Why do you think the massacre has been underreported by the Western media?

I saw some reporting from The Washington Post and NPR. I also saw some reporting in Britain because of the colonial attachment. Britain was the colonizer of Sudan for a long time. Because of the normal bias in reporting things from Africa, even if it’s good things, it takes a long time for things like this to come out. The media is just focused on negative things. If there are a lot of killings in Sudan, it may be reported, but these kind of demonstrations or sit-ins are not reported. The only time it was reported was when they started killing the demonstrations. That is the nature of the bias in media reporting, specifically things coming from Africa. It’s not something unique to Sudan. In many places in Africa, if there is something good happening like a civil strike against a dictatorship, it will not get covered in the media, only if there is something disastrous. If one person died from Ebola in Uganda, or two people died from Ebola in Congo, it would be reported. But people demonstrating and calling for democracy in a country continuously for more than six months, it would not be reported.

How has the rest of the world responded to the massacre?

The European Union has stated that it backs the right of civilian demonstrators. The African Union also. The United States also just sent an envoy, Donald Booth, and also the assistant secretary for African affairs, Tibor P. Nagy, went to Sudan and met with the Transitional Military Council, and they seemed like they reiterated the same thing to the civilian government. But nothing remarkable happened now because all the anti-establishment people have been organized in this alliance called Alliance for Freedom and Change, which is comprised of many political parties and also professional associations. It became like a big umbrella, and is negotiating on behalf of the people with the military council. Since the dispersals of the sit-in, all these negotiations have been stopped and they have not resumed, so there is a political stalemate. The military council threatened that they will appoint a civilian government with experts and they will continue to rule and will have elections, but that is not what the Alliance for Freedom and Change wants. The military just wants elections right away so the old regime could come back again and have another life.

It sounds like the protestors want to overthrow the entire military establishment. What do you think is going to happen? 

There must be some kind of a solution because the protestors are extremely emboldened in their positions, specifically after what happened to them. The military cannot just fool the people and continue to rule like this for a long time. The pressure will be on both the military, from the outside, and also the pressure could be on the Alliance for Freedom and Change that they need to reach some kind of formula, and that formula could pave the way for stability. They agreed on certain aspects. They agreed that the council of ministers would all be civilians and the legislative body would be 76 percent for people from the Alliance for Freedom and Change. Then the military did their massacre against the people and then all the negotiations stopped and there has been no resumption. After the massacre, the whole language about the negotiations completely changed. The protestors are not just saying let’s go back to where we stopped; there is a whole change of tactics. So there is this kind of stalemate.

Map of Sudan


If progress was being made, why did the government start killing people?

Because the government was not negotiating in sincerity. They were just buying time. The government said yes, but behind the scenes it had other plans.

Has the government stopped killing people?

No. The killing has continued.

What about Sudan’s neighbors? What are their views on the massacre? Have they tried to mediate or intervene?

The Ethiopian president came and visited Sudan and talked to the military and talked to the Alliance, and offered mediation in Ethiopia. But the Alliance is not interested in that because they said that’s also just buying time and elongating time. They said if there’s any mediation, it must be done in Sudan; we don’t need to go outside the country to agree on something. But the main countries who are meddling negatively in Sudan’s affairs are Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. These are the three countries that are in allegiance politically with the government and they have a lot of interests in Sudan being under this military dictatorship. Geopolitically, Sudan is positioned near the Red Sea, so it has a lot of interests there, especially now with what’s happening in the region. Each country has its own interests in Sudan and the position of Sudan with regards to negotiations about share of the Nile River, and also to stand against Ethiopia. Egypt also has its own fear from what is happening in Libya. What is going on in Libya is being fomented by the Emirates, so it’s the Emirates and Egypt together, who also have the backing of Saudi Arabia. Sudan also has some troops fighting on the side of Saudis and Emirates in Yemen so if there is any change in the government—the Sudanese people are talking about removing the Sudanese army from Yemen since they have nothing to do with Yemen—that also will make a lot of trouble from these countries because the Houthis in Yemen could threaten Saudi Arabia.

Besides that, [Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates] also have a lot of investment in Sudan because Sudan is a very big country with water. Land grab policies are being conducted by these countries in Sudan, so they have a lot of agricultural schemes, they have a lot of interests. If a revolution in Sudan happens and the civilians get their country back, it will not be good for these countries, so they are meddling in Sudanese affairs. There is a lot of backing from these countries for the military council in Sudan.

Map of Sudan and neighbors


Are you optimistic that this situation will end well for the people of Sudan? 

I have to be optimistic. We will be optimists, not necessarily with the result but with the process itself and the message. People from all over Sudan are supporting change, specifically with regard to the youth, because at some point people felt like the youth were out of touch and had no interest in politics or change, but they just showed that they are the opposite of what people are expecting from them. They are fully energized and fully involved in what’s going on in their country. I think that is best thing that people could think about it, that there is hope, there is a force that you can rely on to force change. And I think that’s a good thing.

People on social media have turned their profile photos blue to support the Sudanese people and bring awareness about the massacre to the masses, and urging people to call their representatives. What can people do to help?

There are a lot of demonstrations in Washington and New York, and even here in Philadelphia. People are writing to their representatives, people are collecting money and sending it back to people in Sudan in need. People are very active on social media and engaged with what’s going on. People who are turning their profile blue are trying to direct the attention of the international community to what is happening in Sudan. It’s very difficult to get that kind of attention but people are just trying to do something.

It seems as if the only time people outside of Africa talk about Sudan is when there is a catastrophe, such as the Darfur crisis or the recent massacre. Can you talk a little bit about Nubia and Kush, and the history of Sudan before colonization?

Geographically, the northern part of Sudan is linked to Egypt so there is a lot of Egyptian influence in the history of Sudan. But at the same time, there is also an indigenous civilization in which people from the northern part of Sudan have their own history with regard to region, not only in Egypt, but also with regard to the Levant and Mesopotamia. Even in the history of dynastic Egypt, the 25th dynasty of Egypt was ruled by Nubians for more than 100 years. There is indigenous culture represented in many monuments and artifacts. There was the Kingdom of Kush and the Kingdom of Kerma, which came before the Kingdom of Kush. Sudan also has its own pyramids, it has its own language, which is contemporaneous to the Egyptian civilization.

In the history of Sudan, we have seen a civilization that is uniquely Sudanese. It has its own deity, it has its own mode of architecture, it has its own language. It hasn’t been deciphered yet, but there is a lot of text, a lot of writing in this language in a place called Meroe. There are more pyramids in Sudan than in Egypt, and that civilization came to an end in the 4th century by another rising civilization from the West from Ethiopia’s Kingdom of Axum, which brought an end to the Kingdom of Meroe. And after that, the northern part of Sudan gets into this history in which we have Christian kingdoms, and then the slow process of Islamization and the entry of Arabs groups in the region and the establishment of Islamic civilizations in many places in Sudan, and prosperity in Sudan politics. Sudan’s current borders came to a shape in the early 19th century. It was under the control of the Turkish-Egyptian forces. The northern part of Sudan, the southern part of Sudan, and the western part of the Sudan became like a nucleus of todays’ Sudan.

Meroe pyramids in the Sahara desert in Sudan
Meroe pyramids in the Sahara desert in Sudan.