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Reform unlikely at Sudan Islamist meeting: analysts

By Ian Timberlake
By Ian Timberlake

11/13/2012 5:30:44 PM -

KHARTOUM (AFP) - Calls for change by Arab Spring-inspired reformers in Sudan will likely be ignored when thousands of government-linked Islamists begin meeting on Thursday, analysts say.

The Islamic Movement, a social group at the heart of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP), is holding its first national conference since uprisings and civil war began driving out authoritarian leaders around the region in 2011.

While Islamists gained power through democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia, a coup 23 years ago installed Sudan's Islamist regime -- and it is still there.

Reformers say corruption and other problems have left the vast African nation's government Islamic in name only, and question how much longer President Omar al-Bashir should remain in power.

But those calling for change lack the power to impose their views, and their hopes will be dashed, said Khalid Tigani, an analyst and chief editor of the weekly economic newspaper Elaff.

"So this may lead to a new split" in the Movement, he said.

Potential candidates to replace Bashir are jostling for influence within the Islamic Movement, he added.

"I think this is because we are approaching a change in power," said Tigani, a former activist in the National Islamic Front party, which engineered the 1989 coup and who now calls himself an independent Islamist.

The Islamic Movement is "one of the tools used by those who are in power to give themselves legitimacy among the Islamists, to continue controlling the government, the National Congress, in the name of Islam," he said.

Ali Osman Taha, a government vice president, has been the Islamic Movement's secretary general for two terms and is not eligible to run again.

Analysts say he is a possible successor to Bashir, who has announced he will step down as ruling party leader late next year.

"A lot of people are saying 23 years is too long a time, and what's the difference between him and Mubarak and Assad?" said a Sudan analyst who asked for anonymity, referring to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Syria's beleaguered President Bashar al-Assad.

Questions over Bashir's future were reinforced when, according to official media, he had his second minor operation in less than four months last week after an infection to his vocal cords.

He then appeared on television looking tired but healthy, and gave a typically fiery speech.

Hassan al-Turabi, a key figure behind the 1989 coup, sees a rivalry between Bashir and Taha.

"So both of them are competing" for control, along with others in the NCP, said Turabi, who believes Bashir wants to remain president to protect himself from arrest by the Hague-based International Criminal Court.

The court has indicted Bashir for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, where a rebellion erupted in 2003.

Turabi broke with Bashir years after the coup and formed his Islamist opposition party, the Popular Congress.

While only about 12 percent of NCP members come from the Islamic Movement, most of the leadership belongs to the movement, said Amin Hassan Omer, from its ruling secretariat.

He predicted "nothing specific" about succession will emerge from the conference, and said does not see a real power struggle in the Movement.

Mahjoub Mohamed Salih, publisher of the independent Al-Ayaam newspaper, said the conference would highlight divisions between grassroots Islamists and NCP loyalists, though he does not see the movement fracturing.

Some Islamists are now saying openly to the NCP: "You are just using Islam as a rationalisation for things which are un-Islamic," Salih said.

Turabi calls it a "corrupt dictatorship, cruel dictatorship," which he does not want associated with Islam.

Omer, a state minister in the presidency, said he expects such comments from critics but it is "nonsense" to suggest there is widespread dissatisfaction among younger Islamists over corruption.

While Tigani said the "Arab uprising is reflected here in the hopes for change in Sudan," Omer said reformers would be disappointed despite "a general sense of urgency for change" in the Islamic Movement.