I went to work today and picked up my subscription of Sudan Studies (number 60, July 2019), which included a review by its editor Gill Lusk of my book Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan. I am grateful for the many compliments in the review, although I note the author disagrees to an extent on the presentation of my arguments regarding the role of the Islamists during the October Revolution in 1964.
I see in one passage that the reviewer takes issue with is where I write that al-Turabi, who participated in the 1964 October Revolution and was a vocal spokesman for a shift to a democratic system at the time, shared the same ambiguous attitude towards democracy many others with the ‘modern forces’ of Sudan who participated in the 1964 and 1985 transitions. The reviewer finds this point ‘hard to swallow.’ Specifically, I wrote that to understand the motives behind his 1989 coup we need to appreciate that he shared the attitude of ‘more secular branches of the modern forces’, in that he maintained ‘that ‘democracy’ would be implemented after suspending ‘democracy’ for a period to prevent ‘anti-democratic forces (the ‘sectarians’ being the culprit in both cases) from exploiting ‘democracy’ to prevent ‘democracy’’.
As any political theorist will tell you, democracy is a nebulous concept and Sudanese politicians have advocated different forms of it throughout Sudan’s post-colonial past – liberal representative democracy, illiberal representative democracy, direct democracy, multiparty democracy, no-party democracy, sectoral representation and so on. Al-Turabi justified using force to remove the 1989 parliamentary democracy by maintaining that the multiparty one-man one vote system was exploited by neopatrimonial religious orders (the Khatmiyya and Ansar) who used networks of patronage and familial influence to manipulate the public vote. He also maintained that with these networks removed, a genuine direct democracy based on the prototype of the 7th century Islamic state would emerge. Al-Turabi was the classic opportunist maverick, but even opportunistic mavericks need some intellectual framework and effective political discourse to justify themselves. I fully accept the author’s point that the Islamists’ rise to power was facilitated by their exceptional organizing skills, financial strength, adoption of Marxist-Leninist front tactics and infiltration of security networks – this is discussed in some detail in my subsequent book on al-Turabi. However, they did also need to create an effective political discourse for their ideology to gain the traction that it did. Al-Turabi’s musings on the merits of no-party democracy in his al-Shura wa’l-Dimuqratiyya (Consultation and Democracy), published in the 1980s, draw on debates about the pitfalls of multiparty parliamentary that emerged during the era of the first transitional government in October 1964.
It is often maintained, somewhat simplistically, that the first October government was dominated by the Sudan Communist Party. In fact, a select group of communists, alongside members of the Popular Democratic Party influenced by Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union, gained control of the first transitional cabinet and fought for the institution of a mixed electoral system whereby the number of ‘geographic’ or ‘one man, one vote’ seats would be reduced and direct sectoral representation of various economic groups – workers, farmers, etc – would partially replace them. After other political groupings – particularly the Umma Party, which benefited the most from one man one vote democracy – thwarted their efforts, a number of the communists who were particularly active during the October period like Farouk Abu Eissa and Ahmad Sulayman were also backers of the next military coup in 1969, which eventually introduced a system of sectoral representation within a one party system based on Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union – the Sudanese Socialist Union. Their perspective was based on a vanguardist approach rejected by the mainstream of the Sudan Communist Party under Abd al-Khaliq Mahjub, which lamented that October was a revolution of the ‘petit bourgeois’ and also distanced itself from the 1969 coup on the grounds that it was impossible to pre-empt via military putsch the structural changes needed to facilitate economic and social revolution. After his rift with Abd al-Khaliq, who was later executed by Nimeiri’s regime, Ahmad Sulayman – one of the most powerful communist figures in the transitional October cabinet – went on to join forces with al-Turabi and play a major role in planning the Islamist seizure of power in 1989. This is why I wrote that al-Turabi shares the ambiguous perspective regarding what democracy constituted of many within the ‘modern forces’ who shaped October.
It may come across as surprising to those more familiar with him on account of the crimes perpetrated by his regime since 1989 that al-Turabi in 1964 acted as a champion of democratic transformation in the country, delivering a speech to students at the University of Khartoum that galvanized them against the regime. He later maintained that this speech was inspired by the principles of the ‘egalité, liberté, fraternité’ which he had embraced during his time studying the French Revolution at the Sorbonne. Of course this does not mean that we should endorse the statements of the likes of the Turabist al-Wan editor Hussein Khogali, who has used this legacy to maintain that the Islamists represent the true democratic heritage of the October Revolution, and encouraged Islamists to demonstrate on the 21 October anniversary on that basis. The leading Islamists are pushing for a quick return to elections today precisely because they do not want the transitional government to undo 30 years of Islamist rule. However, as a historian I cannot escape the fact that al-Turabi and the Islamists were leading protagonists during October, along with the other main Khartoum based political forces of the day – the communists, Arab nationalists, Umma and so forth. The Islamists adapted to civil politics just as much as their rivals. If anything, the fact that the leadership of the October Revolution was dominated by al-Turabi and other graduates of the University of Khartoum, which was at the heart of Sudan’s ‘developmental state’, should remind is that revolution was shaped by a much more narrow elite in comparison to today. Al-Turabi’s journey from democrat to coup-planner, more than anything else, is indicative of the limited distance between civil society and state in Sudan’s history.[i]
It is one of the ironies of Sudanese politics that al-Turabi at that time was closer to being a supporter of liberal democracy than some of his secular opponents in the Sudan Communist Party and Popular Democratic Party, on the grounds that he believed that ‘sectarian’ parties who benefited from it – especially the Umma Party – would act as a bulwark against the communists. He increasingly became a champion of illiberal representative democracy in the late 1960s, when he used the principle of absolute parliamentary sovereignty to justify the banning of the Sudan Communist Party, and then when the Sudan Communist Party was less of a threat following its fatal showdown with Nimeiri in 1971 moved towards appropriating the communists’ arguments against liberal multiparty democracy and using them against the ‘sectarians’. He also drew heavily on anarchic models of direct democracy, in which decentralized committees would bypass party politics, that were advocated by old colleagues in the Marxist-influenced Islamic Liberation Movement such as Abdullah Zakariyya.
This political discourse was genuinely effective in elite circles at the time – al-Turabi’s Islamists frequently dominated student union elections in the 1970s and 1980s, and won 23 out of the 28 ‘graduate seats’ reserved for the educated classes in the 1986 elections. It is tempting to present al-Turabi as a cartoon villain – ‘eccentric and chilling, with his high-pitched giggle’, as the author notes in her review. However, the risk is that if you associate all the failings of Sudanese politics with one man and his movement, you risk overlooking broader structural failings at the heart of the Khartoum-centered state and may assume that removing the Islamists will solve all the problems that have beset it since well before 1989. The social and economic gap between the riverain centre and marginalized regions predates 1989, as does the damaging legacy of British colonial exploitation, as does the political and economic hegemony of the military, as do the wranglings over the merits of multiparty politics.
Al-Turabi may have been an opportunist whose regime
committed appalling abuses against its population, but he was able to get into
the position that he did because he formed a political discourse that offered a
hope of an escape from ‘sectarian’ and patrimonial politics, state
centralization, and the cultural legacy of colonialism. That his regime subsequently
failed to rid Sudan of any of these malaises, and that al-Turabi like many
populists elsewhere was a part of the system he purported to rail against,
should not distract us from understanding his appeal at the time. He was able to co-opt elite Darfuris, such as
those who launched the 1981 regionalist Intifada and his successor as leader of
the Popular Congress Party Ali al-Haj, by promising a political model that would
prevent domination by the Khartoum. Of course it was the nature of al-Turabi’s
hubris – or ideological opportunism, depending how you read him – that he
insisted that the establishment of direct and decentralized democracy must be
tied to the politics of religious revival, since his official position was that
he was striving to create a political system that had already obtained in the 7th
century past. But when the reviewer writes that ‘disciplined cadres outdid the
Sudan Communist Party in Leninist techniques’ she is herself acknowledging that
the line between secular and Islamist politics in Sudan’s pre-1989 history is
at lot more blurry than at first seems.
[i] For a useful analysis of the relationship between ‘civil society’ and the ‘developmental state’ in the context of post colonial uprisings in Sudan and the rest of Africa, see Branch and Mampilly, Africa Uprising
Berridge, W.J., Civil Uprisings in Modern Sudan (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)
Berridge, W.J., Hasan al-Turabi: Islamist Politics and Democracy in Sudan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017)
Branch, Adam & Mampilly, Zachariah, Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change (Chicago: Zed Books, 2015)
Ibrahim, Abdullahi Ali, “The 1971 Coup in Sudan and the Radical War of Liberal Democracy in Africa”, Comparative Studies of Africa, Asia and the Middle East 16 (1996), 98-114
Warburg, Gabriel, Islam, Sectarianism and Politics in Sudan (London: Hurst, 2003)