Women leading processions against the military coup in Bahri City, Sudan, November 2021.

Fall 2023

Building the Foundations of Democracy in Sudan

– Hatoon Elfaki

One member of the Sudanese Resistance Committees tells her story of defiance, risk, and triumph.

Sudan has a long history of civil conflict, including the most recent conflict between the Sudanese Army and the Rapid Support Forces, which began on April 15, 2023 and has plunged the Northeast African country into yet another humanitarian crisis. Thousands of lives have been lost, tens of thousands of innocent civilians injured, and nearly 7 million Sudanese displaced. However, the Sudanese also have a history of coming together to speak truth to power and demand their rights. A notable example is the Sudanese Resistance Committees, or SRC, whose unique structure proved particularly effective. In the story that follows, you will hear from one member of the SRC, Hatoon Elfaki (also known as Maryam), about the effort to topple Omar al-Bashir—who came into power after a military coup in 1989 and was president of Sudan from 1989 to 2019—and build a government that is truly representative of the people.

Igniting the Spark of Revolution

Against the long and heavy backdrop of corruption and human rights violations, the Sudanese Resistance Committees began out of social and political necessity. With no political affiliation, they formed as a response to the restrictions on freedom of expression and the monopoly of the public civil sphere by the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. Those opposed to the al-Bashir regime experienced all kinds of oppression including arbitrary arrests, the removal of political freedoms, forced disappearance, and even death. The regime also used its robust security intelligence network to infiltrate opposition political organizations, divide them, and plant fear in the hearts of the citizens.

In 2013, I was working as an architect, studying for my master’s degree in business administration at Khartoum University, and living in Bahri, Khartoum State. Sudan was thrust into an economic crisis, spurring widespread unorganized protests that became known as  the September Uprising.” Conditions worsened over the next five years, with the currency devaluing, the deterioration of basic services, corruption and nepotism, and worsening war and displacement in Darfur and the Blue Nile. These grievances accumulated until December 2018, when the al-Bashir regime took desperate economic measures that led to doubling food prices.

Youth cheering and chanting in a peaceful protest, carrying flags of the Sudanese Resistance Committees. Photo by Hatoon Elfaki, used with permission.

Spontaneous student demonstrations erupted in the southeastern and northeastern part of Sudan. The protests were met with the usual violence of the security forces, but it was enough to ignite the revolution just waiting to begin. This coincided with a demand from the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the umbrella group representing Sudanese professional unions, demanding a raise in wages and improved working conditions. Although many of the demonstrators (including myself) did not know the SPA leadership—nor have any connection to it—it represented an alternative to the shaky political forces at that time. We put our full confidence in the SPA and responded to its call for a demonstration on December 25, 2018.

With each protest we said goodbye to our families, not knowing if we would make it home, as the level of violence increased each day.

That first march with the SPA raised our aspirations from an increase in wages to the resignation of al-Bashir’s government. The SPA continued to organize demonstrations and other peaceful resistance activities through social media and gained  popularity—especially from the youth. We formed neighborhood networks of young people who we trusted, people who believed in the revolution for “freedom, peace, and justice,” which was our slogan. That was the genesis of what grew into the Sudanese Resistance Committees, and my own efforts to foster democracy in Sudan.

Building a Movement

We organized protests within our neighborhoods, determined to broaden the area of ​​the protests horizontally to promote popular participation. It worked. It was more convenient and we also saw deep commitment. People opened their doors to shelter us when the security forces tried to break up the protests or invaded our homes. The revolution had entered the hearts of people of all different age groups, reinforcing our commonality.

Female protestors led the way, occupying the streets despite facing oppression, violence, sexual harassment, and social shaming. With the fear of family and societal reprisals, it may have been more difficult for us to participate, but women from diverse economic classes, generations, religious backgrounds, and ethnicities continued to protest, chant, and announce the start of protests with ululations, putting themselves at further risk of targeting by the security forces.

Like a starfish without a head or a center of power, our structure confused coup leaders as they were not able to dismantle the resistance committees.

In February 2019, my sisters and I were discussing various ways to activate our neighborhood which was full of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party affiliates. Despite the fear of security forces, we were done hiding and decided that the voice of the revolution must be heard. We stole metal pots and wooden ladles from our mother’s kitchen and walked out of the house chanting, “Come out of your silence, speak up for your rights!”

A few children playing in the streets followed us, but as we continued, people opened their doors in curiosity and then joined us. The crowd grew big—which we didn’t expect, and it gave us courage to go on, and do more. We then identified a few trusted people to work with and organized more protests. Our routine changed and life got busy; we  went to work, took care of family matters, and prepared for protests. The pursuit of “freedom, peace, and justice” was our goal, and we started to organize protests in other neighborhoods to ensure broader participation.

The Toppling of a Dictator

Drawing inspiration from the toppling of Gaafar Nimeiri by a coup led by his own defense minister in 1985 when the army sided with the people, the SPA called for a million-person march on April 6, 2019. The march would head to the army’s headquarters and the resistance committees started staging regular and sporadic movements in the capital and other states, scrawling graffiti on walls, and lighting occasional fireworks. The flag of Sudan was hung in almost every house. The streets felt like a volcano ready to explode. On the night of the chosen day, some neighborhoods launched fireworks, others organized synchronized callings at midnight, signaling to the regime that the people were already celebrating its ousting. There was an unspoken pact amongst all of us that once we reached our destination, we would not go home until the regime had fallen.

When we reached the army headquarters, security forces were enforced with heavy artillery. People instantly formed human chains, separating girls and women so that they could safely cross. Waves of people poured in from every direction, blocking the security forces who were trying to stop our progress. As the day went on, crowds grew bigger and security forces backed down. The people chanted and cheered, “We won’t leave until you fall.” We wondered if a sit-in would be a better option, should the regime not step down immediately. Not long after, the SPA announced that they would hold a sit-in until the regime fell. That marked the beginning of a new chapter in the revolution.

After that momentous day, we began with civic education and training, political discussions, and human and civil rights education.

The first days were difficult as security forces tried to disperse the sit-in, but the army personnel confronted them with force, protecting the demonstrators. Despite the difficulty of eating and sleeping on the streets for days, enthusiasm was high; a sense of victory was in place and the belief in our cause did not leave us for a moment.

Factories and stores distributed food to participants and families also pitched in. The Sudanese diaspora gathered cash donations to support our efforts and youth in the sit-in pooled their money for needed items. Celebrities attended the sit-in and kept our spirits high with concerts, singing, theater performances, and poetry readings, and artists painted beautiful paintings that decorated the area.

On April 11, the national radio station broadcasted news of the closure of Khartoum International Airport and the cordoning off of the presidential palace. People flocked from all over to celebrate our great victory with chants, cheers, and tears. The fall of al-Bashir was a poetic moment and we embraced one another in joy and celebration.

The Making of a Revolution

After much anticipation, the armed forces issued a statement announcing the arrest of President al-Bashir and the formation of a two-year transitional military council to lead the country, headed by Awad Ibn Auf. But the people wanted a fully civilian transitional council, so the sit-in continued with chants of “It will not fall until our demands are met.”

A day later, Ibn Auf announced his resignation and the appointment of Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan as head of the new transitional military council. This was still not what the people wanted, but many considered it a step in the right direction and a series of negotiations began between the council and the Forces of Freedom and Change, a broad coalition of political and civilian groups. Our hopes for full civilian power were high.

As the negotiations continued, each resistance committee had a tent in a designated area where civil activities took place, including educational workshops, a daily broadcast for political news, cultural activities, and live interviews with the negotiating delegation.

Preparing posters for Darfur advocacy campaign. Photo by Hatoon Elfaki, used with permission.

We prepared to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, decorating the sit-in headquarters and surrounding streets, baking cookies, and spreading joy in the sit-in, marking the end of Ramadan and the month-long fast. On June 3, 2019, the 29th day of Ramadan, the military council betrayed thousands of sit-in participants, using fatal force to disperse the crowds. They burned the area, killing many more protestors, raped women and abducted others; the number of victims remains unknown and many were found shot and drowned in the Nile river with rocks tied around their feet.

In protest of the massacre and to mourn the ones we had lost, we blocked roads, burned tires, called for civil disobedience, and demanded the overthrow of the military council and the submission of its leaders. The civil disobedience lasted for seven days, which allowed us to recover from the shock and to reorganize ourselves for a new phase of resistance.

In those days, we organized processions and political seminars in neighborhoods in coordination with the Forces of Freedom and Change. We painted murals commemorating martyrs and distributed leaflets. We issued neighborhood newspapers, bulletins, and internal broadcasts to call for massive demonstrations against the military rule on June 30, 2019.

Despite the military cutting off the internet since the day of the massacre, we managed to coordinate and organize the March of the Millions. It was a legendary day of the revolution with an unprecedented mass demonstration where tens of thousands of people took to the streets. The military council returned to negotiations and agreed to a transition to civil power. June 30th proved what grassroots movements can achieve  and was the beginning of a new era for the resistance committees.

A New Era For the Resistance Committees

After that momentous day, we began with civic education and training, political discussions, and human and civil rights education. We did this via political forums, symposiums, and public events. We launched hygiene and healthcare campaigns in our neighborhoods, providing products and information, while collecting donations to support our peaceful movement.

After signing the agreement and forming the civilian government in August 2019, we formed local committees to help citizens receive basic services, rehabilitated neighborhood libraries, schools, and health centers, and continued to voice demands for justice and accountability.

In Nyala, South Darfur, more than 32 neighborhoods held democratic elections to establish new resistance committees and oversaw their formation. They organized humanitarian assistance for people in West Darfur, established a delegation of volunteers in all of the government institutions and ministries to monitor government performance, and supported the implementation of the transitional government.

Because the resistance committees had no political affiliation, and upheld only the agenda and principles of the revolution, we were perceived as the guardians of the revolution. People trusted and followed us. The responsibility was huge and it took a lot of effort to manage our personal lives with the civic work, but the people’s belief in us was our motivation.

Once we had reached 70% consensus, we moved on to the next point. This process took us six months, but produced a charter establishing the power of the people, which was signed by the state representatives.

When the newly appointed government began to face obstacles, it sought the support of resistance committees. We monitored distribution of fuel to petrol stations and, delivered bread and cooking gas cylinders to each house in our neighborhood, which strengthened our relationship with the people and the transitional government. Some of us focused  on working with the service committees, while others were more interested in politics or joined the civil society organizations. Many joined local advocacy initiatives. Still, we all worked together as Resistance Committee members.

In October 2021, with the previous regime dismantled, the transitional government close to achieving the revolution agenda, and restoration of Sudan’s relationships with the international community in progress, it was time to hand over power to the people. But the military council and the civilian affiliates of the former regime resisted the handover. We coordinated with prodemocracy groups and political parties in Khartoum and other states to support and protect our civilian government, and mobilized massive protests with the slogan, “The people are stronger and shall not retreat,” demanding the military council abide by the agreement.

Four days later, on October 25, 2021, a military coup took place. Again, the people of Sudan rose up in protest while the internet and other communications were cut. Resistance Committee members, political leaders, and civilian government officials were arrested—even before the coup statement was announced on national television. The streets and army headquarters were filled with people demanding the handover of the power to the people, demonstrating the determination of the Sudanese people to live in a democratic state.

The protests were met with extreme violence and many people were killed during the first hours. But we went back to our neighborhoods and started to organize again, maintaining a low profile as the security forces continued to oppress and arrest active civilians and SRC members. We planned another powerful march to the presidential palace in Khartoum. Once again people responded to our call and a massive number of people were on the street again, but security forces used live ammunition and extreme violence, leading to many deaths and injuries.

Hatoon Elfaki on the streets of Karthoum, waving a Sudan flag. Photo by Ahmed Haider, used with permission.

They tried to deter us but little did they know that the people’s will is strongest. With the absence of leadership, we found ourselves on the frontline defending democracy and advocating for the rights of the Sudanese people. The burden and responsibility was enormous. It takes a lot of effort to organize just one peaceful protest. Field teams were responsible for planning  routes, leading protests, and controlling crowds. The media team took care of announcements, preparing and printing visuals, drafting public statements, and documenting the event. The medical team was on standby and in coordination with the doctors committees and hospitals, evacuating the injured to the field clinic or designated hospitals, all done following a strict security protocol to ensure Resistance Committee member safety.

For each protest, I would wear my Sudan flag, put on a hat, cover my face with a scarf, steal a plastic bucket from my mother’s kitchen, and walk the streets of my neighborhood with my colleagues, leading the march to the set destination. With each protest we said goodbye to our families, not knowing if we would make it home, as the level of violence increased each day. After a full day with the security forces, we would walk back home undefeated, promising to come back stronger.

The Power Structure of a Starfish

Because of the horizontal structure of the resistance committees and lack of conventional leadership, we were more resilient to security threats, which gave us more opportunities to create social change. Like a starfish without a head or a center of power, the formation confused coup leaders as they were not able to dismantle the resistance committees.

On November 21, 2021, while the former prime minister Dr. Abdallah Hamdok was under house arrest, Dr. Hamdok signed an agreement with the leaders of the coup, for yet another transition period in partnership with the army. On that day, the resistance committees started the process of writing its political charter, outlining how Sudan should be ruled during the transition period, and creating a platform to unify the pro-democracy civilian groups and political parties.

Each resistance committee had a specialized charter committee and I was part of the team of six who represented our city Bahri. We conducted workshops to gather opinions and created a Bahri City charter. We held long consultative sessions at the state level that sometimes lasted for 10 hours. We discussed each point, sentence, and word, debating each opinion. Once we had reached 70% consensus, we moved on to the next point. This process took us six months, but produced a charter establishing the power of the people, which was signed by the state representatives. Through it all, we never stopped mobilizing in the streets or participating in advocacy meetings.

Part of the months-long grassroots discussions that led to the Bahri City Charter. Photo by Hatoon Elfaki, used with permission.

I was also part of a coordination team that focused on amplifying the voices of the resistance committees and supported in resource mobilization. We coordinated and participated in meetings with international delegations operating in or visiting Sudan. One year after the coup, as the gap between the political parties, the civil society organizations, and the resistance committees grew larger, our team explored ways to bring together different viewpoints. We organized online workshops with experts in strategic planning, peace and conflict resolution, economic planning, and transitional justice.

At that time the Sudanese Bar Association launched its initiative of the transitional constitution. We stepped up as a coordination team to ensure political buy-in and broader participation for the initiative—particularly among youth and women—and for the peace process we hoped would end the coup, and establish a new democratic transition. We consulted with the leaders of the initiatives, lawyers and political party members, and we focused on the participation of youth and women from Khartoum and other states. Since the coup took place, our days were divided between going to work, tending to our families and friends, participating in peaceful protests, and implementing our team’s vision to support the democratic transition. That continued until the war started.

A Future Diverted

On April 15, 2023, while children were in school and citizens were going about their daily routine, armed clashes erupted between the Sudanese armed forces and Rapid Support Forces, paramilitary forces formerly operated by Sudan’s government. Terror ensued and there was no time for an orderly evacuation of civilians. During the first hours of the war, Khartoum citizens woke to the terrifying sounds of fighter jets, helicopter tanks, and constant gunfire in the streets. After the evacuation of humanitarian and international delegations and the surge of hostilities, alleviating the suffering of innocent civilians became our responsibility.

I too left Khartoum because it was too dangerous to stay. At first, my family moved from one neighborhood to another. Then me, my mother, and my sisters with their children, made the decision to flee.

The SRC’s service and change committees, joined by many patriots, took charge of evacuating and sheltering the civilians, supporting the hospitals, transporting medical personnel, providing drinking water—essentially replacing the non-functioning state system.

Since the start of the December revolution, we watched many of our friends die at the hands of the security forces. After the war, we lost many others who fled and we never  got a chance to say goodbye. We were not able to mourn as we continued our work on their behalf. We always said that our generation is destined to pay the cost of ending military coups, and we shall not delay this battle.

I too left Khartoum because it was too dangerous to stay. At first, my family moved from one neighborhood to another. Then me, my mother, and my sisters with their children, made the decision to flee to Egypt. We left my father and brother, who did not want to leave their home as much as they wanted to believe the army’s promise that the war in Sudan would be over soon. I am now in France, getting a degree in project management that I had delayed to be part of the revolution. I am doing what I can to help my Sudanese brethren, writing project proposals and meeting with donors, and those still in Sudan are on the frontlines providing humanitarian assistance.

We are trying to revive our movement and regroup yet again, but things are moving slowly because most of us are still trying to cope with the aftermath of the war. My story is just a drop in the ocean. It’s nothing compared to what my colleagues are doing. The mothers and families of the martyrs are being patient, not just to see justice, but to have our goals met.

The experience of the resistance committees changed our way of thinking and we learned to speak in the plural form. Saying “we” instead of “I” strengthened our sense of harmony and cohesion. We are armed with the principles of the peaceful movement, a movement of “freedom, peace and justice.”

I hope to return to Sudan one day, for it is my home.

Hatoon Elfaki (Maryam) is a member of the Sudanese Resistance Committee.

Cover photo: Women leading processions against the military coup in Bahri City, Sudan, November 2021. Photo by Mohammed Shayoub, used with permission.