Questioning the narratives of protest

Every serious protest in Sudan is put to the same test of classification. Is it is akin to the revolutions of 1964 and 1985? Or, is it Sudan’s version of the Arab Spring? Those supportive of the protests usually assert it is one or both of these things; those supportive of the status quo deny or downplay either parallel, and analysts and observers tend to favour one or more of the four possible positions (akin to 64 or 85, or not; a formative Arab Spring, or not). I would argue that return to these precedents as the models for comparison both limits our understanding of current events, and obscures a dispassionate assessment of how change is likely to occur.

I am not arguing for Sudanese exceptionalism. Nor that Sudan should be treated ahistorically. But perhaps the revolutions of 1964 and 1985 are precedents best consigned to the history books, rather than be romanticised as examples of what contemporary Sudanese protesters could or should aspire to achieve, or be used as the standard by which to critique the failures of contemporary activists (Alex de Waal’s recent essay could be accused of the latter.)

Twenty-first century Sudan is so far removed from 1964 and 1985 that a successful future revolution will only have a passing resemblance to events of decades earlier. The nature of the dynamics and institutions of that Sudanese society – from trade unions to universities to broad based sectarian parties and beyond – no longer exists. Wishing this lost society would return is fanciful. Judging today’s protesters for a lack of organisation relative to that achieved by this earlier society is like decrying the country’s loss of fluency in English compared with standards of the 1950s and 60s: it may be true but it misses the point. 1964 and 1985 may inspire, although as the majority of today’s population has no direct recollection of either event, even this is questionable. But it is time to abandon the view that future change will follow the same route. Both the means and the method will likely be different.

What about the Arab Spring? Surely this more contemporary comparison is a better analytical model? In a recent TV debate in which I participated, government spokesman Khalid al-Mubarak asserted that Arab Spring revolutions were only successful in countries which had pro-Western regimes (conveniently overlooking Gaddhafi’s Libya). Those who want to see parallels will privilege what appears to be in common with their favoured example.

The Arab Spring narrative has a self-referential problem: there is no single Arab Spring narrative. Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and Yemen and Libya may well have points in common, but the diversity of outcomes in each country is illustrative of the problems of applying the parallel elsewhere. And compared to other countries in the neighbourhood, Sudan’s long list of other problems, which one needs not repeat, seems far more determinative of the overall fate of far more of the country than that of a relatively elite protest movement at the distant centre. Long before any recent split in the riverine elite there were civil wars in the country’s peripheries; long before the first protester died in Khartoum there were thousands of others who mostly died anonymously in less prominent places. While a new government in Khartoum may well be significant in the riverine heartland, it will require more than that for life to significantly change for most who live outside of the centre.

Should a successful revolution in Sudan occur in the near future, it will likely be absorbed in a grand Arab Spring narrative, but such contextualisation does not help those trying to achieve it. If there is a key lesson of the Arab Spring, it appears to be for the leadership: eventually choose to concede power and you will face exile or trial (Ben Ali, Mubarak); lose power non-consensually and you might lose your life (Gaddhafi; Ali Abdullah Saleh narrowly escaped assassination, before he changed tack); repress, resist and fight on and you have a chance of survival (Guelleh of Djibouti, the al-Khalifa of Bahrain, Syria’s al-Assad). If you are President al-Bashir, the message is self-evident.

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