Subscribe Today

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1996, pgs. 20, 93

Special Report

Disastrous Performance in Sudan Gives Islamism Bad Name

by M.I. Elmaki

When the National Islamic Front (NIF) came to power in Sudan on June 30, 1989, the exchange rate of the Sudanese pound to the American dollar was 15 to 1. Now, it is 1500 to 1, a hundred-fold loss of value to the Sudanese currency.

This is only one example of the deterioration of the quality of life in Sudan under fundamentalist rule. In every walk of national life, similar instances of collapse clearly are visible. The economy is in a shambles, the war in the south is raging on and the easy-going Sudanese people are turning morose and losing their joie de vivre.

Before Islamist rule, education and health services were, in principle, provided free of charge. It is true that the quality of those services was deteriorating, but they remained available to the citizenry. Islamists surmised that by making the people pay for those services, they would be able to improve and expand them.

Health services now are beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. To avoid the unaffordable costs, people are turning to other sources, namely traditional medicine and quacks. The old mahogany trees lining the Nile Avenue in Khartoum are stripped of their bark to provide a homemade concoction believed to cure malaria. Quacks, largely drawn from the ranks of religious laymen, are making quick fortunes prescribing potions of wild honey and black tea to destitute patients.

Education is suffering the same fate. To the new exorbitant tuition fees is added a bizarre and unjustified expenditure—that of the paramilitary school uniforms made of material rumored to be a sole monopoly of a certain NIF sympathizer.

Rumors of corruption in high places abound and sometimes are sufficiently documented. NIF members have invaded the local market with hordes of businesses easily identifiable by their Qur’anic names. They receive all kinds of favors from the regime such as import licenses, tax exemptions, bank loans and impunity from the law.

Last year the appointed Transitional National Assembly (parliament) investigated violations of drug control regulations by an Islamist importer of medicaments. The deficient drugs caused countless deaths, especially in the malaria-infested parts of the country. Nevertheless, nothing was done against the culprit, a regular contributor to the NIF coffers. Instead, the chairman of the investigating commission, Amin Banani, himself a leading NIF activist, was relieved of his position and publicly humiliated.

Wheeling and dealing of this kind has tarnished the image of Islamists and presented them in a very different light. It could be true that the majority of Sudanese see them as a thievish gang thirsting for wealth and ready to kill for it. A few documented cases indicated involvement of security agencies in dubious extortion schemes by NIF members or sympathizers. One such case involved a businessman who was imprisoned and tortured in a “ghost-house.” When he finally was asked to make out a check for his Islamist partner, he became suspicious and somehow effected a daring escape from his place of detention. The case was reported in the government-owned press and an investigation was promised. As usual nothing was done and the incident was forgotten.

No army of occupation has treated the Sudanese people as cruelly as the NIF.

While the “Islamic Solution” is awaited elsewhere as a dream, in Sudan it is a nightmare. A terrorized, impoverished nation is praying for the nightmare to end. Whether the awakening should come at the hands of the southern Sudanese rebels, or the forces of the National Alliance currently deploying in Eritrea, or through international intervention, most Sudanese do not seem to care. Their dream is to be saved from the Salvation Revolution, as the NIF rule calls itself.

A political joke has it that the Sudanese people cabled President Bill Clinton telling him cryptically: either you come or we shall come. That meant: either you intervene to save us from the Islamists or you arrange to receive all of us in your country.

The desperation behind that message is real. No army of occupation has treated the Sudanese people as cruelly as have the NIF security agencies. Cherished traditional values were trampled underfoot. Elderly men were beaten, women insulted and younger men were raped to destroy their dignity. (Sudanese social culture regards sodomy as a final destruction of manhood.)

Cordial Treatment

One might understand this vindictiveness had the NIF been victimized by previous Sudanese regimes, but that had never happened. The NIF, on the contrary, was cordially treated. Perhaps it was spoiled from 1977 onwards by the regime of Jafar Numeiri, apparently on the advice of his friend the late President Anwar Sadat of Egypt who followed a pro-Islamist policy to help annihilate his political enemies on the left. It was Numeiri who first allowed Islamic banks to operate in the country with full tax exemption. As for Premier Saddiq El Mahdi, he insisted on including the NIF in all of the governments he formed during his short tenure. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, the Sudanese Islamists had no grievances to show, no “martyrs” to avenge. On the contrary, they were the wealthiest political party, owning Islamic banks, commercial enterprises and a vigorous press.

For an Islamic movement morally to degenerate in this manner is something almost unthinkable. Islam is associated with high moral values, tolerance and justice. For a religious person to lie, cheat or steal doubles his culpability in the eyes of ordinary Muslims.

However, the political lie comes only too readily to the rulers of Sudan. The latest concerns the resolution of the United Nations Security Council to give the Sudanese government a period of two months to produce the perpetrators of the last attempt on the life of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. Anticipating panic among its supporters and fearing an emboldening of the opposition, the NIF government told its people through its government-controlled media that it had been acquitted by the Security Council, that the Ethiopian complaint was rejected, and that another anti-Islam plot had been foiled. Nobody in Sudan is buying that.

The foreign policy of the NIF is both amateurish and provocative. Relations with Eritrea and Ethiopia were once cordial and friendly. Instead of strengthening and developing them, the NIF tacitly supported the Eritrean Islamic Jihad, an armed rebel movement, to destabilize the government of President Assias Afwerki.

Likewise, the Oromo Muslim community, the largest single ethnic group in Ethiopia, was indoctrinated and organized into a militant movement. Egyptian Muslim extremists battling the Egyptian government were aided and morally encouraged. Saudi Arabia was threatened with the specter of a pro-Iranian bastion on its western flank across the Red Sea. Anti-Western sentiment was fanned and carried to extremes, resulting in a stoppage of economic cooperation and a halt to international aid donations and loans.

The principal losers in this power game are, besides the Sudanese people, the Muslim religion and Islamist political movements. Islam the religion was given a bad name and came to be associated with violence and terrorism. Its advance, especially into Africa and the southern Sudan, was arrested. Islamist movements were similarly besmirched by the conduct of the NIF. The bright picture of political Islam presented to the Muslim world was tarnished when the promises of good Islamic governance were broken.

Seeing the multiple failure of Sudanese fundamentalism, one is tempted to ask, why did the Sudanese Islamists bother to attain power in the country? They would have us believe that the implementation of God’s laws is an end in itself, quite apart from the ordinary goals of progress and welfare. But the Sudanese Islamists cannot show any accomplishment in that respect.

Since their coming to power, not a single thieving hand was chopped off, not a single adulterer or adulteress was stoned to death. The only part of Islamic criminal law in application is the punishment of drunkenness with 20 to 40 lashes of the whip. A strange jurisprudential silence is kept about this issue; no explanation of any kind had been offered. When hard-pressed, Islamists would say they had fully empowered the courts to apply Islamic law and it was the courts’ discretion to apply it or deny it. That, however, is hard to believe. The courts, being completely dependent on the regime, could not have chosen of their own free will to ignoreshariah law in that manner. There is a suspicion that they were directed to that effect.

In the absence of an official explanation, people are providing their own. It is generally held that the Islamists, having seen what the harsh application of shariah had done to their former ally, General Numeiri, sacrificed the shariah to avoid his fate. If true, this would mean that to the Islamists the preservation of their rule takes precedence over the application of the injunctions of God.

After nearly seven years in office, the NIF should have discovered the futility of the whole exercise. Instead of coming to power on a tidal wave of Islamic awakening, the NIF came on the back of a tank. Islam suffered, instead of progressing in the land and the whole country suffered as well. Its development was arrested, its international relations were sacrificed and its people were further impoverished.

A huge legacy of vengeance was created by the resort to violence and torture. Following the demise of the regime, personal vendettas are expected against prominent NIF leaders as well as those who actually carried out their dirty work. Instead of being a respectable political movement, the NIF is about to become a fugitive outlaw.

Those factors do not auger well for the future of the country. The regime that succeeds the NIF in power will have more than its fair share of trouble. Unable to solve Sudan’s problems, such a successor regime will likely fall prey to another adventurer, and the vicious circle will continue.