The grand tactician

Hassan al-Turabi is a man of many faces and one of the most dazzling personalities active in the sphere of political Islam. Over the course of his more than 40-year-long political career, he has surprised both supporters and critics alike with his frequent policy shifts. By Claudia Mende

By Claudia Mende

It came as no surprise when President Omar al-Bashir won the first elections after the secession of South Sudan in 2011. Bashir, who has been in power since 1989, garnered 94 per cent of the vote. However, the same faces have dominated not only the Sudanese government, but also the country's opposition for decades. One of these politicians is the Islamist Hassan al-Turabi. Turabi's Popular Congress Party, together with other opposition parties, had called for a boycott of the election.

The odd thing is that Hassan al-Turabi and Omar al-Bashir were once long-time allies. Turabi is one of the most dazzling personalities in the world of political Islam. His views have been at the root of numerous controversies across the broad spectrum that is Islamism. Depending on whether he chooses to speak as an intellectual or as a power strategist, his opinions can vary hugely. It is only in recent years that things have become a little quieter around him.

The Islamisation of Sudan

Hassan al-Turabi was born in Kassala in eastern Sudan in 1932. His father was a qadi, an Islamic judge. As a young man, Turabi studied law, first in Khartoum, later in London. He subsequently earned a doctorate in English and French constitutional law at the Sorbonne.

Without a doubt, one of Turabi's greatest strengths is his eloquence, which he has skilfully used to inspire followers. In addition, he is fluent in both English and French, and, despite being 83-years-old, he is remarkably active. Since the 1980s, he has strategically built up a power base in order to achieve his long-term aim: the Islamisation of Sudan.

In the 1980s, serving as attorney general under the then dictator Gaafar Nimeiry, he had Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, a liberal theologian, arrested and charged with apostasy, resulting in his execution in January 1985. Later, Turabi and the since deceased Nimeiry accused each other of bearing responsibility for Taha's execution.

Omar al-Bashir (photo: AFP/Getty Images/A. Shazly)
From close allies to bitter rivals: the Islamist leader Hassan al-Turabi was once a close political ally and mentor of Sudan's incumbent president, Omar al-Bashir (pictured here). In 1989, a military coup brought Bashir to power, and Turabi played a central role in the regime. Ten years later, the political friendship between the two men was shattered. In 1999, Bashir removed the then Parliamentary Speaker Turabi from office. Turabi subsequently founded his own party, the Popular Congress Party

At the centre of power

Following a military coup against Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, Omar al-Bashir took power with the support of Islamists under Turabi and his then National Islamic Front. In point of fact, however, Turabi was the chief ideologist and the real powerbroker of the regime well into the 1990s.

Although Bashir, in his role as president from 1996 onward, was formally the ruler within this civilian-military symbiosis, it was actually Hassan al-Turabi – who as parliamentary speaker did not hold any official state office – who held the true reigns of political power and served as the main architect of the Islamisation process, which was opposed by large parts of the population.

With the introduction of the segregation of the sexes in public life, the reintroduction of Sharia law in March 1991, a countrywide ban on alcohol and the imposition of an Islamic dress code for women, Turabi's aim was to force his country to conform to his rigid conception of Islam. However, Sudan, situated at the intersection between the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, most of which were alienated by these policies. As a consequence of Turabi's actions, Sudan in the 1990s became a gathering place for every sort of radical jihadist movement. Even Osama bin Laden is said to have spent some time in Sudan during this period.

The introduction of Sharia law was one of the decisive factors for the resumption of fighting with rebels in southern Sudan. The civil war finally ended in 2011 with the secession of Southern Sudan.

The failure of the Islamist experiment

Observers in the region played close attention to the Islamist experiment in Sudan. Today, while Turabi himself admits that it failed, he blames its failure on the incompetence of the military under Omar al-Bashir. According to Turabi, the military government ruined the country, and only democracy can solve the many problems facing Sudan. The chief ideologist of a government that ruled the country with an iron fist now swears by democracy. This sort of opportunism is typical of Hassan al-Turabi, who as mastermind of the Islamist experiment is jointly responsible for the disaster in Sudan.

It was only in 1999, after Turabi attempted to curtail the powers of President Bashir via constitutional means, that a rupture developed between the two. Parliament was dissolved and a state of emergency was declared. Turabi lost his post and was imprisoned until 2003. The grand strategist had wrongly assessed the balance of power.

A polling station in Khartoum (photo: AFP/Getty Images/P. Baz)
A polling station in Khartoum. Recent electoral success for Sudan's head of state, Omar al-Bashir: last April's presidential election in Sudan delivered 94 per cent of the vote to Omar al-Bashir, the country's long-serving president. The main opposition parties had boycotted the election. The 71-year-old Bashir, who came to power after a coup in 1989, had campaigned alongside 15 other candidates, who were nonetheless completely unknown to voters in the country

Nonetheless, the agile intellectual was far from politically finished. Following his release from prison in October 2003, he used his still vast political influence to scheme against his former political comrades. It is said that he supported the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) in Darfur, although no definite proof for these claims emerged. Even so, in 2004, these accusations resulted in Turabi finding himself once again behind bars in Kobar Prison in Omdurman.

Turabi likes to portray himself as an enlightened Islamist. Indeed he does combine an astonishing blend of positions in his political ideology. In 2006, former colleagues associated with the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood declared him to be an apostate on account of his support for women's rights. The Muslim Scholars Committee, a group of Islamic scholars who control the majority of mosque communities in Sudan, demanded that Turabi be brought to court for his liberal views.

Will Turabi suffer a similar fate to that of Mohamed Taha? The regime has not dared to take such steps, fearing Turabi's influence throughout the country. To a certain extent, the judiciary in Sudan remains an instrument in the hands of whoever is in power.

A man of contradictions

And so, the man who once introduced a strict dress code for Sudanese women, thereby severely restricting them in their everyday lives, mutated into a women's rights advocate. Turabi now stresses that women should only wear Islamic apparel if they freely choose to do so. In a remarkable about-face, he has demanded that the testimony of women before a Sharia court should have the same value as that made by a man. In addition, "devout women" should be allowed to lead mixed prayer meetings – a demand that even goes too far for many liberal Muslims.

With this complete ideological U-turn, Turabi made even the views of the Sunni Islamic establishment of al-Azhar in Cairo look out of date. In the process, he created a great deal of confusion in his own camp. To this day, the contradictions between his theoretical and practical beliefs remain the trademark of Hassan al-Turabi's political style.

Twenty-five years after launching his Islamist project, Sudan's economy is in tatters, its human rights record is catastrophic and since seceding from the rest of Sudan, the country has been racked by conflicts in the regions of Darfur and Kordofan.

Claudia Mende

© 2015

Translated from the German by John Bergeron