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How young Sudanese are still fighting for democracy

Cevil society Activism in Africa can sometimes seem like an exercise in empty slogans: “mobilize the grassroots,” “empower youth,” and so on. Not in Sudan, where thousands of communal “resistance committees” have sprung up across the country in recent years. Forged in the crucible of an insurgency in 2018, they began as an autonomous network of local protesters seeking to overthrow Islamic tyrant Omar al-Bashir, accused by the International Criminal Court of genocide, and usher the country toward democracy.

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Four years on, their revolution is still not complete. In 2019, after months of protesters took to the streets, Sudan’s generals dealt the final blow to Mr Bashir, seizing power. They’ve stuck with it ever since. Still, these committees offer a glimpse into how ordinary people came together to fight for freedom.

In parts of Sudan, every administrative level down to the village has committees, each with its own rules for managing affairs. They become more complex over time. Many elected separate field, political, liaison and media officers. Some provide first aid or welfare, such as distributing fuel and flour.

But their core business remains organizing demonstrations. Since the general’s most recent coup in October 2021, the committee has put people on the streets almost every week. “It basically takes one WhatsApp message and we close all the roads in Sudan,” said Ahmed Ismat, a spokesman for a committee in the capital, Khartoum.

The councils differ in several respects from other youth movements in the region, such as Qeerroo, a youth male nationalist group in neighboring Ethiopia. For one thing, Sudan’s council does not have a figurehead leader. Decisions are made collectively, through a complex but time-consuming process of local consultation. The views of members from marginalized states such as Darfur, where government-backed militias have raped and massacred for years, were given particular weight. “They’re more at risk, they’re more important,” Mr Ismat said.

Young women also stand out. When protesting, they are usually the ones who issue the zAgruta— make a loud noise and bring people into the street. Many held important positions. Sajida al-Mubarak is a 23-year-old medical student. But as a senior spokesman for an influential committee in Khartoum, “she would be my boss,” said Waleed Adam, a 37-year-old activist.

In December, civilian opposition generals and leaders struck a new deal aimed at leading to elections, a fully civilian government and the withdrawal of the military from politics and the economy. As part of that, negotiations are still ongoing on thorny issues, such as the prosecution of some generals for genocide and crimes against humanity. But the committee sees the process as merely the latest patchwork of a group of aging generals and politicians in Khartoum. “We are tired of people gathering in closed rooms to dictate to us,” Ms Mubarak said. Many suspect, for example, that a deal had been negotiated to grant a private amnesty to top generals.

Instead, what the commission expressed was a political vision that overturned the old model of “one man calling the shots”, Mr Adam said. Rather than waiting for the old guard to issue a new federal constitution, the committee has been drafting its own. This includes radical proposals to address the root causes of Sudan’s recurring crises. Members like Nabeel Gasim, from the Khartoum suburbs, argue that the committee should take back control of formal politics by trying to win seats in the future legislature. “The councils are changing from a mobilizing force to an overtly political organization,” said capital analyst Kholood Khair.

However, some see the committee as a losing flush. Street protests against the December deal have been quieter than before. Internal cracks are widening. Some members felt the deal should be given a chance. Several committees refused to sign off on the draft charter released in October, complaining that it was drafted without sufficient consultation.

Even so, the movement remains a force to be reckoned with whenever Sudan’s democratic transition appears to be stalling. “We are building a country,” Ms Mubarak said. “We will not stop until our goals are achieved.”

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