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Sudan Protest: Narratives of Violence and the Power of the Internet

Amal Hassan Fadlalla
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A mock camera man on May 6, 2019, during a sit-in protest at the Military Headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan

Sudan's protest reached its peak on April 6, 2019 — the anniversary day of the April 1985 uprising — when it turned into a sit-in in the front of the military headquarters in Khartoum. From December 19, 2018, until the deadly crackdown on the sit-in on June 3, 2019, protesters faced the bullets of snipers shooting at them randomly from different directions; they mourned, picked themselves up, and kept chanting "peaceful, peaceful," as they buried their loved ones.

The sit-in was successful and toppled President Omar al-Bashir. Fearing that their movement would be hijacked like other Arab Spring movements, the protesters continued to sit-in until another member of the Transnational Military Council (TMC) was removed. They finally accepted to negotiate with a second version of the TMC despite the fact that the new members too had a strong connection with the old regime. The new TMC, however, vowed not to fire a single bullet at protesters and that it will acknowledge the role of the protest leadership — Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). Alas, the horrendous massacre carried against the peaceful protest is nothing but a new brand of the same violent tactics that the old regime used throughout its reign to establish its deeply entrenched sharia state and subdue its opponents. After the massacre, the TMC cut internet services and spread militia and security forces across the streets of the capital city, Khartoum, to further silence activists and crush the protest.

Fake News and the Power of Live Podcasts (Livat)

As an anthropologist observing from afar, I followed the protests by viewing protesters' daily podcasts from the sit-in site. These savvy global citizens and citizen journalists used the power of social media correctly and documented their own struggles. Social media enabled them to send their voice out when international media was not fully engaged, and when Sudan's pro-government media was biased. They called their daily and lengthy podcasts livat (Arab-English for live podcasts).

When the negotiation between the TMC and FFC reached stalemate towards the end of the holy month of Ramadan, protesters did not lose hope that a fair deal could still be made. Some even hoped that their national leaders would deliver this fair deal as a gift for Eid Al-Fitr celebration. The sit-in became their new network of family, neighbors, and friends as they broke their fast and prayed together. It became a miniature Sudan, full with tents that protesters used as platforms to discuss important social and political issues. Protesters recited poetry and sang for love, peace, and freedom; they painted walls with triumphant images of hope and progress, they cleaned the streets and fed street kids; they played music and found solace in national songs. Above all, they made sure that the memory of the martyrs remained alive in their chants.

In contrast to their determination, hope, and dream, nefarious narratives about the identities of the protesters continued to surface in pro-government media. Random killing by snippers had killed several protesters in the days leading to the Ramadan massacre. These snipers, the TMC stated, belong to unknown militias and other criminals who are beginning to infiltrate the protest site. They blamed a hangout area — adjacent to the protest site — to be a threat to security and to the safety of protesters.

But, the different live podcasts (livat) that documented the sit-in showed no such infiltration by criminals. Through the whole months of protests no crimes of any kind, including sexual assault, have been highlighted.

Social Media and Protesters' Counter-Narratives

Indeed, the TMC narrative justified the violence that took place before the massacre and legitimated the aggressive crackdown on the sit-in site. This massacre of major proportions took the lives of young protesters as security forces and militias burned their cultural platforms (tents) and dumped dead bodies in River Nile.

Contrary to the TMC narrative that criminalizes protesters, many livat documented stories of resilience and struggle. One live podcast showed Salah, one of the protesters, recording while being trapped in a tent. Salah spoke about the loud gunshots he continued to hear and how he could not get out. He bravely stated, "If I die, keep an eye on this country." Salah was not dealing drugs when he was recording the live podcast. He, like other protesters and martyrs, was dealing in a just dream: a non-violent future for him and his generation in Sudan and all around the world. The dream of a peaceful Eid Al-Fitr was turned into a bloody holiday as funerals replaced the promise of building trust and envisioning a prosperous nation.

Despite the relative isolation of Khartoum due to the TMC's decision to cut internet services in the name of national security, few livat still circulate comforting people and giving hope that violence, fear, and threat are not the way out of Sudan's problems.

The sit-in was one card protesters used to sway the military to their side, but the platform they built taught them otherwise. Despite continuous crackdown, deaths, and detention, protesters vowed to commemorate the symbolic site of their protest by turning the whole country into sites of peaceful protests.

The civil disobedience that leaders of the protest declared after the end of Eid holiday met with great success, showing the TMC that the power of the protest and its leadership cannot be overlooked. Now the FFC demands investigation of the Ramadan massacre by neutral parties, international mediators are stepping in to offer a solution for the stalemate.

Although the protest site has been cleared of the fingerprints that marked its parameters, some videos posted online show the continued mobilization of protesters in Khartoum and in other towns in the Sudan. On June 30, protesters stormed the streets in different parts of the Sudan in a show of force that reinforces their demands for a peaceful transfer to a civilian-led government. Even with a power-sharing deal looming between the TMC and the FFC following the massive protests, the world still has to keep an eye on the Sudan.

Amal Hassan Fadlalla is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of the recent book on Sudan titled Branding Humanity: Competing Narratives of Rights, Violence, and Global Citizenship (Stanford University Press, December 2018).

About the Author

Amal Hassan Fadlalla

Amal Hassan Fadlalla

Associate Professor of Women's Studies, Anthropology, and Afroamerican and African Studies, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more