Resistance at a Granular Level: An Interview with Magdi el-Gizouli on the Neighbourhood Committees in the Sudanese Uprising

Interviewer’s Introduction

Over a quiet Khartoum, whose order prevails?1

Demonstrations against Omar al-Bashir’s regime began in Sudan’s smaller cities in mid-December 2018. “The proximate cause was rising prices, though the government (if not the state) was weakened after three decades in power, the last of which was dually characterized by grueling austerity and a feverish corruption. Bashir’s position was unsure, with his own intelligence chief nurturing a Saudi-backed coup. 

Protests leapt towards the capital, as the Sudanese Professional Association (SPA), a grouping of white-collar trade unions, formed in the summer of 2018, began to take “official” leadership. The great mass of protestors though were neither party nor trade union members: If they were organized at all, it was through Neighbourhood Committees (alternately known as “Resistance Committees”), the topic of the following interview. 

On 1 January the SPA joined with 20 or-so other organizations – “civil society groups,”  established opposition parties, and the various armed rebel groups – to form the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), which called for “the immediate and unconditional end of Gen. Omar al-Bashir’s presidency and conclusion of his administration.” The 9 January protest, nationwide and dégagiste, showed the breadth and the ambition of the movement. After, in early April, a mixed-class encampment was begun outside the Sudanese Armed Forces’ (SAF) Central Command in the capital – “what amounted to a live-in resistance enclave in the heart of the city,” as John Young wrote. 

The security forces attacked the camp on the night of 7 April, against which perhaps one million people marched the following afternoon. A few days after, the newly-formed Transitional Military Council – cohering the leaderships of the SAF, the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – announced al-Bashir’s house arrest, dissolved the national legislatures, and presented itself as the FFC’s only interlocutor. 

The mid-year sequence was as follows: The RSF’s attacks against the encampment continued through May, whilst Islamist demonstrations on 17 and 18 May emboldened the TMC. Whilst the FFC demanded a fully civilian government (with the sit-in as leverage), the TMC worked towards a military transition. Stalled FFC-TMC negotiations prompted the former’s call for a nationwide strike on 28 and 29 May, though the decisive action of this phase was the RSF’s – a massacre of the Khartoum camp in the early morning of 3 June, legitimized as merely policing the raucous “Colombia” section. The camp cleared, the TMC’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan’s de-recognized the FFC. 

The much-publicized attack brought international opprobrium (from the African Union and, cynically, the TMC’s Gulf backers), and further coherence to the opposition itself. The SPA called for a general strike the week following 3 June; a vast “Million-person March” on 30 June was a further show of strength. This renewal of popular pressure compounded with an international preference (specifically, that of an AU-Saudi-UAE-US-UK grouping) for an FFC-TMC agreement over the chance of civil war, and on 17 July a deal was struck (though some accord may have been developed in camera, as that million marched). An eleven-person Sovereign Council –  five military, five civilian, with a further civilian chosen by consensus – would rule for 39 months, with al-Burhan heading the group for the first half. A Council of Ministers would oversee fourteen ministries, as led by Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok, an economist chosen by the FFC (a 300-strong Legislative Council was also agreed to, though this last element is as yet unrealized). The 17 August Constitutional Charter vouchsafed the 17 July deal, and inaugurated the current government. 

Plainly, the 17 August government does not meet the FFC’s original demand for a civilian administration, even formally; and in practice it has been dominated by the repressive apparatuses, including an officiated RSF, the butchers of 3 June. Protestors had chanted “Victory or Egypt” – and indeed the first international figure RSF leader (and TMC VP) Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo met after the 17 July deal was Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

Was Sudan’s uprising therefore “betrayed” (to again quote Young) – by the FFC, by “technocrats,” even by the SPA? Why did the 17 July deal and resultant government fall so short of popular demands; why the apparent gap between the base and the leadership of the opposition in the later phases; were the workless workers of the Resistance Committees able to “represent themselves” – if not, why?

The following interview was conducted prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 in the country

Joe Hayns: I’ll ask about the Neighbourhood Committees and their role in the uprising presently. Before that, could you explain the history of the Popular Committees – surely a misnomer, since they appear to have been state instruments, rather than places of popular control, or even meeting?

Magdi el-Gizouli: The Islamists established the Popular Committees soon after 1989 [i.e., the year Bashir took power]; I believe they looked to Libya as an example of a state implanting itself at the neighborhood level and reproduced the “committee” format in Sudan. In their initial conception, the committees were supposed to develop into a hierarchical political system, akin to the Libyan example. The groundwork of the committees eventually streamed into the ruling National Congress Party. 

At the time, sugar had to be rationed, bread had to be rationed, and the administration and distribution fell to the Popular Committees. You got your ration card from the Committees, which tied people to them. 

The leadership that emerged were usually petty patriarchs. The most prominent trader in the neighborhood, the retired police- or army officer, someone with links, and there was always a security eye in the middle, somebody reliable. This meant that amongst the Committees, there was always someone from outside the neighborhood, working like a political commissar. These Committees came to have several functions: redistribution, political control and mobilization, and the administration of land, particularly in the cities. 

It’s important to remember that the penetration of the state was not so deep in rural Sudan. Of course, there was this coercive apparatus upstairs, but when you went down, its presence was limited. Most officials you could bribe, evade, avoid – the Popular Committees were an attempt to bring the state to a place it hadn’t reached before.

JH: How did they develop through the 2000s – was that development conditioned by popular efforts?

MG: When rations were lifted in the mid-1990s, and there was a liberalization of trade, that function wore off, and their control over land became more important. Popular Committees became the place that defined who gets what land, and when, which gave them an edge – they had control over things like public squares, schools, even health service provision.

By 2018, what remained was this land-administration function and the economic power that came with this. In places like the Burri neighborhood, one of the major sources of anger was the power these local despots had. They would sell off land to investors, decide whether a square goes to X or Y for “urban development,” or a big supermarket – they were robbing these people of their public spaces, and there were many incidences across the 2000s of people angered, of demonstrations, of sit-ins, against these land grabs.

In rural Sudan, they had a deeper effect because there, they meant organization for war – for recruitment to the Popular Defense Force that the Islamists created in 1989 to boost their fighting capacity against southern Sudanese rebels. And, they tied pre-existing, local political power to the state, made it dependent on the central state. 

JH: Was the opposition to Popular Committees through the 2000s local-only, or were there attempts at national coordination? 

MG: Most of it was at a local level. And, it often took an ethnic turn, depending on who was at the head of the Committee: people opposed them at times using an ethnic language. You’re in a country of highly uneven development, and depending on your location in that hierarchy, the language and ideology differs. You might get a very reactionary language, in which the only political lexicon is ethnicity: “they’re foreigners to this place, who are they to be here?” But, in the most advanced sectors, you would hear something like a language against capital: “we don’t want to be robbed”. 

You might want to force a progressive interpretation, but that would be too hasty. You need to understand at a granular level who is talking, against whom, and on which presumptions.

JH: If I recall some reading,2 the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) had a national plan for neighborhood-level organizing in the early 1960s? Did that leave some imprint?

MG: Yes, there was a very ambitious attempt; this was the heyday of the Women’s Union. Amongst the many leftist organizations of Sudan, the SWU was one of the few that managed – at least in some places – to puncture the neighborhood, to enter houses, to enter people’s lives,

The wider left had a position in the workplaces, in the modern sectors of the economy – that’s where it had its major strength – but it faced big challenges entering other spaces. The SWU found a language to enter these spaces, and was patient enough to do the hard work of binding, of understanding what it was that motivated and changed patterns of power at this level.

They did have some breakthroughs, but they didn’t really last, since the Sudanese left, after the huge wave of the 1960s – which was quite remarkable – got entangled in games of power, which ended with its self-sacrifice in 1971 [the 25 May 1969 coup and July 1971 counter-coup]. That was a watershed moment; we never came back.

JH: Through the 2000s and 2010s the Popular Committees lost some of the initial functions, but gained power through their control over land, in turn provoking popular opposition, with those politics often expressed through discourses of ethnicity. This brings us to 2018. 

You’ve extolled the Neighbourhood Committees as forces that were neither fully within the fold of the Forces for Freedom and Change, nor easily co-opted by the state – the committees were the “core of revolutionary action,” as you wrote.

Could you give a sense of their class bases? Was there a shared politics across committees?3 

MG: When speaking about their revolutionary action, I don’t mean all Neighbourhood Committees; there are committees in places like al-Riyadh [an affluent Khartoum district] who speak a language very different from a committee in places like Haj Yussef, al-Kalaklah, and so on. Riyadh doesn’t do revolution; they do interest preservation, speaking a language of salaries.

Those other committees did some very dramatic and dashing things, things that nobody did before. Committees in places like al-Rahad broke down the zakat stores, took out grain, and redistributed it. They challenged power at the immediate level, where it impacts on people’s lives. In a place like Kalaklah – a lower middle-class and working-class area in Khartoum – their motivation was anger against the police. The police were targeting petty traders, peddlers in the marketplace, in a frantic search for surplus. Because of the implosion of Sudan’s economy, they have to grasp for money from any source they can find it. 

Cities in Sudan are becoming dumping grounds for labor, labor that is, in essence, surplus – that has no place in the economy for it. It’s occupied in the informal economy; the formal labor system has no need for these people, and if it does, it’s only a seasonal basis. They are forced to take this action – there is a historical necessity to their actions. If you are unemployable, what are the options? 

These were the motivations – that anger – that motivated the committees in places like Kalakla, this resistance to the predatory state, that puts its hand in your pocket and takes one-third or one-half of whatever meager income you have. That’s why it’s difficult to bring them into any fold – they don’t belong in the world of the meritocracy that has come into being in Khartoum.

JH: There are other forces that might co-opt those without work, without prospects: I’m thinking particularly of the Rapid Support Forces [RSF], who have worked as reaction’s forward guard. 

MG: So far, they’ve proved insusceptible to the leader of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, simply because he cannot resolve the contradictions underlying their predicament. He can offer a job in the RSF. That’s the best he can do: give you a gun, pay you a salary, and have you fight. They’ve experienced the city as a multi-ethnic place, where your ethnicity, even if high on the racial ladder, does not save you from destitution. 

The Islamist’s reworking of politics in rural Sudan was through ethnicity as a carrier of mercantile interests. The RSF is a product of that rationale and represents, in a way, the purest form of Bashir’s politics. The revolutionary surge in Sudan is the popular rejection of this model but it is yet to deliver an alternative. We are in the midst of a revolutionary crisis. 

JH: In your positively contrasting the Committees with the Sudanese Professionals’ Association [SPA, the leading group within the FFC], many readers will think of Fanon, and the position that he accorded – or, at least, is often understood as according – to the lumpenproletariat, as the subject of revolutionary change in the colonized world. 

Many “workless workers” have died as revolutionaries in Sudan, and I ask the following with great respect, of course, for them and the Committees; isn’t there a danger in romanticizing this section of the working class? – they’re certainly romanticized on British campuses. Aren’t there huge impediments against their organizing a coherent, progressive revolutionary force? 

MG: There’s immense danger, of course. You’re trying to say it politely, but there’s an immense danger.

The situation is as follows: during every revolutionary crisis, there’s the risk of a serious right-wing turn, and in a way, that’s the situation today. People are without political education and without a leadership that recognizes the deeper social convulsions it feeds from –  that doesn’t recognize the danger of missing this opportunity, of not translating it into a serious program, of not answering these demands or responding to these problems.

And you’ve seen that in action; this isn’t just an abstract discussion. Absent the type of things you have in mind – political organization, and so on – people can become a mob, and there’s been some gangsterism, some attacking of local markets, and so on. There’s an anger to it, it has elements of violence, but it has no direction: and then they become liable to co-optation. 

Indeed, we have a lumpenproletariat Praetorian Guard already, in the RSF, which draws from these elements, but from the rural sphere: people that have suffered the convulsions of the economy, who can’t continue to be farmers or subsistence herders, and so guns have become a livelihood. 

JH: If one possible trajectory for the more politically active parts of this class section is to join some 10 December Society – this hasn’t happened in the cities, you say – another it to build relations with a grouping like the left-wing of the SPA. I’m sure there are upper middle-class “meritocrats” involved in the SPA; there are also, surely, many para-professionals – poorer people in higher-status jobs, or professionals who’ve seen their positions worsen. Has there been any prospect of such a class bloc? 

MG: Yes, there has been. They’re not necessarily in the SPA, but there are certainly circles of people – a novel group, called “Forwards” – who are drawn from that world and are attempting to do Neighbourhood Committees, to do political work along emancipatory lines. 

There’s nothing attractive in the reactionary bloc, but there’s no guarantee that the left will win over this opposition [i.e., the Committees]. Like all revolutionary situations, there is no hard rule, no line along which things evolve: things explode in your face, if you miss your moment. And, the language now from the new government in Khartoum is indeed that of meritocrats – people who have good degrees, a reasonable education, and who define themselves as technocrats, as people who can make things work

What the current government wants is a rehashing of Bashir’s arguments, in his last days; they want to lift the subsidy on wheat and gas, they want to expand the tax base, they want to tax local traders, and also some financialization. The core elements of the Washington Consensus is what they want to do, which means they will estrange these people further from this new world – outcasts from their own revolution. This is a massively dangerous zone to push people into. 

Take the deaths in Columbia [the more youthful, raucous section of Khartoum sit-in, massacred on 3 June] – when the army began mobilizing against them, the SPA didn’t agree openly, but it didn’t oppose the basic argument: “well, yes, there are criminal elements.” They didn’t invite the army to do it, but they didn’t actively oppose what was done to this rabble element of the revolution – this lumpenproletariat element was left to be taken. 

When you talk about death, there is a political economy. There are names that feature; there are names that don’t feature. The people of Columbia don’t feature in this mythology, in this religious language of revolution, simply because they don’t count: they’re an excess to the social order. 

This is not a condemnation of the SPA. The SPA does not see itself in those people, and it’s in its nature to not see itself. It’s an alliance of professionals. It doesn’t care much about unemployed labor; they’re not of its world. 

JH: Across the Maghreb and Mashriq, there are millions of people whose chance of attaining formal work is nil, or nearly nil, at least within anything like the current political– one must say, global political – arrangement. 

Let me overstate a certain view of lumpen politics – its formlessness, even its non-subjectivity, even potentially, with any structure and trajectory achieved through the imposition by a second class, within a bloc. 

Will this view have to change, as this vast grouping continues to grow numerically, and – we’ve seen many instances since 2011 – in political power, in all its sub-varieties? 

MG: Of course it’s a place where Marxist theory is lacking. Even the term we use, developed by Marx, is lacking – he used it with very negative connotations. There is no agency in Marx’s use of it. 

We need to work our way through this – we need to develop a language, since even in leftist discourse, there is no subjectivity to this group, but inevitably, they are going to come up in different ways. 

Sudan’s unemployed will teach us. This is not a problem that is going away, and it is a global problem. Everywhere you go, you will get thousands upon thousands of young men, young women, who have no place in the social order, and this makes them disposable, an excess – the people who die in dinghies, across the desert, who are massacred in Darfur. The last you hear of them is the number killed. They’re key to the “migration crisis,” to the ecological crisis, and, of course, they’re a core element of the revolutions in the Middle East, in Sudan’s events, in the Egyptian case, and in the Syrian case, they’re even more important, since they were part of both sides of the conflagration, so to speak. 


1 Thanks to Mohammed Elnaiem for his comments on the introduction.
2 See Abdullahi Ali Ibrahim’s 2010 essay, “The House That Matriarchy Built: The Sudanese Women’s Union,” South Atlantic Quarterly 109, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 53-74. The same issue of SAQ, “What’s Left of the Left? The View from Sudan,” edited by Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf, illuminates one of the great national lefts.
3 See al-Muzahārāt’s translation of a “handbook” for Resistance Committees.

Authors of the article

is a Fellow of the Rift Valley Institute.

studies Maghrebian history and works in the arts. He will restart translating with Al-Muzahārāt ( soon.