Sudan’s Islamic Movement Heads to Its General Conference

This week, the Islamic Movement of Sudan will hold its General Conference, which takes place every four years. Various sub-national conferences have already occurred in preparation for the main event. The national conference may give some insight into the trajectory of the Movement, its relationship with the regime of President Omar al Bashir, and the hopes of various leaders to succeed Bashir, perhaps as soon as 2015.

Founded in 1945 (read a history of the Movement here, .pdf, start p. 95) as a Sudanese counterpart to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Movement has participated under several names in many of the critical moments of Sudanese politics, including the popular uprising of 1964 and the 1989 coup that brought the National Islamic Front (NIF) to power. In 1999, the Movement split amid rivalry between President Bashir and Dr. Hassan al Turabi, the longtime leader of the Movement. The greater part of the Movement remained with Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP), while Turabi’s group renamed itself the Popular Congress Party. The (remaining) Movement has been called one of three main components within the Bashir regime, the other two being the military and the leadership of the NPC itself. Read more background on the Movement here.

The immediate background for this week’s meeting includes several points of tension:

  • memorandum, submitted by some Movement members to the regime, that called for various reforms, including a “veiled demand, namely the institution of the authority of the Islamic Movement proper over the ruling NCP.” Bashir appeared on television to reject the demands.
  • Internal divisions, possibly similar to those that drove a split in 1999. This article (Arabic) describes substantial opposition with the Movement to Bashir and the NCP.
  • An impending change of leadership for the Movement: “The IM’s secretary-general and Sudan’s first Vice-President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha will not be able to run as an incumbent because the current constitution does not allow more than two terms in the position. Taha was elected to the position during the last conference after facing strong competition with current presidential adviser Ghazi Salah Al-Din Al-Atabani. It is not clear whether Al-Atabani intends to run again but insiders say the man has recently stepped out of decision-making circles due to what they described as his unhappiness with the way the NCP has handled a number of sensitive issues lately.” More on the internal succession issue here (Arabic).
  • Jockeying for position as leaders ask who will eventually succeed Bashir. AFP writes, “Potential candidates to replace Bashir are jostling for influence within the Islamic Movement.”

Despite these tensions, some are expecting a relatively quiet conference:

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.

We’ll find out later this week.

Sudan: Hassan al-Turabi Arrested

Islamist intellectual Hassan al-Turabi and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir go way back, though not necessarily on friendly terms. When Bashir first came to power in a 1989 coup, some said Turabi was the mastermind, and in the early 1990s Turabi worked with Bashir to govern. Turabi and Bashir fell out in the late 1990s, and Turabi has opposed the regime at points, including during the last elections. According to Wikipedia Bashir imprisoned Turabi from 2004 to 2005, and according to the BBC (link below) Turabi has lived under house arrest numerous times.

Yesterday Turabi was arrested again. People involved are citing different reasons.

His wife told the BBC she thought he was arrested for repeating in a newspaper interview his allegation that elections last month were rigged.

Others speculate the arrest came because of Turabi’s links to rebels in Darfur.

The AP explains the government’s perspective:

Officials say a prominent Sudanese opposition leader has been detained and his party’s newspaper shut down.

The minister of information and communication says Hassan Turabi, leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party, has been accused of incitement and undermining security.

Officials also said that the newspaper of Turabi’s party had published illegal material.

It is notable that Turabi is the only high-profile figure arrested so far, though some say the arrest forms part of a larger crackdown. Are other opposition figures worried? The presidential candidate of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, Yasir Arman, spoke out in Turabi’s defense, saying the arrest was unlawful and unconstitutional. For the time being dissent continues, then.

I leave it to experts on Sudan to parse the meaning of the arrest, but I can throw out a few possibilities. One is that the regime is making an example of Turabi to show others that it will not tolerate outspoken dissent. A second is that this is a prelude to a serious crackdown on opposition activities. A third is that the regime is not worried about the South, but is worried about the internal opposition in the North, and is moving to solidify control of the North in advance of the 2011 referendum on Southern independence. A fourth possibility is that the regime is feeling tense about the situation in Darfur and does not want Turabi free to influence events there or speak against government policies. Perhaps the coming days will make one of these interpretations seem more plausible than the others.

Fatma Naib has more.