Chris Harman


The prophet and the proletariat


The contradictions of Islamism: Sudan

Iran is not the only country in which Islamists have exercised power. In the last few years the Sudanese Islamic Brotherhood, the Ikhwan al Muslimin, has become the decisive influence in a military government through the National Islamic Front (NIF).

The Sudanese Brotherhood began in the 1940s as an offshoot of Banna’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but took on a life of its own with its own doctrines, after the crushing of the parent organisation by Nasser in the 1950s. The organisation originated in Khartoum University, where it battled with the Communists for influence over the students. This led to its first leadership emphasising the radical elements in Islamism. But in the 1960s a new leadership, under Hassan al-Turabi, succeeded in widening the base of the organisation, adding thousands of newcomers to its 2,000 hardcore members. “The membership also witnessed a significant diversification by the involvement of ulama, mosque imams, merchants, Sufi leaders and others, although the proportion of nonmodern educated elements remained small in the active membership”. [114] In the 1980s it grew further, aided by the emergence (under state encouragement) of an “Islamic” financial sector: “The employment policy of the Islamic Bank, which favoured religious people, was helpful to Ikhwan”. The Islamic institutions led to “the evolution of a totally new class of businessmen who became rich overnight” and “opened up avenues of economic mobility for many who would otherwise have been, at most, higher civil servants”. The Brotherhood did not own the Islamic banks – they were financed by a combination of Saudi money and local capital. But it exerted enormous power by its ability “to influence loans and other advances to customers”. [115] This translated itself into support for the Brotherhood among some of the new rich and within the state machine itself: “The movement continued to be based on a hard core of activists, mostly modern educated professionals, but a significant contingent of businessmen (or professionals turned executives) started to acquire prominence”. [116]

In the 1986 elections after the overthrow of the Nimeiry dictatorship the Brotherhood’s front, the NIF, won only 18.5 percent of the total vote, most votes going to the traditional parties. But it picked up no fewer than 23 out of 28 of the seats elected by university graduates only, and it soon became clear it had enough support among a section of the urban middle classes and businessmen to be the natural ally of key figures in the armed forces. A coup in 1989 gave power to General Bashir, but effective power seemed to be in the hands of the NIF. And since then Khartoum has become one of the centres of the international Islamist movement, a pole of attraction to rival Tehran and Riyadh for the activists.

Yet the Sudanese Brotherhood’s rise to power has not been an easy one. It has repeatedly come close to losing many members and much of its support. And its tenure in power is not likely to be secure.

Turabi has sought to build the Brotherhood’s influence when his rivals have been in government by agitating among the students, the middle class and, to some extent, the workers – but he has then seized every chance of participating in government himself so as to increase the Brotherhood’s influence within the hierarchies of the state. This he first did in the early 1960s. The Brotherhood’s agitation among students helped precipitate the October 1964 revolution of students, middle class professionals and workers. It then used its position in the new government to dampen down the wave of radicalisation and to push for the banning of the Communists – so winning to it some of the conservative privileged groups.

It followed the same manoeuvre again after a military coup put General Gaafar al-Nimeiry in power in May 1969. He repressed the Brotherhood along with the traditional parties for a period. But its spell in opposition allowed it to rebuild some of the popular support it had lost while in government, taking the lead in agitation over student conditions and leading an unsuccessful student rising against the regime in 1973. Then in the late 1970s it seized on an offer from Nimeiry of “National Reconciliation” to join his regime, with Turabi becoming attorney general “in charge of the review of laws to make them conform to the sharia”. [117] It was during this time that it used the development of the Islamic financial sector to get roots among the owners of capital. It was also during this period that it began to win over certain army officers.

Yet these manoeuvres created continual tensions within the Brotherhood and repeatedly threatened its wider base of support. The original cadres of the Brotherhood from the early 1950s were not at all happy with its leader’s cultivation of sections of the traditional elite and of the new rich. Turabi’s methods did not seem at all to fit the original notion of an Islamic vanguard which they had held as radical students in the 1940s. He seemed, to them, to be watering down Islamic ideas in order to gain respectability – especially when he set out to recruit women, supported them having the vote and produced a pamphlet asserting that “genuine” Islam should give them the same rights as men. [118] To the dissidents it seemed that he was simply out to pander to the secular middle classes. On top of this Nimeiry was someone who was notorious for his non-Islamic behaviour – particularly his drinking. A group of older members preferred the radicalism of someone like Qutb, and finally split away to form an organisation of their own linked to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. [119]

Collaboration with an increasingly unpopular regime began to undercut the Brotherhood’s wider support. The early 1980s saw a growing wave of popular agitation against Nimeiry, with student demonstrations in 1981-2, a strike by rail workers in 1982, mutinies by southern troops in 1983 followed by strikes of judges and doctors. Through this period the Brotherhood became the only force outside the regime itself supporting Nimeiry, and began to fear being destroyed alongside the dictator when he eventually fell.

Then Nimeiry took a last gamble. He announced the immediate introduction of the sharia into law. The Brotherhood had no choice but to throw their weight behind him. For more than 30 years the “return to the sharia” had been their answer to all of Sudan’s problems. It was the single, simple slogan which connected their brand of reform with the Islamic traditions of the mass of people outside the urban middle class. And so they began agitation to support implementation of the sharia, in the face of resistance from the judges and much of the legal system. A million people joined a Brotherhood demonstration for an international conference on the implementation of the sharia, and Brotherhood members helped man the special sharia courts set up by Nimeiry.

This increased the Brotherhood’s pull among certain traditionalist circles, especially when the courts began to pick upon certain prominent people and expose their corruption. And the new power it exercised increased its attraction to those in the state machine looking for promotion. But while making the Brotherhood popular among some traditionalist sections of the population and more influential among those who ran the state, the measures also massively increased resentment against them elsewhere. It upset those who were seculist or supporters of non-Islamic religions (the majority of the population in the south of the country) without being, in reality, able to improve the conditions of the Islamic masses. The myth of the sharia was that of a new legal system which would end all injustices. But this could not be brought about by any reform that was merely a legal reform, and least of all one introduced by a corrupt and unpopular regime. So all the new law really meant was a resort to sharia punishments, the hudud – amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, and so on.

In the 1960s the Brotherhood had been able to build itself among the urban intelligentsia in part because it down played this aspect of the sharia. The Islamic orthodoxy accepted by Turabi was to “skirt the issue by insisting the hudud was only applicable in an ideal Islamic society from which want had been completely banished”. [120] Now, however, the most tangible evidence that the sharia was changing the legal system became the use of such punishments, and Turabi did a 180 degree turn, attacking those who claimed you could not impose morality on people by legislation”. [121]

Associated with resentment against the sharia courts was resentment against the Islamic financial sector. This had enabled some members of the middle class to move upwards into important business sectors. But it necessarily left many, many more disappointed:

Resentment was created in the business community and among thousands of aspirants who believed the main reason they were deprived of the benefits of the new system was Ikhwan favouritism ... In the end, allegations about Ikhwan’s abuse of the Islamic banking system were the single most damaging liability that emerged from the Nimeiry era and discredited them in the eyes of large sections of the population. [122]

Finally, the Brotherhood’s alliance with Nimeiry over the sharia forced it to excuse everything else he did, at a time when there was a growing agitation against him. Even though Nimeiry, under US pressure, finally moved against the Brotherhood just before a popular rising overthrew him, it was too late for the Brotherhood to be identified in any sense with the revolution.

It survived, to take greater power than ever into its hands within four years, because it offered to those army officers who had finally turned against Nimeiry something no one else had – thousands of active members prepared to back them in their bitter civil war against non-Muslim rebels in the south of the country and in their repression of discontent in the towns of the north. The coalition of secular forces that had led the uprising against Nimeiry were paralysed by their opposed class interests, unable either to focus the discontent into a movement for a complete transformation of society, including massive redistribution of wealth and the granting of self determination to the south, or to crush it. This allowed the Brotherhood increasingly to offer itself to the army officers as the only force capable of imposing stability, showing its strength visibly by organising a large demonstration against any concessions to the southern rebels. So it was that in 1989 when the military seized power once more, in order to pre-empt a proposed peace agreement between the government and the rebels, it connived with the Brotherhood.

In power, however, the Brotherhood has known only one answer to the problems that face the regime – increasingly severe repression wrapped in religious terminology. In March 1991 the sharia was reintroduced together with the hudud punishments. The war in the south has now been matched by repression against other non-Arab communities, including the Fur and the Nuba, despite Turabi’s claims, when in opposition, to oppose any form of Islam based on Arab chauvinism. Typical of the repression against those who oppose the war in the south were the death sentences handed out two years ago to a group of people in Dafur for “inciting war against the state and possessing weapons”. One man was sentenced to be hanged and then his body to be publicly crucified. [123] In the run up to elections in trade union and professional bodies there were reports of intimidation, arrests and torture. [124] Even some of the traditionalists who supported the campaign of Islamisation are now on the receiving end of repression. The regime has been tightening its grip on Sufi sects “whose sermons are believed to be nurturing popular discontent” [125], and most people blame the regime and the Brotherhood for a bomb attack on a Sufi mosque earlier this year which killed 16 people.

Repression has not, however, provided more than temporary stability to the regime. There were a series of riots in the towns two years ago as a result of shortages and price increases. Initial gestures of defiance to the IMF have been followed by an Economic Salvation Programme based upon “economic liberation” which “involves many policies previously advocated by the fund” [126], leading to new negotiations with the IMF. This has led to a sharp decline in living standards, further discontent and further riots.

Meanwhile, the regime is isolated internationally from the other major Islamic regimes: the Brotherhood fell out with Iran by lining up against it in the first Gulf War, and with Saudi Arabia by supporting Iraq in the second Gulf War. Presumably because of this it has tried to present itself as a pole of attraction to Islamists elsewhere who are disaffected with these two countries and with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – even though Turabi’s own policies have been, for 30 years, a long way from the radicalism these Islamist groups espouse.

Yet the Sudanese Brotherhood itself is under enormous pressure. “There are rumours that the NIF might split in two, with the zealots being sidelined and the relatively more moderate faction joining the conservative wings of the Umma Party and the DUP [the two main traditional parties]. There are divisions between the NIF’s older generation who are prepared to accommodate with the secular parties and the younger and uncompromising zealots. [127]

One final point is worth making about Sudan. The rise of the Brotherhood to power there has not been because of any magic powers on its own part. Rather the cause lies in the failure of other political forces to provide the way out of the progressively deeper impasse in the country. In the 1950s and the 1960s the Communist Party was a stronger force than the Brotherhood. It had competed with the Brotherhood for influence among the students and built up a following among urban trade unionists. But in 1964 and 1969 it chose to use this influence, not to present a revolutionary programme for change, but to enter non-revolutionary governments, which then turned on it once it had calmed down the wave of popular agitation. It was, in particular, its support for Nimeiry in his first years that gave the Brotherhood the chance to take the lead in university agitation and undercut the Communists’ base.




114. Abdelwahab el-Affendi, Turabi’s revolution, Islam and power in Sudan (London, 1991), p.89.

115. Ibid., pp.116-117.

116. Ibid., p.117.

117. Ibid., p.115.

118. For his position on women, see summary of his pamphlet in Ibid., p.174. See also his article, Le Nouveau Reveil de l’Islam, op. cit..

119. Affendi, op. cit., p.118.

120. Ibid., p.163.

121. Ibid., pp.163-164.

122. Ibid., p.116.

123. Amnesty International report, quoted in Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Sudan, 1992:4.

124. Ibid.

125. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Sudan, 1993:3.

126. Economist Intelligence Unit, Country Profile, Sudan, 1993-4. Turabi himself has been keen to insist that “the Islamic awakening is no longer interested in fighting the West ... The West is not an enemy for us”. Le nouveau Reveil de l’Islam, op. cit.

127. Economist Intelligence Unit Report, Sudan, 1993:1.


Last updated on 17.6.2002