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Arab Islamists and their ambiguity towards events in Sudan

November 17, 2021 at 10:09 am

Sudanese diaspora based in the UK protest against military rule in Sudan, on Whitehall, near Downing street on 30 October 2021 in London, England. [Guy Smallman/Getty Images]

Most supporters of Islamic movements tended to have a clear position of the December 2018 Sudanese Revolution which deposed former Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and his regime. They supported the revolution, despite the fact that Bashir came from a background of political Islam at the head of an Islamist party. This conclusion is based on anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, and is logical to a certain extent, despite the absence of any formal studies.

In order to analyse the position of Islamists towards Sudan, especially the younger ones, it is necessary to understand the change that has taken place in political Islam over the past few decades. Many Islamists, especially the young, believed in the peaceful transition of power through democratic elections, but others have no faith in democracy, especially after the 2013 coup in Egypt against the first elected Islamist president; Dr Mohamed Morsi was imprisoned, and died in court.

Support for the Sudanese Revolution arose out of Islamists’ belief in freedom, choice and democratic processes. Those who felt betrayed by democracy after the Egyptian coup were nonetheless enthusiastic about civilian rather than military rule, having paid a massive price as a result of the latter in the Arab Spring.

When the revolution in Sudan succeeded in ousting Bashir after the army abandoned him, Arab Islamists were shocked by the transitional path chosen, not least because the transitional leadership in Khartoum did not take clear positions and side with other popular Arab revolutions. Rather, it sided, even partially, with the counter-revolutionaries in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The civilian members of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council have excluded Islamists and focused on taking steps linked to national identity. Hence, the whole Islamist movement has been held responsible for the excesses of the Bashir regime, and charitable and academic institutions run by the Islamists have been closed, along with other measures. The Empowerment Removal Committee in Sudan played a major role in the exclusion process and was used, according to its critics, as a tool to punish all Islamists.

READ: Who are they shooting in Sudan, and why? 

Defenders of such moves say that the Islamic movement was the regime and that it resembles the National Party in Egypt. This analogy is incorrect, because the Islamic movement is a broad spectrum with many differences among its components, the most important of which are those between the National Congress and the Popular Congress parties. Moreover, Islamists are a popular movement with grassroots origins, whereas the National Party in Egypt had no popular base, and no role other than representing the regime and its policies, and benefiting therefrom.

Civilian members of the Transitional Council adopted the idea of postponing the elections and prolonging the transitional period. It was clear that the aim was to prepare the political, legal and procedural grounds for the victory of leftist and nationalist movements, and to prevent the Islamists from having a political role in the future.

Sudan’s Sovereign Council adopted unpopular policies, the most important of which is normalisation with Israel. Although the initiators of normalisation were from the military, civilians did not object to the process, apart from timid objections from the Socialist Ba’ath Party, which eventually opted to stay with the government when (now ousted) Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok gave them an ultimatum to end their objections or leave the government.

When General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan led the coup against the civilian members of the Transitional Council, many Arab Islamists faced a dilemma over what their position should be. Most are against coups of any kind, having been the victims during the Arab Spring. In this case, the Sudanese military along with civilian members of the council has been against the Islamists. However, the civilians effectively overthrown by Burhan’s coup are the Islamists’ traditional opponents from the left and nationalist camps, and stand accused of being undemocratic in their wish to postpone elections for an indefinite period and exclude the Islamist parties. The civilian groups’ affiliation to the counter-revolutionary states is also an issue, as is their agreement to normalise links with Israel.

The dilemma is complicated by the development of events in Sudan. Burhan took steps to soften the approach towards the Islamists, including the formation of a committee to review the Empowerment Removal Committee, as well as the release of leaders of the former ruling party, although this prompted such a strong reaction that they were sent back to prison. That’s the official narrative, but it is hardly believable given that Burhan was apparently angry at their release and dismissed the public prosecutor who took the decision.

To solve this dilemma, it is necessary to look at the wider picture, and not just recent events. In my opinion, this suggests that it is important to oppose the coup, and support the masses demanding civilian rule, not least because a military coup cannot be any good for Sudan and its political groupings. Memories of Bashir’s rule are still fresh, and lessons can be learned from it.

Sudan's military seized power and arrested Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok

Sudan’s military seized power and arrested Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Furthermore, the counter-revolutionary states face a similar dilemma, albeit in the opposite direction. Eventually they will stand with the coup, even if not overtly, because their interests lie in dictatorship, regardless of the ideology of the army officers. They are hostile to any system that accepts the people’s right to choose their rulers, because they know that this will threaten their own positions at home. The Islamists should not side with hostile counter-revolutionaries as they are the strongest candidates to oppose the old regimes in the event of new uprisings in the Arab world.

There is no fear for the region in terms of its Islamic and Arab identity, with due respect and appreciation to other faith groups, especially the Christians and non-Arab peoples such as the Berbers and Kurds. Several studies published in recent years indicate that the main component of regional identity is religion, despite the setbacks faced by the Islamic movement. Hence, the latter should focus on other aspects that are not related to identity and religiosity, because any attempt to undermine this identity will fail.

Interestingly, there have been reports in Israeli newspapers about the role of the occupation state in Burhan’s coup. It is becoming clear that General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, pulls a lot of strings in the Sudanese Army and relies a lot on Zionist companies that are working to improve his reputation in Washington. The Islamists must stand against the sponsors of normalisation with the occupation, even if they disagree with the civilian members and are shocked by their exclusionary practices.

READ: The Sudanese Army’s attempts to renegotiate a deal with civil society is unlikely to succeed 

Political competition between Islamists and other civilian groups can, of course, change the situation in the future, but the army, which monopolises power and control cannot be competed with on equal terms. The Islamists should learn from the Egyptian experience. The civilian movements that supported the coup against the Muslim Brotherhood are now suffering the same fate, because armies which carry out coups do not want civilian partners except when it suits them. They abandon everyone when the struggle is resolved in their favour.

Finally, with the increase in the number of casualties among the anti-coup protestors, the only possible moral position would be to take their side in demanding the right to choose in the face of a brutal army response. Any reservations about the civilian members of the Transitional Council and the transition process must be set aside until the coup is reversed.

It remains to be said that the leftist and nationalist parties that were part of the transitional path must also move positively and take positions that reassure the Islamists. Instead of giving an opportunity for the coup to attract all this support to be used against other civilians, the current situation is ripe for the creation of a civil movement that transcends ideology and puts an end to exclusion, standing as one against military control of Sudan.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 15 November 2021

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