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Why has Sudan’s Islamic Movement become the target of street protests?

January 25, 2019 at 9:59 am

Anti-government demonstrators in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 15 January 2019 [STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images]

A prominent feature of the revolution in Sudan has now become a target of the on-going protests across the country. The noticeable increase in the nation’s religiosity and the numbers of people attending mosques and religious ceremonies was touted by Omar Al-Bashir’s National Salvation government as one of the most positive contributions to Sudan’s social fabric. Indeed, the majestic new mosques that have adorned Khartoum’s skylines over the past thirty years have been as progressive as some of the infrastructure projects which transformed the capital’s roads in the first decade of the millennium during the oil boom years prior to the breakaway of South Sudan.

The Sudanese are no strangers to Islamic cultural values given that much of the nation’s traditional worldview revolves around the ideals and aspirations of Islam. The great revolution and victory against the British in 1881 led by Muhammad Ahmad — “Al-Mahdi” — who traced his descent from Prophet Muhammad, is testimony to how Islam and political struggle against imperialism continues to provide a backdrop and historical relevance to Sudan’s national identity.

Furthermore, the introduction of partial-Islamic Shariah law in September 1983, when three million Sudanese pounds’ worth of whisky and other alcoholic beverages were poured ceremoniously into the Nile, was the culmination and focal point for much of Sudan’s reverence of Islam’s religious practices. Two successive governments made no attempt to change the strict laws, but it was the 1989 coup d’état which brought the army officer Omar Al-Bashir to power that made Islam, for the first time, a central part of the country’s economic and political programme.

READ: Egypt, South Sudan discuss Sudan’s protests, Bashir’s future

The spread of the National Islamic Front (NIF), an off-shoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and its ideological leanings to Islam clearly alienated sections of Sudanese society, such as the secularists and communists. However, the revolution brought a ray of hope to millions of Sudanese eager to demonstrate to the world how successful an Islamic-driven project could be in government.

At the head of that movement was the late Dr Hasan Al-Turabi, an unconventional Islamic thinker who is commonly regarded as the “father of the revolution”. His liberal views on the role of women, traditional Islamic scholarship, free market economic policy and global expansion of Islam were transformative and inspirational to intellectuals and businesspeople, some of whom left lucrative jobs abroad to return to Sudan in order to join the Islamic revolution back in the early 1990s.

It was Al-Turabi who coined the term “kaisan”, now used derisively by the protestors against Al-Bashir’s government. The word is best known in Sudan as the cheap metal cups used to drink water from clay drinking pots dotted around Sudanese streets. In a speech, Al-Turabi once described the Islamic Movement as “kaisans” taking from the vast ocean of Islam. It was symbolism intended to represent the service and dedication to Islamic duty that the movement owed to Sudan, but that symbol of hope has now been turned into accusations of hypocrisy against those who are perceived to have used the Islamic message as a tool to hold political and economic control over the country and to enrich themselves.

Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir at the Khartoum International Airport on 25 October 2018 [Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images]

Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir at the Khartoum International Airport on 25 October 2018 [Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images]

In Sudan, ordering a man to shave off his beard is a great insult, suggesting that he is not living up to the Islamic ideals he purports to represent. For some, this is the level of disappointment that now rests in the Islamic Movement which in the eyes of many has failed to fulfil the promises of justice, freedom and equality in Sudan.

However, the rhetoric and chants of the protestors on the streets do not appear to suggest that the Sudanese are ready to abandon Islamic ideals of government completely. Overtly secular parties, out of the 100 or so political groups that took part in Sudan’s national dialogue process, are few. The leading opposition parties that were not involved in the dialogue still have a close affinity to an Islamic civil project; among them is the Ummah Party, the torchbearers of the great Muhammad Ahmad Al-Mahdi.

Whatever the outcome of the ongoing protests, changes in the Islamic movement’s approach following the criticism of the Sudanese public appear to be inevitable. Whilst it is unlikely that such changes will include a willingness to disband or weaken the movement, it has clearly become unpopular in some sections of Sudanese society and may succumb to demands from within to take a different direction. This could see it distancing itself from the failings of Al-Bashir’s government, which give the impression that the Islamic movement and the Sudanese government are one and the same thing.

READ: Sudan protesters clash with police in ongoing unrest

Despite this, many will point to direct attempts by foreign states to destabilise the Islamic Movement given than Sudan is the only country in the Nile Basin and Arab League that continues to be dominated by an Islamically-orientated government. They also highlight Sudan’s defiant stance in support of Palestine and its refusal to normalise relations with the Zionist state of Israel as a major bone of contention for its opponents.

This was behind President Al-Bashir’s statement in which he revealed that he was promised that the economic situation would stabilise if he established links with Israel. Sadly, in Sudan such claims have been greeted with scepticism in some quarters; protestors still call for the removal of the regime and continue to criticise the Islamic movement.

Events in Sudan could have greater geopolitical significance than the genuine anger at the country’s economic crisis. Over the years, concerted efforts outside Sudan to weaken the Islamic movement have been largely unsuccessful principally because of the support of the Sudanese public. Now, though, the biggest threat to the movement lies within Sudan and the growing disenchantment with Al-Bashir and his government. For many people, the fear is that the fall of the latter may signal the fall of the movement not just in Sudan but also the rest of the Arab world, where the space for Islamic parties to participate in political processes is shrinking.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.