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Were Sudan’s revolutions an early Arab Spring?


If those people who were at first so excited, and then disappointed, by the Arab Spring had known more about the history of Sudan, they might have tempered their enthusiasm.

That’s because the two revolutions of 1964 and 1985 in that semi-Arabized country provide a sense of déjà vu.

Sudan was the largest country in Africa until 2011, when the sub-Saharan non-Arabized third of the country became the new state of South Sudan. It is mainly Christian and Animist people had for decades been struggling against rule by the Arab Muslim north.

The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan had been under joint British-Egyptian rule since 1899, when the British defeated an Islamist state that had been established in 1885 by a charismatic mystic and religious zealot, Muhammad Ahmad, who considered himself the prophesied redeemer and purifier of Islam.

He had declared himself “the Mahdi (the guided one) of God and the representative of His Prophet.” With the defeat of the Mahdist state, the country came under joint British and Egyptian rule.  

Prior to independence, London and Cairo administered the northern and southern Sudan as separate entities of the condominium. But when the country became a sovereign state in 1956, it was united under the rule of an Arabized Muslim political order based in Khartoum.

This would lead to constant warfare as the African south continually sought to throw off northern rule. This was finally accomplished, after 55 years, in 2011.

Parliamentary rule in a sovereign Sudan lasted only two years. A coup in 1958 brought General Ibrahim Abboud to power in order, he declared, to end “the state of degeneration, chaos, and instability of the country.” The constitution was suspended and all political parties dissolved.

By 1964, there was popular discontent, and an open revolt followed. It was precipitated by student demonstrations at the University of Khartoum.

The situation rapidly deteriorated, and within two days the civil service and the transport workers were on strike. Demonstrations followed in the provinces. Rather than suppress the opposition by armed force and bloodshed, Abboud resigned.

The so-called October Revolution of 1964 led to the return of civilian rule. The euphoria did not last.

Between 1966 and 1969, Sudan had a series of civilian governments that proved unable to cope with problems of factionalism, economic stagnation, and ethnic conflict. No single party controlled a parliamentary majority and there was constant friction.

All of this led to a second coup d’état in 1969. The new leader, Colonel Gaafar Nimeiry, abolished parliament and outlawed all political parties. He would remain in power until 1985, despite numerous attempts to unseat him.

Nimeiri moved closer to Islamism, and in 1983, the civil war in the south intensified following the government's Islamization policy. Anti-government discontent led to student demonstrations and resulted in a general strike in Khartoum which paralysed the country, and Nimeiri was deposed in 1985.

Once again, party factionalism, corruption, personal rivalries, scandals, and political instability characterized the ineffective coalition regimes that followed. They proved unable to mobilize government resources to bring food relief to famine areas, reduce the government’s international debt, and build a national political consensus.

So, as in 1969, yet another coup returned Sudan to military rule in 1989. Colonel Omar al-Bashir took over and has remained the country’s president ever since, even though the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for him in 2009, accusing him of war crimes in Darfur.

Both the 1964 and 1985 uprisings had been led by leftist political parties, sections of the armed forces, and what were known as the “modern forces” – students, professionals and union members. Even the Communists were strong – they had launched an abortive takeover in 1971.

Yet in each case these reform movements, products of civil society, were unable to prevent the return of authoritarian rule.

 

Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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