Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

The Sudanese teacher who helped bring down a dictatorship and talk the military out of power

Before he helped found the Sudanese Professionals Association, Ahmed Rabia taught high school maths and physics

Sudanese protest leader Ahmed Rabie after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on August 4, 2019.AFP
Sudanese protest leader Ahmed Rabie after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on August 4, 2019.AFP

Before he represented Sudan’s protest movement to sign a power-sharing document with Khartoum’s ruling generals this month, and before the group he co-founded led an uprising to topple longstanding dictator Omar Al Bashir, Ahmed Rabia had a different calling. He taught high school mathematics and physics.

It has been a tumultuous year for the 42-year-old father of three, whose image was splashed across the front page of nearly every regional newspaper on August 5, signing a historic agreement to end military rule in Sudan.

The agreement, officially known as a “constitutional declaration,” has the potential to end the vicious cycle of military dictatorships and ineffective civilian governments that has defined Sudan’s political landscape since independence in 1956. The instability created by that cycle has yielded seemingly non-stop civil strife, ethnic and religious enmities, and institutional corruption and cronyism that left Sudan resembling a failed state.

But Mr Rabia’s historic role in the transition has not given him an inflated sense of self-importance or filled him with political ambition.

“I will never be a part of political rivalries or join a political party. I have every intention of resuming my teaching career when schools reopen shortly,” he told The National in an interview on Thursday at the Khartoum headquarters of the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a group he co-founded five years before it organised four months of protests against Mr Al Bashir’s Islamist rule beginning in December last year.

The military removed Mr Al Bashir in April, but protests pressing for civilian rule continued for months after.

Beyond the classroom, Mr Rabia also envisages another role for himself. “We will develop the association to exercise oversight on the democratic process in Sudan. We need to dismantle the Islamist deep state,” he said, alluding to Bashir loyalists placed in leading positions in state entities throughout the 29 years of his rule.

“It’s a deep state, but I don’t think it is that deep.” he said. “As Sudanese, we will never again be fooled by anyone acting in the name of religion. We will not be ruled again by someone using religion as a political tool.”

Sudanese Protest leader Ahmed Rabie and General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo shake hands after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on August 4, 2019. AFP
Sudanese Protest leader Ahmed Rabie and General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo shake hands after signing the constitutional declaration in Khartoum on August 4, 2019. AFP

The document Mr Rabia co-signed is due to be formalised in a ceremony on Saturday to which international and regional dignitaries have been invited.

Sudan’s military rulers and the opposition represented by Mr Rabia have agreed to a transitional period of a little more than three years during which an 11-member “Sovereignty Council” will operate as a collective presidency. One of the generals will head the council for the first 21 months, followed by a civilian who will be at the helm for 18 months. Elections are scheduled for the end of the transitional period.

A transitional government of technocrats will be selected by the Forces of Freedom and Change, a loose coalition of political parties and trade unions that represents the protest movement and which has negotiated the deal with the military. The alliance will also have a two-third share of a proposed 300-seat legislative.

On Thursday the alliance, of which the SPA is a key member, nominated British-educated economist Abdullah Hamdouk as the transitional prime minister. Mr Hamdouk's career spans four decades of working for the Sudanese government and various UN agencies.

We operated like ghosts. No one knew who we were

Ahmed Rabia, protest leader

Mr Rabia said that giving the generals leadership of the Sovereignty Council for the first 21 months was not a major concession by the protest movement as many speculated. "Remnants of the former regime continue to control militias and cells of loyalists. The military will have to deal with that threat now."

The deal was the product of months of difficult negotiations that broke down on several occasions when security forces used deadly force against protesters. Tensions peaked on June 3 with the bloody dispersal of a sit-in encampment outside the military headquarters in Khartoum.

The opposition says nearly 130 people were killed in the violence, which was followed by a series of mass demonstrations, drawing up to a million people demanding the military make way for civilian rule.

“Sudan’s streets and the awareness of the Sudanese youth are our only guarantee that the agreement will be respected,” said Mr Rabia, a towering man in a summer shirt on blue pants and a pair of sandals.

His unassuming demeanour and modest appearance belie his status as a chief architect of a peaceful revolution to topple an entrenched regime that had long used violence with impunity against opponents. That the protest movement chose him for the distinction of signing the constitutional declaration shows the respect he enjoys among his peers.

“Many people just thought that the honour was given to a schoolteacher because others wanted to avoid the limelight,” he said with a smile.

But his activism dates to 2002, when he founded a neighbourhood teachers’ association that evolved eight years later into a nationwide and independent teachers’ union that rivaled its government-controlled counterpart. Throughout the uprising, Mr Rabia, like other senior protest leaders, worked anonymously behind the scenes, using social media to mobilise and raise funds for their anti-government movement.

“We operated like ghosts. No one knew who we were. I was detained in January and released after Al Bashir was gone on April 11 and I stepped into the public arena for the first time ever a few days later,” he recalled at the SPA’s sparsely furnished headquarters, a three-story villa in the leafy Khartoum district of Garden City.

Initially, the military was reluctant to negotiate in good faith, Mr Rabia said, chiefly because the generals doubted the level of popular support behind the protest movement. At times, generals publicly suggested protest leaders were seeking to grab power, called for the inclusion of other groups in negotiations, or proposed elections be held by the end of 2019. At one point, according to Mr Rabia, the generals tried to undermine the alliance of Freedom and Change, seeking to create a power base of their own, flirting with some of the Islamists and tribal leaders linked to Mr Al Bashir’s regime.

It seemed clear to Mr Rabia that the generals wanted to cling to power, as did Islamist fellow travelers from Mr Bashir’s regime. But the mass peaceful protests that continued even in the face of brutal violence finally convinced them to genuinely cooperate with protest leaders. “They realised that civilian rule is what the people really wanted.”

Updated: August 16, 2019 01:54 PM

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