Francis Deng is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Studies program at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School. He served as Sudan’s ambassador to Canada from 1980-1983, to the United States from 1974-1976 and to Scandanavian countries from 1972-1974. He was minister of state for foreign affairs from 1976-1980. Khalid Medani interviewed him in Washington in late June 1991.

How would you assess the impact of the Bashir regime on Sudanese society?

A pattern has evolved in northern Sudan around the Islamic agenda, in three major phases. The first was traditional, tribal Sudanese society. Next was the phase of sectarian politics, built on religion but at the same time along traditional lines, with a degree of harmonization between the larger Islamic agenda and local, religious tribal segmentation. As a reaction to this conservative political blend of tradition, Islam and modernity, certain trends emerged in the north such as the Communist movement and the general democratic movement. Another was the Muslim Brothers and the Republican Brothers.

The Communists were destroyed by Numayri; the Republican Brothers, a very small body, were badly demoralized by the execution of their leader in 1985. To a large extent the young forces, the students and the modern Muslim community saw the Muslim Brothers, which became the National Islamic Front, as the logical step in the evolution of this religious/political agenda. Numayri allowed the Brothers to entrench themselves politically, so that for the first time, rather than a small group of elite, aspiring reformists, they found themselves handed significant political opportunities. They then aligned themselves with al-Bashir to form the kind of regime we now see.

In the south you have had a parallel development: Traditional tribal societies are still very much intact. A young, mostly Christian-educated modern elite have now assumed leadership. Not totally above tribalism, they comprise what we might call the transitional phase, parallel to the sectarian phase in the north. The modern forces, represented by and large by the SPLA/SPLM, are the counterparts to the National Islamic Front — in evolutionary phasing, not in content.

Doesn’t this underestimate sectarianism in the south?

Look at the SPLA. They first fought among themselves. Whatever dissension remains, the SPLA has emerged as a powerful political-military movement, with an agenda that has gone even beyond the south in its vision for the nation. It doesn’t mean that ethnic or tribal identities are insignificant. It means that there’s a viable, modern force transcending that.

Do you see this regime as an expression of an ascendant alignment or as a remnant of the past?

The regime, and its ally the NIF, are what you might call the last-phase expression of what the north is all about. Not the only one, but the dominant one. The potential for a realignment is more visible now, in that some of the dominant political parties have been alienated from Khartoum. Today there is a vision from the south that has a certain national integrity, that as it becomes liberated from its local sources in the south begins to win allies. If, in the alliance of convenience now taking place between the northern political forces and the SPLA, they influence one another enough to go a step beyond where they used to be, this process provides some incentive for people to find a solution based on a common ground.

Religion has become a major axis of polarization in Sudanese politics, but we should not oversimplify this to a struggle over Islam.

I take religion as a symbol that summarizes a lot of complexity. It is not so much the fact of people’s adhering to their religion that is the problem, it is when religion becomes a code for a total system that affects not just the subjectivities of those who share the faith but that affects objectively the whole public agenda. When it involves identification with the state, it becomes a yardstick for what position you occupy in that state, a basis for participation, for a sense of legitimacy, for distribution of power and resources.

Whatever we may say about liberality and equality, as long as you identify one culture, one race, one religion as your key concept for defining the public agenda, you may be magnanimous, you may be humane, you may be tolerant, but those who are outside that faith can never feel that they are fully equal.

We have evoked the classical concept of Islam, with its absence of separation between church and state. Most Muslims feel that there is now a chance for their religion to be given its proper place in society, almost as though those who have that literal perception of the relationship between religion and state are now for the first time exercising their right of self-determination, which foreigners have interfered with.

You have written about “competing visions of the nation”: Do you mean the vision of the SPLM versus the vision of the NIF?

Those are the dominant visions, the armed visions. There are many Sudanese, on both sides, who are much more compromising, but these two agendas are almost incompatible. In a sense they are also fictions. There is a lot more that is in common than we recognize. The most obvious is ethnicity or race. If one were to define Arabism and Africanism in racial terms, there’s no way you can say northerners and southerners are very different. If you were to say, no, it is cultural, you cannot say that the cultural Arabism of the north is entirely Arab — there’s a lot in it that is a mixture. The same also applies to the south. Let’s define cultural differences between Arab and African in terms that will shed light on the common ground. Is it possible to cut across the divide? This goes to the question of leadership. What I hear said about so many of the leaders from the north — Sadiq al-Mahdi, Turabi, al-Bashir — is that no Muslim leader can dare put aside shari‘a. In the past, people could be religious without imposing a qualified and modified religious agenda on the state. If today we are qualifying shari‘a so as to foster equality, as the charter of the NIF says, and if the various peace proposals say that no one will be discriminated against on the basis of religion, right there you have already qualified religion in a way that is not orthodox. If you are adapting your religion, if you are modifying and modernizing your religious perception, where do you feel you must stop before you have ceased to adhere to religion?

What we have is impotence in the leadership, a feeling that we cannot touch this sensitive area. In trying to find clever ways of going around it, they end up conceding so much, but not enough for the other, because it is still labeled more or less an Islamic system. The question then is, do we try to find still more clever ways of circumventing difficulties or do we face those difficulties boldly and define a framework that all the Sudanese can identify with? So far no leader in the north has professed that he can do this.

Could future leaders outside of the traditional mainstream implement a more courageous program?

Numayri can speak from exile in favor of putting shari‘a aside for the sake of unity, but it may well be that if he were back in power, he would face the same sort of constraints. To be fair, it is a religious culture. That leads one to a paradoxical conclusion, that we should set religion aside, but this is proving extremely difficult.

Here you have another problem. In this day and age, the relationship between state and religion is subject to other universally defined standards of human rights. Even if you were to remove southerners and Christians from the northern arena, there are going to be northerners who do not want to be subjected to the religious agenda.

Many feel that the concept of universal human rights is a Western notion, and that people of different cultures have standards of human rights that are equally compassionate and humane.

I agree that there must be values in every culture that aspire toward respect for human dignity and derive certain rights from that respect. Universal human rights is the result of primarily Western tradition. Not all the world cultures were represented in the drafting of the universal human rights charter and other instruments; that universality could in fact benefit by its being linked to concepts of human dignity in various cultures. We shouldn’t take it as a foreign concept that we accept reluctantly because it is imposed on us. We should find legitimacy within various cultural traditions.

Most political leaders see human rights as a constraint on their power, and exploit the relativity of human rights by saying this may be fine by your standards, but we don’t think of human rights in those terms. Human rights are essentially protection for the weak, whether individuals or minority social groups. Would those who are oppressed say that by the standards of our culture the government has the right to treat us this way? It is usually those who inflict violations of human rights who argue relativist values.

What has been the impact of the Gulf war?

The evolution of different elements of Sudanese identity has always been linked to external forces and external developments, particularly in the north because people there see themselves as Arabs, as Muslims, linked with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world as the source of a great civilization.

I’m one of those who believe that during the Numayri phase, with the settlement of the southern problem and later with extending regionalism to the rest of the country and the Socialist Union bringing people from all corners of Sudan, that Sudan emerged as a vibrant, exciting, diverse society. We discovered that not all northern Sudanese spoke perfect Arabic; many did not speak Arabic at all. We discovered that many southerners had a lot more in common with people in the north.

The 1973 war and the oil boom left Sudanese feeling that we, as Arabs, with all Sudan’s natural resource wealth, could be very appealing to the Arab world as a place to invest, and there were opportunities for working in the Gulf states. All of this reinforced a sense of identification with the Arab world. Need has been part of it. We are a proud people who don’t want to beg, but the impact of modernity and the dictates of material conditions, the feeling that we’ve missed the boat and we have to catch up, all this has corrupted the Sudanese sense of our own values.

When the Gulf war came, objective conditions pulled Khartoum toward Baghdad — after all, Iraq had been helping the government fight its war in a situation where very few people were in a position to help. Then there was the response of many Sudanese outside, a sense of solidarity — not that Iraq should have gone into Kuwait, but that Iraq was confronted by this colossus, the United States.

What are the major internal forces that sustain this regime?

My impression, before I returned to Sudan shortly after the coup, was that these were National Islamic Front people. My discussions revealed that there were different shades, even factions.

Those who wanted some form of Islamic agenda has undoubtedly been the predominant one. Southern Sudan has always been the brake on that. The south gave the secularists in the north, the nationalists, justification for speaking with a sense of integrity for a secular agenda — not because they were not good Muslims, but because they disapprove of shari‘a, and believe that for the unity of the country we have to accommodate the south.

The regime is building on a reservoir of aspiration for an Islamic state, which most of the northern opponents of the regime have shared in one way or another. That is why many believe that the regime would not find it difficult to coopt others. They are working to implement a total system. They are moving in a way that could profoundly change Sudan.

Are you more pessimistic now, concerning the problem of national reconciliation?

I take optimism as an essential part of addressing problems strategically. You may not have lasting solutions, but you have solutions that manage the situation to a degree. One consideration is that unless you satisfy all the Sudanese who have significant potential for using force, you cannot find a solution. Any solution must be not only peace, but peace with justice and dignity to the Sudanese who are affected. We have to say unity of the country is a noble idea that we all espouse. But unity cannot be possible when people are committed to policies that are divisive and incompatible. It ought to be possible to produce a framework to give those, who for reasons of their religious or ethnic identity, cannot identify with the mainstream Islamic agenda. But at the same time it ought to be possible to give those who identify as part of the north the opportunities to be able to make choices of their own. To the extent that everybody has agreed on a federal arrangement, the controversy is whether you have a framework that is called Islamic and then the states can opt out of it, or is called secular and the states can choose Islamic agendas.

What will events in Ethiopia mean for Sudan?

The two countries’ situations have always been intertwined. The privileges and support that the Mengistu regime gave the SPLA are gone. But Sudan’s problems are fundamentally internal.

The other sense in which it is going to have an impact is the example it gives. If we see that the various groups within Ethiopia can come to mutual accommodation, if there can be some formula whereby the Eritreans achieve what they want but within a larger framework of Ethiopia, their example would be quite interesting.

With respect to the Middle East, I am profoundly convinced that connections outside Sudan have the potential of being great assets or curses. They are blessings when we put our house in order and we reach out together with united hands to benefit from our kinship ties to the Arab world and to Africa. During the period of Numayri’s settlement of the southern problem, Sudan played a role fostering Afro-Arab cooperation. Those of us who represented Sudan, northerners or southerners, could move in African and Arab circles to promote not only Afro-Arab cooperation but to mobilize African support for the Arab cause. Support that Africa gave to the Palestinian cause, for instance, was a direct extension of that role. Sudan, out of its own experience of reconciliation, has shown it can be a link between Africa and the Middle East, and be a positive factor for moderation within the region.

How to cite this article:

Khalid Mustafa Medani "An Interview with Francis Deng," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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