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Interview Sudan's regime may be crumbling, but its victims need our help

Sudanese communist Rashid Sidahmed talks to Morning Star editor Ben Chacko about the causes of the huge protests that have rocked his country – and the plight of those arrested for taking part

MORNING STAR readers will be aware of the huge protests that rocked Sudan last month — and of the rapid arrest of many of the protest leaders, including Sudanese Communist Party general secretary Mohamed Mokhtar al-Khatieb.

Sudanese Communist Party general secretary Mohamed Mokhtar al-Khatieb
Sudanese Communist Party general secretary Mohamed Mokhtar al-Khatieb

Earlier this week, over 60 communist parties signed an appeal for the release of Khatieb and other political prisoners in Sudan and called on authorities to ensure they had access to medical care and legal advice.

Leading Sudanese communist Rashid Sidahmed says a few prisoners have been released — but others could be in more danger than before.

“Comrades Kamal Karar, Muhiedeen al-Jalag and Siddgy Kabalo were transferred to Zalingi prison in the west of Darfur,” he tells the Morning Star. “A town in the vicinity of camps for displaced people and where many of the atrocities occurred.

“We are concerned for their safety. Many have medical conditions that require attention — with treatments not available in prison and in short supply over the whole province.

“Some of these conditions stem from previous detentions.”
There is little doubt that prisoners are at risk in Sudanese jails, even the colloquial names of which send a shiver down the spine. Stories of torture and murder are associated with the “ghost houses,” secret prison sites where enemies of the regime have been taken.

Sidahmed also talks of “war zoos” controlled by irregular militias, where “physical liquidation can be attributed to chaos.”

“The number under arrest is more than 300 from all opposition forces, and while a few have been released over the past couple of days, some more have also been arrested.”

The crackdown doesn’t just affect communists — Sidahmed says members of the Uma Party, Ba’ath Party, Sudanese Congress Party, Hashed Unity, the Democratic Front and women’s and student organisations have been rounded up alongside human rights activists.

“The detainees represent all shades of the Sudanese political spectrum bar the National Congress Party” (NCP).

The NCP is the Islamist party that rules Sudan and is headed by Omar Bashir, who has been president of the country since he seized power in 1989.

Bashir has survived global outrage over the atrocities committed in Darfur, and even the sundering of the country when South Sudan broke away in 2011.

But the Sudanese communists say last month’s protests, sparked by a budget ending subsidies and thus forcing up the price of bread and other necessities, could be the beginning of the end for the tyrant.

“We believe the regime has exhausted itself in the futile exercise of self-preservation to the extent that it is taking an irrecoverable nosedive,” Sidahmed says.

“It is a classic case for revolution. A regime which cannot govern, and a people who have reached a point where they cannot accept the status quo.”

He looks back to the giant protests against fuel price rises of autumn 2013 — “the first massive revolt against the regime since 1989, with over 200 young martyrs.

“Yet this year’s demonstrations were more organised and more people participated.

“They were designed to continue and to build, making use of innovative methods to guarantee sustainability and resilience.

“The January 16, 17 and 31 demonstrations were the culmination of a long resistance to the NCP’s policies.

“The 2018 budget triggered a long-brewing revolt which has accumulated for 28 years. The adoption of free-market policies perpetrated by the IMF’s classic prescription — wasting the country’s resources in non-productive or developmental projects, selling vast areas of land to foreign investors, dismantling major projects such as the Gezira irrigation scheme, Sudan Railways, Sudan Shipping Lines, Sudan Airways, dedicating over 70 per cent of GDP to the armed and security forces — all this has helped ripen the situation.”

Things ought to have improved for Bashir when the US lifted 20-year-old sanctions last October — but Sidahmed says that with the sanctions gone “the regime lost one of its brainwashing tools. They used to attribute all the difficulties in providing peace and adequate living standards to the sanctions.”

Hence the thousands-strong demonstrations that took place last month, rallies the Communist Party played the chief role in organising but which saw involvement of dozens of other groups.

“The alliance between us and other political and civil forces was not built on only ideological grounds — it is composed of many strains of political ideas, but the common denominator is changing the Islamic fundamentalist regime and stopping Sudan from sliding into chaos.

“We have to reinstate a democratic system that is able to stop the wars and rebuild the war-torn parts of the country, create a reconciliation plan.

“In order to do that we have basically forged an agreement called the Democratic Alternative.

“Only under democracy will our party be able to achieve its objectives. In a nutshell, we are ready to work with and alongside all Sudanese whose objectives are not compatible with the NCP’s.

“Sudan is sitting on a ticking bomb — we have to disarm it first and strive to create a progressive, just and prosperous society. These are massive tasks and cannot be achieved by our party’s efforts alone.

“The way forward is to continue employing realistic tactics and involving all forces that aspire to change, peace and democracy in Sudan on the platform of a wide popular front.”

I ask if independence for South Sudan has helped or hindered this goal.

“The right of the South Sudanese to choose their future is unquestionable. But the secession of South Sudan has definitely weakened the potential for a strong and prosperous country, enjoying a great position in Africa and the Arab world.

“In retrospect, had the NCP acted in a balanced or patriotic way, the referendum results would have been in favour of unity. But we should not cry over spilt milk.

“What we hope for and will work for in the future is a special relationship between our two countries, with aspirations of real co-operation, perhaps federal agreements, and maybe reunification — who knows?”

These are questions for the longer term. Right now, Sidahmed’s thoughts are with his imprisoned comrades. He calls for mounting pressure on the authorities in Khartoum to end the repression and release the prisoners.

“We believe in solidarity and its power to influence decisions, especially when a regime like that of the NCP is craving acceptance within the international community.

“We also believe in the effectiveness of media attention and its role in galvanising opinion and shedding light on the atrocities of despotic regimes like that in Sudan.

“The regime has been forced to respond to such pressure in the past, albeit reluctantly.

“We can see some results of that pressure in the last few days. But we think that the regime is fully aware that this time is not like the other times, so it is very difficult to predict its responses.

“We can only say that maintaining the solidarity campaigns is important and could be effective.

“What we need is wide exposure of the situation and winning over official bodies, governments and human rights organisations, exposing those states and organisations which assist the regime’s survival.

“This should be loud and clear so we keep the Sudan issue continuously in the limelight. There are forces within British political parties and trade unions who could be instrumental in this endeavour.”

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