“The People Want to Overthrow the Regime:” Demonstrations in Sudan against the Bashir Regime

Adam Hoffman and Haim Koren analyze the discourse surrounding the mass demonstrations now being held across Sudan in protest of the Omar al-Bashir regime.

גרפיטי של דיוקן בשיר ומתחתיו הכיתוב "הסתלק". מקור: טוויטר
 Graffiti with a picture of Bashir and the caption “Leave,” from Twitter.

In mid-December 2018, mass demonstrations began in many cities in Sudan, protesting against the autocratic regime of Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled the country for three decades. The Sudanese authorities are using force to suppress the protests, but have not succeeded to date. The protests have also expanded online, and many users are sharing pictures and videos of demonstrators which call for the overthrow of the regime and the continuation of the mass protests. It appears that the public discourse on social networks unifies many protesters against the regime, helps spread the protests to additional cities across the country and generates expressions of solidarity from abroad. Although Bashir is still in power, the mass demonstrations seem to pose a threat to the stability of his regime, for the first time in nearly 30 years.

Omar al-Bashir came to power in Sudan after leading a military coup in 1989, assisted in large part by the support he received from the Islamist politician Hassan al-Turabi, who died in 2016. Turabi had led the Islamization of the political system in Sudan and the adoption of Shari’a in the country in the 1970s. The background for Bashir’s ascent to power includes decades of civil war, beginning in 1955, between Arab-Muslim citizens in the hegemonic northern part of the country and citizens in southern Sudan, mostly Christian Africans of animist origin, who were marginalized and disadvantaged. The internecine strife, which continued after the ascent of Bashir, resulted in the deaths of more than two million people, injured three million more, and created four million refugees. The war ended only in 2005, and has left an indelible mark on Sudanese society since then.[1]

Since Bashir took power, there have been periodic protests against his regime. In 2011, the protests began to increase, and have included strikes by university students and doctors, as well as protests against price hikes. Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, a Sudanese doctor and human rights activist, described the situation well when he claimed that the political struggle against Bashir’s dictatorial Islamic regime “never ceased [even for] one day.”[2] However, despite the protests, it appeared that the regime would remain stable.  After all, Bashir has managed to remain in power longer than any other Arab ruler in the region, and the opposition has never been able to significantly challenge his rule.[3] However, it seems that this trend began to shift when mass demonstrations erupted in several Sudanese cities in December 2018. The demonstrations began on December 19 in Atbara and spread to other cities and towns in Sudan including Gedarif, Wad Madani, Port Sudan, Dongola, El-Obeid, El-Fasher, Khartoum and Omdurman. The protests were largely coordinated and organized using social media, with Sudanese activists calling on users to demonstrate against the regime using hashtags in Arabic and English.  These hashtags included “cities of Sudan are rising up” (#مدن_السودان_تنتفض), “Sudan revolts” (#السودان_ينتفض), #SudanProtests, #SudanUprisings, #Sudan_revolution and #Sudan_Revolts. These hashtags were shared by so many users that they became trending on Twitter, which attracted additional attention and heightened awareness, in Sudan and abroad, of the protests against Bashir.

Ostensibly, the demonstrations were sparked by economic issues, following the Bashir regime’s decision to triple the price of bread.  However, they soon turned into a direct protest against the regime itself, under the slogan “The people want to topple the regime,”[4] which Arabic-language discourse identifies with the Arab Spring uprising of 2010-11 in Tunisia, Egypt and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

Numerous tweets and videos with this slogan were shared online and received thousands of views.[5] Demonstrators explicitly called for removing Bashir from power using the slogan “Tasgut Bass,” or “Just go” in Sudanese Arabic slang, which Sudanese activists adopted as a trending hashtag (#تسقط_بس). Many of the tweets shared with this tag showed images from demonstrations in various locations in Sudan, as well as clashes between demonstrators and Sudanese security forces.[6] One post that was liked and retweeted several hundred times showed “Tasgut Bass” spelled out by empty teargas canisters that Sudanese police had fired at the demonstrators.[7] Another Tweet showing a graffiti with a picture of Bashir and the caption “Leave” (see picture 1, above) was described as “[the] Sudanese Revolution in one picture.”[8] Outside of Sudan, the protests also received expressions of solidarity.  For example, a group of Sudanese refugees in France demonstrated against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower,[9] and videos were shared of supporters demonstrating in London.[10] Tawakkol Karman, a human rights activist of Yemenite origin and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate for 2011, shared pictures of the demonstrations on her Twitter account, and expressed support for the demonstrators’ demand to overthrow the regime of Bashir that she called “corrupt, failed and tyrannical.”[11]

The Sudanese regime has been violently suppressing the demonstrations . According to Human Rights Watch, the Sudanese security forces have used live fire, rubber bullets and tear gas against demonstrators, and have arrested hundreds of people including journalists, doctors, academics and members of opposition parties.[12] These reports were confirmed by a video shared on Facebook showing Sudanese security forces firing at unarmed protesters.[13] In addition to using physical force, in late December the regime decided to block social media applications, including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. As a result, these applications can only be accessed from Sudan via a virtual private network (VPN) connection.[14]

Two characteristics of the mass demonstrations in Sudan are reminiscent of the Arab Spring protests that erupted against the autocratic regimes in the Middle East. First, the size and strength of the demonstrations, which are being held at multiple locations across the country and reach all levels of the population, using the slogan “The people want to topple the regime,” which for many – both scholars and activists from the Middle East – signifies the revolutionary spirit that accompanied the Arab Spring. Second is the extensive use of social media to coordinate demonstrations, and to increase awareness of the events in Sudan around the world. Since the Arab Spring, many autocratic regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere have learned to limit the potential inherent in social networking for the political organization of opposition or protest movements,  but the current network discourse in Sudan shows that online platforms remain efficient tools for these purposes.

As of this writing, Bashir still rules in Sudan, and has even gone on official visits to Qatar[15] and Egypt.[16] The visits are seemingly intended to show that everything in Sudan is “business as usual,” and he may also hope to gain support from the Qatari and Egyptian regimes for his continued rule. However, the mass demonstrations are have continued and are growing in numbers and in strength. They thus present the most significant challenge that Bashir’s regime has faced in its long years of rule.


[1] Haim Koren, "Pathways of Sudan," Ifriqiya, Volume 2, Issue 10, 23 February 2017 [Hebrew].

[2] Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, "Understanding the Travail of Change in Sudan", Sudan Seen, December 22, 2018. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[3] Haim Koren, "Sudan: Bashir Weathers the Storm", Tel Aviv Notes, Volume 12, Number 16, October 10, 2018.

[4] @MohamedHnid, Twitter.com, December 23, 2018. Last accessed 23 January 2019; @kaka_khalifa, Twitter.com, December 23, 2018. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[5] @Mohamed_Satti, Twitter.com, December 25, 2018. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[6] @wafaa_abdoo, Twitter.com, January 19, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[7] @RealRameyDawoud, Twitter.com, January 20, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[8] @SudaneseCulture, Twitter.com, January 20, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[9] @Winiomer, Twitter.com, January 20, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[10] @shay_n3na3, Twitter.com, January 19, 2019.  Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[11] @TawakkolKarman, Twitter.com, January 20, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[12] "Sudan: Security Forces Killing, Detaining Protesters", Human Rights Watch, January 7, 2019.  Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[13] الشريفي السوداني , Facebook.com, December 20, 2018. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[14] Yousef Saba and Nafisa Eltahir, "Sudan restricts social media access to counter protest movement", Reuters, January 2, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[15] "Sudan's Bashir to travel to Qatar amid protests", France 24, January 21, 2019. Last accessed 23 January 2019.

[16] "Sudan’s Bashir to visit Egypt as more protests planned", Al-Arabiya, January 26, 2019. Last accessed 30 January 2019.