Monday,11 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)
Monday,11 December, 2017
Issue 1286, (10 - 16 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary:Hassan Al-Turabi (1932-2016) The Islamist who perfected the art of survival

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Al-Ahram Weekly

An era comes to a close in Sudan with the death of Hassan Al-Turabi, the most important Islamist leader in the country since its independence from Britain in 1956, who passed away Saturday evening after a heart attack. Thousands of people, supporters and opponents alike, turned out for his funeral procession the following day, to escort him to his final resting place.

As soon as the news hit Khartoum and the world, people began wondering who would fill the vacuum left by Al-Turabi, the sole Islamist leader in the Arab world who managed to take his party to power, two decades before the Arab Spring.

In Al-Turabi’s 52 years in Sudanese politics, he turned his Muslim Brotherhood-inspired party from a small political faction of university students and young people who had studied in Egypt into the strongest organisation in the country.

Over a half century, he transformed from being one of the leaders of the October 1964 Revolution, which brought down the first military regime led by General Ibrahim Abboud, into a supporter of the second dictator, Jaafar Al-Numeiri, before engineering the country’s third coup that brought the current president, Omar Al-Bashir to power in 1989, finally becoming one of Bashir’s fiercest opponents in 1999.

Over five decades, he used his considerable skills to reach the seat of power, rejecting the traditional Sudanese Brotherhood programme of educating and preparing society before governing and implementing Islamic law.

With every one of his conversions, he offered a justification. On entering the political fray, he said that Sudan was different from Egypt because it had seen an actual Islamic state in the late 19th century under Al-Mahdi, whereas Cairo witnessed Orabi’s republican rebellion.

When opposing the dictatorship of Abboud, he would quote a saying of Gamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, a guide for the Orabi rebellion, that freedom is the foundation of Islam. When he reconciled with Numeiri, he argued that a regime that had lost its ideological compass to secularists should not be abandoned.

After Bashir’s coup, he said, “We used force to come to power because the tarboush-wearers denied us this through the ballot box,” referring to the conflict between conservative forces and his secularist opponents.

“Turban-wearers” and “tarboush-wearers” is an Egyptian description of the two camps — one traditional and conservative and the other more Westernised — competing in the conflict over identity in the Arab and Islamic world.

When Al-Turabi broke with Bashir in 1999, in what Sudanese Islamists called “the Ramadan separation”, he explained his stance by saying that the regime championed racist views at odds with Islam’s fundamental belief in freedom and equality.

In an interview after the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, he accused his former ally Bashir of being racist, saying he disparaged his non-Arab ministers as “slaves”. In a recent recording posted on YouTube, Al-Turabi, citing an unnamed source, alleged that Bashir had described Arab militiamen’s rape of women in Darfur as “an honour” for the women.

Al-Turabi’s exceptional talent at survival in the tempestuous sea of Sudanese politics was made possible not only by his manoeuvring and justifications for his well-timed political shifts, but also by the genuine qualifications acquired in his relatively long period of political formation.

Al-Turabi was born in Kassala, in eastern Sudan, in 1932. He memorised the Qur’an at the knee of his father, a judge in the Islamic courts, Abdullah Al-Al-Turabi. He was then enrolled in the public education system and received a university degree in law in 1955, followed by an MA from Oxford University in 1957, after which he returned to Sudan for a few years.

During this period he married Wisal Al-Mahdi, the daughter of Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the leader of the Ansar movement in Sudan, and the sister of future prime minister, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi.

Speaking of the marriage to the London-based Al-Wasat magazine, Sadiq Al-Mahdi said, “Al-Turabi couldn’t marry my sister because we married among ourselves. Al-Turabi’s family also belonged to the Khatmiya confession, political opponents of the Ansar at the time.” But the marriage took place, over his father’s objections due to Al-Mahdi’s desire to confront the communists in universities and trade unions.

The couple were married in 1961, after which Al-Turabi went to Paris, where he earned a PhD in constitutional law at the Sorbonne in 1964. With this firm academic foundation, his fluency in several languages (Arabic, English, French and German), and his close familiarity with both Islamic studies and Western law, Al-Turabi returned to take up a professorship at Khartoum University in law, having already married into one of the most prominent families in the country.

The war in the south gained steam in 1963, putting Sudan’s first military regime in a difficult spot. The next year, student protests erupted when lectures on the current situation were banned. University professors resigned en masse — a move some say was engineered by Al-Turabi.

Al-Turabi himself left behind the halls of academia for the rough and tumble of Sudanese politics, assuming the position of secretary-general of the Islamic Charter Front. Abboud was deposed and multiparty politics reinstated. Elections were held in 1965, but the Islamic Charter Front won only three seats, compared to the communists’ 11 seats, a popular reward for their consistent stance against dictatorship.

In those years, Al-Turabi received the support of Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the Umma Party and the Ansar, but he lacked educated backers with whom to stand against the communists in urban areas, trade unions and the student movement.

After Numeiri’s coup in May 1969, which was supported by both communists and Nasserist nationalists, Al-Turabi’s supporters in 1976 took part in an armed attempt to storm Khartoum, with the backing of the then Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Called a “campaign of mercenaries,” the attempt failed, repelled by the army and civilians.

The Islamists, led by Al-Turabi, Sadeq Al-Mahdi’s Umma Party, and a faction of the Unionist Party, were forced to reconcile with the Numeiri regime in 1977. From day one of the rapprochement, Al-Turabi worked to rebuild his political party, which by then had gone underground, using funds from Islamic banks. This allowed him to forge a strong financial and professional elite over the next decade, until he mobilised them in Bashir’s coup in 1989.

In 1979, Al-Turabi became justice minister. He began drafting Islamic laws, applying them in 1983 through what was known at the time as the notorious September laws. They were short-lived, however, as Numeiri’s regime was deposed with the uprising of April 1985.

But in elections for a constituent assembly, the Islamists (the National Islamic Front) won more than 50 seats, while the communists took only three with difficulty. Nevertheless, Al-Turabi was unable to secure a seat in the assembly after all the parties united against him, which made him understand that Sudanese elites did not want to see him in power. Osman Taha, later vice-president to Bashir in the mid-1990s, assumed leadership of the Islamist deputies in the assembly.

During Sudan’s third democratic period, Al-Turabi became foreign minister in 1988, but he could not get his Islamic laws applied, especially after the war with the south expanded and Sudanese society rejected the laws having seen the resulting atrocities. The tragedy reached its peak in January 1985 with the execution of Islamist thinker Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, launching a period of zealous bigotry formerly unknown in Sudan.

This was not the sole reason that Al-Turabi was unable to implement the September laws. The Unionist Party was making serious efforts to reach a peace agreement with southern Sudanese, led by the late John Garang, in 1988.

“This peace would have reduced the Islamists’ chances of winning the elections set for April 1989,” said Al-Hajj Warraq, the editor-in-chief of the Sudanese opposition paper Hurriyat. “It was also impossible to apply the September laws as the country was nearing a reconciliation with non-Muslim citizens.”

Warraq continued: “Regionally, there was no state that allowed the Islamists to rule, whether Arab or African.”

Al-Turabi apparently saw this situation as the tarboush-wearers preventing the turban-wearers like himself from reaching power. The result was a coup.

Al-Turabi mobilised the organisation he had been building for more than a decade, since the concord of 1977, and agreed with Bashir on everything. At the end of their meeting, he spoke his now famous words, telling Bashir, “The palace for you, prison for me” — an attempt to camouflage the fact that this was an Islamist coup.

But no one other than the Islamists had any interest in fomenting a coup at the time so, as Warraq said, “the camouflage didn’t work”.

The coup succeeded and Islamists came to power for the first time in the Arab world and the second time in the world after Khomeini’s Iranian revolution of 1979. This success boosted the status of Al-Turabi and Sudanese Islamists among their Arab peers, and made Sudan a refuge for persecuted Islamists and a base for provocations against neighbouring states, most importantly Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak.

Khartoum even hosted Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, before being compelled to eject them in 1996. The US encircled Sudan and put it on the list of terrorism sponsors, firing missiles at the country in 1998 after the bombing of the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam that same year.

Al-Turabi emerged from prison in 1990 to find his disciples and supporters occupying the levers of power in civil and military administration, having purged the state of non-supporters through early retirement, ostensibly in the “public interest”.

The war in the south expanded further. Calling it “a jihad against Kharijites,” Bashir and Al-Turabi, now the chair of the first parliament after the 1989 coup, promised to spare no martyrs’ blood in pursuit of victory.

But the regime was not victorious. In fact, it grew more distant from victory than any time in the past and the already poor country was further exhausted. There was no choice then but to sue for peace.

Shortly before this, Al-Turabi prepared a law that would curtail the authority of the president and increase the power of the parliament he led, but Bashir cut the attempt short. He isolated him, prompting Al-Turabi’s final political transformation into vociferous regime opponent, as the head of the Popular Congress Party, a role he played until his death.

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