MOSCOW - It’s hard to shake the feeling that the idea of reinstating mandatory school uniforms has been discussed on and off ever since school uniforms were abandoned two decades ago.
To recall the discussion last spring: The Duma came to the conclusion that uniforms could ease tensions between social classes at school, and even suggested getting to work on a style. But the Ministry of Education and Sciences was skeptical: why bother, when each school has the right to decide its own dress code? Then the Ministry of Trade came out strongly in favor of uniforms, as an anti-crisis measure to save Russian light manufacturing.
A return to a national dress code for schoolchildren has been backed at the very highest levels, including recent support from Vladimir Putin. The Russian President did say, however, that he thought that uniforms could be dealt with at a regional, or even local, level.
But behind Putin’s announcement was in response to a very specific recent controversy that erupted after a school in the southern Stavropol region forbade several Muslim girls from attending class in a hijab. The girls’ relatives filed a complaint with the region’s Islamic leadership, and eventually the school allowed the girls to attend class wearing a simple headscarf, but not the hijab. After the clash was reported nationally, Putin expressed his support for uniforms.
Stavropol’s governor, Valeri Zerenkov, expressed his supported for uniforms. “Education in our secular state should remain secular,” he said at a ministers’ meeting. “We shouldn’t turn the schoolyard into a place for demonstrating one or another religious practice.”
Zerenkov has already given orders to check with all the educational institutions to make sure that students are wearing ‘secular’ attire, and has also ordered preparation for the introduction of uniforms.
Officials have no plans for what the uniforms might look like, and appeared to be caught completely off-guard by the governor’s request. Now the Duma is prepared to make their life easier by instituting a uniform for the whole country, which would put Russia on par with Great Britain, where students are still required to wear a uniform to school.
But even in uniform-loving Britain, there is no single, national school uniform, explained Emma Smith, a professor of Education and Social Justice at Leicester University. Practically every school has its own dress code that is tied to the school’s tradition. Most schools there have allowed girls to wear pants instead of skirts since the 1990s, and many of them have even given up on ties for boys. In regards to religious symbols, like elsewhere in Europe, Britain has opened that discussion only recently.
Each school makes its own rules, and if the parents aren’t happy, they file a suit,” Smith explained. “Muslim girls are usually allowed to wear the hijab, but there have been cases where girls have been forbidden from wearing the niqab (which covers the full face except the eyes). However all children are allowed to wear necklaces with religious symbols.”
The British government considers school uniforms an important part of promoting a feeling of belonging at schools and thinks uniforms teach responsibility. In Russia, today’s parents, most of who wore Soviet school uniforms when they went to school, probably have a little experience shortening their uniform dress to a mini-skirt or wearing their uniform jacket with jeans. Maybe they could give their own children a little practical advice if school uniforms are resurrected.
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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