Levittown resident Elham Maaz said she couldn’t get in touch with relatives and friends in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, for weeks after a military coup and subsequent internet blackout.
All the while, Maaz, 17, read news reports of hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters taking to the streets of Khartoum and other cities. The military responded to peaceful crowds with violence. Maaz knew some of her relatives would join rallies. She worried they would be among the injured or dead.
“I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t function normally because I was in constant fear of hearing that one of my loved ones would become a martyr,” said Maaz.
Maaz’s relatives and friends avoided injury. Less than a month after the Oct. 25 coup, military leaders entered a power-sharing agreement with ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Still, smaller demonstrations are ongoing. Those rallying say they want no military involvement in the government whatsoever.
Members of the Philadelphia region’s Sudanese community say they want to support pro-democracy protesters back home, but people outside their immediate networks don’t seem to care. Local activists say solidarity rallies in Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington have garnered little news coverage, and they suspect their nuanced demands might be playing a role in the lack of widespread attention or support.
“We want the U.S. to put pressure on [Sudan], to get democracy back, and to put individual sanctions on those military generals,” said Upper Darby resident and Sudanese community leader Ahmed Elhashemy, 30.
Elhashemy, who left Sudan six years ago for better professional opportunities, acknowledged that unlike after a natural disaster, he can’t create a GoFundMe fund-raiser. They’re also not asking for something as extreme as military intervention, a demand people might find easier to understand.
Instead, Elhashemy and others want people to write or call their congressional representatives and ask the country to flex its diplomatic muscle. But that demand, they say, requires at least a basic understanding of more than 30 years of Sudan’s politics.
How Sudan got here
The last time Sudan faced such political upheaval was in 2019 when the military ousted then-President Omar al-Bashir. The dictator was in power for 30 years and stood accused of orchestrating crimes against humanity in the region of Darfur.
The military, however, would refuse to give total control to civilians after they turned on al-Bashir. Only after months of protests did the military agree to enter a power-sharing agreement with pro-democracy leaders. The compromise created a sovereign council of civilians and the military. They would split the responsibility of running Sudan until it could hold elections in 2023.
The country’s top military leader, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, led the council with the understanding he was supposed to let a civilian member of the council take over in November 2021.
Weeks shy of the transfer of power, Burhan led a coup instead, arresting the prime minister and other officials.
Ali B. Ali-Dinar, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Africana Studies whose research includes Sudanese politics, said the October coup wasn’t a “complete surprise” given the military controls 80% of the economy. An added wrinkle is Burhan’s role in the government-backed genocide in the western region of Darfur, which claimed the lives of at least 300,000 people.
While the Associated Press reports Burhan has a relatively clean record from his time as a commander, Ali-Dinar said Burhan and his second in command are implicated in atrocities in Darfur.
Even with the new power-sharing agreement, Ali-Dinar said the Sudanese people are wary of the military’s promises to eventually relinquish control.
“The grip of the army is still very strong and that’s why people in Sudan are continuously demonstrating,” explained Ali-Dinar, adding people worry democratic elections could be perpetually postponed.
Activists believe the demonstrations following the October coup and early diplomatic pressure from the United States have made a difference.
It was only in 2020 that the United States stopped designating Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism after 27 years. The change opened Sudan to much-needed foreign aid and trade.
After the October coup, the United States halted a $700 million aid package for Sudan’s ailing economy. Local activists believe the pause in aid pressured Burhan into reinstating Prime Minister Hamdok, though they also see it as a sham agreement with the military still in charge.
‘No one is talking about what’s going on’
Allentown resident Nour Osman, 38, said lives are at risk if the United States doesn’t do more to pressure Sudan.
She said security forces fatally shot her brother, Osman Mohamed Osman, 21, during a Nov. 17 demonstration that was one of the country’s deadliest since the coup. At least 16 people were killed.
Through an interpreter, Nour said she came to the United States five years ago for better education and work. Relatives who stayed behind endured long lines for increasingly expensive bread and gas, as well as a stunted labor market under al-Bashir. Nour’s family, including her then-teenage brother, saw democracy as the path to economic prosperity in Sudan. It’s why Osman rejected Nour’s efforts to get him to stay home during the recent protests.
“All my friends are going, why should I stay home?” she remembers her brother saying.
Nour said her family learned of Osman’s death through a Sudanese activist’s Facebook page. She said video captured the military shooting at protesters, including her brother.
“No one is talking about what’s going on,” she said through tears.
Elhashemy estimates there are hundreds of Sudanese-born people in Philadelphia and they’re trying to mobilize behind their cause. Activists in Philadelphia have joined forces with New York City’s Sudanese community, attending rallies in Philly, New York City, and Washington. According to 2019 census figures, more than 75,000 people reported Sudanese ancestry.
Until civilians are in control of Sudan, Elhashemy and Maaz say they’ll continue organizing in the Philadelphia region, encouraging calls to congressional leaders, and using social media to spread awareness.
“There would be more public support if people knew about the protests and what’s happening at these protests,” said Maaz.
The latest pro-democracy protest took place in multiple cities across Sudan Tuesday. According to news reports, security forces fired tear gas at protesters in Khartoum. Since the October coup, more than 40 people have died in protests.