The Return of the Islamist Regime in Sudan?

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Anti-coup protesters in Khartoum/CREDIT: Katarzyna Rybarczyk
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Shortly after the 1989 coup that brought Sudan’s former dictator, al-Bashir, to power, the Islamist movement became a key political authority in the country and the nation followed a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law. 

In the Sudanese context, Islamism refers to a set of ideologies which posit that Islam should shape political and legal systems. As Sudan’s society is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural, having an Islamist government increases the that individuals from other backgrounds will not be able to enjoy the full freedom of religious practices and worship.

Despite living under an Islamist government for three decades, the people of Sudan believe that ‘Sudanese politicians should not be using religion as a means of ruling’ and all religions should be able to exist ‘without hindrance from the government.’ This helps to explain why, in 2020, Sudan’s transitional government, established after the Sudanese Revolution that ousted al-Bashir, agreed a deal that ended 30 years of Islam being the official state religion.

‘No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion. For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected,’ the agreement read.

The deal received an enthusiastic welcome from Sudanese society and represented an important step towards achieving lasting peace. It was promised to be a starting point in a potential transition towards democracy and the rule of law. 

But now, in the new post-coup order, Sudanese army general, politician, and de facto head of state Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan is bringing Islamists back into the government, sparking fears that discrimination will yet again characterise the political scene.

Rise and fall of Bashir’s political Islam

The 1989 coup was orchestrated by Hassan Al-Turabi, a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan and the leader of the National Islamic Front, which was one of only two Islamic movements that had political power in the twentieth century – the other being the Islamic Republican Party in Iran.

Bashir built his regime on Turabi’s ideas and started institutionalising Sharia law at a national level. His rule was marked by brutal attempts to suppress religious minorities, especially in the south of the country where many communities are Christian or animist. The war he waged against the population and rebels in the south is estimated to have killed more than two million people and displaced four million more.

At the same time, Bashir offered support to radical Islamist organisations by, for example, hosting Osama bin Laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, between 1992 and 1996 – though us ultimately asked him to leave after pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia increased.

After a few years of Bashir being in power, he changed the name of the National Islamic Front to the National Congress and, in 1999, put al-Turnabi in jail. He also expelled al-Turnabi’s supporters from the party, which led to them establishing the Popular Congress Party that became the key opposition force in Sudan.

After Bashir and Tarnabi fell out, the Islamist direction of the regime lost momentum, and began to adopt a more pragmatic approach. During this period, Bashir continued to politicise the army, giving it control over sectors within the economy.

The role of the military began to evolve in 2003, during the insurgency in Darfur. To suppress the activity of the anti-government movements there, Bashir established the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force that grew out of the Janjaweed militia, frequently accused of human rights abuses. The RSF, which became the arm of the regime’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), and Bashir became increasingly dependent on its repressive and violent strategies to retain political control.

After years of Sudan being designated as terrorist state and facing severe sanctions, Bashir’s regime was not only bankrupt but also widely disliked. The nation’s frustrations culminated in 2018 when the most intense nationwide protests against Bashir’s rule erupted and persisted until, in April 2019, he was forced to step down.

At that point people were hopeful that such a significant change would mean an end to divisive rule and a regime that had become increasingly reliant on repression and repressions.

Post-coup Islamist revival

When Bashir fell, civilian members of the Transitional Sovereign Council excluded Islamists from the government and focused on protecting people’s right to self-expression and freedom of worship.

However, after the coup this past October led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in which the army seized power and detained the prime minister, a number of key Islamist figures secured positions in the intelligence services. For instance, generals Abdel Nabi al-Mahi and Abdelmonim Jalal, both of whom are Islamists in the Sudanese Armed Forces, were appointed to lead Military Intelligence. A few months later, al-Burhan reappointed more than one hundred Islamist diplomats to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They had previously been fired because of links to Bashir’s administration.

As well as exacerbating tensions between the military government and Sudanese protestors, a direct consequence of these changes has been that the Sudanese Foreign Ministry has adopted a more confrontational position towards the international community and bodies such as the United Nations and the African Union.

The Sudan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in March that it wants the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) to focus more on protecting peace in the country rather than ‘concentrate most of its activities on only the political side.’ The move was criticised as ‘a desperate attempt to tame the UN mission.’

A few weeks later, in April, members of a number of Islamists factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked National Congress Party, announced the establishment of a new political coalition, the ‘Broad Islamist Current,’ which marked their return to frontline politics.

While Islamism in itself is not inherently oppressive, and secular military governments can as brutal as religious ones, the precedent for Islamist rule in Sudan is extremely worrying. This is why the return to government of many Islamist figures has raised concerns that the “transition” will move further away from the hopes and dreams of the country’s population.

Facade of strength

While coup leaders giving leadership positions to Islamists might be interpreted as a commitment to their ideology, in reality it is a sign of the military not being able to manage the country’s affairs on its own.

As Sudan remains cut off from international aid, the price of food and other necessities has skyrocketed, fuelling further anti-coup protests persist that have in turn placed the military government under growing pressure. By turning to Islamists who were once in charge, the military has tried to shift the responsibility for administering the country onto someone else while bolstering its support base and  maintaining its grip on power.

But under the guise of unity and strength, Sudan’s army is at a stalemate. The generals want to be in control but have no plan on how to govern and move the country forward. A good example of this is the military’s inability to appoint a prime minister and the excessive use of violence used to put down peaceful demonstrations.

Strengthening ties with Islamists is, therefore, best understood as a tactical choice, but it could soon turn out counterproductive if coup leaders do not learn from the experience – and fate – of Bashir.

Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service. She covers humanitarian issues and writes articles raising awareness about the challenges of post-conflict recovery.

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