[75-year-old charismatic political leader DR HASSAN AL TURABI, one of the most important political figures in post-independence Sudan, has proved beyond any doubt to be a skilful political survivor. From 1989 to 1999, Al Turabi remained the ultimate power behind the throne, whether as leader of the National Islamic Front (NIF) or later as speaker of the assembly. The British and French educated politician decided his political destiny as a very young man in the early 1950s when he joined the Sudan’s Muslim Brothers movement, which at the time was a politically naïve organisation. He is considered a pragmatic and liberal minded. Under his leadership the party changed its name many times, from Muslim Brothers to Islamic Charter in the 1960s, to the National Islamic Front in the 1980s, the National Congress Party in the 1990s and now his current party, the Popular Congress Party. He joined Nimeiri’s regime after the National reconciliation in 1977. For him, it was a chance to rebuild his movement. After Nimeiri’s regime collapsed in 1985, the Islamic movement re-emerged as the third political party in Sudan after the 1986 General Election. The core of Hassan Al Turabi’s political stand is the doctrine that there was an ideal Islamic state in existence fourteen centuries ago and which could be replicated in the 21st century. Excerpts from his very long interview with Sudan Tribune:]
What is your overall assessment of the political situation in Sudan now?
This country, of course, is a not a nation. We have been called the blacks because of our colour; we have been assembled together and contained by the colonial powers, the Italians, British, Belgians, Egyptians and the French. We have to work hard to develop as a nation and to relate to other nations, but we are not a country or a nation yet.
We thought at the beginning that this government will implement the ideal of Islam to which they claim to belong, as in Islam there is no church, no holy people, no angels come down to instruct you, freedom is for everyone the first model of Islam itself. There were Jews, Christians, human rights for minorities, much control over public finance, no corruption, and people were actually elected.
The Islamic state should be based on religious conviction and it has to have: (a) freedom for all people. If you don’t like other people’s views then you respond verbally; (b) elections for all leaders to the head of state, nobody should be appointed; (c) be clean in public life; you don’t have to misappropriate public property just because you control all the finance and revenue; (d) if you sign any contract, you have to abide by it and be loyal to it. That’s where we actually differ with this government.
Now it has become a dictatorship and it is not easy to overthrow like Aboud’s or Nimeiri’s regime.
The opposition parties are not united, the Communist party doesn’t like the Islamists, the Umma party has most of its following in the west, the Islamists outside power compete with them there, and the Islamists in power have followers in the northern province. The President has now become an isolated figure although he is the most powerful person and he takes all the decisions. Fortunately he is not that obsessed with governing, but sometimes his decisions are final and the Council of Ministers, the Parliament has to approve.
The National Congress Party (NCP) is now working hard for the election, if the election has a reasonable measure of fairness, and I am sure there will never be complete freedom in the elections under this government, it might change the whole show. Most Sudanese don’t like this government and wouldn’t vote for it if they are given a free choice, because they are more urbanised and politically aware now.
Could you tell us about the political atmosphere before the 30th of June 1989 military coup?
Every time we approached politics there was foreign intervention and some leader has said “the Sudan is mine” since the 19th century, so we tried to break away from that. We realised that people did not believe in a nationwide approach. Then we joined Nimeiri (after the national reconciliation in 1977) for a while but once he realised that the Islamic opinion was very powerful he wanted to introduce Islam himself, he was very jealous of us. Then George Bush Sr. came to Sudan and he told Nimeiri, “These people are behind it all, and we are going to withdraw our support to your country.” So, he arrested us immediately (in 1985). At the time I was Assistant to the President with similar powers to the Prime Minister, but he jailed me – then four weeks later his regime collapsed.
After the April uprising in 1985, we joined the Sadiq al-Mahdi government peacefully (in 1988) in a coalition, although Sadiq and his partners could govern alone, but he found our opposition very difficult. We had too many newspapers, we had educated Members of Parliament, it was very hard for him and he said to me, “Please come and join us.” We joined him and then the army moved in (February 1989) and they told him to move these people (NIF) out or “we will move you out”.
The army thought that if the west realised that this was an Islamic government (Sadiq al-Mahdi) they would arm the SPLM, and because we have relations with nine countries this could be dangerous, so he decided to move us out. So we realised that you cannot win through democratic means, like what happened in Algeria when the moment the Islamists won the Army moved in.
We thought that democracy, like in France or England, can come through revolution but the old system would not allow us, so we thought to bring in the army. If we do it through popular uprising it will be too destructive and many people will interfere, internally and externally. Hence, we wanted a clean and quiet revolution and some of the people who participated in the coup (June 1989) were our members and some were ex-communists, or the type that join any government whatever the programme.
Looking back to that takeover decision, do you think that was the right decision?
One wrong thing about it was we resorted to the army. We should have understood that the army, throughout the history of the region, are dangerous and after a while they control everything and they overthrow civilians. It happens in many countries and in those days we should have realised that.
But the West doesn’t like any independent path and especially if it’s Islamic, look at Turkey, or Hamas. Now in Egypt, who will win the election if it’s fair? Of course the Muslim Brothers but the West will not let it happen.
Most of the people, who run this country now, were once your loyal disciples and followers, what do you make of them?
Look, this is all about power and the temptation is sometimes stronger than anything else. If you have money, cars and houses it is very difficult to let go. Only three ministers resigned during that time – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
When did you join the Muslim Brother organisation?
I joined [it] in 1951, at the university. My father was a judge and he taught me and gave me all his ideas. He worked all over the Sudan and I have seen most of the country from childhood.
Have you ever been tempted to join any other political party other than the Muslim Brothers?
I was first approached by the communists in the secondary school; well I started to argue with them from day one. I was not an average student and they knew that; they gave me books to read and then I argued a lot. The communists were very active at the time. The Muslim Brothers were very secretive and very limited so I could have joined them (the communists) but I always prayed and fasted.
In the university the debate was open, so I joined the Muslim Brothers movement, it awakened all the knowledge inside me and from the early days I became part of the leadership in the University. Before my graduation in the third year I became the student leader. I was popular because I had a diverse background and the movement recruited people from all Sudan.
Have you ever tempted to join the Umma party, or DUP or any other nationalist movement?
(Laughter) Oh no, but I married from the Al Mahadi family, not out of anything, she was my student in the law college, that was all. I am from Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) areas and our family [members] are followers of the Gadri order, and Gadri belong to the Khatmiyya sect and they are, by default, DUP supporters and they always voted for the DUP.
Many people view the Islamic movement as just a reaction to the popular Communist Party at the time, what do you think?
It’s not a reaction, it’s a response, and history is always like that. If you are not challenged you will not be provoked to response. It is not the communists alone, the British as well; they had complete control so they wanted us to become like apes. If people are not challenged they will not be able to activate their own energy, their thoughts, their own activity. People will never develop if there are no challenges.
We always argued with the communists, when we moved out of university we faced them in the modern sectors, in the labour unions etc, but we had access to ordinary people, we can talk to Sufi, go to the countryside and lecture to people, quoting verses from the Qur’an. We don’t have to quote from Marx or Engels or anybody, we found it easier to move into the wider society.
You were also involved in the campaign of dissolving the Communist Party in 1965?
Because, you know, communists at the time were not as democratic as today; their model at the time was not democratic. It was a totalitarian regime, unlike the democratic communist parties of western Europe, the French and the Italians.
How do you see the future of the Islamic movement?
Sudan Nationalist movements had a great record during the struggle against colonialism, but they cannot keep feeding on that forever. The leftist parties once were dominant, but now the communist parties and Baathist parties have lost popular support all over the Muslim and the Arab world. In Indonesia and Somalia, the socialist movement has lost its appeal; Arab nationalism has lost its appeal. There are also some liberal and pro-Western trends but they are not organised; their model is the West but they are scattered in many places.
All over the world, most of the young Muslims are now going back to Islam, but most of it is without a programme, just shouting “Islam, Islam, if someone commits aggression against you just kill him” – most of it is like that, unfortunately. They didn’t develop their political or social programmes, or their economic programme; for me this is a crisis.
Some Islamic parties developed their social programmes especially to provide assistance for the poor and they are changing in the entire Islamic world. The Islamic movement is internationalised and it’s all over the place, even in the western hemisphere, in England, France. Now Islam is spreading as an identity to many people. I wish it also had a social, economical and political way of life based on the belief in the here and hereafter, the physical and metaphysical.
I think the future in this part of the world probably will be Islamic but not the traditional concept of Islam, the reactionary with all the negative aspects, against justice, against freedom, and against women.