Hazem Saghieh – Asharq Al-Awsat
The late 1950s marked a landmark period in the politicization of Arab officers. In 1957, Ali Abu Nuwar carried out a failed Nasserite-inspired coup. In 1958, Syrian officers headed to Cairo without the knowledge of the president, government or parliament. There, they agreed with Gamal Abdel Nasser to impose a status quo called “unity.” Abdul Karim Qasim and Abdul Salam Arif also staged a coup in Iraq to overthrow the monarchy.
The situation was different in Sudan. Ibrahim Abboud’s 1958 coup, two years after independence, was not driven by an ideology. It was more of a professional or “career” coup. It stemmed from the political parties’ failure to reach consensus under the government of Prime Minister Abdallah Khalil. Partisan life came to a halt and political leaders, including Khalil, were exiled to Juba. The army was stripped of its powers, workers unions were dissolved and strikes were banned.
The coup, which on paper was opposed to democracy, never ideologized itself. It did not change economic and social policies and did not demand Arab unity. It was helped by Sudan’s six-decade union with Egypt. It surmised that the union was similar to being ruled by the Ottomans and later the British.
As the Mahdi supporters advocated for Sudan’s independence, the Khatmi supporters made due with maintaining friendly relations with Egypt, especially since Abdel Nasser had a greater appetite than his predecessors. Gaafar Nimeiry, who seized power in 1969, appeared at first glance, different than his predecessors. He touted himself as a Nasserite who was allied to the communists. He sought to replicate the example of the Soviet Union in Khartoum and even started to work on reforms. That first glance turned out to be very short.
Abdel Nasser passed away soon after and media circulated a now famous photograph of Nimeiry crying at his funeral in Cairo. However, no sooner had Anwar al-Sadat turned against the Nasserites, that Nimeiry followed suit. When the Arab League suspended Egypt’s membership in protest against the Camp David Accords, Sudan was one of the few countries that did not sever ties with it.
Another push towards ideologization was the dispute with the Communist Party after officer Hashem al Atta’s coup in 1971, which was aborted by Libyan intervention. At the time, Communist Party leader Abdel Khaliq Mahjub and union leader Ahmed al-Sheikh were executed and communism was declared a crime. Military rulers have since learned from the experience and avoided importing the Soviet example that had pervaded other Arab countries that were ruled by the military.
The regime in Sudan therefore, remained less capable of justifying itself.
Omar al-Bashir, who seized power in 1989, also appeared ideologized. He was however, simply an Islamist officer who ruled by day, while his cleric Hassan al-Turabi ruled by night. At the latter’s behest, Khartoum became a hotbed for radical and terrorist groups. Ousama bin Laden even resided there between 1990 and 1996.
This reality did not last. The military officer soon rebelled against his religious mentor. A dispute erupted between them in 1999 and in 2000, Turabi was detained according to a warrant signed by his Popular Congress Party and Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in the South.
The major turning point took place in the South. In 2011, Bashir agreed to hold a referendum even though he knew that the residents would vote in favor of secession, which is what happened. It was a landmark development that could have turned Bashir into a glorious historic leader had he recognized the southerners’ right to determine their own fate. Of course, it was not to be. The real reason for his referendum was to get rid of the “burden” of religious and ethnic belligerents and US sanctions. The vote cost Sudan more than two thirds of its oil wealth.
The above-mention military officers enjoyed a common characteristic. When they ran out of ideas and plans, which was often, they usually turned to the South in an effort to “Arabize” and “Islamicize” it. Millions of people have been killed in the ensuing unrest, add to that famine and displacement. Other wars – in Darfur to the West and southern Kordofan and Blue Nile – soon compounded the misery. The atrocities amounted to crimes against humanity.
All of the above reflects the “futility of evil” that the Sudanese people have repeatedly risen up against and are again doing so today.