Written by Declan Walsh
We’re in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. Earlier this year protesters filled the streets to demand the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, the dictator who ruled Sudan for 30 years. In April, the military sided with the protesters, and al-Bashir was toppled and sent to jail. Most people couldn’t believe it. But the protesters wanted immediate civilian rule, and the generals refused to cede power. A seven-week standoff ensued. Then it turned violent.
On June 3, paramilitary troops rampaged through the main protest area in Khartoum, shooting and looting. Dozens of people were killed, and several were raped. The protests were over. Now the soldiers had full control.
I’ve been coming to Sudan for the last 20 years. The country often felt troubled and isolated. It was this huge African nation torn apart by war and famine and al-Bashir’s suffocating rule. So when people rose against al-Bashir in December, surging through the streets, it felt as if a bolt of lightning had hit Sudanese society.
And when those protests succeeded, against the odds, in toppling al-Bashir, there was this electrifying sense of possibility. After decades of repression and isolation, Sudanese suddenly believed that they could reinvent their country. That they had a shot at democracy.
Young people, especially, celebrated new freedoms. Many were women. I met Nahed, a young woman who was once detained by the morality police. Now she held her boyfriend’s hand in public, without fear. I also met Samar Alnour, who had been shot in the leg during the protests. Now she was going back, weeks later, to marry the man who had rescued her.
But when I returned to Sudan in June, days after the military dispersal, Khartoum was a shell of the city I’d seen weeks earlier. The streets were silent and fearful. Bodies were being pulled from the Nile. Protesters were in hiding, some still injured from the crackdown. Soldiers roamed the streets. The internet was shut down. At least 128 people had been killed. At the protest area, soldiers were whitewashing walls — seeking to erase the revolutionary graffiti, and maybe the revolution itself.
I met Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, known as Hemeti, whose troops led the crackdown. It was strange to find myself in front of this man accused of such atrocities. Hemeti played down the violence by portraying the protesters as moral degenerates. His officers showed me contraband that they said they had found on protesters.
Hemeti had political ambitions, too. A few days later I followed him to a rally at a village 40 miles outside Khartoum. He accused foreign diplomats and protest leaders of conspiring against him. A soldier with a video camera tried to whip up the bused-in crowd. Hemeti seemed to enjoy the limelight. One dictator had fallen in Sudan. Was another one rising?
But the protest movement wasn’t dead. I tracked down Samar, the bride who had been shot in the leg. A day earlier, Samar told me, she’d been detained and beaten by security officials for organizing new protests. The revolution wasn’t over, she insisted.
Resistance was stirring elsewhere, too. The next night, hundreds of people gathered on chairs and sofas in a suburb of Khartoum. The crowd listened raptly to Mohamed al-Asam, a 28-year-old doctor turned revolutionary who roused defiant cheers with his speech. Later that night, al-Asam brought me to a meeting with other protest leaders. Despite everything, they laughed, swapped ideas and planned more protests.
Al-Asam, who spent 98 days in jail under al-Bashir, seemed at once exhausted and invigorated. It was a critical moment for Sudan, he said. “We’ve been ruled by military dictatorships for over 50 years. We cannot accept another one.”
On June 30, protesters flooded Sudan’s streets for the largest pro-democracy demonstration yet — an extraordinary act of defiance. Days later came a deal. Military and civilian leaders agreed to share power until elections in three years. The situation is fragile and uncertain, though. So many Arab revolutions have failed; for this one to succeed, much has to go right. At least now Sudan has a second chance.