The Arab Spring: Turabi rehabilitated
By Magdi El Gizouli
Hassan al-Turabi, the veteran chief of the Sudanese Islamic Movement turned opponent to the long reign of his disciples under President Bashir, appeared yesterday on al-Jazeera to celebrate the rise of Islamic forces to power in the region. The ‘sheikh of freedoms’ as his party followers prefer to call him spoke with the comfort and vindication of a pioneer; his miscegenation of Islamic themes and ideals with Leninist principles of vanguard organisation delivered the “first Islamic state in the Sunni world” to use the title he conferred on the regime born out the 1989 coup d’état orchestrated by the National Islamic Front (NIF), the political cloak of the Sudanese Islamic Movement at the time.
Today, Turabi sits snugly in the opposition, eviscerated from power in 1999 after a drawn out struggle with President Bashir, a struggle that robbed him of his political achievement but not of his intellectual property. Thanks to repeated cycles of detention and house arrest Turabi can safely claim victimhood in President Bashir’s state, the regime he authored almost singlehandedly but that soon mutated beyond his control. Both men are eager to impress their Islamic credentials upon the winners of the Arab Spring. As Turabi the sheikh was debating the challenges of Islamic rule in Doha with Rashid al-Ghannushi, the Chairman of the ruling Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, Bashir the rayes, endowed last month with a Master’s degree from Sudan’s Gezira University for a thesis titled ‘Challenges of the Application of Sharia in Contemporary Societies”, was busy marketing himself to his Egyptian counterpart, the Moslem Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi.
The two heads of state, Morsi and Bashir, discussed the Nile water shares, said the spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency, and confirmed that “the position of Khartoum and Cairo regarding the Nile Basin crisis is identical”. To Cairo the 1959 Nile water agreement is sacrosanct; the colonial-era treaty grants almost the entire average annual flow of the river to Egypt and Sudan, to be shared at 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic meters respectively. Ethiopia, acting alone and in partnership with the six other upper riparian states, has recently challenged the 1959 agreement demanding equitable utilization of the Nile between the nine countries that share the river thus precipitating a crisis yet to unfold with Egypt. Just this month Wikileaks released a document claiming that President Bashir agreed in 2010 to host an Egyptian airbase with the objective of launching a military attack on Ethiopia’s Grand Millennium Dam, the brainchild of the late Meles Zenawi, in case diplomatic efforts fail to deter Addis Ababa from pushing through with the project. The same Bashir however reportedly told the Ethiopian ambassador in Khartoum, Abadi Zemo, in March this year that Sudan will provide all the necessary support towards the success of the construction of the Millennium Dam. Judging by precedent Bashir has not strayed far from established standards of post-colonial Sudanese statesmanship. Abboud coyed to Nasser and agreed to drown Wadi Halfa under the lake of the Aswan High Dam for Egypt’s benefit; Nimayri followed Sadat’s lead to become the only Arab ruler to support the Camp David accords and make Sudan the second largest African recipient of US aid after Egypt; and Bashir himself initially camouflaged as an Egyptian stooge. Under pressure, and after his captains failed to assassinate Mubarak in 1995, President Bashir put a lid on Turabi’s pan-Islamic machinations in an attempt to appease the Egyptian Sublime Porte. As officers in the Egyptian-clayed Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) the three were well that the Governor General’s Palace in Khartoum had several keys, one of them at least in Cairo.
Turabi possibly imagined himself the elephant in the room between Morsi and Bashir. The copyrights of political Islam in Sudan remain his, Bashir’s Master’s thesis notwithstanding. On the other hand, his relations with Egypt’s Moslem Brothers have long been burdened by the sin of his breakaway from Egyptian orbit in the 1960’s when he scoffed at the so-called educationalist and evolutionist methods of the mother organisation to launch the Sudanese branch of the Moslem Brotherhood onto an independent ‘revolutionary’ course. Along that path he rubbed shoulders with many a dissident Egyptian brother, Ayman al-Zawahiri to name one shining star.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org