By Omneya El-Naggar
Imam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi is definitely a man of few words and a lot of action. His charismatic posture denounces an aristocratic demeanour, despite an ascetic lifestyle. Clad in the traditional white robe and turban, cane in hand, with smile unfading, he cheerfully greets his followers and guests of the lecture he gave in Daal Center for Research and Media, entitled “Political Islam between the Da’wah and the Authority”.
He is also a man full of worries about the future of Sudan. “If the status quo continues, disunity and disintegration of Sudan will be the outcome,” he assures.
Born in 1935 in Omdurman, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi rose to political prominence through what he described as a “life of struggle”. He is the great grandson of Muhammad Ahmad Al-Mahdi, who founded the Mahdiyya Movement on 29 June 1881, which rebelled against the Turco-Egyptian rule and was the first Sudanese movement to embrace nationalism beyond tribal loyalties. Incorporating an Islamic upbringing with Western education was a trait that characterised his political thought and career.
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi has served since 1964 as the elected leader of Sudan’s largest opposition party National Umma Party (NUP), established in February 1945 under the slogan “Sudan for the Sudanese”. He served as prime minister twice. The first time was between July 1966 until May 1967, which was ended by Ja’far Al-Nimeiri’s military coup. The second time was from May 1986 until his last democratically-elected civilian government was toppled by the military coup headed by Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in 1989. The latter has ruled Sudan since then, and recently won the presidential election held last April with 94% of the vote, thus extending his 26-year rule.
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi became the Imam of the Ansar after his uncle, the Imam Al-Hadi Al-Mahdi, was killed in 1970 in the assault by Al-Nimeiri’s forces on his base in Aba Island on the White Nile, which resulted in the deaths of 3,000 of the Ansar.
In assessing the current political situation in Sudan and the prospects for stability, Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi referred to the need to follow a new approach that is at once democratic and inclusive of all political factions.
He says: “The great scholar Ibn Khaldun reminds us that every phenomenon in the natural and social existence must follow certain rules. This is manifested in the Qur’anic verse: Our Lord is He who gave each thing its form and then guided it (Taha: 50).”
The Imam does not see any of the four rules that he considers essential for the stability of all political regimes currently present in Sudan: popular approval, satisfactory provision of daily needs, security, and international recognition. With the lack of these four elements, the state becomes a “failed state”, and the regime can only survive through coercion and suppression. This is what he thinks we are witnessing now in Sudan. The “failed state” syndrome has caused a lot of sufferings to the people with the increase in the numbers of fronts for warring militias, the alarming situation of Sudanese refugees, and the widespread corruption.
Al-Mahdi adds: “The current regime has failed to abide by the dictates of the International Human Rights Law. It has also failed to carry what the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect describes as the responsibility of the state to protect its population from genocide, war crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing.”
In addition, the regime has failed in handling the diversity of Sudan that is manifested on racial, ethnic, tribal, religious and ideological levels. “This failure is symptomatic of the regime since it led its Islamist coup in 1989 and turned the civil war into a jihadist war that practices excommunication or takfir against its opponents,” he explains.
“Not only did the Islamists impose their agendas, they gave the Southern separatist movement international accountability,” Al-Mahdi adds. He sees this as a huge mistake, because it showed how the regime was willing to defend its interests and ideology at the expense of the Sudanese national interest.
The NUP, in addition to other Sudanese opposition parties, boycotted the latest presidential elections and issued a joint statement rejecting its results. They also called upon the Sudanese people to unite and join a massive civil disobedience campaign to show their resentment to the centralisation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and topple Al-Bashir.
Al-Mahdi does not believe that Sudan needs uprisings similar to the Arab Spring countries. According to him, these were spontaneous and unorganised. They also lacked vision and direction. As a result, they were either used by the military or by the Islamists.
“What is needed in Sudan now is a National Dialogue. If this fails, then popular movements with organised leadership should change the regime through political and peaceful means,” he insists.
After being deposed during the 1989 coup, Al-Mahdi was imprisoned and put under house arrest for almost seven years until he escaped to Eritrea in 1996 to return in 2000. He was imprisoned several times before as well in 1969, 1973 and 1983. Al-Mahdi considered time in prison as time to re-arrange his thoughts, read and write abundantly. Indeed, he is recognised as an influential moderate Islamist and political thinker. His books cover a variety of topics, including The Southern Question (1964), They Ask You about Mahdism (1979), The Future of Islam in Sudan (1981), The Rights of Women in Islam (1985), Legitimate Penalties and their Position in the Islamic Social System (1987), Democracy in Sudan Will Return and Triumph (1990), Challenges of the Nineties (1991).
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi was arrested on 17 May 2014, on charges of defamation, dissemination of false news, halting the constitutional system and inciting hatred against the state. These charges came after Al-Mahdi accused the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces of committing abuses against civilians in Darfur. Al-Mahdi was released on 15 June 2014.
The Imam has been residing in Egypt for the last ten months, and contrary to his critics who see his influential role as an opposition figure declining, he states that he is extremely busy mediating between the different Sudanese political factions and building dialogue bridges with international mediators.
A few hours after his lecture, the Imam headed to France to participate in a hearing with the European Union (EU) parliament for the “Sudan Call” forces on 9 June in Strasbourg, to discuss the prospects for peace and democratic reforms in Sudan after the elections.
Leading Sudanese opposition figures who were supposed to join him were barred by the Sudanese security authorities from travelling to France. Delegates prevented from leaving Khartoum included members of the coalition of the National Consensus Forces (NCF), the National Umma Party (NUP), the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces (SRF) and various civil society groups.
Serving as president of the International Moderation Forum, Al-Mahdi also launched what came to be known as the “Paper for Awakening the Umma” during the International Conference on the “Role of Moderation in Confronting Terrorism for Accomplishing Global Peace and Stability”, held in Amman last March. For him, there is now a need for a new interpretation of the Shari’a that can reconcile between the religious context and the concept of citizenship.
Despite criticism of failing to stand up to his duty as one of the most important opposition leaders in Sudan, Imam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi continues to see his role as an embodiment of struggle for a Sudanese democratic future. He still believes in the possibility of National Dialogue following the example of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) that was set up in 1991, and by which 92 organisations united in their opposition to apartheid. His magical formula implies that only a good management of diversity and avoidance of violence by all means can present an effective breakthrough to the current political situation.