For Sudanese, It's like Old Times

By Isma'il Kushkush | International Herald Tribune, February 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

For Sudanese, It's like Old Times


Isma'il Kushkush, International Herald Tribune


Recent student protests and the government's insistence on shutting them down have evoked a sense of deja vu in Khartoum, especially for those who helped ignite the October Revolution of 1964.

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: the 1964 October Revolution in Sudan.

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

In 1964, Mr. Ahmad was president of the student union at the University of Khartoum 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 people suspected of being activists.

"The October Revolution is a major source of inspiration," said Najm al-Din Yusuf, 24, 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 deja vu here in the capital, especially for those who helped ignite the uprising decades ago.

In 1958, just two years after Sudan gained its 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 spokesman 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, Hassan al-Turabi.

"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 Mr. Turabi, 79, who became a central figure in the nation's Islamist government years later. He now leads an opposition party.

Under pressure from the military government, the 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 then forced the students to disperse.

The students started protesting. The police responded with tear gas, and a number of students were wounded, including Siham al- Sawi, then a freshman. "I was hit by a tear-gas canister and was hospitalized for four days," said Ms. Sawi, now 64.

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

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