‘I feel betrayed’: How Sudan’s pro-democracy movement lost its hope and found new unity

‘What the international community needs to do, and it will never do, is listen to the Sudanese people’

It may not seem like it today, but four years ago there was huge hope on the horizon for Sudan. Sudanese civilians were united as never before, demanding change. Their mass protests succeeded in ousting Omar al-Bashir, a dictator wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and war crimes, who had ruled Africa’s third-largest nation for 30 years.

Now, Sudan’s pro-democracy activists accuse the international community of playing a role in derailing the future of their country, leading to the brutal war that broke out on April 15th between Sudan’s army, led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is commonly known as Hemedti. To understand why, they say, it is necessary to understand Sudan’s history.


For decades, the North African country of roughly 48 million people was a pariah state. Sanctions were imposed in the 1990s, when Sudan was designated by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism. It was cut off from the international banking system, with a host of other repercussions. Civilians said – though the leadership was responsible – they were the ones who suffered the effects.

Visiting Sudan under Bashir, as I did in 2017, meant being constantly observed and spied upon. Over-enthusiastic officials linked to various security agencies were likely to approach your companions or call by your hotel, demanding information on you.


I carried documents everywhere. Visitors, even tourists, could not take photos in Khartoum’s streets without permission from the Ministry of Information. (In March of this year, I was denied a journalist visa to travel there again.)

At that time, it seemed unimaginable to me that Bashir could be ousted, but it was coming soon.

Dr Sara Ibrahim Abdelgalil explained what happened next: “The civic movement was getting stronger and stronger, especially in 2017, 2018,” she recalled, on the phone from the UK. Initially, they worked underground, but hope for change grew. What began as demonstrations over the cost of bread, and other staples, grew into a broader movement for change and democracy.

Abdelgalil became a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which organised non-violent protests. “There was a united movement, and we were waiting for that for a long time.”

She said neighbourhood committees, pro-democracy political parties, trade unions and other groups were strengthened and came together.

By April 2019, “it was very clear that this is like a nationwide movement and that the regime at that time, you know, cannot kill millions.”

Sit in

In early April, a mass sit-in began at the Khartoum compound which housed Sudan’s Defence Ministry, intelligence service headquarters and Bashir’s residence.

Days later, on April 11th, the once unthinkable happened: an announcement came from Sudan’s security agencies that Bashir had been ousted. Shortly afterwards, generals Burhan and Dagalo were revealed as the head and deputy head of a newly formed Transitional Military Council. But the sit-in continued, with civilians saying they did not want military rule, and that the whole regime must go.

Present was engineer Muzan Alneel. She said the movement was hopeful and optimistic. “When people saw the numbers that came out in 2018, and how the state apparatus or the police were not able to stop them, it was like people discovered their potential.”

She said the sit-in, which continued for months, saw Sudanese people “crafting a world in a way that aligns with their values”.

“There was a new sense of community. It felt safe to walk those streets even though they are some of the scariest streets in the capital.” There was an air of freedom. “This is our land, this is our country, we have a right to be here and we have a right to argue back,” she remembered feeling.

The day Burhan – “the criminal in chief” – took over was the first time she suspected things were going wrong. Protesters, including Alneel, were encouraged to go home. “All of a sudden it turned into negotiations of powersharing,” she recalled. Alneel made a speech that day; it was filmed and went viral online. In it, she said they would not accept an alliance with the generals, and that they would turn against the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), a broad alliance of pro-democracy groups, if it did.

Abdelgalil agreed that things started falling apart once Bashir was ousted, with splits emerging among the activists too. “It was like we were all in an aeroplane on a journey. And this journey has been so, so long, and we’re just reaching our destination... Suddenly there was a diversion. There was a lot of turbulence in this journey. And it was not easy to come together. And then we landed in a different destination.”

She said they knew that removing Bashir was not enough. But in the aftermath, Sudanese leaders and the international community pressured the pro-democracy protesters to negotiate with Sudan’s military: they gave the impression “that’s enough for you, why do you want more?” she said.

Abdelgalil became audibly upset on the call. “I don’t want to feel very emotional. But I don’t think there [was] respect to the non-violent movement and to the people suffering and that we meant what we were calling for.

“I personally feel betrayed,” she said. “I feel so upset and so angry and whenever I remember those who died... I withdrew. Because I lost all respect and all trust in different players.”

Massacre of 2019

The sit-in was eventually dispersed by RSF fighters, who launched violent attacks early in the morning on June 3rd, 2019, killing at least 120 people. Many activists say the death toll was much higher. There were also widespread reports of rape.

The response was a big failure by the international community, Abdelgalil charges. “The killing of hundreds, throwing them in the Nile, there should have been sanctions,” she said. “There was no international investigation. We called for that. That was a big, big crime that was not well handled.”

In July 2019, US officials told Foreign Policy magazine that the US had not imposed sanctions in order not to upset the potential powersharing deal between the military and civilian leaders, which was seen as the best way to move the country forward.

A month later, an agreement was negotiated which would see Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and the FFC create an 11-member body to rule the country for the next three years. It was to be led by a military general for the first 21 months, before a civilian took over. Burhan became its chairman, while Abdalla Hamdok, a technocrat with a doctorate in economics, became the civilian prime minister.

Nicholas Coughlan, once the first Canadian diplomat posted to Sudan, was following events closely. “I would say the principal mistake made at that point was, when we had a civilian prime minister, it was really, really urgent to get financing in... to allow that prime minister to rectify the downward economic spiral that Sudan was in,” Coughlan said. That would have helped to marginalise the military, he suggested. Instead, inflation got worse, while damaging US sanctions also remained in place for far too long, in his view. “Hence, Hamdok’s credibility started to suffer.”

Diplomats and international organisations were paying attention to deadlines and meetings and ticking boxes while ignoring the red flag signs, ignoring the alerts, not listening to the people

—  Dr Sara Ibrahim Abdelgalil

Alneel said the international community continued pushing for compromise between the civilians and the military through workshops, trainings, sponsored trips and other means. She said “closed-door” meetings shouldn’t have been happening, but they continued.

Both Alneel and Abdelgalil said they saw the Juba Peace Agreement, which was signed in October 2020, as another point of failure. The deal was signed between Sudan’s transitional government and various rebel groups, and supported by the EU and UN, among others. Alneel said it was “rejected by Sudanese people”, and “direct lines” could be drawn between that and the current war. It gave militia leaders “pieces of the cake, seats at the table... but so much propaganda, so much money was spent”.

“They were always in a hurry,” Abdelgalil said about international diplomats. “[Were they] in a hurry because they just wanted to get rid of the whole situation?” While the protests had put women and young people to the fore, she said they were cut out again (videos showing negotiations around powersharing underlined how few women were involved).

Abdelgalil said the international community was “brushing things under the carpet”, while expecting a democratic election to eventually happen. But everything needed to be rebuilt from scratch. Security sector reform was necessary, as was the dismantling of the previous regime, she argued. Pro-democracy groups and political parties needed support because they had spent so long under dictatorship.

“It’s like having someone who has been in intensive care for a long time. When you leave intensive care, you will need rehabilitation.” Instead, she said diplomats and international organisations were “paying attention to deadlines and meetings and ticking boxes” while “ignoring the red flag signs, ignoring the alerts, not listening to the people”. She said those who objected were told they were “naive”, didn’t understand politics or were “troublemaker[s]”.

Coup of 2021

In October 2021, Burhan and Dagalo united to carry out a coup. Prime minister Hamdok was put under house arrest.

“People went directly to the streets” when they heard about it, Alneel recalled. “They built their barricades in similar ways... We were trained in the tactics of protesting.” She said there was relief, in a way, that “the battle was clear again”.

Confusion and fog around who to trust had been lifted. “The military, they clarified where they stood.” She said the coup had been predictable. “Everyone saw signs of it.”

But, then, she said, “what the international community did was try to find a way out for the military even after the coup, and that is the worst thing that can be done”.

Preparations for the current conflict became increasingly obvious, Alneel continued, as tensions grew between the two generals. “It became predictable with the militarisation of the city... There was more military presence from both sides... People made jokes and memes about it.”

She was speaking from Port Sudan, where she escaped recently after spending weeks under bombardment in Khartoum.

International community’s role

During an interview on CNN International this week, former Horn of Africa envoy for the EU, Alex Rondos, said: “We need to ask ourselves whether, from very early on, were we in too much of a hurry to find a solution which we thought was pragmatic, but actually tilted towards those who controlled all the money and the weapons – and that the civilians gradually got squeezed out?

“Don’t forget the last two or three years the world has been otherwise engaged and distracted,” he added. “That strategic distraction became an opportunity for real serious mischief which is going to possibly have real strategic implications. This is not just about Sudan.”

When asked “how could you let this happen?” Volker Perthes, the UN envoy to Sudan, told Sky News: “We supported where we could. We facilitated where we could... We have no executive mandate and even if some people like to say that the UN has been steering the political process, whether good or not, it’s not true. It has been a Sudanese-led and Sudanese-owned process.”

He said he understands the “anger and frustration” that Sudanese people feel. “I’m sure we could have done things differently but I guess that’s for a post-conflict ‘lessons learned’ exercise which definitely will come. For now I think we have to concentrate on getting a ceasefire.”

History of Sudan/Darfur

Mukesh Kapila, who was the head of the UN in Sudan from 2003 to 2004, when the genocidal violence in Darfur began, said it was necessary to turn to history to understand the current situation. Darfur has been described as the first genocide of the 21st century. It also involved many of the same actors: the RSF’s precursor, the Janjaweed, was on the same side as the Sudanese army.

The death toll was likely in the hundreds of thousands, and violence there has never really stopped, according to analysts, but Kapila, on the phone from Geneva, said there had been no proper mechanism for justice. “It was just kind of put aside... People need to be reminded this is not just violence, it’s a post-genocide state... Even if it’s belated, justice needs to be served.”

While the Janjaweed used to ride around on horses, Kapila said the modern-day RSF have become “a modern, powerful militia”, not least by benefiting from EU funds, which have flooded into Sudan over the last decade, with the aim of stopping migration towards Europe. The RSF were tasked with guarding the border.

In an email to The Irish Times, an EU Commission spokesperson said: “The EU has never funded the RSF nor the Sudanese Armed Forces [SAF]. EU development programmes have been channelled through the UN family, EU member state agencies and NGOs, focused on the sole and direct benefit of vulnerable populations.”

Kapila said “learning the history” would also have shown the international community that a military-civilian transition was not going to work, because it hasn’t succeeded in other places. “That was a total strategic error.” He said giving the generals “importance and primacy” was clearly a bad idea.

Co-ordinating help

As for what to do now, the pro-democracy activists who I spoke to were divided on whether targeted sanctions would have any impact on today’s conflict.

“The dilemma is it’s very difficult to actually sanction [the generals] now,” observed Coughlan. “Because you have nobody to talk to if you do. Number one priority now is to get a ceasefire. And number two, I would say, is to get humanitarian aid in there. In order to do that you have to talk to these people.”

Kapila, the former UN Sudan head, said he believed diplomats and humanitarian workers should not have been evacuated from Sudan so hastily, and that comes from experience. He still regrets being forced to leave Sudan after the violence in Darfur began.

“My position is clear. You do not leave. I come from a medical background and, you know, a doctor never abandons a patient.” He said the impact of the foreign withdrawals, even if there is looting or some deaths among aid workers, is to spread panic and destroy trust. It also makes monitoring what is happening on the ground, and having any deterrent or preventive effect, much more difficult. Kapila said for diplomats to leave en masse meant they had acted “like lemmings, [actually] this gives lemmings and rats leaving sinking ships a bad name”.

We just need the response to the humanitarian crisis to be quick... a quick response to save lives... Leave politics to the side and save the people from the famines, and the bullets, and the health crisis

—  Muzan Alneel

In the initial absence of a large humanitarian response by international agencies, many Sudanese pro-democracy activists refocused on co-ordinating assistance. They have been sharing information online and through local committees, who distribute water, food and medicine, or make appeals to help find missing people.

Abdelgalil said the war had forced them to find some “unity” again. “We just need the response to the humanitarian crisis to be quick... a quick response to save lives, that should be the minimum. Leave politics to the side and save the people from the famines, and the bullets, and the health crisis.”

Regarding evacuations, she also questioned why foreign aeroplanes didn’t bring medicine into Sudan, when they came to take their people out. “They know what we need,” she said. “[They] just wanted to get [their] nationals safe, and then just went... It is very painful.”

Alneel said the organised resistance is taking care of many people affected by the conflict, including refugees, the homeless, those who need healthcare, or women who need sanitary products. “It’s a connected network, it’s organised,” she said. “Helping evacuate people from risky places; providing water sources in places where water is not available any more because RSF or [the Sudanese army] have bombed or otherwise disabled water stations or electricity stations... This is the revolution... This level of self-governance, that is what we mean by power to the people.

“I am very optimistic,” she continued. “What I’m seeing people do for each other is what gives hope. What the international community needs to do, and it will never do, is listen to the Sudanese people.”

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa