by Austin Michael Bodetti. He is a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College and a reporter for War Is Boring. He focuses on the relationship between Islam and conflict in Syria and Sudan.
Sudan’s Arab elites have long fortressed and sheltered themselves in Khartoum, a capital straddling the Nile, from the many civil wars eating the frontiers of the country. When the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), one of the three strongest Sudanese revolutionary movements, traveled hundreds of miles from the Chadian–Sudanese border to the boundaries of the city, assaulting the heart of the Sudanese government’s authority and power May 10, 2008, it achieved what few revolutionaries had since the Mahdist War during the late 1800s. Rebels from the periphery had once again succeeded in storming the capital, but, like the Mahdists, JEM only enjoyed temporary success.
JEM and the Sudanese government dispute what happened and when. After the Sudanese government claimed that it had defeated JEM at the outskirts of Khartoum and that fighting had ceased, JEM argued that events were continuing as planned, for it still controlled Omdurman, part of Khartoum to the west of the Nile. The Sudan Tribune maintained a timeline of May 10, when JEM mentioned that it had also seized the three bridges linking neighborhoods of Khartoum together over the Nile. Human Rights Watch asserted that fighting persisted for another forty-eight hours, accusing the Sudanese government of a crackdown on purported collaborators. All observers agreed that JEM had attacked the capital and that, by May 12, the Sudanese government had defeated it there. However, the circumstances behind the attack and whether it represented a true defeat or — somehow — a victory for the now-weakened revolutionary movement remained a mystery. The assault implied that Darfur’s rebels, unlike South Sudan’s during the Second Sudanese Civil War, could expand beyond their traditional battlefield.
JEM’s attack drew from a historical precedent that generation’s of Sudanese rebels had failed to copy with success. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire oversaw Egypt, which, in turn, controlled the territory that now composes Sudan. The tribes living in this region resented Egyptian–Ottoman authority, known as “the Turkiyya,” so a local cleric declared himself the redeemer of Islam, “the Mahdi,” and rallied a mobilization of guerillas. He massacred the Egyptian soldiers garrisoning Khartoum and their British reinforcements January 26, 1885, concluding the Turkiyya and creating a precedent that only JEM would follow over one hundred years later. The British reconquered the territory before the end of the century, establishing Anglo–Egyptian Sudan.Many Sudanese revolutionary movements have tried to present themselves as national rather than regional despite the regional conflicts in which they involved themselves. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), based in South Sudan 1983–2005; the Sudanese Liberation Movement/Army (SLM/A), based in Darfur 2003-now; and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army-North (SPLM/A–N), based in the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains, have supported a secular state uniting the ethnicities and regions of the nation, including South Sudan. The SLM/A and SPLM/A–N have joined a national coalition, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, with JEM, yet JEM, which may refuse a secular state such as New Sudan and its nationalist agenda, has done more than other members to expand from its regional strongholds to the rest of the country. Considered with JEM’s geographic, territorial expansion, the assault on Khartoum becomes a tactical military failure but a strategic political success. With the ability to attack the capital, JEM strengthens its legitimacy as a national revolutionary movement. It can better challenge the Sudanese government.
The audacity of the attack gained JEM short-term notoriety. The European Union and the United Nations condemned the rebels. America asked JEM and the Sudanese government to stop fighting. Given that members of JEM whom I have interviewed reside in Europe and North America to this day, the condemnation seems to have been political, not actual. “We are not going to stop fighting with the regime,” Khalil Ibrahim, leader of JEM during the attack, told The Sudan Tribune. “They did not abide by the signed ceasefire agreement and we are not keen to have it now. We will not sign a new ceasefire unless a political accord is signed”. He felt that the international community had neglected the conflict in Sudan. “We were waiting on the international community for two long years to put pressure on Khartoum to end the killing and oppression of Darfuris,” he stated. “Unfortunately the international community is not serious in pressurizing Khartoum. Some of the world major players have security interests in Sudan while others have oil interests. All of them actually prioritize their interests to the interest and the rights of the marginalized people in Darfur and elsewhere in the Sudan.” Signalling that JEM was once again ready to threaten the Sudanese government outside Darfur, an airstrike killed Ibrahim in Kordofan, a large region between Darfur and Khartoum, December 23, 2011. With the attack on Khartoum, JEM had already shown its national ambitions.
The intensity of fighting has varied since then. The Sudanese government defeated JEM near the South Sudanese border last year, yet the movement continues its expansion eastward. JEM remains the strongest revolutionary movement in Sudan.
The Sudanese government finds itself battling across many fronts, all of which are trying to unite as a national uprising. Whether the other Sudanese rebels like JEM or not, they may have to accept it as a necessity if they hope to converge on the capital. JEM has proven itself as a revolutionary movement capable of turning a regional campaign into a national one.