(Editor’s note: This is the first of two articles on the Sudan security forces’ June 3 attacks on peaceful demonstrators and what may happen next. Part 2 will address how the United States, international and regional organizations, and other influential states can support the Sudanese people and their struggle for democracy.)
The live ammunition, tear gas, and severe beatings that Sudanese security forces unleashed on peaceful demonstrators on June 3 shook the country’s pro-democracy movement and shocked the world. After protesters forced President Omar al-Bashir from power on April 11, negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the civilian opposition had stalled over which group should have the final say in government matters during the country’s transitional period. But the negotiations had been relatively peaceful, although tensions had increased as the two sides struggled to finalize an arrangement.
The June 3 attacks, together with the lead-up and aftermath, followed a familiar playbook that authoritarian regimes employ to crush dissent. The pattern is worth examining for lessons on how Sudan’s pro-democracy movement and its international supporters can respond, as the African Union’s June 30 deadline approaches for the TMC to transfer authority to civilian rule. That transfer is unlikely to happen, and the opposition plans a million-person protest march on the same day. It would be the first large demonstration since the June 3 attacks.
These attacks, which killed at least 118 protesters and were correctly characterized by the opposition Sudanese Professional Association as a massacre, were led by Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The RSF is a reconstituted and government-sanctioned version of the Janjaweed, the militias responsible for some of the worst violence during the atrocities in Darfur between 2003 and 2004. The U.S. government has characterized those atrocities as genocide.
The June 3 attacks bear striking similarities to Janjaweed tactics, with many reported rapes, the burning of tents and structures, and the destruction of the demonstrators’ sit-in site next to the military headquarters in the capital Khartoum. General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as Hemedti, leads the RSF. He is also the Deputy Head of the TMC and, despite pronouncements to the contrary, looks to be situating himself to assume control of the country.
In the days following the attacks, the TMC announced that it was cancelling all agreements with the civilian opposition and ending all negotiations, and that it would hold snap elections in nine months. International condemnation, with the exception of a few notable states, was both immediate and unequivocal. The U.S., the U.K., Norway, and Germany all condemned the attacks, as did the United Nations Secretary-General, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union, and African Union (AU) Commission Chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat, who also called for an immediate and transparent investigation.
The AU Peace and Security Council quickly suspended Sudan from the AU without the possibility of reinstatement “until the effective establishment of a civilian-led transitional authority.” The U.S. State Department, among others, welcomed this decision.
In executing the attacks, the TMC completed a sequence of actions that represent a broader pattern for authoritarian regimes that use repression and political violence to terrorize citizens and maintain power. This playbook emerges especially in moments of transition, when democratic governance seems attainable after long periods of autocracy. It may seem simple in outline, but its effect is complex and instructive.
Step 1: Fabricate a threat
The first step is to fabricate a story that the opposition creates a danger to national security or, better yet, that it is a threat to the very revolution it created. On May 31, the TMC did just that, issuing a warning that the sit-in had become “a threat to the revolution.” Major General Othman Hamed, speaking for the RSF, accused the demonstrators of throwing stones at soldiers. He said the sit-in had attracted prostitutes and hashish sellers, calling it “a hub for all kind of criminal acts” and a “threat to the national security of the state.” Hamed concluded in his statement that the RSF must “restore the safety of the citizens” and “stop these violations and this behavior.”
Likewise, a few days earlier on May 27, Hemedti gave a speech to police forces in Khartoum, rejecting the call to transfer government authority to civilian rule and accusing the civilian protesters of wanting to dismantle all security services, suggesting chaos would follow. Despite the absence of evidence to substantiate the claims, they provided a fig leaf of justification for the violence to come.
Step 2: Limit the fallout
Even for authoritarian regimes, massacring unarmed civilians in peaceful gatherings can generate negative consequences, such as unwanted scrutiny or sanctions. An effective way to mitigate this outcome is to limit the ability of journalists, civil society, and foreign diplomats to witness particularly egregious acts. On May 31, the TMC shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Khartoum and banned Al Jazeera journalists from reporting in Sudan. Al Jazeera had covered the protests since they began in December, even providing a 24-hour live stream of the demonstrators’ sit-in.
Furthermore, the day before the Al Jazeera ban, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry alerted all foreign embassies and international organizations to keep their staff away from the sit-in in Khartoum and from protest sites across the country.
Step 3: Attack with overwhelming force
Once the groundwork has been laid, the objective of the strike must be to inflict enough harm and suffering to break the spirit of the opposition and quell resistance. The RSF-led attacks killed at least 118 people, injured nearly 1,000, and decimated a weeks-long sit-in that had otherwise been peaceful. During and after the June 3 massacre, soldiers reportedly attacked medical personnel serving the sit-in and at nearby hospitals and tried to obstruct medical treatment for the injured. The RSF also targeted doctors and reportedly shot one doctor in the leg before arresting him.
Step 4: Brutalize and humiliate the opposition
Sudanese security forces not only beat and killed protesters in front of crowds, they also undertook dehumanizing actions, such as forcing protesters fasting for Ramadan to drink sewer water. They killed at least 19 children, and some reports said they detained and sexually assaulted children. Rape and sexual violence is a familiar tactic for the Janjaweed, and the BBC and CNN reported security forces raped several women while violently dispersing the protesters. Sudanese doctors said at least 70 people were raped during the attacks. Security forces reportedly threw at least 40 bodies into the Nile River, an act that might have served to suppress the number of identifiable victims and further dehumanize the opposition.
Step 5: Deny all responsibility and cover up or obscure evidence
Immediately following the massacre, the TMC denied the attacks, with a spokesperson stating, “We did not disperse the sit-in by force.” However, 10 days later, the TMC admitted it decided to disperse the sit-in. TMC spokesperson Shams al-Din Kabashi confirmed that the Council ordered the operation that killed at least 118 people, but “regret that some mistakes happened.” Kabashi noted that the plan had the backing of all members of the TMC, but some actors deviated from the plan, thus “[t]here were abuses and what happened happened.”
Later, Hemedti swore that the RSF would not lie to the Sudanese people, but then said that he could not speak about the attacks because the TMC is conducting an investigation into the incident. The Council has rejected calls for an international inquiry and instead insisted that it has thwarted several coup attempts, while also blaming “imposter troops” for the attacks.
Step 6: Go dark
Throughout the demonstrations, protesters relied on the Internet—and especially social media—to organize, stay informed, and keep each other safe. Following the attacks, the TMC blocked nearly all access to the Internet in Sudan, even though this decision will cost the country millions of dollars by effectively halting commerce, and make an already dire economic situation even worse for the Sudanese people.
The Internet blackout remains in place, making it difficult, if not impossible, for protesters to communicate effectively, while also limiting the ability of protesters to demonstrate the extent of the crimes and abuses perpetrated by the security forces. As Azaz Elshami notes, cutting the country’s Internet service aids the security forces in covering up their crimes, while also making further efforts to organize and demonstrate much more challenging.
Step 7: Blame the victim and step up propaganda
Without Internet access to outside media, Sudanese receive little news that is not government propaganda. The TMC has used the absence of credible journalism to expand its propaganda efforts, and launched a campaign on national television designed to discredit protesters by portraying them as criminals and radicals.
Step 8: Harass and intimidate opposition leaders
Two days after the massacre, security forces detained Yasir Arman, a leading opposition figure who recently returned to Sudan after years of exile. Numerous opposition groups, as well as the U.S. and British embassies in Sudan, condemned his arrest. This decision to arrest Arman was particularly brazen as the U.K. All-Parliamentary Group for Sudan and South Sudan had warned the TMC against such a move, while the senior U.S. diplomat in Sudan, Chargé d’Affaires Steven Koutsis, previously had met with Arman and called for the TMC to allow opposition leaders to return to their country. Along with Arman, prominent opposition figures Ismail Jalab and Mubarak Ardol also were detained and arrested. All three men were released on June 10, but then forcibly deported to Juba, South Sudan.
Step 9: Lean on your authoritarian friends
The June 3 attacks followed a meeting of TMC Chairperson General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan with representatives of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during an Organization of Islamic Cooperation Summit in Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the week before the attacks, al-Burham completed his first trip abroad as TMC Chair, traveling to Cairo to meet with Egyptian autocrat General Fattah al-Sisi.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE already have pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan, largely to prop up the TMC. Both countries view Sudan as an important ally in their political feud with Qatar and Turkey, and fear that a successful democratic revolution in Sudan could encourage protest and civil unrest at home. Following the attacks, these three countries were among the few that did not unequivocally condemn the violence, instead only calling for dialogue. In return, the TMC has continued to commit Sudanese soldiers to fight on behalf of the Saudi coalition in its unwinnable war in Yemen.
Step 10: Count on international condemnation to pass
Autocrats often can count on international attention to wane, as other crises take over the news cycle. In the case of Sudan, the military successfully obfuscates by constantly redefining its opposition to civilian rule, which has resulted in a stalemate between the TMC and civilian leaders.
Here, the parallel to the thwarted Egyptian revolution and the rise and fall of Egypt’s only democratically elected leader, Muhammad Morsi, is most revealing. While Morsi was certainly a flawed leader, he nonetheless won a free and fair election in 2012 after the 2011 uprisings that forced the corrupt authoritarian Hosni Mubarak from power. Morsi’s presidency was bitterly contested from the start, leading to his removal from power about a year later, before then-Field Marshall Sisi won nearly 97 percent of the vote in a non-credible election in 2014. Since gaining power, Sisi has shown himself to be even more authoritarian than Mubarak, and Egypt is even more repressive and more violent as a result.
It is crucial to remember, however, that before his election, Sisi oversaw the 2013 Rabba massacre, where Egyptian police and security forces killed upwards of 800 unarmed protesters at a sit-in in Cairo, much like the one in Khartoum. And like Sudan’s TMC, Sisi secured diplomatic support and billions of dollars in financial aid from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait, both before and after the Rabba massacre.
Osama Gaweesh, a prominent Egyptian journalist who witnessed the Rabba massacre and later fled to Turkey and then the U.K., shows there is a chilling similarity between the rhetoric that Sisi used before the Rabba massacre and the rhetoric that Hemedti and al-Burhan used immediately before and after the June 3 massacre in Khartoum. In both instances, the military leaders professed no desire to remain in power and declared that their only intention was to “safeguard the revolution.” It is especially disheartening that Morsi died last week in solitary confinement during his indefinite, Kafkaesque trials, while no member of the Egyptian police or security forces who participated in the Rabba massacre has ever stood trial.
(Stay tuned for Part 2: How the United States, international and regional organizations, and other influential states can support the Sudanese people and their struggle for democracy.)
IMAGE: Sudanese protesters walk past burning tires during a demonstration in Khartoum’s twin city of Omdurman on June 3, 2019, the same day Sudan’s military rulers tried to break up a sit-in outside Khartoum’s army headquarters. (Photo by AHMED MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)