The Rise and Decline of Student Political Activism in the Sudan
Paper presented to the National Conference on Fostering Positive Political Participation of University Students and Youth in Development
12-13 December 2009 Khartoum, Sudan
The basic theme of this study is that the political activism of the Sudanese student movement is, at present, in a state of decline and that any remedial effort first requires an examination of the reasons and processes of regression. The focus is mainly on the University of Khartoum as the institution with a history and legacy of a once vibrant student movement. Perceptions of decline usually stem from images of extraordinary past activism that are projected and contrasted with the present. The study offers the cautiously-optimistic proposition that the present itself may yet hold some possibilities for renewal.
The first part of the paper defines “student activism’ within the framework of relevant conceptual models and examines, as empirical referents, the student activism experience in the United States and Iran; the former for providing a variety of models, some of which may suggest possibilities of emulation, while the latter has similarities since 1979 to the current Islamic educational discourse and direction in the Sudan and, as the precursor in this regard, is examined to see what possible lessons it may have for the future of the Sudanese student movement.
The second part examines student activism in three historical phases: first, the rise of student activism from the 1940s anti-colonial struggle to the apogee of its success in 1964 and the related contrasts in the evolutionary trajectories of national and campus politics; second, the intrusion of state and party influences into campus politics and the resultant polarization of, and emergence of intergroup violence in, student politics; and, third, the implications and consequences, for both higher education and student activism, of the democratic/authoritarian cycles and the seemingly endemic malaise in the national political culture of which these cycles are symptomatic.
The third part traces the origins of the current higher education strategy to the Islamicization policies during the period of national reconciliation and critically analyzes the main components of the revolution in higher education since 1990 as part of an overall strategy of the top-down societal transformation project. The macro-political and the higher educational contexts are seen as converging into a mutually legitimizing process whereby religion and language in the educational discourse are used to inform and reinforce Islamicization of the society at large.
The fourth part envisages an upward trajectory for student activism as essentially involving the transition from political to social activism through student engagement in local community outreach. It examines both the obstacles and opportunities of such engagement and suggests that the expansion of the third sector has established a number of non-partisan and volunteer-based NGOs that can mentor, and act as anchor, for nascent student-based activist groups. The study argues that some aspects of the educational policy may have opened opportunities for student engagement in local community grassroots.
The conclusions sum up the main arguments of the paper and suggest that while the decline is likely to endure in the short term, it is not irreversible. Drawing on concepts and models outlined in the first part, the study offers a number of options, explains the organizational challenges involved, and argues that creative interactions in community outreach can infuse students with an invigorating sense of social responsibility and collective optimism, enhance intellectual awareness in the short term and build up a reservoir of community-backed support for whatever wider endeavour student activism may undertake in the long run.
My thanks go to Dr. ‘Ali ‘Abdalla ‘Abbās and Prof. Mohamed al-Amin El-Tom for their encouragement, support and valuable comments. I am grateful to Dr. ‘Awad al-Sīd al-Karsani, Dr. ‘Adlān al-Hardalo, Dr. ‘Abd al-Rahīm Bilāl and Dr. Shadia Naser Eldin Elsayed for providing some useful material and sources. My thanks are also due to my friends, ‘Ali al-Khalīfa al-Hassan who shared with me mutually stimulating discussions, and Yūsif Sa’īd for his critical comments. Needless to say, I am solely responsible for any shortcomings. I have made all the translations from Arabic and apologize in advance for any mistakes or distortions therein. In transliteration of Arabic names, I have adopted a modified version of the Islamic encyclopaedia system but kept names as they are when citing them from English sources.