The President and his Islamists: Friends no more in Sudan

Is Sudan’s military-Islamist regime about to split, possibly with existential consequences?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir waves
Sudan President Omar al-Bashir faces a dilemma as the reformists are refusing to back down [AFP]

Ever since the fall of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in 2011 and the capture of government institutions by Ennahda in Tunisia and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, policymakers and analysts have been wondering about “Islamism-in-power”, speculating what this will imply for regional politics, civil-military relations and economic issues like mass unemployment.

For lessons about the opportunities and pitfalls for local citizens and international interests alike, they would do well to turn to Sudan, ruled since the coup of June 1989 by an alliance of generals and Islamists.

The “Al-Ingaz” (Salvation) regime, which once prided itself on having launched the first Sunni Islamic Revolution in the modern era, is facing one of its most severe crises of the last quarter century. It is not a popular uprising that is shaking Al-Ingaz rule, but an internal rebellion which, if mishandled, could gravely weaken President Omar al-Bashir.

The immediate trigger for the escalating unrest inside Al-Ingaz is the most important meeting of Sudanese Islamists in eight years. On November 16 and 17, 2012, thousands of representatives will gather in Khartoum at the General Conference of Al-Harakat Al-Islamiyyah (HI), a shadowy giant web of Islamist organisations which penetrates academic, war veteran and business circles and has long formed the political-intellectual backbone of the regime.

The General Conference will ostensibly concentrate on two things: The election of a new secretary-general and the drafting of a new HI constitution. Both of these issues, while important in their own right, embody a wider struggle for the soul of Al-Ingaz and hence of Sudan.

Internal fissures

While some commentators continue to repeat the counterproductive refrain of a supposedly monolithic regime in Khartoum, the reality is that the HI General Conference will mark the climax of a two year long confrontation between competing factions within Al-Ingaz, offering radically different visions for Sudan’s future.

In one corner stands a group of security hawks, conservative nationalists and nouveaux riches who argue that Sudan should take pride from having survived years of international isolation, regional regime change agendas and the secession of the South. Whilst occasionally dabbling in chauvinist and extremist rhetoric to give the illusion of remaining Islamist, this camp does not believe in rocking the boat [PDF] and argues that business as usual – authoritarian rule, patronage politics and commitment to Khartoum’s Dam Programme – is the way forward.

The likes of Nafi Ali Nafi, Awad al-Jaz and Usama Abdallah spearhead the political effort, with al-Bashir and Vice President Ali Osman Taha (the HI’s outgoing secretary-general) as their natural allies. Rather than democratising society and re-empowering the fledgling HI, the conservatives argue that substantial change will inevitably lead to a fatal weakening of Al-Ingaz and disintegration of the rump state of Sudan.

Their challengers are disaffected regime loyalists who feel that the revolution has been abandoned and that the marriage of Islamists and security services has liquidated the promises of democracy and prosperity of the former to boost the political and financial prowess of the latter. Three main groups are uniting against the status-quo: Restless youngsters who find their way to positions of high political responsibility blocked in a regime that is still dominated by the same figures as in the 1990s; increasingly vociferous former mujahedin who lost tens of thousands of their comrades on the battlefields of Eastern, Central and Southern Sudan and feel betrayed by their leaders; and, last but not least, the historical core of the HI, the very Islamist intellectuals who in 1989 helped Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi and Brigadier-General Omar Al-Bashir overthrow the government to realise an Islamic Revolution before a power struggle in 1999 led to Turabi’s removal from his pre-eminent position in the regime by the army.

The reformist agenda clashes frontally with the President’s instincts and the conservative recipe for Sudan’s future. Traumatised by the government’s “disastrous” handling of the Southern Question and disgusted by the authoritarian nature of the Sudanese state and the omnipresent corruption, they demand a transformation of the system from within, with a key role for the “real” Islamists and democratisation and economic liberalisation as political priorities; in the words of the reformist main leaders in recent private discussions: “If the government insists it has an Islamic programme, it is inevitable that the HI returns to the forefront… We have to force the army and security services to give up power – like in Turkey, they have to lose their grip.”

 Anti-Islam video protests shake Sudan

These Islamists claim to favour a political solution for ongoing conflicts in Blue Nile and South Kordofan; they also seem determined to marginalise the Al-Ingaz old guard, starting with outgoing HI secretary-general Taha who is blamed for deliberately destroying the very movement that brought him to the apex of power.

Al-Bashir’s dilemma

Given how much is at stake in the coming weeks and months, it should come as no surprise that the gloves are coming off.

Last week, a bitterly contested race for the highly influential position of secretary-general of the HI in Khartoum State was narrowly lost by leading Islamist reformist Hassan Rizzig after what seemed like vote rigging and intimidation by his reactionary opponents. The conservative camp has also been relying on the xenophobic pen of Al-Intibaha editor-in-chief Tayeb Mustafa and several fanatical constituencies, including Salafi groups and jihadi fringe elements, to recapture the banner of Islam and crush the moderate Islamist opposition within the regime.

The recent attacks on the German embassy are understood by Sudanese security service insiders to be more about internal Al-Ingaz politics than about Western cartoons and videos offending the Prophet Muhammad. Evidence clearly suggests the involvement of senior regime figures in helping to organise the violent demonstrations against the German and American diplomatic presence in Sudan – short-term tactics with possibly dangerous long-term consequences.

Bashir thus faces a dilemma, as the reformists are refusing to back down: Compromise and begin the dismantling of a system that suits him perfectly well, or ignore the Islamist demands and risk a major split in Al-Ingaz, including the possibility that the renegades might use the HI structures to mobilise opposition outside the Salvation system. The President seems to be wavering currently. Sometimes he allows hardliners to undermine the significance of the HI General Conference by handpicking representatives who could block a liberal constitution and thwart the election of Dr Ghazi Salah-ud-Din, the eloquent reformist champion and former presidential envoy for Darfur, as new secretary-general. At other times, he understands that direct confrontation is risky indeed. Allowing the HI to reclaim some – but not all – of the autonomy it desires, may divide the reformists, enabling him to prolong his grip on power through divide-and-rule between conservative politicians, Islamist civilians, security hawks and ethno-religious extremists.

Outsiders and insiders alike have a long tradition of underestimating Omar al-Bashir’s cunning political pirouettes and clever balancing of force, patronage and charm to maintain power. But the President will need all his experience and legendary luck if the regime is to emerge intact from Khartoum’s hottest autumn in many years. Most Sudanese are fed up with Al-Ingaz. None are better organised and more dangerous politically than the disillusioned Islamists.

Harry Verhoeven teaches African politics at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on conflict, development and environment in the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes Region and he is the convenor of the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN). Outside academia, he has worked in Northern Uganda, Sudan, India and Democratic Republic of Congo.