An arrest warrant for two leading members of the 1989 coup d’etat; a lawsuit against a conservative scholar accused of breaching religious freedom, an accusation the curriculum is being re-written to take out references to the Quran are just three issues changing and challenging the social fabric and identity of Sudan. The differing views held by the Sudanese about the new democratic era put religion, political Islam and conservative values under the spotlight.
The fight is not simply an ideological battle between the forces of the left and right, but it is a struggle best described as a clash between liberal and conservative politics. In many ways, advocating liberalism is a code for dismantling and overturning any remnants of the Al-Bashir years, including public institutions and venerations of political Islam as understood by the Salvation revolution. The decision to issue arrest warrants for prominent Islamic leaders, Ibrahim Sanoussi and Ali Al-Haj is the clearest indication that there can be no hiding places for the perpetrators of the 1989 coup d’état. The legal action also establishes a clear precedent in law that future would-be successful coup plotters will one day be held to account.
While conservatism means advocating a Sudan wedded to traditional Sudanese customs and traditions with a focus on religiosity and forgiveness for past wrong. Both sides accept that the corruption and malpractices of the former regime that led to the collapse of the economy must be rooted out. However, neither side accepts the other’s sincerity in achieving that goal. The issue of the latest arrest warrants for the 1989 is seen in some quarters as an attack on Islamic values and the idea of political Islam sowing the idea that religious law will never again rule the country. For its part, the new interim government headed by the Freedom and Change Movement is hoping to break the cycle of military coups that have plagued Sudanese political history since independence in 1956. They appear to be fulfilling promises of the revolution that wrongdoers will not escape justice.
The conservative opposition bloc dubbed the “counter-revolutionaries” point to the worsening economic situation as proof that the new interim government is clueless about how to overcome the country’s difficulties. The US dollar has reached a record high and the transport and movement around the capital by public transport has converted a ten-minute journey into hour-long waits, exacerbated by the limited transport available and the huge delays caused by road congestion.
Social media groups run by conservatives have been critical of the new government’s economic policy and health services. However, the country’s Finance Minister says talk of a collapsed economy is ‘inaccurate.’ Nevertheless, the health service is so short of funds that unregulated medicines have begun to appear in at least three states. After receiving half of the promised three billion dollars from the Gulf States, the Prime minister Abdullah Hamdok says talk of Arab investment is essential. This flies in the face revolutionary chants warning against the backing and interference of Egypt, the Saudis the Emirates.
In recent days, conservative groups have complained about unofficial vigilante groups that have destroyed the property of individuals and businesses associated with the former regime. A reported twenty million US dollars of damage was done to the Brier agricultural project, Abu Naimah. Conservatives argue they are sponsoring a concerted effort to derail the push towards democracy based on secular lines. They have criticised new ventures aimed at changing the role of women in Sudanese society. While in the main, the conservative claim to support a greater public role for women, the formation of the first women’s football league sparked a public row that has ended up in the courts.
Conservative scholar Abdul Hai Yusuf is being sued for criticising the new football league and distancing himself from the Sudan’s Federal Minister for Sport who he claimed belonged to a heretical Islamic sect. The lawsuit cites the terms of the constitutional document signed on 17 August between the army and civilian leadership mandating freedom of religion and worship for all Sudanese citizens. Although the clause clearly aims to protect freedoms of religion among Animist and Christian communities, the decision to use its clauses as a means to allow off-shoot Islamic doctrines was an unexpected departure. 35 years ago, Mahmoud Taha, the leader of an Islamic movement known as the Republicans, was executed after claims that he had committed apostasy.
Abdel-Hai has since denied referring to the minister as an apostate, but he represents, in the eyes of the supporters of the revolution, a leader of the counter-revolutionary forces and is now being encouraged to form a political party to take office. He is at the helm of a pressure group called the Victory to the Islamic Shariah Law who argues that Islam and the Sudanese Islamic values are under attack.
Arguably, the new interim government has indeed been on the attack, but it claims the attacks are only against the corrupt institutions in pursuant of its strategy designed to protect the revolution. Last week, the Ministry of Education publicly denied any intention of removing Quranic verses from the school curriculum currently under review. However, this week it revealed widespread forgery and result fixing in Sudan’s national education certificate rendering the previous year’s results redundant.
The claims and counterclaims of the two sides, the support, and criticism of the old regime is ultimately a battle for the soul and identity of Sudan. The supporters of the Freedom and Change movement appear to be careful to distance Islam, Sudanese values from corruption and bringing the old regime to account. While the conservatives appear to support the move to democracy but not at the cost of losing the country’s Islamic culture and identity. Meanwhile, as the debate rages, neither side has yet been able to come to grips with the economic crisis. One hoping success in the economy will vindicate the drive to change the fabric of Sudan’s society, while others wishing to prove that success in the economy does not necessitate whole-scale changes to the values and traditions of the Sudanese.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.