On October 31st, 2023, the Orfalea Center for Global & International Studies, directed by Professor Paul Amar, hosted a live webinar international conference aimed at raising awareness about the currently unfolding war and crisis in Sudan and keeping the inspiring consciousness and leadership models of the Sudanese revolution of 2019 alive. In 2019, a popular uprising brought down the regime of former President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan. The Orfalea Center webinar-conference in October 2023 explored the dynamics that led to the 2019 revolution while also unpacking the factors (national and international) that have contributed to the coup and current civil war that erupted on April 15, 2023, between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) under Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) under Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemedti). This conference panelists considered the opportunities and constraints for transnational solidarity as variously positioned activists and artists inside and outside of Sudan navigate their relationship to the struggle while connecting to other movements worldwide. The full video of the live webinar conference can be found on our Youtube channel HERE.
We would like to thank our partners at the Security in Context Network and the Carnigie Corporation for their support in the success of this event.
The event was an inspiring success with a consistent viewership of 130-200 people throughout the two-hour run-time, and the Orfalea Center would like to thank our co-hosts – the African Studies department at McGill University and the Anthropology department at UC Irvine and thank the Carnegie Corporation and the Security in Context network that made this research and programming possible. The webinar-conference was organized over a period of four months by Omar Mansour of the Orfalea Center, and Profs. Khalid Medani, Samar al-Bulushi and Nisrin Elamin.
Professor Paul Amar, director of the Orfalea Center, opened the online conference with the following framing questions: “What can we learn from the popular uprising that began in the Sudan in 2019? In this current moment today in 2023, a moment of political crisis and conflict in Sudan, why is it imperative that we not lose sight of the revolutionary consciousness that has been growing since the uprisings began? And how can we articulate transnational solidarity among artists, activists, academics, and resistance leaders in the current context?”
Amar then introduced our speakers for the day. We were happy to have with us Professor Nisrin Elamin, Assistant Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at the University of Toronto; Professor Khalid Mustafa Medani, Associate Professor in Political Science and Islamic Studies, where he is also the Director of the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Chair of the African Studies Program at McGill University. We were joined by Dr. Iman Ahmed, a leader of the Sudan Doctors Union in Canada. The Sudan Doctors Union is one of the most vital resources on the ground in Sudan at the moment, and Iman spoke about the great work they are doing in terms of transnational solidarity. Our panel of Sudanese artists-activists included Reem Aljeally, visual artist, curator, and founder of the Muse Multi Studio, an integrative regional artistic organization with a contemporary art gallery in Khartoum. We also had with us Sudanese-American artist and designer Waad Husein, co-founder of the Badu Collective, an artist-organizing group rooted in exploring identity and creativity. We were also honored by the participation of two members of the Sudanese Resistance Committees, Marine Alneel, and Maryam Alfaqih, introduced by Nisrin Elamin. Marina Neil is the Executive Director of Afia for Community and Psychological Wellness Services. She’s a clinical psychologist and researcher with extensive experience working with people and communities affected by war. Her focus is on psycho, politically valid mental health services, research, and training. She’s also an organizer and activist active during the ongoing revolution and is a resistance committee member. Maryam Al-faqih is a Sudanese democracy, social justice, and peace activist who has played a pivotal role in the nonviolent struggle for democracy, freedom, peace, and justice in Sudan since 2018. She started contributing to Sudan’s December 2018 revolution by helping establish her neighborhood’s resistance committee in Bahari. She’s an elected member of the Bahari Coordinating Committee. She also has a degree in architecture
Where We Stand and How We Got Here
Khalid Medani began by providing some background for those listeners who may be unfamiliar with Sudanese politics. He stated that the humanitarian crisis in Sudan “may have fallen off the news, at least in global or Western media, but continues to expand in a very distressing way.” The destruction of infrastructure, the displacement of millions, and the targeting of civil society groups, human rights groups, journalists, and hospitals are some components of a larger crisis in Sudan, one which includes humanitarian, economic, and political crises.
While the revolution deposed former President Omar al-Bashir, the protest movement that led to this began in December of 2018. He spoke about the December Revolution of 2018, which the Sudanese call the Glorious Revolution. The revolution brought down the thirty-year military dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir. The violence perpetuated by that regime killed millions throughout Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur, and in the Juba mountains as well. Mobilization of the uprising against Bashir by youth, women, artists, and many others necessitated a great deal of organization, ingenuity, and courage.
This was a revolution that was many years in the making. Prof. Medani reminded us that, dating back to at least the year 2010, student youth organizations had emerged, mobilizing for a democratic future and to overthrow the regime, and had begun devising different strategies and tactics with which to do so. Continued protests and the economic crisis that came with the partition of South Sudan, in conjunction with the organizational ingenuity of youth organizations at the time, set the context for the breaking down of the networks that held up the regime. This combination of years of crisis and organizing led to December 2018, a unanimous call for the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir, which finally culminated in April 2019.
Khalid encapsulated four elements that made it possible for young people, youth activists, and others to accomplish this revolution. He described the four elements as follows: 1) Organizational modes of resistance were developed over the years that stood up to the coercive apparatus of the military regime of Omar al-Bashir; 2) Artists played an important role in devising strategies to counter-hegemonic discourse, such as critiquing the so-called Islamist nature of the regime and its legitimacy. This is what came to be identified as revolutionary consciousness. 3) Youth activists highlighted the central faultlines and contradictions of Sudan, including the ethnic and racial divisions, the economic and social divisions, and the urban-rural divide. 4) The final element was the establishment of the Sudanese Professional Association. Khalid stated, “ In Sudan, as opposed to other countries where these movements occurred, activists were able to effectively combine horizontal street protests with the vertical coordination of the Sudanese Professional Association.” These factors represent the success of that revolution and laid the groundwork for the revolution of consciousness and “what Sudanese call the ‘live revolution’ which continues both in organization and in the consciousness of Sudanese worldwide,” said Khalid. This title of “live revolution” is derived from the perseverance and continuity of revolutionary organizing in the face of undermining efforts by the elite.
The fracturing of the revolutionary momentum was something that was predicted by the activists themselves, according to Khalid. “What happened at the moment of completion of the revolution in 2019 really became a central aspect of why the revolution was ultimately undermined,” said Khalid. This, however, was not much of a choice on the part of the Sudanese street. Khalid used the term “soft landing” to describe what came next. Rather than continuing with the revolution, political parties intervened at the behest of the military, which was still monopolized by the former remnants of the former regime, leading to a tenuous hybrid regime of civilian leadership with the military. Khalid described this as a fatal compromise that obstructed and weakened youth protest movements and civil society organizations, favoring instead the military brass that saw a true completion of this revolution as a threat to their own future. Yet the protests and the revolutionary consciousness and momentum continued for the four years after 2019.
After the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s third-most senior general, was made head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC). However, very soon after, mostly as a result of the continued street protests as well as international pressure, the Sovereign Council (SC), a civilian-military partnership, was formed to steer the country toward elections scheduled for 2023 and a full civilian government. However, as head of the SC, al-Burhan essentially became the de facto head of state. “In order to upend the revolutionary potential and the strength of the Sudanese street, there was no choice on the part of Abdel-Fattah Burhan and his partner at the time, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, leader of the Sudan Revolutionary Front forces (RSF), the insurgent military groups, but to wage yet another military coup in the country in 2021,” said Khalid. However, throughout this so-called interim transitional government, both generals were vying for power, leading to a strained relationship.
Ultimately, it was this continuation of protest and the sheer strength the revolutionary forces that compelled Dagalo and Burhan to actually come to the table in December of 2022 in what was then called the Framework Agreement. As part of this deal between the army, the RSF, and Sudan’s civilian pro-democracy groups, the army committed to withdrawing to its barracks, and the RSF was set to be integrated into the army, unifying both forces under military command. In April 2023, it all fell apart. From the perspectives of Dagalo and al-Burhan, both intent on consolidating their own power, there was no other option to advance their power and particularly their monopoly over Sudan’s economy without going to war, and achieving a complete defeat over the another. “Their partnership fell apart…only one could survive and monopolize the economy and the country,” said Khalid.
Khalid concluded with an assessment of the crossroads that Sudan finds itself at. “This is where we stand at the moment. Sudan has reached a critical juncture in its history in the sense that we have different visions of what the nation-state should be. The live revolution continues because the stakes are so high. The future of Sudan could either go the way of a militarized version, where the military or its now rival militia continues to dominate civil life, or support and be in solidarity with the vast majority of the Sudanese population.”
For a deeper understanding of the revolution, click here to read Khalid’s piece Understanding the Roots, Dynamics, and Potential of an “Impossible” Revolution: The Prospects and Challenges of Democratization in Sudan.
This chapter is part of the book Struggles for Political Change in the Arab World: Regimes, Oppositions, and External Actors after the Spring. Edited by Lisa Blaydes, Amr Hamzawy, and Hesham Sallam. This book is available to read and download here
The Spirit of the Revolution: Artists as Leaders
Artist voices were a key focus for this conference. Sudanese artists were, and continue to be, such powerful leaders of the revolution, as Khalid discussed earlier. One can point to artists as providing visible and impactful contributions to protest movements all over the world, spanning decades. This segment of the Orfalea Center online conference saw our panelists Reem and Waad answering questions on the role of artists in the revolution and the current war, defining the spirit of the revolution and describing how transnational solidarity appears in their work as Sudanese in Sudan and in the diaspora.
Reem was quick to highlight not only the importance of artists but also the responsibility they bear. Artists hold the unique ability to express and convey what was happening in Sudan in a very simple way locally and to the world, giving them wider exposure. Reem stated, “I think the artists were the messengers or the face of this revolution, speaking in a language that they were able to express [themselves] to those watching.” Waad is a Sudanese living in the diaspora in the United States, and this, she said, gave her a distinct perspective in that she was on the receiving end of Sudanese art exposure during the revolution. She stated, “ I actually came to know about the revolution in Sudan through art,” mentioning a Sudanese artist whose murals radicalized those exposed and allowed Sudanese to show what was happening. She concluded that in 2019 specifically, “my role as an artist was really learning from people in Sudan. And I think that moment in time really helped me understand.”
The roles of artists in this current war and climate are not easily defined. Reem described challenges for artists and others in Sudan who face a perilous and unstable environment. Even for those who are in the diaspora, these current events are raw, and artists are suspended in moments of self-reflection. However, Reem continued, the strength of the Sudanese artist community is that “there’s always a chance to regroup and reposition themselves.” Reem stated that similar to their role in the 2019 Revolution, “artists are once again using their tools and their voices to amplify what is happening now in Sudan, and they are doing this across a variety of artistic mediums – visual arts, music, and design.” From her perspective, as a Sudanese artist based in Cairo, Egypt, she observed that artists are regrouping and actively engaging in discussions about the issues affecting Sudan and building on the momentum gained after the revolution. Part of that momentum is that Sudanese artists “have established a ground for a new industry that has started in Sudan,” said Reem. Reem explained that the transformation in the art industry following the revolution marked a significant departure from the previous 30 years. This change was predominantly driven by the youth, infused with the spirit of the revolution, and fueled by the hope of building a better country. This drive continues to sustain the artists, who, despite the ongoing war, are actively seeking ways to build support networks and advance their work, regardless of whether they are in Sudan or abroad. In a specific example, Muse Multi Studios, of which Reem is the founder, has expanded its operations to include Sudan, in addition to its existing base in Cairo. This expansion has made Port Sudan a central hub for a multitude of activities occurring in the country. With this strategic focus on Port Sudan, the artists there are not only regrouping but also engaging in critical discussions about their role within the visual arts industry. They are exploring ways to contribute to broader causes and are committed to amplifying the voices that speak out about current events, thereby drawing attention back to the ongoing issues.
With so many Sudanese in the diaspora, both before and as a result of the revolution and war, conversation turned to discuss the entanglement of art with transnational solidarity. What did Waad, as an artist in the diaspora, think when she imagines transnational solidarity or solidarity with Sudanese back home; how does she visualize that in her art? Waad said that when we talk about transnational solidarity, in her case, it means that she cannot uplift Sudan all on her own. “I need my Somali friends, my Egyptian friends, my Palestinian friends, my communities from other countries to really understand Sudan, where we come from, to help me uplift our messages.” Her role, she said, as a Sudanese artist living in the West, is preservation. There was a lack of knowledge for many in the diaspora community regarding Sudan, its history, its culture, its arts, literature and what a Sudanese is. In that context, her art is really about education, showcasing images that are not just about destruction or war. “They’re not seeing the beauty that existed and will exist and will continue to exist in the future. So a big part of the art that I have is really about preservation of memory.” Waad then spoke about the importance of memory in her art and why memory is important. Memory is very important in terms of the revolution for the purposes of sustaining us and moving forward. For Waad, memory is a component of “striving to preserve the beauty of what we had, the weddings, the celebrations, coming together, the graduation ceremonies; all the beauty and light that exists.” She stated that this can be a driving force and guide for mobilization. Of course, this is from the vantage point and privilege of the diaspora, as Khalid reminded us. This is not something that Sudanese within Sudan can do at the moment. This is important to keep in mind.
Reem also shared a description of her work. She focuses her work on exploring her personal life in Khartoum. Her paintings reflect her experiences navigating the dynamic urban spaces of the city. Since leaving Sudan at the end of April 2023, her work has shifted to rely on memory, showing the intimate, everyday aspects of life she experienced there. Reem’s art also serves as a form of documentation, capturing the sense of life in Khartoum both while she lived there and now, from the perspective of memory. As for curation, her focus is still on Khartoum, exploring its impact on its inhabitants and its ever-changing nature, especially during significant changes.
The artists’ Instagram handles and websites are available here: Waad Husein’s Instagram and her art store .Reem Aljeally’s Instagram. If you would like to see Waad and Reem talk about their work, please watch our full recording!
Revolutionary Consciousness in Popular Resistance Committees
Sudan’s resistance committees are an absolutely vital component of Sudanese civil society and have been crucial leaders in Sudan’s revolutionary efforts. These “resistance committees” are neighborhood groups that have helped lead Sudan’s pro-democracy movement since 2019. What role, then, did the resistance committees play in the revolution, and how did they emerge and develop?
Marine Alneel discussed the origins of the resistance committees, tracing them back to the 2018 start of uprisings. She highlighted the rich history of organizing and mobilization that resistance committees continue to embody, building on past models, and reminded us that many of today’s revolutionaries did not appear just now but those from past organizing. The work is continuous and ever-improving. These committees, predominantly composed of youth, grew organically across Sudan, adhering to principles of non-hierarchy and decentralization, and were reflective of the demographics of their communities. She explained that In 2018, the emergence of resistance committees in Sudan gained momentum when the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) announced a march for December 19th. Initially focused on demanding decent living wages, the movement’s objective shifted under popular pressure to the slogan “taskut bas” (let it fall), calling for regime change. The resistance committees played a crucial role in grassroots mobilization and influencing the SPA’s decisions, such as adjusting protest timings to accommodate the participation of young women. As Marine recalled, in March or April of 2019 the SPA called for a demonstration to be held regularly at 5:00 PM, but resistance committees and individuals highlighted the danger this would place on women returning home at dark or leaving home close to dark. The resistance committees were successful in their challenge of this time, and “ever since then, the Sudanese Professional Association has never announced a protest at any hour other than 1 p.m. or what also later became famously known as the hour of the Revolution,” said Marine. It is this care for and solidarity with the people and the street that allowed the committee to gain in popularity, added Maryam, highlighting an example of bread deliveries to homes. Not only did they demonstrate an innate care for people, but as Maryam said, demonstrated a “capability to step in and replace failing or lacking national services and provide for the people.”
Mobilizing Transnational Solidarity with Sudan
The panel turned to address the issue of mobilizing transnational solidarity in support of the Sudanese people. What roles can regional and international solidarity play in the perpetuation of revolutionary consciousness and in connecting resistance committees with global networks of support? Additionally, what does transnational solidarity look like at this moment? Specifically, which roles can the diaspora and others who are interested in standing in solidarity with Sudanese play in relation to the resistance committees?
Maryam stated that the Sudanese diaspora played a significant role in supporting the revolution, initially by covering expenses for the injured during demonstrations. Additionally, international and regional communities were pivotal during the democratic transition, facilitating negotiations between various groups and also providing significant support to the transitional government, including technical assistance, economic and financial alliances, and debt relief, contributing to its achievements. Furthermore, regional and international actors took decisive measures following the coup, which were instrumental in hindering the coup leaders from establishing a de facto government. They suspended financial and technical support to Sudan and maintained this suspension until a civilian government was formed. These actors also engaged in intensive dialogues with Sudanese stakeholders to restore the democratic transition. Most recently, their efforts have been focused on ending the war in Sudan, highlighting the ongoing international and regional involvement in the country’s political and social landscape. Marine stated that during the early stages of the 2018-2019 revolution in Sudan, transnational solidarity played a crucial role in media coverage at a time when it was dangerous for Sudanese to be at the forefront. Later, during the transitional government’s reign, this solidarity evolved into grassroots-level connections. Local resistance committees in Sudan reached out to international movements, often facilitated by members of the Sudanese diaspora. This was done for the purpose of sharing resources, knowledge, and support. An example of this was when a film shared by an international movement was screened by a local resistance committee. This event reinvigorated the committee and its members, boosting morale. She added, “Other than the financial, media, and technical support, I think the spiritual support of knowing that you’re not in this fight alone because sometimes when you look at international media, it feels like you are screaming into a void, but when you realize that there are other people on the ground and in other places that [support you] it lifts the spirit of the people and the young people who are trying to still mobilize and organize.”
This conversation naturally transitioned into our next section, which was a roundtable discussion on transnational solidarity. This roundtable section opened up with questions regarding the linkages between the diaspora and Sudanese in Sudan. I think it is important to mention an exchange that Khalid had with Wadd during the artist panel. Waad had introduced herself as a member of the Sudanese diaspora almost apologetically, Khalid noted. However, he took the time to remind us and the audience of the significant role of the diaspora in the Sudanese revolution, emphasizing that this involvement marks a notable shift from previous patterns in Sudan. The diaspora’s central role in organizing and supporting the revolution was crucial. Khalid provided examples, such as many of the flyers distributed during the revolution being produced by the diaspora. This highlights the strong linkages and contributions of the diaspora to the revolutionary efforts. The diaspora can also be a unique recipient of messaging from the homeland, as was evident in Waad’s influence on Sudanese revolutionary art. It is true that these artists are attempting to broadcast their art or messages to the world, but those in the diaspora are better positioned to respond to or internalize these messages. It would be wrong to say that a diaspora population will be impacted or respond in the same way as another community in solidarity.
Nisrin also provided input on the role of diaspora communities as someone who has been doing work with these communities for twenty years. She stated that the diaspora often takes up too much space and can have a de-radicalizing effect on the politics or demands that are coming from the ground. She stressed the importance of having speakers like Marine, Maryam, Reem, and Waad to “orient us and give us insight on what the role of people who are in the diaspora and wanting to stand in solidarity might look like, and maybe putting less faith in states like the US government to do the right thing.” Rather than that, to think about what “people to people” solidarity looks like.
Representing the Sudan Doctors Union in Canada, Dr. Iman Ahmed highlighted the critical role of balancing the perspectives of the Sudanese diaspora with those within Sudan, especially in supporting the health system. A major component of this is that they believe in localization of the health response, meaning it should not be separate from community response overall. “ So we take a public health approach to engage with the forces on the ground. Our partners are not only the doctors union in Sudan and other health professional groups but the youth and resistance committees and neighborhood committees as well.” The Sudan Doctors Union in Canada is part of a global coalition that includes partners in the US, UK, Ireland, Australasia (Australia and New Zealand), and Qatar. These organizations, which are membership-based with elected committees, aim to support and rebuild Sudan’s health system. She cited the re-establishment of the Sudan Doctors Union in South Sudan as a significant achievement, particularly after it was banned by the Omar al-Bashir regime. The Union’s reformation through elections and representation from all over Sudan was a response to the challenges faced during the war and the need for grassroots institutional building.
Emphasizing the importance of solidarity and unity among the diaspora, she also detailed the history of these organizations, mentioning how many Sudanese doctors left the country following al-Bashir’s coup and established themselves in countries like the UK and Ireland, with later establishments in Canada, the US, and other regions. The Canadian Union was founded around 2018 as a response to the revolution in Sudan. In terms of direct support, the Sudan Doctors Union has employed a health systems building blocks model focusing on six areas, including health workforce, service delivery, supplies, and leadership and governance. Post-revolution, they provided technical and financial support to Sudan’s interim government, overcoming challenges related to the remnants of the previous regime’s practices. She also mentioned their efforts in health diplomacy, addressing their concerns to governments in countries where the diaspora exists and to international bodies like the United Nations and the Security Council.
One of the things that is so powerful about Dr. Ahmed’s work is that they’ve managed to set up an infrastructure that directly supports the Sudan Doctors Union, so the money is able to go directly to the union. There are examples of other efforts as well, as Nisrin told us, such as support for a tea vendors union in Khartoum, run by mostly marginalized women. This is an effort to keep these women from having to be on the streets in wartime. Nisrin is also part of a soon-to-be-launched Sudan Solidarity Fund, based in Toronto and financially sponsored by the Darfur Diaspora Association. “This is a fund that has been supporting emergency response rooms, an independent farmers union, and a tea vendors union,” said Nisrin. This is especially important when talking about support from the international community. Nisrin explained that the international community has notably pledged only 25% of the necessary funds to support those affected on the ground. This shortfall in humanitarian aid has left many local organizations in a challenging position, navigating bureaucratic hurdles under a military regime. “It’s quite difficult to register a revolutionary organization, let alone deal with the NGO bureaucracy that hasn’t been flexible for people on the ground,” Nisrin stated. Nisrin talked about the opportunity presented by the need for those in the diaspora to find alternative workarounds. These alternative methods are already being enacted, but they must be in a more sustained fashion. The opportunity, then, according to Nisrin, is the chance to “establish more long-standing relationships and to build the capacity of local organizations.” Khalid added that the role of the diaspora should also be to “ lobby international human rights organizations and explain what is happening in Sudan, explain these bureaucratic and political obstacles.
This online conference and its dynamic conversations and roundtables opened up the conversation about strife, revolution and solidarity with Sudan, incorporating years of experience in the struggle, and multiple points of local, trans-African, and diasporic perspective. The input offered by those still in Sudan or who very recently left was unique for this challenging moment. What was their understanding of both the challenges and advantages of solidarity with the diaspora? Marine emphasized the importance of maintaining open lines of communication with people on the ground in Sudan, particularly in the context of resistance committees and acts of solidarity. She notes the difficulty in determining the most effective actions to take in such complex situations. Marine observed that many initiatives put forth by international NGOs and organizations often fail to acknowledge the realities and knowledge of Sudanese on the ground. Sudanese in-country or in the diaspora are often not consulted for their own needs, leading to ineffective or perhaps even unhelpful, results. She advocated for support that amplifies the voices of people in conflict zones or displaced by conflict, including helping them gain access to media and discussion platforms. Reem highlighted the need to address basic needs and overcome practical obstacles faced by people in Sudan, such as internet connectivity, phone access, and livelihood challenges. These fundamental needs must be met to enable effective organization and mobilization within the community. Reem underscored that what might seem like small support measures are actually major necessities that significantly impact people’s ability to cope and respond to ongoing situations
The conference concluded with an important question raised by Khalid: What are the challenges and opportunities for building solidarity with other movements as we look to the urgency of the present and the challenges of the future? Transnational solidarity outside of Sudan and in the diaspora community is very important, especially when thinking about Nisrin’s comments on sustainability. How do we build such a solidarity? Dr. Iman tackled this question. She stated, “It’s important not to be transactional in our relationships with other organizations. We need to come together around specific causes, not sole incidents or events. The more we root it into solidarity based on issues, the more likely it is to be sustainable.” Even something as simple as attending to each other’s movements is enough to build a foundation. This “something simple” showcases the strength of solidarity, and especially transnational solidarity, which will be key in shaping Sudan’s future.
This is not the end of our Sudan programming and content, please stay tuned for future webinars, podcasts, and artist showcases.