Sudanese Islamist leader Hasan al-Turabi completed his first visit to Cairo in 23 years this past week. The trip, inconceivable under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, was symbolic of a new era in both Egyptian and Sudanese politics. Egypt had strongly suspected al-Turabi of a role in the 1995 assassination attempt on Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa during an icy period in Sudanese-Egyptian relations. Al-Turabi was widely seen as ruling in tandem with Sudanese President Omar Bashir until he was removed from power in a 1999 palace coup. Since then the rivalry between Hasan al-Turabi and President Omar al-Bashir has been a defining feature of Sudanese politics. Al-Turabi is still the elder statesmen of Islamist politics in Sudan, if not the world.
Early this week, Al-Turabi’s visit was a topic of conversation at the “Sudanese Restaurant” in Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood. A Sudanese teacher living in Cairo commented on his visit, “al-Turabi is a smart man there is no doubt. He knows English, German and of course French because he studied at the Sorbonne. In the past few years he has tried to cast himself as a reformer with an open-mind but, at the same time this is someone who played a key role in the execution of liberal thinker Mahmoud Mohammed Taha in the 1980s”. While another Sudanese national dining at the restaurant added “Al-Turabi is just a survivor, he can say anything”
The 79 year-old al-Turabi is currently the head of the Popular Congress Party in Sudan. But, in much of the Western world, al-Turabi is best known as a high-profile supporter of terrorism. In the 1990s al-Turabi sought to forge strategic relationships between the governments of Iraq and Iran. Under al-Turabi the world’s two most famous terrorists, Osama Bin Laden and Carlos the Jackal, were both allowed to relocate to Sudan.
Indeed, al-Turabi’s visit was billed as a chance to share the Islamist experience with Egyptian people. It included a public speaking engagement at Cairo University as well as meeting with Egyptian presidential candidates. But, his appearance was not welcomed by everyone. Egyptian writer Ahmad al-Sawi lambasted al-Turabi in an article in an Egyptian newspaper. Al-Sawi suggested that al-Turabi’s vision is "a program which brought to Sudan nothing but war, discord, separation, consolidation of autocracy and exclusion of counter views". "If Egypt has to experience an Islamic model, please make it purely Egyptian. You should know that al-Turabi's recipe is merciful in appearance and torturous on the inside,” he wrote. Other newspapers alleged that al-Turabi was detained for three hours at Cairo’s airport upon arrival for his week long visit. A charge that al-Turabi has denied.
Al-Turabi though is no stranger to the prison cell. Since leaving power in 1999, he has been imprisoned several times by the government of Omar al-Bashir. His most recent imprisonment came in January when he was held for nearly three months by the Bashir government after calling for a Tunisian-style uprising in Sudan. Sudan saw limited anti-government protests in Khartoum earlier this year, which soon fizzled out. While in the Egyptian capital, al-Turabi met with Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, a candidate in the 2011 Egyptian Presidential election and established leader in the Muslim Brotherhood. Al-Turabi believes Abouel Fotouh, who is also the head of the Arab Doctors' Union, represents the “open approach” of modern Islamists. Al-Turabi believes contemporary Islamists must become more flexible and that the Arab Spring has reinforced the idea that change is now driven by the people not political elites.
The biographies of the two leaders have some similarities. Dr. Abouel Fotouh was a long time member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood before he broke with the group to run for president. Similarly, al-Turabi rose to national prominence in the 1960s as a member of the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood before cutting ties with Cairo. In the 1980s, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood tried to bring various national franchises into line with the main Egyptian party. To which al-Turabi quipped “You can’t run the world from Cairo.” Both men have spent time in prison for their activities. Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh has likewise had his share of prison stints. Most recently he was imprisoned from 1996-2001 under the rule of Hosni Mubarak. Following the meeting with al-Turabi, Fotouh reiterated that he would be running for president as an independent candidate by saying, “I would not run on behalf of the Brotherhood even if they asked me to”.
For Islamists of all stripes, al-Turabi’s tale is a cautionary one. In 1989, Sudan became the first Arab state in which an Islamist government seized power. In Sudan, al-Turabi’s National Islamic Front forged a pragmatic alliance with the military during the 1989 coup only to later be brushed aside by al-Bashir. During a lecture at Cairo University, al-Turabi used an allusion to French politics to make this point: “Take for example the French Revolution which led to Napoleon Bonaparte, a worse ruler than King Louis XVI, Arabs should not repeat the same mistake” he explained. Some believe a similar alliance is already taking place in Egypt. Earlier this year, a de facto pragmatic alliance between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood led to overwhelming electoral victory of the constitutional reform package passed in March. The poll passed with over 77% of the vote despite opposition from much of the Egyptian left and liberal groups.
Al-Turabi also stated that in today’s world Islamist movements must be more flexible. He now believes they must be driven by people rather than elites. “Now we have to deal with the world with an open mind,” he said in an interview. Al-Turabi, a master of realpolitik, has changed his rhetoric on a number of issues. For example, his views on Sudan’s “near abroad” in Darfur and the South have softened over the years. The Sudanese government has even accused him of associating with Darfurian rebels in recent years. These views were on display in Cairo, when al-Turabi blamed the break up of Sudan largely on the mismanagement of President Omar al-Bashir. This patently failed to acknowledge his own role in the Sudanese Civil War. Al-Bashir is currently wanted by the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses in Darfur.
For the current Sudanese government, now divorced from Juba and with many Darfurian rebels distracted in Libya, al-Turabi remains a serious challenge to the rule of Omar al-Bashir. The Sudanese paper, Al-Akhbar, speculated his visit may have been an attempt to arrange through different channels a meeting with Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, who recently returned to the position of Sudan’s First Vice President. Mohammed Taha and al-Turabi at one point were close associates in the 1990s. There is no doubt al-Turabi retains close relationships with high ranking individuals in the military, government and business. Far from being marginalised, al-Turabi’s trip to Cairo demonstrates he still has friends across the Muslim world.
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