By Mohamed Elshabik
“I asked him to go to the palace as president, and I will go to jail as an inmate”
The National Islamic Front (NIF) is Sudan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the name given to the key Islamic party in Sudan’s political arena before 1989. Many who witnessed the rise of Islamists to power in Sudan still refer to the present regime as the Front. On the eve of 30 June 1989 Hassan Al-Turabi, a political veteran and leader of the NIF, decided to bring to an end the third democratically elected government led by his in-law Al-Sadig Al-Mahadi. Through the use of the militarised wing of the party, Turabi carried out the third coup in Sudan’s recent history, proclaiming the National Salvation Revolution (NSR). Turabi launched his long awaited dream project of the first modern Islamic state in the Muslim Sunni world. At long last, when he remorsefully made his famous revelation: “I told him to go to the palace as president, while I go to jail as an inmate”, (a reference to the little-known, middle rank officer at the time Omer Al-Bashir), Turabi regretfully admitted that he was the designer of the plot against the democratic system. Thus, Islamists commenced their era in power with a lie. A lie that depicted a period of continued ambiguity and deceptions. Turabi was placed under arrest with other political leaders in Kober prison. The rationale for the imprisonment of the real leader was to hide the political identity of the coup, driven by the fear of reaction from secular Egypt and its American allies. The poacher and gamekeeper trick worked for a while. The Egyptian government, through their ambassador in Sudan, seemed to believe that another strong man of the coup was brigadier general AL-Zubair Mohamed Salih (died in 1998 in plane crash) and hence Egypt was persuaded. Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak visited Khartoum shortly and announced Egypt support for the military takeover. Egypt’s recognition encouraged other countries in the region and the US administration to follow. The land of legitimacy was paved for the NSR, thus the Islamists formed their first ever political party who remained in power until December of 1999.
The era of the first Islamists in power was one of the darkest in the Sudan’s recent history. Following the Sudan’s independence from British colonisation in 1956, Sudan witnessed a somewhat patchy political development. The cycle fluctuated between short tumultuous democratic periods and long military autocratic regimes. The earlier two dictatorship regimes were toppled by two great popular revolutions in 1964 and 1985. Sudanese people have always proudly and rightfully, bragged that they were the pioneers of the region to lead not one, but two large-scale popular revolutions. Previous revolutions successfully overthrew two dictatorships 47 years before the first protest sparked, in what later became known as the Arab Spring. By thoroughly understanding the Sudanese personality, attitude towards political participation and intellect, the Islamist sought to change the character of insurgency that is personified in the Sudanese people.
Ever since their seizure of power, the Islamists’ obsession has been and remains what makes their regime so secure. They realised that in order to remain in power, three likely threats would have to be contained. Student movements, media, and professional trade & labour unions, all remain important in Sudanese intifada folklore as significant means for change and played a key role in toppling past dictatorships. On its first day in power, the new regime banned all civilian newspapers and a few weeks later, the regime launched its own Al-ingaz Al-watani newspaper. A second paper, Al-Sudan Al-hadith, followed shortly thereafter. Only prominent Islamist writers were allowed to write and advocate for the new NSR junta. Several hundred trade, labour and professional unions were also banned immediately after Bashir’s first speech on 30 June 1989, and soon after, several hundred union activists were arrested. Their detention was not intended to obtain information, but rather to settle the scores of years of ideological differences and political disputes in the most malicious way; through intimidation and acts of revenge. Dr. Mamoun Mohamed Elhussien, Head of the Sudan Medical Association was tried without counsel by military tribunal for declaring a strike, and sentenced to death in 1990. Bashir in a famous declaration reported to have said during his first state visit to Bahrain at that time: “Dr. Mamoun will be hanged, and whoever else go on strike will be executed without given the right to appeal”. In April 1990 the leftist young doctor Ali Fadul, died as a result of torture. Majdi Mahjoub a young Sudanese from a famous rich family and civilian pilot Jerejes, a Coptic Sudanese were both hanged after being convicted of currency offenses. The true brutal colours of the regime were made clear. Islamists were in power and they meant business.
To control the student movements, the proclaimed “Educational Revolution” was announced in November 1989. The number of higher educational institutions was doubled, with a focus on Islamic messages and Arabized methodologies. The increase in the number of higher educational institutions led to quantity replacing quality. It is worth mentioning the irony that the Islamist’s had been in control of the student unions before 1989. The Islamists had entered into an alliance with former president Jaáfar Nimiry (1969-1985) during the period 1977-1985. Through this alliance they benefited by strengthening their presence in the universities they were given and enjoyed a monopoly, allowing them to be politically active, whereas their counterparts from other political parties were forced to work underground. Using Arabic language as a medium of instruction in higher education institutions was only one among many decisions taken during those days, yet later proven to have catastrophic implications in many ways. Greater Sudan was the biggest country in Africa and among its populace are Arabs, Nubians, Coptics and many different ethnic backgrounds from north, east, west and southern parts of the country. In a country as vast and diverse as Sudan, Arabization and Islamisation of higher education triggered many questions and awoke fear and concern among those with non-Arabic and Islamic backgrounds. The decision certainly precluded many from joining university, forcing them to seek other solutions. The strong social fabric of the Sudanese which acknowledges differences, various identities, various religious backgrounds and ethnicities started to crack. Questions began to emerge. Where was Sudan heading? Whose culture and traditions were they following? And most importantly what are the consequences of such radical changes?
At the same time as the “Educational Revolution” was happening, the Islamists rulers also institutionalised Popular Defence Forces (PDF), an irregular armed force established as a legal entity by decree in Nov 1989. The PDF discourse marked the first era of Islamists in power. They became the primary instruments of Islamist political and popular mobilisation and PDF became mandatory for all youth seeking a higher education. Two months of harsh camp conditions was meant to brainwash the minds of the youth, browbeat them into submission, strengthen their faith in the followers, as well as build a parallel armed force, who’s loyalty was devoted first and foremost to the party. PDF henceforth fought alongside the SAF in South Sudan.
In hindsight, from the outset, Turabi and his fellow Islamists in power was characterised by holy war songs, jihadist discourse, Islamic rhetoric, brutality and coercion, violation of human rights, ghost houses, destruction of the civil service structure, migration of Sudanese expertise and minds, as well as providing shelter to extreme and radical Islamists from around the world. To the surprise of many, the most enduring element to the Islamists regime has not been the Islamic Ideology from which it supposedly got its inspiration, but rather the “Tamkeen policy”. Tamkeen literally means “To enable”. Practically, and to the Islamists, it meant transfer of wealth and resources of the country from the state to Islamist ownership. The purpose was to financially empower the Islamists and to control the economy. Tamkeen policy was reinforced by what was known as “Public Interest Policies”. The public interest law laid off thousands of skilled civil servants and replaced them with Islamist Party members. Hence, within the public sector patrimonial recruitment, rather than merit and expertise took form. Skills and capacity were compromised by political nepotism. Public organisations and industries were sold for party memberships. The government shadowed the private sector through representation on boards of directors, trusteeship and secondment of Islamist members to head the remaining non-privatised agencies. Tamkeen policies managed to massacre the very elegant bureaucratic civil services in Sudan. Sudan civil service was outstanding and Sudanese civil service cadres were known for their high standards and professionalism. In fact, parts of the development in the gulf countries during the sixties and seventies can be credited to the contribution of Sudanese expertise in setting up a public sector in those countries. The whole system became partisan to the party in its composition and functions. It is particularly interesting to witness how the staunchest advocators of the first version of Islamists era have recently regretted their deeds and become its greatest doubters.
Externally, it became clear that Turabi’s ambitions went far beyond leading Sudan. Sudan backed Iraq in its invasion of Kuwait; an international Islamic Popular conference was established; Islamists from around the world were invited to the new Islamists’ heaven; extremists and radical Islamic leaders from all around the world enjoyed State facilities, and many were given the Sudanese green passport. Khartoum became the hub for many of the Islamic movements in the world. State resources were wasted by holding countless numbers of meetings and conferences. Sudan offered a safe haven for Osama Bin Laden and his fellows from Qaeda. Sudan’s Islamist links with international terrorist organizations became a matter of concern for the U.S. Government, leading to Sudan’s 1993 designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Osama bin Laden’s money was laundered and used for infrastructure investment in Sudan. The hidden investment and new relationships were to lead to a change in the region. Less than an hour after his arrival in Addis Ababa in June 1995, the then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s convoy was attacked. All the evidence indicated Khartoum’s involvement in the assassination attempt and the Ethiopian representative to the U.N. Security Council declared: “Evidence unearthed by his Government implicated the Government of the Sudan in the assassination attempt against President Mubarak of Egypt, clearly illustrating a threat to the peace and security of the region” [text from U.N. Press Release, January 31, 1996]. The members of Jamaá Islamia were based in Khartoum and the terrorists in custody in Addis admitted that their leaders lived in Khartoum; the plot was hatched in Khartoum and their mission to assassinate President Mubarak was given to them in Khartoum. Moreover, the passports they possessed were prepared for them in Khartoum” [text from U.N. Press Release, January 31, 1996]. It was alleged that Turabi was not informed about the assassination plans. It’s one card Turabi put on the table many times to threaten his old disciples after the split and the end of the first Islamists era. Nonetheless, it became clear to the world that Sudan’s Front represented a threat to the entire region. Anti-Islamic lobbies began to put pressure on Clinton’s administration. In 1996 the Clinton administration reacted and suspended U.S. Embassy operations in Khartoum and furthermore, in 1997 Clinton’s Administration imposed comprehensive economic and financial sanctions against Sudan.
Bin Laden and his Mujahedeen’s, plans included western targets in the region, in Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and his native Saudi Arabia, all with some level of planning from Khartoum. The impact of these terrorist attacks and of Sudan being an open destination for the people implicated was not only external. Sudan’s capital witnessed a bizarre attack which left its community in shock, as it represented Sudan’s first bloody attack on a Muslim group. In 1994 a group of Afghan Arabs led by Alkhulaifi, launched a bloody attack with guns inside the mosque of Ansaar Alsuna in Omdurman, the city lying in the western bank of the river in Khartoum state. Ansaar Alsuna was the Wahabist branch of Saudi Arabia in Khartoum. The war now was not only on the peripheries of Sudan, but in its capital. The Sudanese, long known for having respect for religious diversity and tolerance running deep in their veins, were shocked by the incident that took the life of many innocent people praying during the time of Juma’a pray. The attacks main motive remains mysterious, though it has been linked to a revenge act from the alliance of Saudi Arabia in Sudan.
I pointed out to them the stars and the moon and all they saw was the tip of my finger!
Following the death of the Sudanese vice President Al-Zubair Mohamed Salih in plane crash in 1998, the Islamists proposed three names to the president to select as his new deputy. Among them was the true leader of the coup Al-Turabi. President Bashir who tolerated different insults and indoor criticism from his leader Turabi, perceptively and shrewdly selected Mr. Ali Osman Taha as his Vice president, justifying his decision by stating that he wouldn’t have picked his “Sheik” as his deputy. Taha the executive man of the 30th June 1989 eve, leader of opposition during the parliamentary period and one of Turabi’s closest disciples, was now holding more power. Bashir understood Turabi’s plans for him, as Turabi had publicised his opinion about Bashir when he revealed in his 1998 statement “Omer now represents Sudan’s contemporary history, but he will not do so a hundred years hence, just as he did not have anything to do with it twenty years ago’.
Turabi who repeatedly denied his keenness on state positions, felt bitterness and anger seeing the rule and power he built up through the years slipping away from him, to his disloyal disciples. The reality was that the little known Bashir, who was widely seen as a figurehead in the Islamists hands, was gradually steering the boat and little by little, Turabi was sliding out of power.
Nonetheless, Turabi as the conniver of old, a stubborn old veteran, his trawl is never empty. By establishing the National Congress Party (NCP) Turabi aimed to transform his Islamic movement from the State party to a one party State, to concentrate power in his hands. The Islamic Movement was abolished in the new NCP, and Turabi was elected as the NCP General Secretary. The duality in the system became more and more palpable. Turabi was ready to finish the job he started and transition the rule to the chameleonic Front manifested as the NCP. It was a matter of time before Turabi would have full control on the Islamic State he created. At least that was what he thought.
It was alleged that a few years after taking power, Turabi handed the old veterans and the Shura council of the Islamic movement each a copy of the “Quran”, as an appreciation of their roles and the services they had contributed to the Islamic Movements through the years. Nonetheless, the message behind this action was clear to all the old invitees, “Step down, your time is over”. In the memory of the Islamists, Turabi, ever endowed with a self satisfied drive for leadership, revealed his real intentions of attaining his Islamic State. He saw himself and his role in the same manner as Khomeini, as the only leader and therefore followers have to either submit or walk away. Turabi however, did not see his dreams come true, neither the same way Khomenei came to power, nor the way Khomenei followers showed absolute acquiescence.
Less than a year after his election as General Secretary of the NCP, Turabi faced a challenge from within his party, when he was confronted by what was famously known later as the “Memo of ten”. An internal Memorandum signed by ten senior and middle ranked NCP members from inside Turabi’s close circles, many considered as trusted disciples. The memo surprised many and Turabi’s ego was hurt. The memo which was validated by the NCP proposed reforms by which president Bashir was to be given effective authority as president of the party and Turabi’s position the General Secretary would be curbed and restricted to secretarial duties. Turabi, who never surrendered, decided to lead the battle from his last encampment, the National Assembly where he held the position as speaker. Turabi decided to use his powers and influence in the constituency of the Islamic Movement to regain his status in the State and Party. He began by launching his biggest campaign tour by visiting the different states. Turabi also considered proposing real amendments in the constitution, by introducing the position of a Prime Minister with real executive authorities, and tried to introduce amendments to direct popular election of State Governors. Turabi’s proposed actions if implemented, would have stripped Bashir of any power. Bashir had to react and prove he was not as malleable as his commander thought he would be.
In December 1999, president Bashir led his second coup and officially ended the Islamist’s first period of rule, by declaring a state emergency throughout the country, dissolving the national assembly, and suspending the four articles of direct State election. Bashir made his move after all reconciliation efforts failed to hinder Turabi’s move to present his constitutional package for voting in the National Assembly. Bashir knew very well, that the proposed package, if approved, would mean his downfall and simply his days in politics would have been numbered. Turabi refused to acknowledge the emergency but Bashir, backed by the military and the army surrounded the national assembly, preventing entry and exit. Turabi desperately appealed, making a case to the constitutional court, but reaped only what he sowed, lack of judicial independence. The court only affirmed the presidential measures and intentions.
The first Islamist period of statehood was officially brought to an end in 1999 after these events and the ousting of the mastermind and creator. Notwithstanding his ousting, many have sceptically quoted the poacher and gamekeeper analogy and thought the claimed split was nothing but yet another bluff directed by the mysterious man. The myth surrounding the man continues to survive. Nonetheless and unsurprisingly, the majority of the Islamists have chosen to side with Bashir who has no history with the movement. But it was a matter of choosing between the power and authority which they had tasted for many years on one hand, or the ousting and struggle on the other hand. In the months following the split many, who, believed with all their heart in the spiritual father of the Islamic movement, chose to side with Bashir. Certainly not on the ground of principles but rather on account of Bashir’s control and power over the state. Over a few years this support turned him into the fiercest dictator to have led the most totalitarian and absolutist state in Sudan’s recent history. Into a state which has tarnished and still tarnishes the name of Islam and Sudan through its practices.
Following the power struggle between the Islamist wings and Turabi’s ousting, Islamists manifested their second spell in power by forming the NCP. Turabi formed the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and became one of the government’s fiercest critics. To follow: Great international variables and events portrayed the period of the second edition (1999 – 2011). September 11, war on terror led by the Bush Administration, exploitation of oil, Darfur war and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). TBC
The Author is a Sudanese International Social Worker, he publishes his opinions at his blog website and different Sudanese forums. He can be reached at: email@example.com