We at FES Sudan have the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Abdelrahim Bilal to the office for this interview to review the situation in the region, and in Sudan in particular, following ten years of Arab Spring. Dr. Bilal worked with FES from 1997 until 2011. He was born in a sectarian house (Khatmiyya), which is a Sufi order founded by Sayyid Mohammed Uthman al-Mirghani al-Khatim. Together with Ismail al-Azhari from the Ashigga Party, they founded the Democratic Unionist Party, which is one of two political parties predating Sudan’s independence, along with the Umma Party of Almahdi. Dr. Bilal studied in Khatmiyya’s schools until secondary school, when his family moved away from the sect entirely and joined either the Muslim Brotherhood party or the Communist party.
Q: Could you please tell us a bit about the time when you started at FES in 1997? And the time leading up to the revolution of 2019?
It was not a very good time. Because the regime started in 1989, they were very tough and very brutal, you see? Therefore, they did not allow any room for freedom or something like that. I remember a meeting with the head of the department at FES in Bonn, [who] was really a friend of Sudan. Because some of the people in the headquarters actually wanted to close the office, but he defended the office. He told me actually to take care. He actually said in German, “You have to be very careful not to fall in the fire to fall down, but at least to march forward”. This was very good advice. So, he said that we do not want to give up on our partners; we have to continue the work, especially within the trade unions and the universities and so on. Then, he continued to work even with some pro-government organisations. The regime was trying to apply two strategies: containing people or terrorising people, you see?
Q: What was the role of civil society at that time?
Since 1997, we started speaking about civil society, and support[ing] and encourag[ing] women’s organisations especially. We had - this is very important to mention - we had three forums: a women’s forum; an environmental forum; and a small industrial forum. We had a lot of experts in these forums. Out of these forums, actually, some organisations developed. For example, from the women’s forum, three organisations developed. From the environmental [forum], we had a sort of environmental parliament, which had very good support from FES and others.
Q: So, the idea of the interview is to discuss what the Arab Spring means for Sudan, and also what is different in Sudan, and then maybe talk about what you expect from this transitional period; from this revolution, basically.
I think we are a bit far from the so-called Arab Spring, because you see these civil society organisations were developing, although there was a lot of opposition. I called this resistance culture. It started even in 1964, [with] the October Revolution. This was the nucleus of the opposition.
Q: How do you compare the previous Sudanese revolutions to the Arab spring?
You see, in the October Revolution, and the April Revolution, it was more political issues; the freedoms of organisation, speech, ideas, and so on; the six very important freedoms: organisation, assembly, and so on. I think [these were] the main issues in the past. Because in the first revolution, the October Revolution, the economic situation was not so bad, it was good, in 1964. But I think [in] this revolution, the last one, the economic aspect was stronger than in the first two revolutions […] There was opposition all the time after the October Revolution, and even after the May Revolution. There were always opposition groups, but they were not so effective.
Q: Do you think, then, that revolution in Sudan comes not from the political parties, but from civil society?
Never ever. 1964 came from the trade unions; trade unions are civil society organisers. In April (1985) also. In the October Revolution, we had what we called “Jabhat al-Hay’at”. This was the front of these alliances, these groups. There were also the doctors, the lawyers, the journalists […] these very important civil society [actors]. In April , the same thing. And in December, it was also the same thing, [it was] all civil society organisations. The parties did not play any role. In 2019, we had this professional association. Therefore, the young people, men and women, and the professionals were there. There was no influence or role from the parties.
Q: So how do you evaluate the situation? I mean, if you look at the Arab Spring in 2011, there were a lot of similarities to what happened in 2019. Could you elaborate further?
I think this revolution was made by the unemployed graduates. But it all started with protests in Atbara because of bread. Yes, in Atbara and ad-Damazien, for example, at the university. Atbara is a very famous working-class city, [home to] railway workers. It is called “the city of steel and fire”. Therefore, Atbara has a very good political and opposition history since the 1940s.
Q: Everybody says “Look to Tunisia” as an example of an Arab Spring success story. But look at Tunisia, you will see a lot not going in the right direction!
Well, it is the same thing, because even in the October and April Revolutions, actually the professionals, the youth, and the women again revolted. But the revolution has been stolen by the military people and by the parties.
Q: Is it possible to happen again now? Will history repeat itself?
It is happening again, because the youth and the women behind the revolution, they are not organised. Even the parties, the military, and all other political groups have been taken by surprise. Nobody thought of a revolution at all. This last revolution was [largely] about social [issues], about how you divide the wealth of the country. This is essential. Even the slogan of the revolution, it is liberty, peace, and equality […] social justice, this is very important. [No] other revolution [ever] had this slogan, no slogan at all.
Q: What is the difference between the current transitional period and the previous ones?
The participation of the youth, the women, and the regions outside Khartoum, [and] the role of the neighbourhoods. Because all the demonstrations came from the neighbourhoods. In the past, they came from the ministries and the workplaces. The participation of women and youth was very decisive and remarkable.
Q: What is needed in order for civil society to rebuild the economy?
First, we have to be aware of the importance of the production sector, the agricultural sector, and traditional sectors. This should actually be stressed in the training courses of the civil society organisations. There was a very good document [produced] by the ILO in 1986. They said you have to modernise agriculture and the traditional sectors, and you also have to take care of the informal sector, because it is a result of the deterioration of the agricultural sector in the rural areas. It was a clear-cut prescription for the government. Al-Sadiq received this [document] and said, “I will do all [these] recommendations”, but nothing happened.
Q: How do you view the second cabinet, and how do you imagine the Juba Peace Agreement going?
I am not hopeful. You see, [...] I mentioned that even before this revolution, we need think tanks and research institutes to support the politicians. Because politicians, once they come to power, they lose sight. In Germany, you have think tanks which actually develop decisions for the politicians. We don’t have traditions in research. So, if you want to take decisions, they should be based on research results, but in Sudan, we don’t have it.
Q: So, I understand that you are not very hopeful for the economic transition?
There are no factories, no production schemes, how is it going to be integrated? [...] The private sector is not strong [enough] to have taxes and so on from the private sector. And [...] the international community, you see there [are] a lot of illusions [about] that. Even if they mean foreign investment, I am not hopeful.
Q: What about the family support programme?
This is nonsense. First, how [are] you going to make statistics about poor people? 80% of the Sudanese are poor people. How? In Khartoum? What about the farmers and the herders in the rural areas? How are you going to find them out?
Q: Are you very optimistic about the elections in 2023?
I am not [...] I think the political parties will play a very important role in the elections. All those people you see now; the young people and the young leaders; it is very difficult for them to win the elections, because they are not organised. In the elections, you need people who [...] are good speakers. They are not. Even if you see the common people in the rural areas, they do not take them seriously if they are not well-trained.
Q: What do you think about these parties which are small and new?
[They] are very important. They can be a nucleus for party life in the future. But you see, they are urban parties actually, in the big cities. For example, the Sudanese Congress Party, and the other one, which is called the Sudanese National Alliance. I do respect the people in these parties. I have very good friends in the Sudanese Congress Party, and even the Alliance, but you see the Alliance is so small. [T]he Sudanese parties [...] have some support in big towns, but [...] they don’t have experience; political experience; and I don’t know what they want. I assure you [...] many of these leading figures in the parties [...] don’t know what development means. What are the issues? Why is Sudan underdeveloped? We don’t have political literature [for] people [to] read. Some of the politicians [...] don’t read. You see, when we speak of democracy, I said this once and I [was] criticised very strongly. I told them democracy is not an issue of speaking. I mentioned the French Revolution, [which was] about the working class and the middle class. It is a lot of process, you see? These democratic concepts, I know even in Germany after the war. This is not the case in Sudan. How can we have democracy if we have sectarian parties? And we have the traditional sector, you see? Which is deeply rooted in traditions, and even in, I wouldn’t say religious thought, but, how to call it? Superstitions. This is why I think modernisation of the traditional sector; development of the rural areas; and here decentralisation. You see, all the industrial area here. You see, in the past, in the 1970s, we had a lot of workers; industrial workers and so on; textile industries; oil industries; and so on. Now, we don’t have [them]. If there [were to be] a rehabilitation [of] those industrial institution[s] [and] the factories, that would be very good.
Q: If you were to give advice for the next three to five years, what should we focus on, in order for the Sudanese revolution not to have the fate of the Arab Spring in many other countries?
I think to support democratisation; young people’s organisations; women’s organisations; mainly in the rural areas outside Khartoum; and so on. There are very many people who need training, so this is the first. The second [...] is the economy. Yes, the economy. [O]rganise meetings for economist[s] and non-economist[s] [alike] about the economic problems in Sudan; modernisation of the rural sector; agricultural economy; you see? [The] regional economy and such issues. Economic issues [are] very important.
Q: And the third piece of advice?
I think the mass media is very important. You should concentrate on young journalists.
Share your ideas with our team!