The ongoing Sudanese revolution has emerged at a time when most of us had already given up any realistic hope for what has become known as the Arab Spring. Yet, if anything, the revolutionaries in Sudan have the best chance yet of simultaneously defeating both nationalist dictatorship and religious fundamentalism. This would be no small feat; it would arguably mark the most significant historical turning point in the struggle for democracy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) since World War II.
Since the protests began in Tunisia in late 2010, the Arab Spring has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promise of democratic governance. I argue that this is primarily because the protest movements have simply not been revolutionary enough to break free from the dominating orbit of the retroactive forces of nationalist dictatorships and religious fundamentalism. Under these circumstances, the non-violent, mostly liberal movements were quickly neutralized, demonstrating the degree to which the death of the Left has left contemporary societies at the mercy of fascist forces.
Each time a dictatorial regime in the MENA region was about to be destabilized, the Islamist threat loomed large, narrowing the horizon of possibilities before any democratic alternative could take root. In all cases, the uprisings were quickly exploited by Islamists who had been more robustly mobilizing around political organizations and religious institutions, supported by a powerful international network of other Islamist states, organizations, and capitalists. With perhaps the sole exception of Tunisia, which managed to reach a fragile balance between liberals and Islamists, the result of each uprising has been either a descent into civil war fueled by Islamist and sectarian violence, or a continuation of military dictatorship, perceived by many as the lesser evil.
Compared to other Arab Spring uprisings, the Egyptian uprising attracted the most global attention, despite being relatively modest in its demands. First, as a movement, the Egyptian protestors appealed to the military to bring down the Mubarak regime, which was itself organically tied to the military establishment. From there, the country elected the Muslim Brotherhood to power as its first nominally democratic act. The Islamist suppression, however, soon prompted calls for a return to military rule, which would at least be secular, allowing for some individual freedoms. Egypt’s transition from Mubarak to Morsi to el-Sisi is exemplary of the hopeless duality of the oppressive, exclusionary governance of nationalist dictatorships and Islamism.
This deadly duality has haunted the MENA region since the 1970s demise of what had been relatively popular communist movements. The coveted postcolonial freedom of countries in the region was never realized because sovereignty under nationalists meant little more than the unlimited monopolization of societies by a class of generals whose role models were either traditional tyrants from centuries of absolutism or European national socialists, especially the fascist leaders of the 1920s and 1930s. The concept of the individual as an end in herself, as a free subject, and as a right holder had not been born in those societies governed by Ottoman Turks, followed by Europeans after World War I, and finally nationalist forces by the end of World War II and into the following decade.
In many cases, the newly sovereign MENA states only accelerated violence to the degree of genocidal attempts to eradicate those whose identities were seen as complicating the nationalist desire for homogeneity. Armenians, Jews, Kurds, Amazighs, and Native Africans, such as Nubians, Darfurians, and the people of South Sudan, were all subjected to such campaigns. Yet, very few among the intelligentsia were prepared to acknowledge these genocidal projects of postcolonial statehood in the region, let alone critique them. While Elie Kedourie and Kanan Makiya were exceptions in this sense, both of them have been widely marginalized and often demonized as a conservative and an imperialist apologist, respectively.
With the death of the Left, Islamism also began to accumulate force, in large part thanks to the Western bloc, which sought to stop the rise of communism in Afghanistan and Indonesia in particular. Beginning in the 1980s, Islamists overtook communists as the primary opposition to nationalist dictators in the region, and this deadly cycle was fully shaped by the mid 1990s. At times, both nationalists and Islamists made tactical deals, but more often each side used the other to justify its own extreme violence. Once again, the stars of the intelligentsia, including Edward Said, did not reserve space in their projects for a critique of either side in this oppressive duality. Instead, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism were given the utmost priority. This worked well for nationalists and Islamists alike, as they too ascribed to the anti-Zionist and anti-American discourse.
The majority of Arab intelligentsia, whether secular or Islamist, were obsessed with one and only one question: Israel. Meanwhile, endless ruthlessness against entire MENA societies were often implicitly and sometimes even openly justified in the name of the Palestinian struggle. The suffering and struggles of Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans as well as Palestinians at the hands of pan-Arab nationalists did not merit any solidarity from the dominant intelligentsia. By the same token, the violent oppression of Arab regimes was normalized as long as these regimes claimed some role in anti-Israeli politics. For precisely this reason, in the 1980s, at the peak of his genocidal campaigns, Saddam Hussein was seen as a heroic figure in Arab intelligentsia circles.
When the Arab Spring began to take shape, the MENA region had already been torn between two forms of rightism: a bankrupt nationalism that failed in providing a dignifying political space for citizenship and an untried Islamism that borrowed legitimacy from religion, which was on the rise thanks to the fertile soil of hopelessness in which irrationality could grow rapidly. When Islamists advanced the slogan “Islam is the solution,” they directly exploited people’s frustration with nationalism and the death of the Left. Also, Islamists presented themselves as the true non-compromising anti-Zionist force, which had popular appeal given the anti-Semitic education propagated for decades under nationalism.
Still, Islamists were by no means the agitators of the Arab Spring; rather, it was educated urban middle-class liberals who formed the majority among the organizers and activists. Their demands did not go beyond a change in regimes from military dictatorships to democracies. More to the point, every time they managed to create cracks in the iron fist of a regime, Islamists swiftly emerged as the most organized political group and one prepared to take power by whatever means necessary, from elections to outright violence. In every single case, the liberals lost the game at the very moment they won, when Islamists would invariably sweep in to scavenge.
In Syria, one of the last drops of hope in the drought of the Arab Spring has dried up. People found themselves on the battleground of a barbaric fight between the Baath regime and Sunni Islamist forces, with neither side able to knock out the other. Throughout the last decade, Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Gulf countries, and the West have played significant roles in prolonging this hopeless showdown between generals and imams, while the promise of democracy has been left to die in the dumpster of history.
Russia, as usual, has taken the side of the dictators. Iran has continued to follow its strategy of Shia Islamist expansionism. Turkey and Qatar have unreservedly supported Sunni Islamists throughout the region. Saudi Arabia did support Sunni Islamists, but for the last three years it has begun forming a new front against the Islamists, while also continuing to oppose the Iranian hegemony. Of all these players, the liberal West has arguably been the most confusing (and confused) party, at times supporting the so-called moderate Islamists, which has led to catastrophic outcomes in Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has been only those movements shunned by the Arab Spring that have created enduring spaces of democracy and inclusion, which have found no allies beyond the isolated marginalized peoples themselves. The most significant example of such an extraordinary enclave is Rojava, or northwest Syria, under the direct influence of the Kurdish liberation movement in bordering southeast Turkey. In Rojava, a secular, feminist, egalitarian, and anti-statist movement has rejected both Islamism and nationalism in favor of a unique model of direct democracy. The revolutionaries of Rojava, despite the blockade imposed on them from all sides, comprise the only revolutionary force that has successfully defeated the Islamic State, beginning in Kobane in 2015 and continuing into 2019 in Baghouz. However, their accomplishments have, for the most part, been dismissed by both the Left and the Right in the East as well as the West.
Sudan represents a middle ground between the rejected Other and the dominant players in the Arab world. By virtue of being in the margins, there is reason to hope that the revolutionaries in Sudan will, like those in Rojava, succeed in establishing a revolutionary alternative. In rejecting a regime that is both a military dictatorship and ideologically Islamist, the Sudanese revolution is already well on its way to accomplishing what all other uprisings of the Arab Spring have failed to do. The military generals tried to appease the revolutionaries by ousting Al-Bashir, but the revolutionaries are not to be fooled by such theatrical moves. They continue to insist on the complete removal of the old regime and the establishment of a democracy based on civil rights for all.
The revolutionaries have openly and proudly rejected Sharia as a source of legislation in the country. They want nothing less than a civil state with civil laws. Also, unlike other Arab Spring protests, in the Sudanese revolution it is not uncommon to see women leading protests and giving revolutionary speeches, indicating an atypical degree of feminist consciousness among the revolutionaries. The fact that gender inequality was not a major concern for the popular movements of the Arab Spring undermined their purported revolutionary aims from the start. Another promising characteristic of the Sudanese revolution is its inclusivity on national and ethnic bases, which signals the emergence of a new, hopefully post-nationalist groundwork for civil and political society. Together, these qualities signify a revolutionary consciousness that recognizes the multilayered nature of oppression, and this should come as no surprise given the continuous emancipatory struggles in Sudan throughout its modern history.
Unfortunately, most historians and journalists focus exclusively on the center at the expense of what takes place in the peripheries, despite the fact that it is more often the peripheries that give rise to new possibilities. When it comes to the non-Western world, this traditional centrism is embodied by an old orientalist habit of clinging onto what is assumed to be the cultural and geographic foci. Logically, at least when it comes to emancipatory revolutions, it is the marginalized of the marginalized who are most likely to experience oppression in its fullest forms. Therefore, it is the marginalized who create revolutions, albeit they are often coopted by members of the dominant group or class.
As a rule, hope is always born where the conditions of hopelessness are absolute, as I have argued in the conclusion of my recently published book. Those in the margins may prove to be the true emancipators of all, including those in the centers of the MENA region, and beyond. However, even those of us who claim to be in solidarity with emancipatory movements too often fail to recognize this and only further marginalize the margins, whether through blatant disregard or the imposition of unreasonable standards.
That said, whether we pay attention or not, the struggles of the marginalized will continue regardless of the seasons of history or chances of victory. Nonetheless, if we choose to be less centrist and more universalist, if we search for light where people invent it as a matter of survival, we would be doing a favor not only to ourselves but also to the future of human society. History is made everywhere, and we are all responsible to some degree for how our age will advance, whether into darker times or to the realization of a higher degree of emancipation.
Saladdin Ahmed will be joining Union College as a visiting assistant professor for the 2019–2020 academic year. He specializes in Critical Theory and is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura, published by SUNY Press in March 2019.