Religious zealot who has turned Sudan into a pariah state

Khartoum's Islamic path has left the nation friendless and in poverty, reports Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
Dr Hassan al-Turabi gazed out of his office window, above the point where the Blue and White Niles meet, and sniffed at the British colonial bridge which still traverses the river.

The religious guru, accused by the US of supporting Islamic terrorism, preferred to focus further upstream on the bridge being built by the Chinese.

To say Dr Turabi, speaker of the Sudanese parliament and leader of National Islamic Front (NIF), which seized power in Sudan seven years ago, was anti-British would be a monumental understatement. "We did not ask them to come here and massacre people," Dr Turabi said, referring to Kitchener's defeat of the Mahdist tribesmen a century ago at the Battle of Omdurman, which led to British-Egyptian rule in Sudan until independence in 1956.

In his opulent office, where engraved Islamic texts sit alongside mounted models of bullets, Dr Turabi says Britain hardly invests in Sudan any more. He looks beyond the obvious - like the NIF's alleged links with terrorists - for reasons, and argues that the British, like the Egyptians, are jealous of the former colony's success.

It is hard to see how. Despite Dr Turabi's upbeat assertions, Sudan could hardly be in worse shape. The Islamic Arab north has been at war with the African Christian and animist south for 30 of the past 40 years. The war has claimed millions of lives and is estimated to be costing $1m (pounds 625,000) a day.

Sudan could do with friends but in the seven years since the NIF manipulated itself into power - immediately banning all political parties - Sudan has become one of the loneliest countries on the planet. It is shunned by Arab countries for its support of Iraq during the Gulf War and for harbouring Islamist extremists. Egypt believes Sudan was involved in the 1995 assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak, and the country is virtually at war with Uganda, which it accuses of backing southern SPLA rebels.

Now its eastern neighbours Eritrea and Ethiopia, worried by its expansionist rhetoric, have given refuge to Dr Turabi's brother-in-law and former prime minister, Sadiq al Mahdi, who fled Khartoum at Christmas. Mr Mahdi, great grandson of the original 19th century leader and head of the National Democratic Alliance, shook the Turabi regime to its roots in January by launching the first joint attack on Sudan's eastern border by his northern opposition group and the SPLA.

An undeclared international embargo, meanwhile, has dried foreign investment and aid to a trickle.

Dr Turabi believes Sudan's Islamic government is setting an example for the entire Arab world, and at first meeting his overseas reputation as a "mad, evil genius" seems undeserved.

Who can blame a poor Arab country for trying to forge its own way? "It is good they have isolated us," he says. "It forces us to be independent."

Dr Turabi, who was educated at London University, the Sorbonne and in the US, became a bogeyman only in the 1990s but he has been pulling strings in Sudanese politics for decades, nursing his Islamic dream andwaiting for his chance.

He talks for two hours. Western democratic systems are routinely trashed. Dr Turabi does admit, however, that Sudan has buckled under US pressure. It has expelled some alleged extremists and made itself less of a home from home for radical Islamic movements.

Ironically, Washington refuses to acknowledge any change. It recently provided Eritrea, Ethiopia and Uganda with $20m of "non lethal" military aid. That strengthens Dr Turabi's call for defiance. "If that is what the US admits to, there is far more happening covertly," he says.

After attacking all international enemies, Dr Turabi sneers at those at home who believe religion is something private and separate from politics. Unfortunately that is the way the majority of Sudanese Muslims (Sufis) see it.

The logical conclusion of Dr Turabi's Islam occurred during the January attack in the east when an imam in camouflage fatigues, wielding an AK47, incited people in Khartoum to jihad. The call did bring considerable numbers on to the street but the fervour was short-lived. Many Sudanese were offended by this fusion of politics and religion.

Sudan is a comparatively relaxed Islamic country and its Muslim population is conducting a quiet but highly effective campaign to keep it that way.

Directives that men and women should not walk together and women cover themselves more completely are ignored. "They will never make their brand of Islam stick," says a Sudanese academic. "People are saying little but they stay away. The sheikhs are also silent. That is their statement."

The professor, like most government opponents, is too afraid to give his name. Khartoum is crawling with security police and up to 500 dissidents are estimated to be under arrest.

But in Dr Turabi's eyes there are no secret police or "ghost houses" where dissidents are tortured; there is only a "free country" and popular support for a government poised to realise Sudan's enormous potential.