As protests inspired by the Egyptian uprising spread throughout the Middle East, there has been a lot of speculation about what government might fall next. Could it be Bahrain? Or Libya? Or Yemen? In fact, one of the governments that might, over the long run, be most vulnerable isn’t really on anyone’s radar at the moment. I am referring to the government of Sudan.
But here’s the catch: While the events in Egypt could very well start a chain reaction that would lead to the downfall of the current Sudanese regime, it won’t happen in the obvious way—with protesters massing in the streets and demanding the ouster of a longtime dictator. Instead, the events in Egypt are likely to accelerate a process that is taking place anyway: the ongoing fracturing of northern Sudanese society—a fracturing that could be a prelude to civil war.
To understand how this might happen, you first have to grasp the complicated politics of northern Sudan (the southern part of the country is soon to be under the rule of an entirely different government, having recently voted for independence). At the most basic level, the north is divided into two camps. On one side are Islamists and Arab nationalists; on the other are an array of secularists, socialists, African Sudanese, and democratic progressives who demand that the Northern Nile River elites share power in a secular democratic state.
But within the Islamist and Arab nationalist camp, there is a further split: between the National Congress Party, led by current President Omar Al Bashir; and the more strident Islamists, who follow Hasan Al Turabi, one of the founders of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood. Originally, Bashir and Turabi were allies. They came to power together in a 1989 coup. Bashir became the head of government, though Turabi had been the coup’s mastermind. Together, the two men established the first Sunni Islamist state; extended Sharia law (first imposed by the former Sudanese dictator Numayri) through a new Islamist court system; Islamized the financial and banking systems; and prosecuted a brutal war in the Christian, non-Arab south in which more than two million people died. They also invited virtually every violent Islamist group in the world to base their operations and training camps in Sudan. Six months after taking power, Turabi orchestrated a long-term alliance between Iran and Sudan; they remain among each other’s closest allies. It was Turabi who invited Osama bin Laden to live and work in Sudan during the 1990s. Bin Laden married Turabi’s niece, and went into business with Turabi’s son, trading in Arabian horses.
Gradually, however, Bashir and his party, the National Congress Party (NCP), moved away from Turabi’s radicalism. While Turabi was a true militant, it soon became clear that the only thing the NCP is militant about is their own survival. In 1995, an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, attempted to assassinate Egyptian President Mubarak at an Organization for African Unity conference in Addis Ababa. Egyptian intelligence believed the plot was orchestrated by Turabi. Sudan and Egypt nearly went to war over the incident, but ultimately Bashir decided to de-escalate tensions with Mubarak and distance himself from Turabi. A year later, bin Laden was expelled from Sudan because of pressure from the United States and Saudi Arabia, and Turabi was forced to find a home for his friend in Afghanistan. By 1999, Sudan’s two major political figures were locked in a raw power struggle: Turabi, as speaker of the National Assembly, attempted to reduce Bashir’s constitutional powers and increase his own, causing a bitter rift between the two men, which led to Turabi’s ouster. Since 2000, Turabi has been repeatedly imprisoned whenever he threatened or attacked the Bashir government. Turabi’s purge healed the breach between Sudan and Egypt, and Mubarak’s government vowed that it would never allow Turabi to rule Sudan again.
To this day, the quarrel between Turabi and Bashir continues to divide Sudan’s Islamist movement. The Bashir government fears Turabi and his acolytes more than any other domestic opposition group, probably because they share the same base of support. Turabi claims the loyalty of perhaps half of the officer corps of the Sudanese army, and his supporters are the best organized among the country’s opposition. In May 2008, a Darfuri Islamist rebel group led by Khalil Ibrahim—who in the past has called Turabi his political godfather and has had a warm relationship with him, although he now disavows any link—drove 800 miles across the desert from the Chad border, with 2,000 troops and heavy weapons, to attack Khartoum and attempt to overthrow Bashir and his party. Ibrahim’s men fought their way to the Nile River Bridge near the presidential palace, where they were turned back by internal security forces in heavy street-to-street fighting—the first in Khartoum since 1973. Bashir was shaken by the incident and promptly arrested Turabi, who he believed was behind the attack.
At the same time that Bashir has struggled to keep Turabi and his other erstwhile allies at bay, he has also had to deal with the non-Islamist, non-Arab opposition inside Sudan. Even with the secession of the African and Christian South, 45 percent of the new northern Sudanese state remains non-Arab and resents the domination of the country by the Northern Nile River Arabs and Islamism. Although most of the north is Muslim, the Sufist Islamic tradition—which opposes or remains ambivalent about an Islamist state—claims the devotion of a much larger portion of the population than Salafist Islam. Turabi’s political party, which grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood, never received more than 18 percent of the vote in national elections.
So, for the past few decades, Bashir has navigated uneasily between these two powerful constituencies: his fellow Islamists and the opposition. Now, however, two recent events may prompt Bashir to abandon this careful balancing act. The first was south Sudanese succession. Under the terms of a North-South peace agreement brokered by the United States, Bashir agreed to let southern Sudanese voters choose whether they wanted to separate from the north in a January 2011 referendum. (On February 7, it was announced that 98 percent of southerners had voted for secession.) Alongside rising food prices, a heavy debt burden, and a major reduction of oil revenues (75 percent of Sudanese oil reserves and production are in the south), this alienated Bashir’s Islamist base, which attacked him for acquiescing to the referendum. Probably in response, Bashir vowed three weeks before the vote that, should the South secede, he would amend the constitution to declare northern Sudan an Arab Islamic state.
The second event is the fall of Mubarak. Egyptian hostility to Turabi and his brand of Islam forced Bashir and his party to distance themselves from the radical Islamist agenda. Bashir remains determined to marginalize Turabi (whom he recently put in prison again) and to win the struggle for the Islamist base. For years, his alliance with Mubarak provided one of the main breaks on just how far he could go in appeasing the Islamists. Now that constraint is gone. And, if the Muslim Brotherhood gains significant power in Egypt, that could provide even more reason for Bashir to tip further toward Islamism.
While such a strategy might preserve Bashir’s power in the short term, it could lead to disaster in the long term. By trying to secure his Islamist and Arab base, Bashir will only be setting the stage for a new civil war in the north. The Beja people to the east, the tribes of the Nuba Mountains, the Ngok Dinka in Abyei, the Funj in Blue Nile province, and the rebellious Darfur tribes do not want Sharia law or an Islamist state in Sudan, whether it is led by Turabi or Bashir. And they will go to war to prevent it, even if it means the dissolution of the new northern Sudan state.
Andrew Natsios is a professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University and author of the forthcoming book Sudan and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know.