The Future of the Sudanese Islamist Movement
One of the great ironies of the Islamist adventure in coup-making (leading to the creation of the National Salvation regime in June 1989) was that the move dealt a more serious blow to the Islamist movement than it to any other political group. When the government banned all political parties, all of them resisted and continued to operate clandestinely or abroad. Most gained strength from that struggle. Not so the government’s own supposed party, the National Islamic Front: it simply rolled over and died as it was told. The most supreme body of the movement, the Shura Council, was persuaded to dissolve itself and all the formal structures of the movement and to vest all its authority in the Secretary General (Dr Hassan Turabi), who from that time on became the “movement”.
Attempts at Revival
When attempts were later made to resuscitate the movement, it was too late. For the party had become riven by divisions and rivalries, and it has changed considerably, both in terms of potential membership and orientation. Those seeking a revival were chasing a mirage, a vanished world that has been completely bypassed by events. Those in the leadership did not want a revival, but wanted to create something new; they were not entirely sure about how it would look, but they wanted it to be docile and pliant. The official line was that a new inclusive organization (The “National Congress”) must replace the old, and include 60% new membership, including a substantial ratio of non-Muslims. But they kept shifting things around so that no real movement existed in any case.
Worse still, this “non-existent” movement had been saddled with a heavy burden of responsibility for all the malpractices associated with the regime. It was a firm which became bankrupt without even being operational. And there was justification for that, since the movement did maintain a kind of “ghost” existence, and it was its former members who provided the manpower and leadership for the new government and its programmes. This was the “NIF government” after all, and the Islamists were its visible face. So the attempt to revive the movement meant that it would have to bear and deal with all the moral “debts” contracted in its name while it had been away. And this meant that even if success were to be achieved, the new movement would have a rather inauspicious start.
This predicament was not unique to the Islamist movement, as similar ideological parties which attempted to create a “revolutionary” government, whether in former communist countries or in the Baathist or similar regimes in the Arab world, met with a similar fate. The “party” was swallowed up by the state, which in turn was controlled by shadowy security operatives and strong men. In the Sudanese case, a similar shadowy and amorphous coalition of strong men from the army, security forces and party fixers filled the gap left by the dissolution of the formal organization.
Background to the Split
And then there was the split. Tensions had been building within this amorphous outfit which I have elsewhere called the “super-organization”, the inner steering body which had exclusive jurisdiction over the secret functions of the organization, for many years. The tensions arose primarily from Turabi’s attempt to keep the “super-organization” functional in parallel to the state while maintaining its supreme jurisdiction. The theory was that since the coup had been engineered by the (now defunct) NIF, all those running the state are de jure doing this on behalf of the NIF and must observe the discipline as members, allowing the “Secretary General” supreme jurisdiction over all their actions.
This policy has resulted form the fact that, in the interest of disguising Islamist control, Turabi and other key lieutenants remained out of office, giving key jobs in the government to junior or unknown members or front persons from outside the organization. This in turn created an awkward situation where the state in fact became no longer sovereign, but subject to another organization outside it. Ironically, the tensions intensified when some leading former NIF members began to be appointed to top jobs in the government. This created tension at multiple levels, mainly between “committees” which were formed within each ministry or state institution and the ministers or permanent secretaries. This remained the case because Turabi and his aides (including Ali Othman Taha before the latter himself joined the state) wanted to use the committees as tools of supervision or oversight of state institutions. That did not pose a big problem when those running the ministries were outsiders or junior figures. But once senior figures from the group assumed these tasks, they began to resent this intrusion.
The polarization which began to crystallize was personal, ideological and, above all, functional in nature. The bulk of those working in the top echelons of the organization were somewhat put off by Turabi’s domineering style and autocratic ways. Those manning the frontline in the state tended also to be more pragmatic and results oriented, and resented Turabi’s absolutism, especially what they saw as his reckless and cavalier attitude to foreign policy, where he constantly worked to antagonize Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other influential neighbours. Fundamentally, those running the state resented in any case being ordered about by people who had no official status, and often found it embarrassing and degrading to seek approval for their actions from “outsiders”. In essence, this was the state fighting for its autonomy.
The Reconstruction of Conflict
The pro-state faction received a decisive advantage from 1993 when Turabi’s right-hand man, Taha moved to take an official post as Minister of Social Affairs, and later Minister of Foreign Affairs before taking the “top job” of First Vice-President following the death of the previous incumbent General al-Zubayr Muhammad Salih in a plane crash in the South in early 1998. From then on, the fate of the portion of the secret outfit which remained outside the state was sealed.
This intense conflict influenced and shaped the attempts to revive the organization. In order to get rid of Turabi, the pro-state faction hatched a scheme to sideline the leader by asking him to take charge of building up the party (the National Congress). The National Congress, it is to be recalled, was an idea conceived by Turabi himself as a kind of hybrid organization, which was neither a political party nor a legislative council, but a bit of both. Every single Sudanese citizen was eligible for membership, but precisely because of this the party did not have any definitive functions or powers. It was supposed to hold its congress once every few years, and to incorporate in addition to regional representatives, group such as women, youth and professional and trade union organizations. It was also allowed to select about a quarter of the membership of the National Assembly (Parliament). However, when it was decided from 1996 to give the organization a more clout, it immediately faced its first major crisis. In the elections of 1996, an ominous show-down occurred when the decision to replace the then Secretary General, al-Shafi’ Muhammad Ahmed, who hailed from Darfur, with Dr Ghazi Atabani provoked a rebellion among the Darfur membership. The dissidents even sought to build a coalition from other regional groupings to defy the decision. They failed, but this should have been a wake-up call, a warning of more trouble to come.
By 1998, Turabi became convinced that the party was too important to leave to others. He was encouraged in this by his secret challengers who wanted him to leave his position as Speaker of the National Assembly (where he was also beginning to cause problems for the executive) and dedicate himself full time to the party. Turabi initially agreed, but when his opponents showed their hand too soon by tabling a motion to curtail his powers as party leader, he balked. The proposal, tabled at the party’s Shura council in late 1998 by ten key members of the council, obtained a majority in spite of Turabi’s explicit opposition to it. This was another warning signal that for the strong man that he has lost control of the party he was supposed to lead. But from then on, Turabi was on a war path with his rivals, and he used both the party and National Assembly as platforms to wage his campaign. During 1999, he rebuilt the party from the bottom up and made sure that his critics faced a humiliating defeat in elections during the 1999 congress. But when he used his combined power in the party and Assembly to try to curtail the President’s powers to appoint regional governors, President al-Bashir declared marshal law and dissolved the Assembly in December 1999. He followed in May 2000 by dissolving the National Congress secretariat and effectively sacking Turabi from the party.
Fragmentation under the Shadow of the State
This was followed by the reconstitution of the party under a new leadership, and the decision by Turabi and his followers to set their own party, which is now called the Popular Congress. The two groups have since been locked into a bitter rivalry. As part of its arsenal, the National Congress also set up a subsection called the “Islamic Movement”, partly to absorb some of its “Islamist” constituency, and also to compensate for the fact that, as a ruling party (and according to its initial blueprint) included a sizeable non-Muslim membership, mainly from the South. This inner grouping claims to be the inheritor of the old Islamic movement, a mantle which the Turabi group also claims.
What this conflict has shown was how difficult it was to revive and rebuild the movement after the fatal blow dealt it by the political and social developments since 1989. The shadow of the state now towers over the organization, making it impossible to reconstruct it as an independent movement which relies primarily on grass roots support. The dominant group in government continues to use state resources to subvert any real attempt to revive an autonomous Islamist group. Both inducements and sanctions have been liberally used to ensure that any major Islamic group which emerges must be docile and pliant, and if it is not, then it has to be weakened or destroyed.
The effect has been enhanced by the considerable fragmentation which hit the Islamist scene as a result of these policies and also due to other internal and external factors. For example, the salafi trend has witnessed a remarkable resurgence in Sudan, as did its antithesis, Sufi revivalism. The salafi trend, which is influenced by Saudi ulama, has remained a small and marginal presence in Sudan, and had traditionally allied itself with the Islamists in the 1960’s and 1970’s. That alliance also included some Sufi groups. Neither of these two tendencies had any significant presence within the universities or among the young. However, in recent years, both have been expanding their presence within the modern sector, and have emerged as strong competitors to the mainstream Islamists on university campuses, something which was unheard of until a decade ago. The salafis, who became increasingly critical of Turabi’s modernizing ideas, have allied themselves more closely with the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative faction which had split from the Islamist movement in 1980 when it used to go under that name, and kept the name when the latter re-branded itself as the National Islamic front in 1985. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis allied themselves with Turabi’s opponents after the 1999 split and continue to be represented in government.
In addition, some extremist salafi groups have continued to emerge and to engage into sporadic violence against a bizarre array of targets. Recently, even Turabi faced explicit threats from some salafi quarters after voicing some unconventional views about theological and social matters.
This combination of fragmentation and heavy state interference points to many dangers and risks lying ahead, especially with regards to violence from fringe groups. However, a much more serious threat is of wholesale destabilization of the country in case conflict resumes. There is also a potential threat for the country’s social and political cohesion. The fact that the escalation in Darfur has been partly provoked by Islamist fragmentation is one indication about such dangers.
There is always a slim possibility that a re-united Islamist movement could emerge, especially if Turabi were to leave the scene and retire as he repeatedly promises. In this case, a united and viable Islamist organization might coalesce. It could lend support to the government and provide a platform for Islamic activism. The movement could then negotiate and coordinate with other political forces to ensure peace and stability in the country. However, this looks a very unlikely scenario, given the deep divisions that have been created, and the impossibility of government neutrality in the ongoing disputes.
The most dangerous scenario could materialize if the reverse were to happen, i.e. if the government does not only lose control over the Islamist movement, and fails to unite it, but it also loses power in the forthcoming elections. The government (and for that matter the CPA), does not appear to have provided for this eventuality which is impossible for it to contemplate. Depending on how cohesive the Islamists remain, a violent reaction is a distinct possibility, given the existence of a large number of trained and armed government supporters, not to mention the tens of thousands who man the army, the security services and the Popular Defense Forces (PDF).
Other scenarios include the emergence of one or more violent Islamist groups, as well as the prospect of infighting among rival Islamist groups. The experience of countries such as Algeria and Egypt indicate that the fragmentation, disappearance or loss of authority by the mainstream Islamist movement usually leads to uncontrolled violence perpetrated by the fringe groups, such “Islamic Jihad”, the “Islamic Group” and other fringe groups which appeared in Egypt in the 1970’s when the Muslim Brotherhood was banned, or the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which appeared in Algeria in the 1990’s when the Front for Islamic Salvation (FIS) was banned following its victory in the 1991 elections. We have already seen in Sudan the impact of the weakening and the loss of authority of the mainstream Islamist movement.
Given the very complex nature of this crisis, it is not immediately clear what could be done to avert or guard against these dangers. The Sudanese Islamic movement is facing a crisis of legitimacy precipitated principally by its close association with an unpopular regime, and is likely to suffer a backlash because of its record in government. It is also deeply divided and demoralized. Its claim to speak for Islam faces strong challenges from both left (liberal reformers and critics) and right (salafis and traditionalists). Unless it is reformed and reconstructed, the post-Islamist Sudan would resemble post-Communist Russia in its fragmentation and lack of direction. It could also resemble post-Saddam Iraq in the endemic violence that could explode as a result of the fragmentation.
Ideally, a resolution to the crisis plaguing the Islamist movement could be brought about by an open dialogue and negotiations between the various factions, in which the government would maintain neutrality. That would permit the movement to engage in the necessary self-criticism, resolve its differences and reconstruct a more viable organization on the basis of learning from past mistakes and the adoption of a reconciliatory stance vis-í -vis other political forces.
However, this scenario is unlikely to materialize, since the government is not likely to allow such a process to take place, and the actors have too much vested interest within their respective camps to engage into meaningful dialogue. And in principle, there is nothing wrong with the existence of multiple groups claiming the Islamist credentials, as long as this goes with a genuine pluralist attitude which tolerates this diversity. In any case, the phenomenon of diversity within Islamism is not restricted to Sudan, since there are in all Muslim countries, including Iran, a multiplicity of views about what it means to advocate an Islamic vision of politics and society. This could help diversity and stability in society at large, since the experience is that some of these movements will find it in their interest to negotiate and reach deals with non-Islamist groups (as the Turabi group did when it reached out to the SPLA in 2001, and it is doing today by seeking to forge alliances with the Umma, DUP and the Communist party). But again the government must encourage and underwrite this tolerance.
The building of cross coalitions in which Islamist factions join forces with different groups is one important way of guarding against the threats of fragmentation and violent polarization in society. It would thus be helpful if political dialogue was encouraged at all levels and the necessary forums and platforms provided to make it possible.
At another level, Sudanese intellectuals from all persuasions should also be encouraged to engage in constructive dialogue. The polarization engendered by recent conflict, and animosity to the regime among many intellectuals has made such exchanges difficult. Understandably, politicians tend to emphasize what divides and distinguishes their movements from others. Their discourse is generally polemical and antagonistic. However, it is necessary to provide alternative platform for more considered and less partisan exchange with the aim of developing a more constructive form of discourse which would be essential for building and maintaining democratic inclusiveness and tolerance.