Middle East


Strange Bedfellows

The arrest in February of Hassan Turabi, Sudan’s leading Islamist ideologue, following his signing of an agreement with a rebel chief, prompted forecasts of a new wave of political turbulence in the war-plagued nation. Seventeen years of civil war have pitted successive Arab Muslim governments in the north against Christians and animist rebels in the south.

On Feb. 19, representatives of former parliament speaker Turabi and John Garang, leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), signed a “memorandum of understanding,” stating their opposition to the regime of General Hasan Ahmad al-Omar Bashir. The memorandum condemned the Bashir regime as totalitarian and agreed on the need for democratic governance in Sudan. In response, the regime branded Turabi as a traitor and arrested him along with more than 100 members of his Popular National Congress (PNC) party.

Turabi was an archfoe of Garang during the 1990s, when Turabi served as the chief political strategist in the Islamist-led Sudanese regime. Garang heads the largest of the southern rebel groups that have been fighting the Khartoum government since 1983.

“Now that Turabi appears to have reneged on his Islamic civilization project...we can find common ground,” Garang was quoted as saying in Egypt’s semi-official Al-Ahram Weekly (March 1-7).

Howeida Saleh Eddin al-Atbani, writing in the privately owned Al-Ra’i al-Amm of Khartoum, said (Feb. 28) that the alliance grew out of Garang’s and Turabi’s increasing marginalization. She added that Turabi sought to “deepen the wounds of the government in light of his role as mentor and spiritual father of the Islamic movement which brought the current government to power.”

Gamal Nkrumah, political analyst for Al-Ahram Weekly, wrote (March 1-7) that the pact is strategically savvy: Each man needs the other to defeat the regime.

Some commentators questioned the wisdom of arresting Turabi, who has a large and influential grassroots following in the country.

In an editorial, Al-Quds al-Arabi stated (Feb. 22) that Turabi’s arrest could lead to an “outbreak of civil war among the northerners, in addition to [escalating] the ongoing civil war in the South.” PNC representative Omar Turabi told the Saudi newspaper Al-Watan (Feb. 27) that his party is “holding back the young PNC members to prevent chaos and bloodshed. But if [the government] goes too far in their arbitrary and repressive measures, then we will defend ourselves by all means.”

The London-based Sudan observer Abdel Wahab Effendi, writing in Al-Quds al-Arabi (Feb. 27), posed the question, “Who Arrested Whom?” in the headline of his analysis. He speculated that Turabi forged the pact with the SPLA as a prelude “for a military coup to bring [him] back to power. It appears that the government was also thinking this and was frightened.” One of Turabi’s possible aims, said Effendi, is to push for his reinstatement.

Effendi criticized the arrest as likely to bring Turabi and his supporters “the greatest possible help” from the West and human rights groups. He concluded that when Turabi is finally released, the regime “will have wasted money, effort, and reputation.”