By Andrew Natsios
27 August, 2012
President Omar Al-Bashir’s 23-year rule in Sudan has known almost ceaseless civil war, the recent secession of South Sudan and an indictment for genocide by the International Criminal Court against Bashir himself.
Currently, his government is under attack by various rebel armies with an estimated combined strength of 60,000, as well as protests sparked by the withdrawal of gas subsidies, massive budget deficits, failed harvests and steep increases in food prices. Bashir’s days may be numbered.
Yet his removal would not end the conflict; it could even trigger a new civil war. The groups challenging Bashir are united by their common hatred of him and his party rather than by a shared vision for Sudan’s future. But were they to topple him, they would soon be at odds with one another over a longstanding, unresolved debate that has haunted Sudan from its founding: the proper relationship between Islam and the Sudanese state.
Bashir took power in 1989 in a coup masterminded by Hassan Al-Turabi, the leading Islamist theologian who in the 1960s founded the Islamic Charter Front, Sudan’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Under Turabi’s influence (he served as minister of justice in the late 1980s before Bashir took power), political Islam came to dominate Sudan’s domestic affairs. Thousands of women in professional jobs were removed because their jobs were thought improper for Muslim women. Shariah law replaced the country’s secular civil code, and a separate Islamic court system was established under the Special Courts Act that applied to all citizens, Muslim or not.
An Islamic banking system was established, meaning that banks could no longer charge interest on loans – a practice that soon hampered the creation of new businesses, particularly by non-Islamists who already had limited access to the Islamic banks. Arabic replaced English as the language of instruction in the University of Khartoum, and the appointment of professors became politicised.
It was also Turabi who in 1991 invited Osama bin Laden to establish Al Qaeda’s headquarters in Sudan. While he lived in Khartoum, Bin Laden reportedly married one of Turabi’s nieces. Turabi also invited other radical groups – such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Jamaat Al-Islamiyya – with a view to turning Sudan into the operational base for the radical Islamisation of sub-Saharan Africa.
By the mid-1990s, the US government and its Arab allies had grown alarmed at the radical Islamisation of Sudan. They began pressing Bashir for the expulsion of these groups from the country. (Turabi was reportedly behind the attempted assassination of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 1995.)
Bashir eventually agreed because he realised these policies were isolating Sudan in the Arab world, but expelling these radical groups put him at odds with Turabi. With that decision, as well as an acrimonious public dispute over the power of the presidency the two men became bitter enemies. (Turabi wanted governors elected, and for Parliament to be able to impeach the president as an attempt to strip Bashir of power after his expulsion of Islamist groups.)
They still are, despite repeated efforts by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to heal the breach. Turabi is now in his late 70s and is believed to be in Khartoum. Although his public statements often incur official harassment and land him in jail, he retains a large following and is considered too influential to be seriously mistreated.
After oil revenues began pouring into the treasury of the central government after 1998, the central mission of Bashir’s party gradually evolved away from spreading radical Islam to Africa and toward self-preservation, even if Islamist ideology and institutions continued.
The rebel coalition that is now at war with Khartoum includes pro-democracy groups that advocate a secular state, respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, a multiparty political system and a secular civil code – principles that are included in the coalition’s manifesto.
Abdul Azziz Al-Hilu, the former deputy governor of South Kordofan Province, and Malak Agar, the former governor of Blue Nile Province – both former commanders in the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, which fought a protracted civil war against Bashir’s forces – demand that the provisions of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement their movement reached with the Sudan government in 2005 be fully implemented.
The agreement included a provision that allowed their provinces to bring the public into a democratic participatory process for deciding how to govern themselves in the future. Bashir abruptly ended the process and unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate both Agar and Hilu.
But the anti-Bashir coalition also counts several Islamist groups, including the Justice and Equality Movement from Darfur, a rebel group inspired by Turabi’s vision of Islamism.
The Sudanese Air Force killed the founder and leader of Justice and Equality in a night raid last December, so the movement has a more immediate motivation to depose Bashir’s government: revenge.
But when it signed the manifesto with other secular groups, the leaders of Justice and Equality publicly disagreed with its central principal of a secular state. They are not alone: Two historic parties of Sudan, the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, believe in a democratic state, but support Shariah law and the defining notion of Sudan as an Islamic state.
It is not certain that the rebels can topple the Bashir government. But even if they do, they might only be setting the stage for a new civil war. If they, and their allies in the West, want Bashir out, they should have no illusions about prospects for a democratic, peaceful future for Sudan.
Andrew Natsios, the US special envoy to Sudan in 2006-07, is executive professor at the George H.W. Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University.