Sudan students at forefront of rising social unrest

Khartoum has seen an outburst of social unrest in the past week, driven by rampant inflation and simmering discontent, with the regime determined to crush a movement led by Sudanese students that has strong historical resonance.

The widening anti-government protests, which persist despite the security forces' policy of violently dispersing them, began as a student demonstration outside the University of Khartoum on June 16 against the sharp rise in food and fuel prices and quickly spread to other universities in the capital.

The University of Khartoum was the cradle of Sudan's first post-independence revolution, as protests there in 1964 led to a mass uprising that toppled the military dictatorship then in power, in what became known as the October revolution.

Opposition youth group Girifna published a story on its website on Monday entitled: "Khartoum University: heartbeat of the Sudanese revolution."

But the students now pushing for change face daunting challenges, particularly the repressive tactics of the ubiquitous security forces and the systematic infiltration of the universities by the regime, according to Nagi Musa, a medical student and member of Girifna (Arabic for 'We're fed up').

"It is extremely difficult to have any public activity... The government is trying to take the space inside the universities, because they think it's a danger to them," he told AFP, describing how a group of pro-regime students had visited one of the main campuses earlier that day carrying metal bars and knives.

"The (ruling) National Congress Party have resources. They have money, and through this they employ a lot of security people," said the student activist, who was detained for two weeks in January.

The riot police and agents working for Sudan's feared National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) have, as in the past, demonstrated a zero tolerance policy towards the protesters, firing tear gas, beating them with batons and making sweeping arrests.

Amnesty International said on Friday that scores of activists had been detained since the demonstrations began.

AFP saw pictures of one, arrested while protesting at Sudan University on Tuesday, who had scars on his back, allegedly from being beaten while in custody, where he also had both his eyebrows shaved off.

A senior member of the NISS told an AFP correspondent, following his arrest at the University of Khartoum for taking photos, that the situation around the universities was "very sensitive."

The government actually closed the Khartoum university for more than two months earlier this year after students clashed with riot police in December, following a sit-in over a dispute over university fees that spilled into the surrounding streets.

Sudanese academics say that despite the recent student demonstrations, the universities are not the hotbeds of political activism that they used to be, which partly explains why they have failed to bring large numbers onto the streets so far.

Omar al-Bashir's regime, which celebrates 23 years in power next week, has successfully depoliticised the universities, says mathematics professor, Mohamed El-Tom, who was expelled from the University of Khartoum in 1992.

El-Tom, who has published research on the decline in higher education under Bashir, says NCP supporters now dominate the student union and the administrative staff at the universities are government appointees.

The policy of dramatically expanding and Islamising higher education in the 1990s has also relentlessly undermined standards, helping to explain why students do not command the respect that they used to, says El-Tom.

Another challenge for the activists is the fear among many Sudanese of the chaos that a revolution might usher in, given the existing conflicts in Sudan's peripheral regions such as Darfur and South Kordofan.

But Hisham Bilal, a teaching assistant at the University of Khartoum, argues that the economic crisis has now enabled student protesters to forge a link with the street.

"Put simply, hunger creates anger. So this could lead to more widespread social unrest," he said.

The protests remain small compared with the mass demonstrations that swept neighbouring Egypt last year and toppled long-time strong man, Hosni Mubarak.

But they come amid a rapidly deteriorating economic situation that has forced the government to announce drastic austerity measures and driven up the cost of living, especially for the burgeoning poor who are already struggling to cope with high food prices.

Musa, the activist with Girifna, believes that if any student gets killed this time, it could have a similar effect, recalling the death of student activist Ahmed al-Qureshi in 1964 which sparked the October Revolution.

"It will move a lot of people. I think it will have a big influence, and the government knows this and it is afraid," he said.