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Saturday 25 February 2012

In New Protests, Echoes of an Uprising That Shook Sudan By ISMA'IL KUSHKUSH

February 23, 2012
In New Protests, Echoes of an Uprising That Shook Sudan

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Watching discontented youths across the Middle East chanting for change on television brings back a flood of memories and a smile for Rabi Hassan Ahmad. He was once like them, helping start an uprising in the Arab world decades ago: Sudan's 1964 October Revolution.

"Yes! It bothered me a lot!" Mr. Ahmad, 71, said with a laugh, describing what it was like to hear Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution referred to as the Arab world's first people's revolt.

In 1964, Mr. Ahmad was the president of the University of Khartoum's Student Union when students stood up to the military government, galvanized resistance across the nation and helped restore democracy.

It was a seminal event in Sudanese history, one that loomed in the background when the police raided a University of Khartoum dormitory last weekend, arresting hundreds of suspected activists.

"The October Revolution is a major source of inspiration," said Najm al-Din Yusuf, 24, a student activist who has participated in recent campus protests against declining services, rising fees and commodity prices, unemployment and an uncertain future.

While many of the arrested have been released, according to officials, the student protests and the government's insistence on shutting them down have evoked a sense of déjà vu here in the capital, especially for those who helped ignite the uprising decades ago.

In 1958, just two years after Sudan's independence from Britain and Egypt, a military government came to power through a coup, putting an end to what was known as Sudan's first democracy.

"The coup banned political parties and trade unions and restricted freedoms and the press," said Faruq Abu Issa, 75, a spokesperson for the opposition National Consensus Forces.

Despite the restrictions, students at the University of Khartoum led efforts to bring attention to the nation's civil war with the south, a brutal conflict that would continue for decades. In September 1964, students organized a symposium on the war that would help bring about the fateful events and begin the political career of a then-unknown academic.

"At the symposium, I said that decentralization was the solution for the southern problem, which means more freedoms should be given; that means the regime needs to go!" said Hassan al-Turabi, 79, who would become a central figure in the nation's Islamist government years later. He now leads an opposition party.

Under pressure from the military government, university authorities banned the students from holding further political activities on campus. Undeterred, the students held another symposium within their hostels. They chose the evening of Oct. 21, 1964.

As the symposium began, the police came and ordered the students to stop, to no avail. The police raided the gathering, and the students were forced to disperse.

"It did not last long," said Siham al-Sawi, 64, who was a freshman then.

The students started protesting. The police responded with tear gas and a number of students were injured, including Ms. Sawi.

"I was hit by a tear-gas canister and was hospitalized for four days," she said.

Many students began throwing rocks, bricks and empty bottles; the police retaliated with live ammunition.

"That's when al-Qurashi was killed," Mr. Ahmad said.

Ahmad al-Qurashi, a 20-year-old student activist, was shot in the head by the police, and died in a hospital.

"That was something students never experienced before," Mr. Ahmad said. "The impact was very strong."

And that was the spark. The next morning, thousands attended a funeral possession carrying the body from the hospital to Abd al-Mun'im Square near downtown Khartoum. There, a funeral prayer was followed by a rally.

Sporadic protests broke out in Khartoum. Mr. Abu Issa, along with others, started organizing for a large demonstration.

"We contacted the professional unions, the professors, the students, the workers and farmer unions to join the planned demonstration," Mr. Abu Issa said.

Three days into the growing uprising, organizers announced a general strike. News of the general strike spread throughout Sudan by means of telegrams, phone calls and printed leaflets — the Twitter and Facebook messages of the day. Offices, factories, shops, transportation lines were all shut down.

"Suddenly, all of Sudan, what was happening in Khartoum, was repeated elsewhere, in Port Sudan, Atbara, Wad Medani, El Obeid, Kassala; it was amazing," Mr. Ahmad said.

Protests and the general strike continued to grow, challenging curfews, police brutality and army patrols, demanding the restoration of democracy.

"It was too much for the government," Mr. Turabi said.

After five days of protests, 34 deaths and 153 injuries, the nation's military ruler, Gen. Ibrahim Abbud, announced the dissolution of the governing military council.

"It was like winning the World Cup!" said Faruq al-Badawi, 60, who was then an injured student protestor recovering at a hospital. "Everyone was on the streets celebrating, the nurses were ululating and sweets were exchanged."

Days later, a transitional government was formed, followed by elections six months later, producing what is typically called Sudan's second democracy.

It did not last long, however. In 1969, a military coup brought Col. Ja'far Nimeiri to power, setting Sudan in a fluctuating cycle of civilian and military rule.

Now, with the current wave of uprisings in the region and at home, Mr. Ahmad feels nostalgic.

He said the students in Sudan did not know what was going to happen, "and like Egypt, we didn't think the government would submit that easy."

Abd al-Muta'al al-Qurashi, 69, sees similarities in the deaths of his brother, Ahmad al-Qurashi, and Mohamed Bouazzizi and Khalid Said, whose deaths inspired revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

"They all died in different ways, but for the same purpose: to establish a free society," he said.

But will the current student protests be enough to set off another uprising in Sudan?

"The political and economic conditions, the government's policies that led to the separation of South Sudan and its policies in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile State" are reasons a new uprising in Sudan is possible, Mr. Abu Issa said.

Nagi Musa, 24, a student activist and a member of a group called Girifna (We're Fed Up), said he drew inspiration from the October Revolution.

"It shows that students and trade unions can move the street and contest dictatorships," he said.

But attempts to ignite an uprising in Sudan have thus far failed to generate mass participation.

"It is not likely, but it could happen," Mr. Ahmad said. "Events sometimes have logic of their own."

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