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Academics have shaped Sudan’s political history, and may do it again

Sudanese protesters are demanding the departure of President Omar al-Bashir. EPA-EFE/STRINGER

Sudanese academics are taking a leading role in protests against President Omar al-Bashir. Moina Spooner from The Conversation Africa spoke to Willow Berridge about their role in the country’s previous uprisings.

What major uprisings in Sudan involved Sudanese academics?

Sudanese academics at the University of Khartoum were prominently involved in Sudan’s two most famous uprisings. These were the October Revolution of 1964, which ushered out Sudan’s first military regime, and the April Intifada of 1985, which ousted the second.

Although students at the capital’s other universities – notably Omdurman Islamic University in 1985 – played a leading role in mobilising resistance, Khartoum University was always the most significant hub of intellectual opposition.

Both the 1964 and 1985 uprisings are regarded with a great deal of pride in Sudan. They were largely civil in character and, after brief interim periods, brought about a peaceful transition to parliamentary democracy.

Yet, at the same time, the leaders of the uprisings were unable to bring an end to conflict in the now seceded southern region of the country – South Sudan. They also couldn’t prevent the parliamentary democracies they established being overthrown by military coups in 1969 and 1989.

How and why did they get involved?

The University of Khartoum – which emerged out of the old colonial school Gordon Memorial College, established in 1902 – first became involved in the politics of regime change in 1964. This was after the government sanctioned political and academic debate on the ongoing conflict in the south.

University lecturers soon took the opportunity to begin pressuring for political change in Khartoum itself. This led to the government shutting down the same seminars it had initially sanctioned.

On 21 October 1964, police raided a seminar convened by Khartoum University’s student’s union. This led to skirmishes with undergraduates. One of them, Ahmad al-Qurayshi, was shot dead. The next day four members of the teaching staff bore al-Qurayshi’s bier in a funeral procession which transformed itself into the first mass anti-regime rally of the October Revolution.

Soon afterwards, university lecturers helped form the Professional Front, the forerunner of today’s Sudan Professional Association.

The Professional Front had its headquarters at the University of Khartoum. From there it mobilised the general strike that toppled the regime.

By 1985, the precedent had already been set. University lecturers played an active part in the Union Alliance that mobilised the population against the regime of Jafa’ar Nimeiri.

It was meetings held within the University of Khartoum that, once again, enabled professional unions to form a coherent front against the authoritarian government.

What impact did they have?

As members of the Professional Front and Union Alliance, the lecturers were instrumental in effecting the general strikes that toppled regimes in 1964 and 1985.

Lecturers were also members of professional-political party coalitions. The United National Front in 1964 and the National Alliance in 1985. Here, they were instrumental in negotiating arrangements for transitional regimes with the military. In 1964 one of the Professional Front’s most active lecturers, Muhammad Salih Umar, went on to be a minister in the transitional government.

There are a couple of reasons why academic activism was so effective.

First, they were part of a small and closely networked elite which bound them to other professional groups. This included the upper echelons of the army. Many also came from similar backgrounds in central, riverain Sudan. This enabled them to overcome their own internal ideological divisions and minimise the risk of being manipulated by the regime.

But the narrow social base of the professional class was also one reason why the uprising failed. Principally, it didn’t overcome the country’s broader regional divides. Particularly the divide between the riverain centre, the West and the South.

In addition, not all remained committed to the principle of multiparty democracy after their participation in the Intifadas or uprisings. Notably, Hasan al-Turabi, a law lecturer and covert member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was instrumental in galvanising academics and students against the first military regime in 1964. But he was also the ideological and political architect of the current authoritarian Islamist regime. Therefore he effectively brought the current President, Omar al-Bashir, into power.

What is their role this time round?

University lecturers have once again begun to mobilise alongside their fellow professionals against al-Bashir’s regime. A number have been arrested.

Because the current Intifada has been more spontaneous and decentralised than in 1964 and 1985, academics have not played as prominent a role. But the University of Khartoum has certainly been at the centre of important debates about Sudan’s immediate political future.

Two distinct initiatives have emerged from within the university: The University of Khartoum Lecturers’ Initiative, and the University of Khartoum Initiative.

The lecturers’ initiative demands an immediate political transition. It was signed by hundreds of academic staff, many of whom also staged a sit in on the campus.

The University of Khartoum Initiative is the brainchild of the executive cadres of the university administration appointed by the regime since 1992. They have proposed a “platform for dialogue”. This was unsurprisingly welcomed by President al-Bashir. He has frequently called for dialogue as a diversionary tactic.

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