In December 1999, Gen. Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, briefly stole the headlines in the West when he orchestrated a palace coup and ousted Hassan al-Turabi, speaker of the parliament. Maneuvers of this sort are nothing new in Africa, and, certainly, Sudan in this regard is not an exception. However, the West and some of Sudan's neighboring governments have positively welcomed the events in Khartoum. There is a general sense of relief both in the region and in the West that the Islamists have lost their grip on power in Sudan. In large part because it was Hassan al-Turabi who was overthrown, while the coup leader, Omar al-Bashir, is generally seen as ideologically less committed to Islam. On the political front, Turabi does not believe in nation states within the Islamic world and Africa, and on the economic front, he does not believe in free-market capitalism. These views in particular threaten both Western and local interests and have earned Hassan al-Turabi the voguish epithet of “fundamentalist."
Sudan was declared an Islamic State in 1989, six years after war had broken out again between the Islamic North and the Christian-Animist South. The Western powers - the United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe - have traditionally been suspicious of the (Islamic) Republic of Sudan and have vehemently criticized Islamism for being a repressive and anti-democratic ideology. There are also strategic considerations in play behind Sudan's political and economic isolation. First, there is Egypt's necessity to have a say over who controls the upper Nile region. Second, there is the fact that Libya does not want another independent actor in the area who may undermine its claim to regional supremacy. Third, there is the question of potential oil reserves in North-Eastern Sudan, in the area disputed with Egypt, as well as in the South along the frontline of the war. All the above, however, begs the question: Why is Hassan al-Turabi and his brand of Islam viewed with such trepidation by some regional countries and Western powers?
WHO IS HASSAN AL-TURABI?
Hassan al-Turabi was educated in London and Paris, where he obtained a Ph.D. in comparative public law. He is an expert both in Islamic and Western law. Like many high-ranking officials in Africa, Turabi has an august family background and as a young man had the opportunity to travel and study abroad. His intelligence and charisma helped him to become a prominent figure within the Sudanese political and religious scene. Historically, his family had held an important position within the Gezira region for the best part of three centuries. One of Turabi's ancestors, Wad al-Turabi, who died in 1704, was a locally revered religious figure.
Between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries, Islam was introduced in the area now known as Sudan by different religious orders that taught a version of Islam following their own interpretations and dogmas (often mixed with superstition). Muslim Sudanese society is divided into these different tariqa (Muslim brotherhoods or sects) that correspond to various Islamic schools of thought. Each tariqa has its own structure, leader (who is normally a member of a traditional "holy" family), region (in which it usually has a stronghold) and, since Sudanese independence from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, its own political party. There are hundreds of tariqa in Sudan, and it is difficult for any Sudanese not to belong to one of them. These brotherhoods offer a degree of social protection to their followers, in terms of education, health care, finance, etc. However, historically the various organizations have differed widely, so it was difficult to consider the Sudanese population as a united umma (Muslim community). During the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, the different brotherhoods struggled against each other, and this played its part in allowing Britain and Egypt to control and rule Sudan by using the classical tactic of divide and conquer.1
Turabi's family never formed part of any of these tariqa (given their Gezira origins, they should have logically belonged to either the Qadiriyya or Khatmiyya brotherhoods). In Turabi's family, Islamic precepts were always rigorously followed and the Quran was studied closely, without any tariqa acting as a filter. Turabi learned about the teachings of the Prophet directly from his father. Hassan al-Turabi's father was a highly respected judge, who did not belong to any tariqa. This was considered proper given his position - even though this non-alignment was not a requirement in Sudan. It is arguable that Hassan al-Turabi learned a valuable lesson from his father's relatively independent stance.2
During the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan, the efforts to separate the Islamic establishment from the State presented the controlling powers with grave difficulties. The great Mahdist Revolution against the British and the Egyptians in I 885-1898 gave birth to an incipient Sudanese national consciousness which cohabited with the influence of the brotherhoods and which Turabi has appropriated as a symbol of the unity of the umma.3 In the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) was created in Egypt, and by the 1940s, it had expanded from Egypt to Sudan.4 In the 1950s, the Muslim Brotherhood was already a stable and organized movement in Sudan although it was culturally elitist. Hassan al-Turabi, like many other young intellectuals, was attracted to this modernist and anti-tariqa movement. However, he aspired to make the movement more accessible and in the 1960s, created the first political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood - the Islamic Charter Front - which ran for elections. This paved the way for the expansion of a new Islamic militant ideology in Sudan.5 The revolution of 1964, which was supported by the Ikhwan, put an end to the ruthless rule of Gen. Abboud. 6 A Weimar style transition followed, and in 1969, Nimeiri - another military figure - took power. Nimeiri's regime was in the Nasser style, but he did not take any significant steps toward modernization in Sudan.7
After his rule ended, in the mid- l980s, Sudan still found itself one of the poorest and most backward countries in Africa and in the world. Before Gen. Hassan al-Bashir took power in 1989-with the support of Turabi's movement, the National Islamic Front (NIF)- Sudan experienced a period of relative political freedom under a quasi-democratic regime. This period lasted between 1985 and 1989, during which time the traditional families and brotherhoods- mainly Sadiq al-Mahdi's Umma party, and Khatmiyya's Democratic Unionist party (DUP)- regained their "lost" power by participating with the NIF under Sadiq al-Mahdi's government. However, this government did not match up to the model of democracy sought by Turabi and he started to formalize his own Islamic program of action. In this respect, Turabi found himself confronting a double challenge: on the one hand, the small leftist movement was modernist like the Ikhwan, but secularist; on the other hand, the larger traditional forces were Islamic but antireformist.8
With the passing of time, there was the risk that the NIF would become like any other Sudanese brotherhood and this precipitated Turabi's decision to mastermind an Islamic revolution in Sudan.9 In the last pre-coup elections of l 986, the NIF got a little less than 20 percent of the votes. In 1989, a bloodless coup d’état led by Gen. Bashir gave the Ikhwan-related NIF the opportunity to gain more power.10 Within Bashir's power structure, Turabi was the first one to realize that Sudan could not be governed by a minority group lacking any democratic standing, but he also obviously did not want the old traditional brotherhoods to come into power again. He therefore decided to create the organization called the National Congress (NC) in which many political groups were admitted, with the "sole" condition that they would not oppose the creation of a modern Islamic society. This move was made in the name of the unity of the umma and the principles of the shura - the process of consultation upon which the Islamic concept of "democracy" is based. Some Christian Sudanese were also invited by Turabi to participate with the Islamic government, and a few ministers in the NC-led government in Khartoum were Christians.11 In this manner, Turabi managed to transfer power from the executive to the legislative, thereby concentrating a great deal of power within his own hands, and initiating a latent power struggle with Bashir.
Turabi's movement has always been driven by a strong, sophisticated and pure philosophical ideology which makes compromise difficult. This idealistic vision makes leaders and representatives from abroad and inside Sudan (in both the political and the economic world) wary in their dealings with Turabi - including Bashir himself. This has been the case especially of Eritrea, Egypt and to a lesser extent Libya and Uganda.
THE POWER STRUGGLE BETWEEN TURABI AND BASHIR
During the 1990s, it seemed that Bashir was a faithful and obedient ally of Hassan al-Turabi, and this is certainly the way their relationship was portrayed in the press. It is clear that by being the leader of the dominant political group, Turabi exerted great influence over the Sudanese government. However, it is difficult to calculate exactly how significant his influence was. Certainly, the implementation of the Sharia- the Islamic law -was a central issue for Turabi and his followers, and as long as Bashir was not against it, the Islamists gave him support.12 In reality, the relationship between the Islamists and Bashir has been a functional one, where they have used each other reciprocally.13 Bashir was considered by Turabi and his followers as a "temporary evil" and vice-versa. 14 Within the military Islamist regime, Turabi represented the moderate faction. More extremist, antidemocratic and pro-army factions were led by Ali Osman Mohammad Taha and Osman Hassan Ahamed, who could more plausibly be labelled Islamic "fundamentalists" and whose support for Bashir was total. They advocated a reinforcement of the military junta in the name of Islam and the "holy war." Since 1989, Bashir has had to play a careful juggling game between these two Islamist factions within his regime.
Since 1997, attacks launched by guerrillas from the South, the most notable of which being the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), have repeatedly threatened the Khartoum government. The National Democratic Alliance (NOA), helped by Eritrea, joined forces with mainly Southern Christian and Animist rebels trying to topple the Islamic government.
The relationship between Turabi and Bashir came under increasing pressure as a result of these hostilities, which highlighted the differences between the two men. Turabi was not prepared to give any ideological ground in exchange for peace. It is arguable that he would have almost preferred to leave the South to its own devices, maintaining North/South links through a loose confederation.15 Turabi's real interest is his vision of a united umma that finds expression in the Pan-Islamic Conference (PIC), founded by Turabi in 1991 as a sort of "Islamic International" bringing together all the Islamist groups worldwide and based in Khartoum. Bashir, on the other hand, is loath to start a discussion about confederation, which could well lead to the secession of the potentially oil-rich South. The continuation of the war in the South is therefore symptomatic of the fundamental differences between the two men's visions.
In the first week of December 1999, Turabi maneuvered Bashir out of the top job at the NC and took over himself. Turabi also increased the number of delegates in the council from 30 to 60. This was his last official act before he was overthrown by Bashir. On December 12, 1999, Bashir stood up to his supposed "mentor." After consultations with some neighboring anti-Turabi leaders, such as Mubarak in Egypt and Qadhafi in Libya, Bashir moved his troops and tanks against parliament.16 Turabi's attempts to contain this action failed, and now Bashir is seeking to establish a military-led Republic based less on ideology and more on pragmatism including, of course, economic concerns. Turabi has been dismissed from his position as speaker of the parliament, a three-month state of emergency has been proclaimed, and parliament has been dissolved.
THE END TO SUDANESE ISOLATION?
Abroad, Turabi has always had many enemies. In general, he was accused of spreading "Islamic fundamentalism" not only in Sudan's neighboring countries but also overseas generally. Furthermore, the United States in particular, backed by its allies in the region, propagated an over simplistic view of the Khartoum government and Turabi, in particular, as being responsible for the dramatic situation in which Sudan found itself- for the civil war, the ongoing existence of slavery and female genital mutilation. The Sudanese government certainly shares the blame for some of these dreadful problems. But for the sake of accuracy, a few points need to be made in this regard. The war started in and spread from the South. Neither Turabi nor Nimeiri ever proclaimed any jihad against the Animist-Christian South. It is also true, if equally lamentable, that slavery and female circumcision form part of an age-old tradition in Sudan and many other African countries. Many human-rights abuses occur on the war front between North and South or in areas where the central government of Khartoum has little or no control. (Needless to say, under the Criminal Law Act of 1991, all these abuses are formally prohibited in Sudan.)
More important, the United States notoriously supports various Southern Christian and Animist warlords - such as the U.S.-educated Garang and his former fellows-in-arms Akol and Machar, who are now at odds with each other - in an effort to weaken the Northern government. This strategy also includes the forging of alliances between the United States and Sudan's mainly-Christian neighboring countries (Uganda, Kenya and Eritrea), who are far from the democratic ideals they claim to profess. Britain and Israel also provide arms to the Southern factions through the conduits of Uganda and Kenya.17
Throughout most of the 1990s, Sudan has faced diplomatic isolation from the West. This reached its peak when the United States accused it of exporting terrorism abroad and bombed the pharmaceutical factory of Al-Shifa in August 1998, overlooking the fact that the Sudanese government had expelled the Taliban-supporter and U.S.-enemy number one, Osama Bin Laden, in 1996 (and that the Sudanese government had collaborated with France's then Minister of the Interior, Charles Pasqua, in the capture of the internationally wanted terrorist "Carlos" ).18 With his coup, many believe that Bashir is sending out a new signal to the world that Sudan is ready to compromise its ideology in order to be accepted back into the fold.
Now Bashir seems to be aligning himself more with the pan-Arab movement, in contrast to Turabi who embodies the Islamic alternative. For many African leaders who fear Islamism too close to home, Bashir is not seen as the real "enemy" - he is more interested in power without any strong ideology. Many Arab and Muslim countries feel threatened by the Islamic alternative- embodied by Turabi as leader of the PIC -which is considered to be more destabilizing than the pan-Arab option. Islamists believe in the unification of the umma, and, therefore, the Western concept of nation-states and their leaders is an alien notion for them.19 Therefore, Bashir's pro-Arab position has allowed him to obtain direct support from Egypt, Libya, Qatar and Bahrain, all countries that fear real democracy.
It is significant that Turabi was attempting to introduce constitutional reforms to increase the level of democracy - even in the Western-style sense of the term - when he was deposed by Bashir. Turabi's reforms would have shrunk the extensive executive power of President Bashir. Regardless of whether Turabi's proposed reforms were inspired by a desire for greater personal power or not - the reforms would have increased the power of parliament and by extension of its speaker (Turabi) - they would still have been positive in creating a more accountable, accessible and democratic government. Bashir's supporters could argue that his promise to call elections in the near future is proof of his democratic credentials. It is true that new elections, if properly conducted, will establish whether Bashir has the support of the people. However, Bashir's democratic credentials should be judged more on the basis of previous initiatives than on the promise of future elections.
It is ironic that in the power struggle between Bashir and Turabi, both men seem to be staking their claim on the democratic issue. Turabi was aiming to establish democratic measures through constitutional reform, and, following the coup, Bashir has promised elections. Will the clash between a former army general and an Islamic leader push Sudan towards increased democracy? Which of these two men hold the key to how and in what capacity Sudan should adopt democratic measures? What do the two "contenders" stand for? Bashir is keen to return to the traditional political way of ruling, with big coalitions and brotherhood-dominated politics. His call for new elections may in fact just be a bid to return to the pre-1989 situation. Turabi, on the other hand, was looking for deeper reforms and argues that Sudan needs a "new awakening."20 Turabi's constitutional reforms that the NC was on the verge of passing when he was ousted consist of three basic elements: the creation of a prime minister (modeled on the French system) elected by majority vote who would control the government, direct elections also for the 26 state governors (under the 1998 Constitution the president selects three candidates for each of the 26 states and refers them to local parliaments for approval), the introduction of changes to the Constitution that would have made it possible for a two-thirds majority of parliament to vote the president out of office.21
Despite these practical measures proposed by Turabi to increase democracy in Sudan, Bashir's coup was not condemned by the West, and, apart from headlines with the news of the actual coup, the situation has been largely ignored. The reasons for this are many. First of all, the shift in power in Sudan into the hands of the same president did not attract much attention. Furthermore, Turabi was not arrested and there were no significant public demonstrations protesting the coup. Would a blood bath have changed the muted reaction in the West? Perhaps marginally. Secondly, there is a sort of wary acceptance in the West when army strongmen take power in Third World countries to "restore" democracy. Thirdly, and most important, it was an Islamist who was ousted, and the knee-jerk reaction in the West was to categorize this event as positive. Similarly, the more amenable Gen. Bashir offers comfort to neighboring countries who want a Sudan with a much watered-down radical ideology. This will benefit Bashir in his personal capacity, as it will assist him in consolidating power. In conclusion, even with Turabi out of the picture, the war will continue in Sudan and democratic reforms are unlikely to be introduced by a "super-president" like Bashir.
1 For a history of the expansion of Islam in Sudan, see Martin W. Daly and Peter M. Holt, History of the Sudan: From the Corning Islam to the Present Day (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971).
2 For details on the biography and family background of Hassan al-Turabi, see Abdelgadir E. Hamid, Islam, Sectarianism and the Muslim Brotherhood in Modern Sudan (London: Ph.D. Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, The University of London, 1985).
3 Thomas Hodgkin, "Mahdisme, messianisme et marxisme dans le contexte africaine," Presence Africaine, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1969, p.128-153.
4 Susan Wolf, The Muslim Brotherhood in the Sudan (Hamburg: UnverMfentlichte Magisterarbeit, Universitat Hamburg, 1990).
5 Roland Marchal, "Soudan vers une recomposition du champ politique," Revue du Monde rnusulman et de la Mediterranee, No. 81-82, 1998, p. 109.
6 On the impossible relationship between the Ikhwan and the Communists, see also al-Hizb, The Sudanese Communist Party (Khartoum: University of Khartoum, 1965).
7 Alan Gresh, "The Free Officers and the Comrades: the Sudanese Communist Party and Nimeiri Face-to Face," International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3, 1989, pp. 393-409; Peter K. Bechtold, "The Contemporary Sudan," American-Arab Affairs, Fall 1983, pp. 88-101.
8 The NIF became more open and the organization created its own trade unions, youth clubs, professional associations, etc., where both Islam and modernism cohabited. Marchal, 1998, p. 110.
9 Hassan al-Turabi, "The Islamic Awakening' s New Wave," New Perspective Quarterly, Summer 1993, pp. 42-45.
10 Indeed, since 1979, in the years of Nimeiri's rule, the NIP had already obtained some power after a period in the 1970s, when it had been officially banned by Nimeiri himself. Turabi was appointed attorney general in Nimeiri 's Cabinet, where he tried to introduce a mixed system of Sharia and British-style Common Law. However, the differences between Turabi and Nimeiri were irreconcilable and they broke down in 1985. John O. Voll, "Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan," in The Contemporary Islamic Revival, A Critical Survey and Bibliography, ed. John L. Esposito (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1991 ), p. 390.
11 For example, in the pre-1999 government the vice president was a Christian, as well as the secretary of state of foreign affairs, the minister for transport, the minister of public affairs, dozens of members of Parliament, diplomats, local governors, high-ranking military and civil servants.
12 Turabi's Sharia had little to do with Saudi Arabia's or Iran's Islamic law, since the "modernism" that characterized Turabi 's movement consisted in giving a new interpretation of the Sharia, namely, that its principles were not incompatible with the modern world. Hassan al-Turabi, "Principles of Governance, Freedom and Responsibility in Islam," The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1987, p. 3. To take but one important example, on the issue of women's rights, out of all of the Arab-Muslim countries, women in Sudan are undoubtedly more present in politics and public administration. A quick look at the women in public life during the last government of Bashir, before the coup in December 1999, reveals that there were 36 women members of Parliament, including the minister for employment and the secretary of state for social affairs, 600 female members in the local assemblies, many female judges, including two members of the Supreme Court of Justice, a number of women professors at the University of Khartoum and other women in high-ranking positions in the Civil Service. Patrick Brunot, "La Menace Sudanaise," Defence Nationale, Vol. 55, No. 2, p. 120.
13 Gianluca Pastori, "Il Sudan in Cerca di Nuovi Equilibri," Politica Internazionale, No. 1-2, January-April 1996, p. 20.
14 See in particular a speech by Hassan al-Turabi reported in Africa Confidential, November 9, 1990.
15 Hassan al-Turabi, Pan-Islam and Nationhood (London: Lecture at the Royal Society of Arts [RSA], Islamic Video Service Centre, April 14, 1992).
16 Talks have been reported to have taken place between Gen. Bashir and some exiled opposition leaders such as al-Mahdi (Umma party) and al-Mirghani (DUP).
17 Brunot, p. 123.
18' "The Clinton administration decided to bomb the Al-Shifa chemical plant ... despite [the fact that] ... there was insufficient evidence linking it to either Osama Bin Laden or the manufacture of chemical weapons. Under pressure from international protest and media inquiries, administration sources have backpedaled substantially on both claims ... The administration needed to make some kind of gesture in response to the embassy bombings [in Kenya and Tanzania] ... [says Time UN correspondent William Dowell] ... they [the Clinton administration] were experimenting with cruise missiles as a low-risk way of dealing with these issues." Time Magazine, October 27, 1999.
19' Hassan al-Turabi, "The Islamic State," in Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 241-251.
20 The democratic reforms aimed for in the shura are discussed in H. al-Turabi, Al-Shura and Democracy: Problems of Definition and Concept (Beirut: Centre of Arab Unity Studies, 1985).
21 Simon Apiku, "Bashir Consolidates his Grip on Sudan," Middle East Times, No. 52, 1999.