Sudanese president cuts ties with Islamist allies

Sudanese president cuts ties with Islamist allies
6 min read
28 February, 2015
Analysis: The over-riding ambition of Sudan's regime to stay in power is manifest in its ditching of former allies, as the global tide turns against political and militant Islamist organisations.
Sudan's regime saw protests during the Arab Spring, but survived [AFP]

Sudan appears to be in the process of making a major realignment in the region via its relationship with Islamist groups.

Although the regime in Khartoum is widely considered to be Islamist, it has been quick to distance itself from the international Muslim Brotherhood movement.

This week, Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir made a visit to the UAE, where he described the Brotherhood as a "threat". Khartoum would seem to be on the verge of abandoning its strategic allies, by sacrificing its ties to Islamist movements in a bid to improve relations with the US, Europe and the Gulf.

Cutting ties

These countries in the past have levelled accusations that Sudan had supported a myriad of Islamist organisations or extremist groups, and assisted them in gaining political power across the region.

During his recent visit to the UAE, Bashir said he was categorically opposed to any involvement by the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation in Sudan.

At the same time, he stressed countries had the right to do whatever necessary to safeguard their security and stability - in reference to the UAE's designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a "terrorist organisation". 

The Sudanese Islamist movement was expelled from the international Muslim Brotherhood in 1977 for refusing to submit to the organisation's supreme guide.

However, relations between the Sudanese Islamists and other Islamist groups were never totally severed, especially in Morocco, Mauritania, Palestine, Yemen and Tunisia.

Islamists in power

A year after the Islamists took power in Sudan through a military coup, the leader of the movement, Hassan al-Turabi, founded the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress, and invited Islamists from around the world - activists and militants alike - to Khartoum.

They were allowed to enter Sudan without visa restrictions.

In February 1991, Islamist leaders such as Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's Islamist Ennahdha movement, Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj from Algeria, and Afghan leaders Burhanuddin Rabbani and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, arrived in Sudan.

Osama bin Laden would also make Khartoum his home for six years. Sudan became a refuge for the internationally wanted militant Carlos the Jackal, and the current head of Hamas' political bureau Khaled Meshaal.

All this changed in 1999 when Hassan al-Turabi stepped down and formed an opposition group, the Popular Congress Party (PCP), after a dispute with Bashir over the appointment of provincial governors.

The dispute led to the "Ramadan 4" incident, when Bashir dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency.
Turabi was expelled from his post as secretary-general of the ruling party.

This all happened in parallel to Western pressure. The US had bombed a factory that reportedly made pharmaceuticals in Khartoum, claiming it stored nuclear materials. The United States also placed Sudan on the list of countries that support terrorism, and imposed economic sanctions on Khartoum that remain in place today.

Opportunism in action 

Many saw Turabi's removal from power as a ploy to ease the Western-imposed isolation of the regime and ensure the survival of the remaining Islamists. Sudan's foreign relations with Washington did certainly improve after the 9/11 attacks.

Sudan reportedly played a major role in intelligence gathering for the US during the so-called "war on terror", and handed over a number of leaders of armed Islamist groups. Khartoum also expelled extremists and shut down the Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa Centre - after which leaders of the armed Palestinian group in Sudan relocated to Yemen.

With the continuing rise of radical militant groups and their activities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and parts of Africa, Sudan is seen as a pivotal player in events in Egypt, Libya, Chad, and Nigeria.

Many also believe that Sudan can play an important role in countering groups including the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis). Sudan is thought to be one of the few countries that have crucial intelligence on such groups, thanks to its previous ties with radical Islamists.

This might be the reason behind recent overtures by the US, Egypt, and Gulf states, especially those led by the UAE and Saudi, to coax Khartoum back into their fold.

     Sudan was also a refuge for the internationally wanted militant Carlos the Jackal.

It was revealed by al-Araby al-Jadeed that, during Bashir’s most recent visit to the UAE, Abu Dhabi offered economic assistance and help in brokering peace in Sudan.

In return, the president would have to be seen actively fighting extremism or political Islam.

Sudan will be expected to play a key role in Libya, where a rapid rise of militant al-Qaeda and IS-affiliated outfits are viewed by Gulf states as a direct threat to their own stability.

Cashing in

On the second day of Bashir's UAE visit, Khartoum and Abu Dhabi signed an agreement to fund two dams in Sudan worth $900 million. There have been previous advances to the UAE by Sudan for funding of these projects, but Abu Dhabi had always refused to finance them.

Sudan Foreign Minister Ali Karti admitted that the freeze in the relations between the two countries had been caused by a difference in political positions.

"Dialogue between the two countries ahead of the visit helped bring the points of views of the two countries closer on regional and security issues," he said.

Karti stressed that Bashir's visit went beyond security issues, however, and addressed joint interests in investment, along with Sudan's priorities at present.

The Sudanese foreign minister revealed the UAE promised to become the largest investor in Sudan, and said the visit gave his country an opportunity to make deals with other GCC countries. Sudan at present is suffering from worsening economic conditions.

Even though there are clear indications Khartoum is moving to abandon its Islamist allies for the sake of its own interests, the regime has a history of maintaining clandestine relations with Islamist groups even after targeting them.

More than 15 years after the events of 1999 - and Turabi's removal - the regime is still accused of supporting radical and Islamist groups. Khartoum seems to use its close links with Islamist groups as a bargaining chip, while it is also clear that there are factions within the regime that retain strong ties to these groups.

Abu Bakr Abdul-Raziq, leader in the opposition PCP, said Sudan always follows a pragmatic foreign policy, and that the regime would offer anything to the West or Gulf to remain in power:

"After the events of 1999, it is difficult to say that the Islamist movement is ruling the country, when in fact there is an ordinary political party in power than can make any and all sacrifices to remain in power."

The PCP leader said the relationship between the current regime and Islamists since 1999 has seen its ups and downs - but improved dramatically after the Arab Spring when the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies took power in Egypt and Tunisia.

"After Islamists were removed from power in Egypt, the regime returned to its interests-based policy at the expense of the relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood," he says.

With members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood going underground, languishing in jail or escaping the country, it appears that Bashir is cutting ties to stay in office - but the links might still remain strong, behind closed doors.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.