Sudanese Islamist rejects UN pressure

Turabi interview: In the face of international outrage, the Khartoum regime is defiant
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The Independent Online
If Sudan's Islamic regime is feeling under pressure, its enigmatic leader, Hassan al-Turabi, is putting on a brave face. Indeed, the sexagenarian ideologue gives the appearance of relishing the adversity facing his country in the wake of the recent United Nations resolution demanding that Sudan hand over three terrorist suspects wanted in connection with last year's attempted assassination of the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak.

"I know in two months or so another resolution may be passed," Mr Turabi said in an interview. "A condemnation, an ultimatum and then sanctions. But what do we lose? This is one of the richest countries in the world. Without challenges, countries don't develop. It's all right - all the world now knows the Sudan."

Sudan, on the UN's list of the world's poorest nations, has been repeatedly accused by the international community of giving refuge and training to Muslim militant groups. Western nations, led by the United States, with Egypt and other Arab states, say Sudan's Islamist-backed government is sponsoring terrorism to promote its radical concept of jihad, or holy struggle, in neighbouring countries.

The turning-point in Sudan's relations with its neighbours came last year with Khartoum's implication in the assassination attempt on Mr Mubarak in Addis Ababa.

Despite Khartoum's denials, the UN has set an April deadline for the handover of the three suspects believed to be in Sudan. The government, pleading ignorance of their whereabouts, has issued a warrant for their arrest. "Why do you condemn us in a resolution; why don't you condemn us because we're not your friends?" asked Dr Turabi. "I mean, you could say all right, Sudan is not our friend, therefore the United Nations, on behalf of the United States, condemns the Sudan. The UN resolution is basically an Egyptian and British initiative. The ex-colonial powers are very jealous of the Sudan because we're asserting too much independence".

Though he has no accredited office, Dr Turabi is regarded as the de facto head of government, while President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who came to power in 1989, is seen as little more than a figurehead. Dr Turabi's National Islamic Front effectively runs the state, permeating government ministries and security institutions.

"We are trying to introduce new values into public life, into the economy, into education," he said. "Are we trying to expand our Islamic model and show it to the world? Yes. The world is like that. CNN is invading my bedroom. But we will not use force to expand Islam because we are very weak - if we use force we will lose the battle." Dr Turabi's renunciation of violence will do little to placate Sudan's neighbours. A number of Palestinian and extremist Islamic groups are understood to operate out of Sudan, which declared itself an Islamic state in 1990 when President Bashir visited Iran. Three so-called "popular Islamic conferences" have attracted representatives of all the main militant Muslim movements in the Arab world.

However, Dr Turabi's contention that "we have the support of populations all over the world" has not been borne out by recent developments. The recent Security Council vote was unanimous. In the past year nearly all Sudan's neighbours have turned against it. Support from erstwhile allies, Libya and Iran, has waned.

Repeatedly returning during the interview to his notion of an international conspiracy against Sudan, Dr Turabi declared Sudan "one of the safest places in the world" and asked: "Why is England so angry about Sudan asserting her independence and speaking Arabic?"

He accused the British media of complicity in the victimisation of Sudan. "The media is mostly against us," he said. "An honest correspondent cannot have his material published over there - they will cross it out or change it completely."

Once highly regarded for his intellectual agility, Dr Turabi, who studied law in London and Paris and speaks several European languages, is widely felt to have lost some of his dynamism in recent years. Many observers point to an incident in Canada in 1992 when he suffered a severe karate blow to the head from an opponent of the Sudanese regime.

For the moment, Dr Turabi remains very much a leading player in the complex and covert world of Sudanese politics, though his star is believed to be waning as other, more outspoken apologists for radical Islam move centre-stage.