Farouk Abu Eissa:
Legal somersaults, and a steady hand with the razor
Democrat at heart
"To this day they call me Ibnal-Zaim (The Leader's Son)," Farouk Abu Eissa sighed, throwing himself down in an armchair in his office in Garden City, exhausted after a long-day's work. He recently suffered cardiac problems on a flight back to Cairo from the Eritrean capital Asmara where he had participated in a meeting of the umbrella opposition grouping the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) of which he is official spokesman. "Luckily, there were two physicians aboard -- the distinguished Sudanese communist leader Al-Shafief Khedr and Pacificio Lado, a well-known southern Sudanese leader."
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"That was in the summer of 1970. I was dispatched to Amman as a special emissary of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Our mission was to have Arafat 'spirited away' from the Jordanian capital"
Abu Eissa sank further into his seat.
The mercifully mild heart attack may well have been a betrayal of his inner trials and tribulations. Abu Eissa agonises over Sudan's future. He wears a great many hats and there is the constant danger of spreading his net too wide, that his many commitments will take too great a toll on his health. But he shrugs off the seriousness of his ailments -- a combination of diabetes and the circulatory and cardio-vascular complications that have dogged him in recent years. "A bloody nuisance", he says, dismissing them with a wave of his hand as if they were flies.
Doctors recommend rest, but that is precisely the thing for which Abu Eissa can never find time. And for all his health woes he remains a bundle of energy. Always on the move, he is forever in and out of meetings, preparing speeches and papers to be delivered at seminars in addition to attending to the day-to-day business of the Cairo-based Arab Lawyers Union which he has headed for two decades. These were years in which Abu Eissa has avoided serious mistakes, always an underestimated ability in politics and among those who hold public office.
A conviction politician and a social liberal, Abu Eissa served as Sudan's foreign minister during the early period of President Gaafar Al-Numeiri's rule. Abu Eissa fell out with Numeiri when the latter turned on the Sudanese communists, double- crossed the southern Sudanese by abrogating the 1972 Addis Ababa agreement between the government and southern secessionists, and then instituted the infamous September Laws which prompted the April 1985 popular uprisings that eventually led to Numeiri's ouster from power.
A warm and cheerful person, Abu Eissa is an astute politician who manages to appear both gracious and humble in real life. His private and public lives are inextricably intertwined: he lives and works in the same building, an attractive riverside Cairene villa. Abu Eissa is most particular about the welfare of his daughters and grandchildren -- his immediate family. Nothing gives him more pleasure than when in the company of "the little ones". Still, he engages as easily with those occupying the upper echelons of the Arab political establishment as with lawyers from around the Arab world with whom he has built an excellent rapport.
Smart and spry, he speaks in disarmingly modest tones about his work past and present. He is meticulous and very fussy about cleanliness, making sure that his offices on the first and ground floors of the spacious and elegant villa in Garden City are as spotless as his residence on the second and top floor of the premises.
Abu Eissa is a pan-Arabist and a pan- Africanist, but Sudan is his first love. He knows all too well that the ideological and political issues Sudan is currently grappling with have repercussions in the African, Arab and the Muslim worlds. He sees a secular and democratic Sudan as the only viable alternative to more war and bloodshed. Yet he remains a sincere believer in Sudanese territorial integrity and national unity.
Abu Eissa knows this is a defining moment in Sudanese political affairs. The country is at the crossroads: either a united, democratic Sudan emerges with its sovereignty and territorial integrity intact or the southern Sudanese will opt for secession. Much is at stake, and Abu Eissa believes that the only way to preserve the country's unity and secure its prosperity is by instituting democracy, thoroughly secularising the nation's institutions and legal system and respecting the rights of all Sudanese regardless of religion or ethnicity. The Sudan he envisions would be a territorially integral sovereign state along a federal model that respects the cultural specificity of the southern Sudanese.
In some ways the teenage politics geek expelled from college for taking part in an anti-colonial demonstration remains recognisable in Abu Eissa. He became a communist as a teenager and remained until 1970 a member of the Sudanese Communist Party, the largest in Africa and the Arab world in the 1950s and '60s. The party profoundly influenced Abu Eissa's political thinking and, oddly enough for an anti-establishment political grouping, prepared him for political office.
Born in 1933 in Wad Medani, Al-Gezeira province, central Sudan, Abu Eissa is proud of his heritage. His distant roots are Egyptian, his forebears -- the Ga'afra people from Daraw, near Aswan in Upper Egypt -- migrated from Egypt down the Nile Valley to Sudan.
Wad Medani was a budding city, then, the hub of the country's most economically-viable and prosperous province. Today it is a bustling provincial city serving the rich farmland of Al- Gezira, Sudan's breadbasket and main cotton producing region.
It was Abu Eissa's father who introduced him to politics and the Sudanese Nationalist Movement Party, which was pro-Egypt and anti-British. It had close connections to the Egyptian Wafd Party and opposed the Ansar Al-Mahdi and Umma Party, widely viewed as British colonial collaborators.
Most of Abu Eissa's siblings were not in the least interested in politics, even though their father was political. Abu Eissa comes from a large family -- six brothers and four sisters who competed for his father's attention. His father hailed from a long line of traders and contractors. A wealthy merchant, he was one of the major financial backers of the Sudanese nationalist movement.
But there was more to his father than bankrolling the Sudanese nationalist movement. His father was his first political mentor. He held unorthodox ideas and was head of Sudan's second largest sporting club, Al-Nil. A frequent visitor to Egypt, he championed Sudan's northern neighbour and actively sought to further the political unification of Egypt and Sudan. His father risked economic ruin by antagonising the British colonial authorities, serving short terms in prison for his political beliefs and activism.
Even so, Abu Eissa's privileged family background ensured him an excellent education at the prestigious Handoub College, modelled on Oxford University and built by the British colonial authorities with the express purpose of nurturing the men who would run Sudan. Indeed, many of the most influential Sudanese political players graduated from Handoub including Al-Numeiri and Al-Turabi. Professor Ahmed Abdel-Halim, current Sudanese ambassador to Egypt, and a political foe of Abu Eissa's, was a classmate and fellow student.
At the end of World War II, Abu Eissa's sheltered life in the quaint provincialism of his surroundings was about to be shattered. Abu Eissa learned his first political lessons at Handoub. His political initiation took the form of leading student demonstration against the British. He was promptly expelled from Handoub.
Abu Eissa never looked back. His expulsion opened new horizons. "In 1948 my father left for Umm Durman and the family soon followed. Umm Durman, the cultural capital of Sudan, was a whole new world for me." In Umm Durman there were two Egyptian secondary schools, the King Farouk Secondary School and the Coptic School, and both were strongly influenced by Egypt. Abu Eissa was enrolled at King Farouk's.
After graduating with flying colour Abu Eissa chose to study in Egypt instead of England, where most of his peers preferred to go for higher education. His father was especially proud of his choice but had no idea that the young Abu Eissa was keen on law. Abu Eissa had to make a compelling case to his family. In Egypt, he was expected to enrol at Cairo University's prestigious Qasr Al- Aini teaching hospital and study medicine. But Abu Eissa opted instead for law. He also chose to study at the University of Alexandria where he spent "some of the happiest days of my life".
Upon his return to Sudan Abu Eissa began to practice law. He worked mostly among the poor and saw his legal practice as a basis for political activism. He was first and foremost a communist. Some of the ideas he then held linger on and have relevance today. He says that it is time religion and politics are once again separated in Sudan. Legislation ought to ensure that Sudan is a secular state and should not make the courts of law arbiters of what is right, wrong or acceptable in the domain of religious controversy.
"But you don't have to be a communist to be a committed secularist," says Abu Eissa, throwing up his hands as if in despair. He launches into an impassioned argument against the destructive obsession with the politics of religion in Sudan, much of Africa and the Arab world. His main concern, his raison d'être, is instituting democracy in Sudan, Africa and the Arab world.
In all fairness, Abu Eissa plays a weak hand with some skill. The Arab Lawyers Union is the oldest non-governmental organisation in the Arab world -- a region not particularly noted for its democratic traditions. It is a pan-Arab organisation, but it is proudly independent of Arab governments. It has held observer status at the UN since 1971 and at UNESCO since 1973 and has championed the independence of the judiciary in the Arab world. It has seen difficult days, working behind the scenes to resolve differences between Arab governments and warring regimes. When Arab countries cut off relations with Egypt and boycotted Cairo, which headquarters the Arab Lawyers Union, the organisation made a determined effort to stay put even at a time when the Arab League headquarters was temporarily moved to Tunisia.
Abu Eissa's natural gift for nimble legal and political somersaults has come in handy when dealing with Arab leaders and representatives of Arab governments. He has manoeuvred his way out of many tricky situations. Hopping from one Arab capital to another, he speaks at different forums on topics close to his heart, such as Sudan and in defence of the Arab cause and for the eradication of human rights violations in the Arab world. And it takes courage and spirit to speak out as he does.
Attorney at law and human rights activist, Abu Eissa is a man of action. This means that he has taken on big challenges when he thought he had to. Playing politics and holding senior ministerial positions, it was only after his departure from office that he devoted more time to legal matters, climbing to the top of his profession.
Abu Eissa lasted for two decades as head of the pan-Arab organisation mainly because he scrupulously respects the prevailing conventions and idioms of the legal profession. His independent and critical intellect got him into trouble with the authorities, and equipped him to endure being branded an outcast in the land of his birth. In Cairo he is among the most respected and influential of Sudanese political exiles -- not least because he heads a widely acclaimed pan-Arab non- governmental body.
Abu Eissa could have resigned as secretary- general of the Arab Lawyers Union, justifying his departure on the grounds of his many other obligations -- not least his commitment to the democratisation and secularisation of Sudan's political scene. But he is acutely conscious of the enormity of the task Arab lawyers face as they grapple with a host of prickly issues. They are engaged in a vicious struggle to liberalise and modernise their legal systems. They are working hard at cementing whatever democratic gains their members have wrested. They are fighting for the political and social rights of women and ethnic- linguistic and religious minorities. The organisation he heads was instrumental in undertaking constitutional work for the Palestinians, all of which has given him an understanding of the legal aspects of Arab political and social concerns.
Abu Eissa is closely associated with many of the most pertinent Arab causes, particularly the Palestinian cause. He is one of two men who had the dubious honour of shaving off Yasser Arafat's beard, the other being Kamal Udwan, the charismatic Fatah leader whose assassination by the Israelis in Beirut in 1975 triggered the Lebanese civil war. It was an encounter Abu Eissa never forgot. "That was in the summer of 1970. I was dispatched to Amman as a special emissary of the late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Our mission was to have Arafat 'spirited away' from the Jordanian capital."
There was much fighting in the Hashemite Kingdom. "As we flew in from Cairo the fighting that later became known as Black September was intensifying." Their last day in Amman was a nightmare of chaos, with some comedy thrown in. Arafat, disguised as a woman of Numeiri's entourage, boarded the Sudanese presidential plane in the company of Abu Eissa. "They were very tense moments. We breathed a sigh of relief when we left the Jordanian air space, though there were even more trying days ahead."
Abu Eissa continued to perform the occasional tricky diplomatic mission on behalf of a number of Arab leaders though it is his work for Nasser that he esteems the most. Over the years, though, the sense of mischief that used to play around the edges of his persona has been suppressed.
As Sudanese foreign minister, Abu Eissa was closely involved in Arab causes -- especially that of Palestine. There were memorable moments on the African front, too. Abu Eissa was the first and last chairman of the OAU Council of Ministers in 1970-71. In his official capacity as head of the OAU Council of Ministers -- "an elected position", he insists -- Abu Eissa addressed the United Nations General Assembly for Namibia on behalf of the pan-African body. When the Portuguese invaded the Guinean capital Conakry he flew to Guinea accompanied by Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, then Algerian foreign minister, and the late Libyan foreign minister Mansour Kekhya. There he met with President Ahmed Sekou Toure of Guinea, the exiled former Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the anti- colonial struggle against the Portuguese in neighbouring Guinea Bissau.
Then it was national liberation that animated political discussion in Africa and the Arab world. Today, it is the politicisation of religion and the yearning for democracy.
"The securing of national reconciliation in Sudan, in particular, grows difficult with each passing day because of the attempts by the ruling Sudanese clique to institute a theocracy in the country."
Warming to his theme he explains how the former chief ideologue of militant Islam in Sudan, Hassan Al-Turabi, profited from the coup d'état of Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir which toppled the democratically-elected government of Sadig Al-Mahdi. Turabi was made Speaker of the Sudanese Parliament and given full reign. The Islamist Sudanese Parliament promulgated laws designed to stifle debate and free expression. With Al-Turabi at the helm, the Sudanese Parliament was set to exercise a religious mission under the cover of its legitimate constitutional role with renewed vigour.
Religion had already become the smouldering coal of Sudanese politics, occasionally bursting into flames that threatened to envelop the entire nation. Those who voiced public dissent were ruthlessly eliminated. Professional associations were quickly dissolved or taken over by militant Islamists -- the Sudanese Lawyers' Association not excluded. Scores of independent-minded secularist lawyers were dismissed. Others were barred from practicing, imprisoned, exiled and some summarily executed.
The Islamists in power embarked on a calculated programme of standardising opinion and entrenching orthodoxy and religious conservatism. Ironically, power politics quickly drew a wedge between Al-Bashir and his erstwhile political ally Al-Turabi, now imprisoned by the Sudanese authorities. Al-Bashir and Al-Turabi shared the same passion for the enforced Islamisation of Sudan, but Al-Bashir claimed that Al-Turabi was going about it the wrong way. A house divided cannot stand, Abu Eissa insists.
The attacks of 11 September on New York and Washington changed the course of Sudanese history. In a neat reversal of fortunes, Sudan's militant Islamists have now collapsed into self-doubt while the country's secularists bask in self- assurance. He can see light at the end of the tunnel: Sudan will survive the ordeal, Abu Eissa hopes. And so will Palestine and the rest of the Arab world. He wants to see democracies and not theocracies in place all over the region. He is an optimist, though not in any passive sense.