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Opinion: The mystery that is Hassan Al-Turabi | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Islamist opposition leader Hassan Al-Turabi is welcomed by supporters in his home in Khartoum, Sudan, in this July 1, 2010 file photo. (Reuters/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Files)

There are people who live their whole lives in the spotlight, arousing controversies over their roles and ideas. While some find themselves forced into the limelight against their will, others seem to be ecstatic about the atmosphere of controversy and confusion they create. Sudan has its share of both types of people. Many figures have, sometimes deliberately, created controversy in different periods and for different reasons. However, I believe no one has raised as much controversy as Hassan Al-Turabi with his views, stances, fluctuations and maneuvers. This is not to mention his well-known role in the 1989 coup that toppled the democratic government of Sadiq Al-Mahdi, replacing it with the National Islamic Front (NIF) and “General” Omar Al-Bashir, who has now been in power for more than four decades and continues to struggle fiercely to remain in power.

Turabi, who turned 83 in early February, continues to raise controversy and confusion over his stances and views, particularly since he remains at the center of the political arena and the NIF—an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Over the past few days, media outlets and online forums in Sudan have been abuzz with statements attributed to Turabi in which he said that he wants to be assured regarding the future of the country before he leaves this life. Among the issues he said would achieve tranquility in Sudan are dialogue, unity, and the renunciation of infighting. He claimed the events in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Egypt are the result of God’s anger with the Islamic Ummah (community). In a speech he gave, with Bashir in attendance, Turabi seemed to resuscitate a mentality that prevailed back in the days when Sudan was a mecca and safe haven for Islamists from around the world. “One day we will get together as Europe did; we want to expand eastward and westward overseas,” he said.

The speech marks one of Turabi’s surprising U-turns. He is returning to dialogue with the regime after he fell out with it in the wake of the infamous 1999 bargain which saw some of his disciples, most prominently the NIF’s “emir” and former vice-president, Ali Osman Taha, enter into an alliance with Bashir to push out their guide. More than 15 years into the fallout, Turabi returns today to meet with the ruling party and its leader Bashir and even shake hands and exchange smiles with his former follower Taha. He left opposition ranks, becoming extremely supportive not only of dialogue with the government he had previously called to be toppled, but also of participation in the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for April.

Some see in Turabi’s about-face a new conspiracy and maneuver on the part of Sudan’s Islamists who conspired against and deceived political factions on several occasions since their coup against the democratic Mahdi regime. That power reversal saw Bashir enter the presidential palace while Turabi, along with other political leaders, were put behind bars. As for Taha, he disappeared and started directing the putschist elements from behind the scenes. The trick at the time was to cover up the identity of those who had mounted the coup so the world and the people of Sudan would not know it was the Islamists who were in fact responsible. The aim was also to protect the NIF’s leaders from prosecution in case the coup failed. Putting Turabi in prison meant the NIF would be acquainted with the plans and aims of the detained political leaders. The aim today seems to be to confuse opponents and give the regime more time in power, especially now that people have grown tired of the government as living conditions continue to deteriorate and wars expand—corruption among those in power is the main topic of discussion among the public.

There is some speculation currently circulating about pressures and mediation efforts coming from other Islamist movements and their supporters to push Sudan’s Islamists to wrap up their differences and unite, particularly following the setbacks suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood shortly after they ecstatically rode the tide of the Arab Spring.

Many of the region’s Islamists found in the Brotherhood-affiliated regime in Khartoum a safe haven and base of support since the early 1990s. The role played by the Sudanese regime in supporting Islamist militias and movements is no secret. Bashir boasted about it in public when he said that the fall of Muammar Gaddafi was achieved through Sudanese weapons. Today the Brotherhood and their backers in the region may feel the need for the Islamist regime in Khartoum to be coherent for fear that widening divisions will eventually lead to their collapse.

Regardless of the incentives and motives, the Islamist movement is clearly raising the banner of dialogue and seeking to convince others of this option after 10 years of disputes over tactics, power and orientations. The aim is to disperse opponents and buy time in order to get the regime to the elections that would renew Bashir’s term for another five years. In the midst of this arena, and with all the maneuvers and ploys, stands Turabi, once again confounding expectations and raising eyebrows.