The Sudan since 1989: National Islamic Front Rule

By Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn; Lobban, Richard | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Sudan since 1989: National Islamic Front Rule

Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn, Lobban, Richard, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


THE SUDAN, AFRICA'S LARGEST COUNTRY, is often viewed as being peripheral to both the 'Arab' Middle East and non-Arab Africa. As a dominantly Muslim country it is often included in regional Middle Eastern political geography, while its important role in Islamic Africa is often ignored. The non-Muslim Nilotic and other minority peoples in the Sudan are usually forgotten except as they are referenced in terms of the "southern problem" in the country's chronic and protracted civil war, unbroken since 1955 except for about a decade of negotiated peace, 1972-83. The latest round of civil war since 1983, has unleashed a period of political developments resulting in unprecedented loss of life, human rights violations, and displacement of Sudanese citizens, and ecological destruction. On the political front this period witnessed the toppling of the military dictator Ja'afar Nimeiri in 1985, followed by a period of civilian democracy in which Sadiq al-Mahdi (great grandson of Muhammad Ahmed the 19th century Mahdi) was elected and ruled as Prime Minister until the nascent, fragile democracy was overthrown in an Islamist military coup d'etat in 1989 led by General 'Umar Hasan al-Bashir and politically backed by Muslim Brother leader Hasan al-Turabi. The Bashir-Turabi regime was built upon the relatively narrow political base of the National Islamic Front (NIF), a party that was the direct descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood and created by Turabi in 1985 after the overthrow of Nimeiri with whom he had been closely associated.

The turbulent decade of the 1990s that this special issue covers begins with the 1989 coup which launched the decade and saw the entrenchment of an extremist Islamist regime that isolated the Sudan as a pariah nation on a number of fronts, including its African neighbors whose borders were affected by its civil war causing the displacement (or death) of over 2 million southern Sudanese, and most recently the disruption caused by the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. The alienation of much of the Arab-Islamic Middle East for its Islamist extremism (with the exception of Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan), and in particular its key rival-ally Egypt has also been witnessed. The Bashir-Turabi regime has drawn the wrath of the American-led West in reaction to its alleged support of terrorism. America's frustration with the Sudan grew over the decade during which it alleged that Sudan was involved in the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the attempted assassination of Hosni Mubarak in 1995, and saw the Sudan as the chief source of aid and support to Usama Bin Laden. Its frustration culminated in the U.S. bombing of the al-Shifa factory in Khartoum North in the wake of the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar As-Salaam in 1998. The improbability of the Sudan as a hotbed for terrorism began to gain some credibility. At the same time Hasan al-Turabi became an international figure presented as a cosmopolitan, multilingual, 'modern' Islamist whose theories about the nature and future of the Islamic state became highly regarded in Islamist circles and feared by military and monarchical regimes in the Arab-Islamic world and were rejected in the West as undemocratic and not in conformity with the western notion of 'civil society'. The intense political rift between Bashir and Turabi during 2000, in which the ultimate power of Bashir's guns over Turabi's words was proven, leaves open a number of questions about the long-term viability of the NW regime. Since the political break Bashir has been trying to recast himself as a "democrat" with the promise of elections, while Turabi has been left to try to mobilize his supporters in a new National Congress Party which he has thrown against the "deviationist" regime, no longer committed to pure Islamist goals. The Bashir regime moved to make peace with the opposition traditional Umma Party and Khatmiya sect leaving the united front National Democratic Alliance opposition group floundering. …

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