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Quo Vadis* Sudan? Between the Horn of Africa and “The Arab Shaking” Fabric – Dr. Haim Koren

April 17, 2017


Quo Vadis* Sudan? Between the Horn of Africa and “The Arab Shaking” Fabric

By Haim Koren

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 7 (April 2017)

Sudan’s modern political history is characterized by a constant tension between identity seeking and the role of its boundaries – not only with its neighboring countries, at the territorial level. The search for identity has been shaping Sudan’s political history for more than a century – from the Mahdiyya period onwards – and evolved mainly in two periods of Colonialism: the Turco-Egyptian from 1821 and the Anglo-Egyptian, very intensively after the Mahdiyya (1881-1898) until the independence (1956).[1]

Ever since, many changes have been taking place on the Sudanese arena. The tribal structure integrated into a Muslim Sufi Orders system[2] characterized the society on the Northern (Arabs) and the Western (mostly non-Arabs-but rather from African origin) parts[3]. On the Southern side the tribes from African origin were (and still are) linked to Christianity.  This form of social, religious, and political base comprised the basis of Sudan as a Nation-State. In 2011, Sudan had separated and its southern part received its independence on July 9, 2011, thus, becoming the newest nation-state in the world, called South Sudan.[4]

The Mahdi – Muhammad Ahmad – symbolized a very determined Muslim leader who surpassed beyond the Sudanese politics and was perceived as one of the leaders of the Muslim world of his time.[5] From the end of the nineteenth century, the success of the Mahdi had an impact on the Sudanese identity shaping. This impact was channeled into three main slogans: The Unity of the Nile Valley, Sudan to the Sudanese, Pro British, and the constant tension between them.[6]

The socio-political arena yielded political parties which had emerged from the main Sufi Orders (‘Umma party from the Mahdiyya and Ansar party from the Khatmiyya). ‘Chief of Staff Major General Ibrahim Abud’s Coup d’état in 1958 that followed the Independence made Sudan part of the Arab League – adopting a more Pan-Arab, Pro Soviet color until the beginning of the 1970s.[7]

The Sudanese political culture from the 1960s to the 1980s was characterized by a structure which was headed by a military faction (Ibrahim ‘Abud, Ga’far Numayri, and ‘Umar al- Bashir) and which acted in a sort of coalition with “civilian parties” or a weak civilian leadership (such as the ‘Umma party led by Sadeq al-Mahdi). This political culture was based on traditional socio-economic and religious fabric of the Sufi Orders which turned into political parties. That political culture was integrated into an Islamic and Pan Arab atmosphere which strongly inspired the Northern Sudanese political culture.[8]

It is important to note that another factor affecting the Sudanese political culture was the civil war between South and North Sudan which erupted in 1955. It caused a terrible loss of life in the 1960s and 1970s. The North patronized the South and at a certain stage under Numayri wanted to enforce the Sharia’ law on the South. This ongoing domestic conflict pushed neighboring countries (Uganda, Ethiopia, etc.) to mediate between the sides during the years. Egypt, for its part, has always seen the Nile valley as its main interest and therefore Sudan had a special role on its Foreign Policy.

The significant change in the Sudanese politics from the 1970s onwards occurred due to the rise of Hasan al Turabi. His origins in the Sufi tradition didn’t prevent him from becoming one of the leading figures of the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Sudan. At the early 1960s, his main opponent in the student union was the Communist cell.  Ever since Numayri nominated him to be a Minister in his Cabinet, his political influence became crucial.[9] That was also a way to handle the growing Soviet anger against Numayri who was allied until then with the Soviet Union. Turabi’s Islamist theology had grown radical from the 1970s onwards. The Iranian Revolution (1979) and the central role of Turabi on the Sudanese politics (after establishing his own party – the National Islamic Front – NIF, that changed its name to the National Congress at the late 1990s) had a huge domestic and international impact on the Sudanese politics.[10]

The Iranian Revolution, which took place a year after the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel (1978), enabled Turabi to develop an axis with Iran and to go along with other Arab states against the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Turabi had worked behind the scenes in order to enable ‘Umar al Bashir to come to power in the Coup d’etat (1989). Ever since, the policy against the South and later on also against the West (mainly the Darfurians who were not Islamic enough according to Turabi’s viewpoint) was radicalized. At the same time the Iranians regarded Sudan as a gate to Africa in the export of their Shi’ite revolution and, therefore, supported Sudan financially. The radical Ideology brought Turabi closer to Osama bin Laden and to militant groups. Turabi well maneuvered between being supported by Shi’ite Iran on the one hand and having tight connections with Sunni radical groups on the other hand.

The then Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden, moved his base of operations from Saudi Arabia to Sudan around 1991, reportedly at the personal invitation of Al-Turabi. He stayed in Sudan until 1996, when he moved to Afghanistan. Bin Laden moved to Sudan following a conflict which broke out between him and the Saudi government over granting permission to the United States to station troops in Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War against Saddam Hussein. Bin Laden believed that he should lead the fight against Saddam using Afghan Arab forces. Al-Turabi granted bin Laden a safe place from which to conduct jihadist activities; in return, bin Laden agreed to help the Sudanese government in building roads and fighting against the animist and Christian separatists in Southern Sudan. While in Sudan, bin Laden is reported to have married one of Turabi’s nieces.

In spite of the Sunni-Shia’ split, Turabi succeeded to both preserve his relation with Iran and to strengthen his position as an important leader in the Sunni Muslim world. At the dawn of the “New world Order” that was created in the 1990s — following the collapse of the Eastern Block headed by the Soviet Union, the rise of Radical Islam, and Globalization — the Sudanese regime seemed to have found his way to adjust to the new reality. However, its political image was strongly connected to terrorism after Turabi was blamed to be responsible for the assassination attempt against the Egyptian President Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. That image caused Bashir to remove Turabi from power but not to harm him due to his status in the Muslim world.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton imposed a comprehensive trade embargo against Sudan and blocked the assets of the Sudanese government, which was suspected of sponsoring international terrorism. In 1998, Bin Laden’s agents blew up the United States Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. In retaliation, President Clinton ordered a cruise missile strike against a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum.

The status of Sudan as a terror-sponsoring state, the unresolved conflict between North and South Sudan and the oilfields which were discovered and the start of the production of oil from them in the 1980s pushed the Sudanese leadership to develop a new thinking towards the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the new Millennium.

For Egypt, a weak united neighboring Sudan served its interest of controlling the Nile. It also served the Libyan interest of having the hegemony over Pan Arabism in Africa. For Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda Sudan was a constant hub of instability. For the Bush administration, the violations of human rights of the Christian-African Southerners by the Government in Khartoum went too far and had to be stopped. After a long process of peace talks between South and North Sudan, which was mediated mainly by the US, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed and realized between the years 2005-2011. At the end of the process, elections (2010) and referendum (2011) were held and brought the independence to South Sudan.

The process of the CPA evoked Dar Fur to demand its regional rights as well.[11] Bashir used his militia (Janjaweed) to attack the Darfurians. In the Genocide that followed (2003-2005), 500,000 people were killed, burned, raped and robbed. Bashir and some of his Ministers were supposed to be brought to justice at the ICC in The Hague[12].

Hence, the “Arab Shaking” could have been signified by Boazizi, who burned himself to death in Tunisia, or by the first division of an Arab nation-state in the Middle East, i.e., South Sudan in 2011. At that time, Sudan had to face the bad socio-economic situation as well as the demonstrations and the effects on the Sudanese population of the “Arab Spring” events happening in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and other Arab countries.

When Sisi was elected as President of Egypt, a new axis started to be formed in the Middle East and beyond. A coalition of Sunni-Arab states who define radical Islamic groups (Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah) as terrorist organizations vis-à-vis countries who support some of these groups, such as Qatar and Turkey. Iran is considered to be a major sponsor of terrorism and as the most dangerous state in the region. Thus, there was no more place for the Iranian-Sudanese alliance. Sudan served as an important transit station for Iranian missiles on their way to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza and to Hezbollah in Lebanon, from which they fired on Israel.

As of 2011, the Sudanese Foreign Minister publicly declared that Sudan should not rely on Iran and rather align itself with Saudi Arabia. The motives to take this move were the waning support to Sudan and the identification of Sudan with the axis of terror, which might harm its efforts to move towards the west. At the same time, the West started to point out Sudan as an island of stability in the region. In 2016, Saudi Arabia forced some Arab Countries (including Sudan) to cut their relations with Iran -promising a better economic support to Sudan. The situation in Syria in which Iran helps Assad to slaughter his own people (together with Russia and Hezbollah) made the Saudis do what they can to strengthen the Sunni coalition (with Sudan inside). Sudan is also part of the states which fight side by side with the Saudis in Yemen (against the shi’ite Khuthis supported by Iran).

Egypt, which at first supported the removal of Bashar al Assad from power, prefers now to ally itself with Russia in order to try to preserve some stability in Syria rather than chaos (as in Libya). This Egyptian attitude created a crisis with Saudi Arabia and Sudan who supports the Saudi line in Syria. Egypt is also suspicious of Sudan because it is maneuvering with terrorist groups (Boko Haram, ISIS), who’s fighters move through Sudan to Libya while the Sudanese authorities ignore them. This suspicion grows even more since Sudan has gained a supportive attitude from West European countries as well as from the US.

Sudan is one of the poorest, most isolated and most violent countries in Africa, and for years the United States has imposed punitive measures against it in a largely unsuccessful attempt to get the Sudanese government to stop killing its own people. Yet, after nearly twenty years of hostile relations, Obama administration officials said on January 12, 2017, that the American government plans to reverse its position on Sudan and lift trade sanctions and to announce on January 13, 2017, a new Sudan strategy. For the first time since the 1990s, Sudan will be able to trade extensively with the United States, allowing it to buy goods like tractors and spare parts and attract much-needed investment to its collapsing economy.[13] US analysts said that good relations with Sudan could strengthen moderate voices within the country and give the Sudanese government incentives to refrain from the brutal tactics that have defined it for decades.

From now onwards, the politics of Sudan will be probably derived from two main components:

  1. The domestic situation which has been characterized by a lot of strikes and unrest. For example, towards the end of 2016, the doctors went on a strike and hundreds of thousands of Sudanese were striking and boycotting governmental offices. Moreover, Sudan has been suffering from economic problems and from unrest which forced President Bashir to lower the subsidy on fuel.
  2. The future developments in the middle east and beyond which will have a direct impact on alliances, global involvement on the region and a possible change of axis in the region. Sudan will be trying to build relationship with the Trump administration, preserve the relationship with European countries and be part of the Arab Sunni coalition. That policy will entail an attempt to show interest in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel and join the Arab effort in the war in Yemen. By integrating Janjaweed militia into the Rapid Support Force as part of the Sudanese Army Bashir can “legitimize” them after their role in the genocide in Dar Fur. He also incorporates them into “the Border Guards” to placate the EU.

Thus, after distancing himself from Iran and allying with the Sunni coalition in an attempt to draw closer to the West, President Umar al-Bashir is trying to prepare the ground to the idea of normalizing ties with Israel.

The discourse concerning normalizing ties with Israel made again headlines in Sudan in February 2017 after Yousif Al-Kuda, leader of the Islamic opposition party Al-Wasat, spoke about the losses Sudan has suffered over the years because of its traditional anti-Israel stance. Al-Kuda, a controversial cleric, said that “there is no religious law prohibiting us from changing our anti-Israeli stance and examining our ties with Israel.” He further said that “now, countries that maintain contact with Israel have a stronger position to demand Palestinian rights.” Al-Kuda drew a connection between the establishment of economic, commercial and diplomatic ties with Israel and stability and peace in Sudan. In an interview to the Qatari Al Jazeera, he refused to retract his words. He dubbed the critics’ reaction as “emotional” and expressed hope that his words will become an initiative that would win the hearts of all streams which are currently opposing normalization with Israel.

This is the second public statement on the subject within a year. In January 2017, the issue was raised in Sudan’s dialogue conference, which included an allusion to the Foreign Minister Ibrahim Ghandor, who said: “The issue of normalizing the relations with Israel is a matter that can be examined.”

By joining the coalition of Sunni Arab countries headed by Saudi Arabia, Sudan hinted at the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. The leaks about the possibility of establishing relations with Israel may have been designed to demonstrate to the West that Sudan is serious about moving closer to the positive axis—on the other side of the ‘axis of evil”.[14]

In the meantime, after being drafted to stamp out migration from Sudan to the European Union, 6000 Janjaweed fighters have been sent to Aden to back up Emirati troops following an urgent call from the UAE crown prince, Mohamed bin Zayed al Nayan to Sudanese leader ‘Umar el Bashir.[15] This means that Sudan’s Bashir has won on two levels: the national and now the regional. The Janjaweed militia, which spread mayhem among the civilian population during the Darfur conflict between 2003 and 2013, has been entered into the regular army’s fold, the Sudan Defense Force.[16]

Alongside his extreme ideological line, Bashir is a pragmatic politician. He succeeds in preserving his rule longer than any Arab leader in the region. In spite of all his domestic and international difficulties, Bashir does not consider his opposition as a threat and he faces the challenges as they appear.

*The name of the book Quo Vadis (Henryk Sienkiewicz, 1897) is derived from classical Latin “where are you going to?”

[1]  R. O. Collins, History of Modern Sudan, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 21-32.

[2] Ali S. Karrar, The Sufi brotherhoods in the Sudan. London, 1992.

[3] R.S. O’Fahey, “Islam and Ethnicity in the Sudan”, journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 26, No. 3 (1996), p. 259.

[4] Haim Koren, “South Sudan in the ‘Identity Thicket’ – Challenges to building a nation state”, Ifriqiya Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University (in Hebrew) March 22, 2015.

[5] Reuven  Paz, “The Ideological Development from the Mahdiyya to the Ansar” University of   Haifa  (in Hebrew) 1976. pp. 25-30.

6 G.,Warburg, Historical Discord in the Nile Valley. London  and Evanston. Northwestern  University   Press. 1992. pp.52-66.

[7] Yehudit, Ronen,  “Between the Mahdiyya and the Muslim Brotherhood: Continuity and Change in Islamic Radicalism in Sudan”, Journal of north African Studies, 2007. 12/1/pp. 1-18.

8 Haim  Koren, “the Historiography of the Sudanese society: Identity formation, Orientalism and Oral Traditions” in; Hamizrah Hehadash (The New East) The Hebrew University Magnes Press, Jerusalem. 2005.  pp. 89-98.

[9] Abdelwahab, El-Affendi, Turabi’s Revolution: Islam and Power in Sudan, London. 1991. pp. 43-56

[10]  H. Glickman and E. Rodman,. Islamism in Sudan,  MERIA, (Herzliya) 2008, pp.5-

[11]Khalid Mustafa Medani, “Strife and Secession in Sudan”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 22, No. 3, July 2011, pp. 135-149

[12] V. Tanner& J. Tubiana, Divided they fall: The fragmentation of Darfur’s rebel groups, Small Arms Survey. Geneva, 2007

[13] (The New York Times, 13/1/17).

[14] Roi Kais, “Sudan discusses normalization with Israel” Published: Ynetnews, 02.03.17 , 18:48

[15]–power/2017/02/24/euro-mps-criticise-use-of-janjaweed-to-block-migrants,108213479-ART>), <>,





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