Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat—As Sudan’s embattled President Omar Al-Bashir continues to meet with opposition figures as part of a national dialogue, National Umma Party leader Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi threatened a “popular uprising” if Khartoum does not take the talks seriously.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to two-time Sudanese Prime Minister Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi in Khartoum, where he gave his opinion on the circumstances that led the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) to call the national dialogue, including anti-austerity protests last September that resulted in widespread unrest and calls for Bashir to step down.
Mahdi also spoke about the ongoing dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood and other branches of political Islam, including that practiced by his own Umma Party, as well as the perceived rapprochement between the president and Hassan Al-Turabi, who had been a prominent member of Bashir’s government before splitting with the NCP.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir had initially made the call for a broad national dialogue in January. He met with representatives of 83 political parties in Khartoum earlier this month. That political round table is expected to reconvene in the future, with the president seeking to convince additional opposition parties to participate. Sudan’s main opposition alliance, the National Consensus Forces, has so far refused to take part and suspended groups that participated in talks earlier this month, including Turabi’s own Popular Congress Party.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is your view of President Omar Al-Bashir’s motives regarding the national dialogue? How confident are you in his good faith, considering you have previously accused him of breaching agreements made with your party?
Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi: New factors exist today that differ from those that accompanied his previous calls for dialogue. Six changes have occurred. This is compounded by the deteriorating economic situation as a result of the South’s secession [in 2011] and the loss of oil revenues. This forced the government to implement the austerity measures which precipitated the unrest of last September. The government is now compelled to take similar action, which will inevitably cause a new round of popular unrest.
The second factor is the formation of armed groups under the alliance of the Sudan Revolutionary Front. These groups coordinate with each other on the battlefield, and their operations’ bloody impact on the government has increased.
The third factor includes intense restlessness within the ruling party and the exodus of many of its members, a phenomenon which occurred in eight streams. Their discourse is now similar to ours [the opposition], and this is the first time the ruling party has faced such circumstances. They suffered a split in the past [the dispute between Bashir and Turabi in 1999], but the party is now experiencing a state of complete fragmentation. Criticism has also emerged from within the security forces after a failed coup attempt in November 2012 by officers affiliated with the regime.
The fourth factor is the emergence of Islamist groups who accuse the ruling party of distorting Islam. But the party faces strong opposition from the Right at a time when they also face opposition from the Left.
Fifth, the regime is faced with isolation from the West and the international community because of the tragedies that have befallen civilians and their lack of commitment to international humanitarian conventions.
The regime also became polarized around the battle between secularism and the Muslim Brotherhood that continues to grip Egypt. The situation has transformed into a Cold War in the region as well, standing alongside the depth of the conflict in South Sudan. If the regime chooses to support one side, there will be a problem, and if it chooses neutrality, that will also cause problems.
Q: Why did you accept dialogue with the government without any preconditions? Why did the armed movements and other opposition parties accept it?
Because of the factors that I mentioned. If we were purely politicians, we would have left the regime to face its errors, but we believe that our national duty is to help find a way out in order to avoid a power vacuum that will be filled by armed militias. There are now more than 50 armed militias on the scene, most of which have tribal, not national, agendas. This will tear the country apart. The regime is now under real pressure and all evidence indicates that they are serious about dialogue. We agreed to dialogue, which forms one of the two options we have laid out for the regime, namely the option to negotiate. If the regime does not turn out to be serious about dialogue, we will resort to the second option, which involves mobilizing a popular uprising.
Q: How long will it take to be certain that the regime is serious before the a popular uprising becomes viable?
We will wait if the regime proves it is serious, but if not, we do not see the point of waiting. Thus far, we believe that they are not manipulating us, but what is important is that time is working against them in terms of pressure and international isolation.
Q: Opposition parties have claimed that the security forces prevented them from holding a public debate. They also cited the forced closure of several newspapers recently as evidence of a lack of seriousness on the part of the regime. Has the opposition called for the abolition of restrictive laws as a precondition for participating in the dialogue?
We believe that there are people within the [opposition] alliance who are, in principle, against dialogue, and they are of the opinion that they are waiting for another party to incite change and then they will join in. They do not have the capacity to enact change themselves, and so the reality is that they have no alternative but dialogue. We are not upset about them speaking out against the dialogue, but I do believe that many parties in the coalition agree on dialogue and deem it a reasonable option.
As for the security forces’ behavior and the violations they have committed, we understand them in the framework that we have not reached an agreement with each other. We are waiting until we agree on something, and then we will see if any irregularities exist. In any case, we are of the view that if the party in power says that it wants to engage in dialogue with us, we will not say no. Instead, we will say that we want to enter into a dialogue with various controls. The real test of the regime’s seriousness or lack thereof is whether or not it enters into an agreement with us and adheres to it.
Q: Some believe that the president’s call for dialogue has transformed into a call for reconciliation and unity between the two main Islamist currents, the ruling NCP and the Popular Congress Party led by Hassan Al-Turabi. Do you agree?
These are false signals for a number of reasons, namely that any exclusive meeting between them will contribute to the regime’s domestic and international isolation, because the regime’s reputation during the period in which they [Bashir and Turabi] were united was the worst in history. Second, following the split between the two groups, if they meet under a bilateral framework and not a national one it would destroy their credibility, confirming to the Sudanese people that what happened between them was nothing more than a power struggle.
Then there is also the ready accusation that any bilateral meeting between the two sides is part of a framework of solidarity with the global Muslim Brotherhood movement. Such a meeting would not be in line with national interests.
Q: What do you think about the sudden shift in Turabi’s position, his abandoning violent hostility with Bashir, and his decision to unconditionally accept the invitation to the dialogue?
It is quite clear that these leaders are pragmatic rather than principled, and these developments must be understood in the context of the overall situation in Sudan. We members of the Umma Party, for example, are suited to meet the parties that are positioned against us, because this creates an objective position among political forces. The presence of the Popular Conference Party will confuse the opposition.
Q: What do you say to rumors that the regime is seeking to form a new, broadly Islamist ruling alliance, comprising the NCP, Turabi’s Popular Congress Party, your own Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party?
The NCP has already stated that it wants to gather the Islamists together. We say to him [Bashir], which Islam are you referring to? There is the Brotherhood’s Islam, and then there are other interpretations of Islam. We are talking about an Islam that respects public freedoms, the civil state and the religious rights of others. Our view of Islam is different and we cannot be brought together within their vision of Islam, which is exclusionary and harmful to Islam itself.
Talk about the experience of Sudanese Islam and Egyptian Islam is harmful to Islam, but the Tunisian experience is useful due to the concept of acceptance of the other. We believe that the broad umbrella of [political] Islam includes the Taliban on the Right, passes through [Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan on the Left, and encompasses everything in between.
We cannot accept the Muslim Brotherhood as a member [of the coalition], but we do accept them as negotiators.
Q: You said that Sudan is being influenced by the polarization witnessed in Egypt. Can you explain?
We have two types of people in Sudan: those whose point of reference is the Muslim Brotherhood, who will inevitably sympathize with the Brotherhood in Egypt, and those whose point of reference is secular, who will inevitably sympathize with the [anti-Mursi] National Salvation Front.
We stand alone as non-Brotherhood Islamists, and so from the beginning we have maintained a different opinion. We always said that our role was not to polarize or to belong to one of the two movements. Our work is to find words and a way out, not just here, but regarding the Sunni–Shi’ite conflict as well as the Brotherhood–Salafist conflict. We will remain non-biased, because we realize that other political forces are biased and polarizing.
This interview was originally conducted in Arabic.