Shortly after the 1989 coup that brought Sudan’s former dictator, al-Bashir, to power, the Islamist movement became a key political authority in the country and the nation was forced to follow a hard-line interpretation of Islamic law.
In 2020, Sudan’s transitional government, established after the Sudanese Revolution that ousted al-Bashir, agreed a deal with rebel groups that ended 30 years of Islam being the official state religion.
‘No citizen shall be discriminated against based on their religion. For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of 'separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected,’ the agreement read.
The deal received an enthusiastic welcome from Sudan’s multi-cultural and multi-religious society and represented an important step towards achieving lasting peace. It was also a starting point in a promising transition towards democracy and the rule of law.
But now, in the new post-coup order, al-Burhan is bringing Islamists back into the government, sparking fears that jihadists will yet again dominate the political scene.
Rise and fall of Bashir’s political Islam
The 1989 coup was orchestrated by Hassan Al-Turabi, a founding member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan and the leader of the National Islamic Front, which was one of only two Islamic movements that had political power in the twentieth century, with the other being the Islamic Republican Party in Iran.
Bashir built his extremist regime on Turabi’s ideas and started institutionalising Sharia law at a national level. His Islamist rule was characterised by discrimination, support to radical Islamic group such as al-Qaeda, and brutal attempts to suppress religious minorities, especially in the south of the country where many communities are Christian or animist. The war he waged against the population in the south is estimated to have killed more than 2 million people.
After a few years of Bashir being in power, he changed the name of the National Islamic Front to National Congress and, in 1999, he put al-Turnabi in jail. He also expelled his supporters from the party, which led to them establishing the Popular Congress Party that became the key opposition force in Sudan.
After Bashir and Tarnabi fell out, the Islamist regime started losing momentum and policies started becoming gradually more pragmatic. But even then, Bashir continued politicising the army and giving it control over sectors within the economy.
He began losing grip over the military when the insurgency in Darfur began in 2003. Eventually, Bashir became dependent on Rapid Support Forces (RSF), paramilitary forces that would use state sponsored slaughter, to suppress protests in the region.
After years of Sudan being designated as terrorist state and facing severe sanctions, Bashir’s regime was not only bankrupt but also widely disliked. The nation’s frustration reached its culmination in 2018 when the most intense nationwide protests against Bashir’s rule erupted and persisted until, in April 2019, he was forced to step down. People were hopeful that such a significant change would mean the end of the self-proclaimed Islamist government.
Post-coup Islamist revival
When Bashir fell, civilian members of the Transitional Sovereign Council excluded Islamists from the government and focused on protecting people’s right to self-expression and freedom of worship.
However, after the coup this past October, a number of key Islamist figures secured positions in the intelligence services. For instance, generals Abdel Nabi al-Mahi and Abdelmonim Jalal, both of whom are Islamists in the Sudanese Armed Forces, were appointed to lead Military Intelligence. A few months later, Burhan reappointed more than one hundred Islamist diplomats to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They had previously been fired because of links to Bashir’s administration.
In April, members of a number of Islamists factions, including the Muslim Brotherhood-linked National Congress Party, announced the establishment of a political coalition named ‘Broad Islamist Current,’ which marked their return to politics.
On top of intensifying tensions between the military government and Sudanese people, a direct consequence of these changes has been the Sudanese Foreign Ministry taking on a confrontational position towards the international community and international actors such as the UN or the African Union.
Facade of strength
While coup leaders giving Islamists leadership positions might be interpreted as them having control over Sudan’s political direction, in reality, it is a sign of the military not being able to manage the country’s affairs on its own.
As Sudan remains cut off from international aid, prices of food and other necessities are skyrocketing, and anti-coup protests persist, pressure on the military government grows. By turning to Islamists who were once in charge, the military has been trying to shift the responsibility for administering the country onto someone else while maintaining its grip on power.
Under the guise of unity and strength, Sudan’s army is at a stalemate. Generals want to be in control but have no plan on how to govern and move forward. An evidence of that is, for example, the military’s inability to appoint a prime minister or the excessive use of violence in response to peaceful demonstrations.
Tightening the ties with Islamists is, therefore, a tactical choice but it could soon turn out counterproductive if coup leaders do not learn from Bashir’s experience.
About the author:
Katarzyna Rybarczyk is a political correspondent for Immigration Advice Service, an immigration law firm operating globally and helping people claim asylum. She covers humanitarian issues and conflicts.