IT BEGAN IN DECEMBER in protest against the regime raising bread prices. Yet even in a collapsed economy where most people go hungry every day, protest was always going to be seen as an attack on one of the planet's most repressive governments, itself the architect of the policies producing that economic collapse.
As in the French Revolution, this was about far more than bread, and in days, the spreading demonstrations were not only political but revolutionary. “Freedom! Peace! Justice!” shouted the marchers, fitting slogans for a country lacking all three under President Omer el Beshir's National Congress Party (NCP), but also, “Revolution is the People's Choice!”
What makes Sudan's uprising a revolution, not a populist protest, distinct from other protests in Africa or the “Yellow Vests” in France? One difference is that Sudanese are demanding the complete overthrow of the political system. There is little of the cynicism that now pervades much political discourse in the West. Instead, protestors - most of whom have never enjoyed the luxury of a free election - are learning what democracy means, amid intense political debate.
Uncounted thousands have lived at a sit-in outside army headquarters in the capital, Khartoum, since 6th April. Thought and creativity flourish in this improbable venue under a scorching sun. Painting and music thrive alongside political debate. Much of the energy flows from the young, the organisation from the Sudanese Professionals' Association, a union coalition without political affiliation but with members from Sudan's many parties.
These range from the Sudan Communist Party - once Africa's largest - to the traditionalist, religious-based Umma Party. In between stand mainly politically secularist parties, including the liberal Sudan Congress Party, the Sudan People's Liberation Army-North and several from Darfur. All want the regime to fall and Islamists are not welcome.
This is not only an uprising against a corrupt and brutal dictatorship that unleashed genocide in what is now independent South Sudan, and in Darfur, for which the International Criminal Court has indicted General Beshir and others. Nationwide and from all ages, ethnicities, and social and political backgrounds, the protestors demand a change in the entire Islamist system, imposed in 1989 by an NCP coup.
The Sudanese are overwhelmingly Muslim and westerners often forget that the main victims of Islamists - from West Africa to South East Asia - are also Muslims.
The Sudanese have endured nearly 30 years of killing, torture and detention by a party that rules through its security services, all in the name of political Islam. Many current slogans target what people consider the abuse of their religion: “The People condemn the Traders in Religion!” says one.
How the regime will actually fall remains the burning question, one that could yet see a peaceful revolution turn violent. Peaceful on the protestors’ side, that is.
The regime initially responded with fury. Security forces used live ammunition against unarmed civilians, including in hospitals, killing 118 people. Sickening video clips circulating online show government militia throwing youngsters into the back of pick-up trucks, then jumping from the cab onto their prone bodies.
Five days after the sit-in began, Beshir was overthrown by a Transitional Military Council (TMC), now in power. It is drawn from an officer corps that was purged of non-Islamists 20 years ago and its agenda appears to be to maintain the old regime.
Both the UN and the African Union have told the TMC to hand over power to civilians, and western governments back the protestors. The opposition alliance, the Forces for Freedom and Change, is trying to persuade the TMC to step down. Yet essentially, the old regime remains. A reminder came on 12th May, when it ordered diplomats, including the UK Ambassador, not to get too friendly with the protestors.
On 13th May, Beshir was charged with killing protestors. The regime is ditching a man it no longer needs. That night, security forces for the first time used live ammunition against the protestors at the sit-in, killing at least five and injuring dozens. It was a challenge to both the revolutionaries and the international community.
The regime is fighting for survival and for the Islamist movement it is part of: for example, it has supplied ammunition to Islamic State, trained Nigerian jihadists and was implicated in several major terrorist attacks abroad. The NCP spent years preparing for power, has a longterm, Islamist, vision and thinks strategically, a fact outsiders often underestimate. It has built a “deep state” based on security services whose tentacles reach everywhere. It will not give up easily.
Nevertheless, Sudanese are convinced that their revolution will succeed. They courageously struggle on amid the daily threat of official violence. They have lost their fear and regained their hope. If oppositionists can maintain a united front, and African and western governments increase their political support for them, they may well succeed.
Gill Lusk is a freelance writer who has worked in or written about Sudan since 1975. She was deputy, then associate, editor of Africa Confidential for many years. She chairs the Society for the Study of the Sudans (SSSUK), but writes in a personal capacity.
is a freelance writer who has worked in or written about Sudan since 1975.