While Islamic fundamentalism has become a major political force in the Arab world in recent years, particularly in the countries of the Maghrib, it is in Sudan where the Islamist movement has realized its greatest ambition: controlling the levers of state power and setting itself up as a model for similarity oriented movements. Its leaders in Sudan have actively supported groups elsewhere — reportedly helping to plan a recent failed military coup in Tunis and convening meetings with high officials of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Khartoum. [1]

Sudan’s Muslim Brethren, through their political party, the National Islamic Front (NIF), were well placed to assume power, buttressed by a formidable economic base and supported by a particularly advantaged social group. The reasons underlying their success in Sudan can help us assess the prospects of other, similarly oriented movements elsewhere.

Fundamental Coup

The members of the military junta that seized power on June 30, 1989 were practically unknown, but the timing of the coup pointed to a close alliance between the leaders of the “Revolution for National Salvation” and the NIF.

In December 1988, widespread strikes and demonstrations erupted in Khartoum, led by the newly revitalized workers’ and tenants’ unions and federations of professionals, civil servants and artisans. [2] These were the social groups which in the 1950s and 1960s supported the influential Sudanese Communist Party and were largely responsible for the downfall of the military regimes of Ibrahim ‘Abboud (1958-1964) and Ja‘far Numayri (1969-1985). [3] Once again these social groups took to the streets, calling themselves the “Modern Forces” in contrast to the traditional parties which have dominated Sudanese politics since independence.

Their actions stemmed from the frustration caused by the squabbling among the traditional Umma and Democratic Unionist Parties, and the alliance of the NIF with the Umma Party to form a majority in parliament. The primary demands of the Modern Forces were a peaceful solution to the civil war between the government and the southern rebel movement, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the repeal of the shari‘a-based laws of September 1983. [4]

Two months later, in February 1989, a group of high-ranking military officers joined the Modern Forces’ cause. They submitted a memorandum to the civilian government demanding that it seek an immediate solution to the war and stating their own refusal to pursue a military solution.

These events culminated in a National Memorandum for Peace, subsequently signed by all major parties except the NIF, which opted to leave the government and form an opposition front. This compelled the prime minister and Umma party leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi, to form a new coalition incorporating members of the professional, trade and workers’ unions into the government. This coalition recommended peace talks based on an agreement signed in Addis Ababa in November of 1988 by SPLA leader John Garang and Muhammad ‘Uthman al-Mirghani, head of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and spiritual leader of the Khatmiyya religious sect. This agreement called for repeal of the 1983 September laws and postponement of shari‘a law until a truly representative constitutional conference could be convened following a ceasefire. [5]

In mid-June 1989, the Mahdi government announced that a cabinet meeting on July 1 would formally repeal the September laws, contingent upon the review of a legal committee comprising representatives from all political parties. On July 4, a government delegation and the SPLA were to meet to propose a permanent resolution to the civil war. [6] Twenty-four hours before the July 1 meeting, a group of mid-ranking officers took over the Republican Palace, the parliament and the national broadcasting station, rounded up top party and union leaders throughout the capital, and announced the Revolutionary Command Council under the leadership of Lt. Gen. Omar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir.

It appears that the Muslim Brethren and the NIF greatly contributed to the success of the June 30 coup. The Brethren had been marginalized by widespread popular support for a swift resolution to the country’s economic problems by way of ending the civil war. Their twofold aim was to preempt any peace agreement and reverse the ascendancy of the largely secular forces newly incorporated into the government. [7] The junta targeted these forces for repression, dissolving all parties and structures of the constituent assembly, and imprisoning a disproportionate number of members of workers’ and professional unions. They banned all independent publications, forcibly retired over 300 senior officers, and replaced hundreds of civil servants with NIF members and their sympathizers. [8]

Small Traders and Islamic Banks

The Muslim Brethren’s greatest strength lies in two sectors of Sudanese society. The first, typical of fundamentalist movements in other countries, is the constituency of secondary school and university students, particularly in the capital. During the 1970s, a large number of Brethren supporters had become teachers in the western provinces, and consequently there has been major support for the movement there. When these students went on to universities in Khartoum, they came to dominate student politics. [9]

The second base is among small traders and industrialists, petit bourgeois entrepreneurs threatened by the traditionally powerful merchant families. Following the establishment of the Faysal Islamic Bank in May 1978, under the initiative of the Muslim Brethren, “Islamic” banks have forcefully entered the Sudanese financial system and attracted these small traders and industrial entrepreneurs. [10]

The Numayri regime afforded them a special advantage over other commercial banks, exempting them from state control. In December 1983, three months after the shari‘a decrees, a presidential committee converted the entire banking system, including foreign banks, to an Islamic formula. Numayri timed this to outflank the traditional religious and political leaders and cultivate the allegiance of the Muslim Brethren, the only political group still supporting him. [11]

The Faysal Islamic Bank’s paid-up capital had risen from 3.6 million Sudanese pounds in 1979 to as much as 57.6 million pounds in 1983. Over the same period the Bank’s net profits rose from 1.1 million to 24.7 million pounds, while its assets, both at home and abroad, increased from 31.1 million to 441.3 million pounds. [12] The Faysal Islamic Bank is not only the first of its kind but also has served as a model for similar banks which, taken together, have come to play an influential role in the country’s financial sector. The Bank was founded in 1977 under the initiative of Prince Muhammad bin Faysal of Saudi Arabia. He and other private Saudi sources provide 40 percent of the bank’s capital base. Sudanese citizens provide another 40 percent, while the remaining 20 percent comes from other foreign nationals, primarily from the Persian Gulf states. [13]

The Faysal Islamic Bank, like other Islamic banks in Sudan, has an office in Jidda, which accepts deposits from Saudi citizens and Sudanese expatriates living in the Gulf. Because most of these banks’ capital is garnered from Arab sources, the success of this banking sector has paralleled the fortunes of the oil-exporting Arab countries. Sudan’s Muslim Brethren found themselves well placed to dominate this system in Sudan. [14]

The investment pattern of these banks encouraged the growth of small and medium-sized businesses (over 90 percent of their investments are allocated to export/import trade and only 4 percent to agriculture), and has effectively ensured support for the Muslim Brethren from the middle and lower strata of urban entrepreneurs. This has led to conflict with the traditional export-import merchants, mostly linked to the Khatmiyya sect, who had previously dominated this sector and whose members have little access to Islamic bank financing. (These businessmen, as a result of the scarcity of hard currency and little access to commercial bank borrowing, have resorted to trading foreign currencies to maintain their own business operations. This partially explains the government’s recent crackdown on “black market” currency traders under the pretext of curbing inflation, in order to maintain the Islamic banks’ monopoly on commercial lending.)

Islamic bank clients generally enter into a joint venture with the bank for a specific project. This usually takes the form of an equity participation agreement (musharaka) in which both parties agree on a profit-loss split based on the proportion of capital provided. If, for example, a trader buys and sells $10,000 worth of industrial spare parts, the bank (while not charging interest) takes 25 percent of the profits and the borrower the remaining 75 percent, assuming an equivalent proportion of capital provision. [15]

An aspiring businessman, to qualify for an Islamic bank loan, must provide a reliable reference from an already established businessman with a good record of support for the movement. [16] This has led to almost comic attempts on the part of many in the urban marketplace to assume the physical as well as religious and political guise of Islamists. The Brethren have also provided numerous philanthropic and social services to broaden their political base — for example, educational scholarships abroad to those who assume an ardent political posture on their behalf. They actively solicit employment for recent university graduates, an especially attractive service these days. [17]

The escalating national debt and lack of domestic savings have made Islamic banks one of the most important sources of finance. Prior to the Gulf war, the Brethren’s close links with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states meant almost no shortage of cash. In a country as poor as Sudan, it is not difficult to see why the Islamist movement grew dramatically from the late 1970s onward.

The conflict between this newly emerging small-scale trading and industrial bourgeoisie and the Khatmiyya sect, which had managed, under colonial rule, to consolidate its power among the urban petty traders, has political ramifications as well. The leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party comes from the Khatmiyya, which helps account for the National Islamic Front’s alliance with the Umma Party. The Umma Party, deriving its economic fortunes primarily from agricultural schemes, poses much less of a rivalry to the Muslim Brethren. In response to the success of the Faisal Islamic Bank and others dominated by Brethren members, a number of wealthy Khatmiyya merchants established the Sudanese Islamic Bank in 1982, a clear bid to regain their monopoly of the country’s retail trade and financial system. [18] (The Khatmiyya’s spiritual leader, Muhammad ‘Uthman al-Mirghani, careful in the 1970s not to speak out against shari‘a, in recent years has opposed its implementation on the grounds that it poses an obstacle to the peaceful resolution of the civil war.)

Remittances in Suitcases

The oil price hikes of 1973 helped shape the political economy of Sudan primarily by privileging a specific social group that ingeniously translated economic opportunity into political clout. The “hidden” economy of remittance flows from the Gulf helped shape antagonistic economic relations which eventually found political expression of the most divisive and violent sort.

Formal remittances, as late as 1985, represented over 70 percent of the value of Sudan’s exports and over 35 percent of imports. Labor is Sudan’s primary export. The formal record vastly under-represents the true magnitude of these external flows, since most are transacted illegally through the flourishing black market. The appropriate entry in the International Monetary Fund’s balance-of-payments statistics accounts for less than 15 percent of earnings reported by the migrant workers themselves. [19] Some estimate that the value of fixed and liquid assets reported by workers in the Gulf was close to $3 billion — most of it channeled through informal networks, the “hidden economy.” [20]

Sudanese social groups can be separated into those who profit from black market transactions and those whose survival depends on capturing as much hard currency as possible before it is absorbed by the “hidden economy.” The first group includes the workers themselves. Their remittances have produced the economic clout enjoyed by financial intermediaries known as tujjar al-shanta (suitcase merchants) who buy and sell hard currency in the black market. A broad spectrum of the Sudanese bourgeoisie engages in this type of transaction, but this “hidden” industry has been effectively monopolized by five powerful merchants. [21] The second group consists of the central bank and other government authorities responsible for official monetary policy. Their priority is to attract private foreign capital of nationals abroad. Commercial banks likewise depend on attracting this business. [22]

As formal sources of financing from the Gulf as well as from the West have declined, the economic weight of the government and commercial banks has shifted to that of tujjar al-shanta and the expatriates. At present, almost all the earnings of Sudanese living in the Gulf are remitted home via informal channels. [23] When the country’s most powerful tajir shanta, Walid al-Jabil, was incarcerated for black marketeering, the National Bank of Sudan intervened on his behalf, reportedly because he had agreed to provide this primary financial institution with much needed capital from his own coffers. [24]

Remittances from the Gulf, in the context of Sudan’s exceedingly bankrupt economy, have in recent years come to play an even more formidable role in privileging certain social groups and influencing political developments. A broad spectrum of Sudan’s middle class has come to rely more and more on Gulf financing. Remitted earnings, by circumventing both the national banks and the Islamic banks, have contributed to an alliance between these former rivals, which are both losing the “battle for hard currency.” The recent crackdown on the black market represents an alliance between that faction of the Sudanese bourgeoisie dominating the commercial banks (organized under the banner of the NIF) and the state to try to capture a significant portion of the earnings of Sudanese working in the Arab countries of the Gulf.

This will not likely curtail black market transactions. Many of the black marketeers were once themselves Brethren supporters. Important NIF bankers such as Sheikh ‘Abd al-Basri and Tayyib al-Nus, and the well-known currency dealer Salah Karrar, all now members of the Revolutionary Command Council’s Economic Commission, speculated in grain deals, monopolized export licenses and hoarded commodities in their efforts to capture as much foreign exchange as possible. This is their profession. [25]

Having gained control of the state, the present regime considers it vital to marginalize rival factions of the bourgeoisie, while building an urban base among a new commercial class. When the junta executed several people accused of currency dealing in order to intimidate the big business families, though, they contributed to the virtual collapse of expatriate remittances from the Gulf. This was even before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, which further exacerbated the state’s financial woes. [26]

The appointment of ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamid, one of the most renowned of Sudan’s “Islamic” financiers, as minister of finance and economy leaves little doubt as to the NIF’s overwhelming dominance of the state’s chief financial institutions. [27] The only institution capable of maintaining some semblance of control over currency transactions and foreign trade had been the Central Bank. Now, under Hamid, the authority of the state in economic matters has become entirely subservient to the interests of the Muslim Brethren.

The political future of Sudan’s Muslim Brethren to some extent depends on social groups with financial links with the Gulf states. Having sided with Saddam Hussein against the Gulf countries, the Bashir regime finds itself in an even more precarious position. Threatened with the erosion of its own social base, it has consequently felt forced to make a number of overtures to the Gulf countries and the West.

But the regime’s economic desperation has at the same time led it to alienate important sectors even further. In May 1991, concerned about the amount of local currency being kept outside the banking system to buy dollars in the black market, al-Bashir ordered the issuing of a new Sudanese currency. [28] Many Sudanese charge that Islamist businessmen were forewarned, affording them the opportunity of safeguarding their assets while the rest of the population had to sell their money for one fifth of its face value. [29]


[1] Al-Wafd, June 2, 1991, in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, June 7, 1991, p. 7. According to Hazim Saghieh, (al-Hayat, June 6, 1991), fundamentalist groups in Tunisia and Algeria are increasingly looking to the experiment in Sudan as the model to emulate in their efforts at taking state control.
[2] “Bayan min far’ al-tadamun al-watani al-dimuqrati al-Sudani bi-Washington.” Distributed by the Sudanese Opposition Front’s Washington branch. I was also a witness to the events while in Sudan.
[3] Tim Niblock, Class and Power in Sudan (New York: SUNY Press, 1987), p. 226.
[4] “Bayan min far’al-tadamun.”
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Interview with former Sudanese minister of the interior, Mubarak al-Fadl, in al-Hayat, September 2-3, 1989.
[8] “Bayan min far’al-tadamun.”
[9] Charles Gurdon, Sudan at the Crossroads (London: Middle East and North African Studies Press, 1984), p. 68.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Balunan Roshan, “Sudan and the Faisal Islamic Bank,” in Arabia: The Islamic Worldview (November 1985); and Arab Banking Cooperation, Occasional Paper Series 1, Arab Banking Systems (United Kingdom), January 1985, p. 41.
[12] Faisal Islamic Bank Annual Reports, quoted in an as yet untitled and unpublished thesis by Magdi Mutawakkil Ahmad Amin (Princeton University).
[13] Rodney Wilson, Banking and Finance in the Arab Middle East (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1983), p. 85. The Faisal Islamic Bank was immediately successful and by the end of its second year had two branches in addition to its head office in Khartoum.
[14] Ibid., p. 82.
[15] Gurdon, p. 69.
[16] Interview with prominent Sudanese journalist, June 17, 1990. Name withheld by request.
[17] A student from the University of Khartoum recently rationalized his support for the Brethren in this manner: “I am not really interested in politics. In fact, that is why I support the Ikhwan [Brethren] in the student elections. I am much more concerned with being able to live in a comfortable house, eat and hopefully find a reasonable job after I graduate. The fact is that the Ikhwan are the only ones who will help me accomplish that.” Interview, June 15, 1989. Name withheld by request.
[18] IFDA Dossier 75-76 (January-April 1990), p. 36.
[19] Nazli Choucri, “The Hidden Economy: A New View of Remittances in the Arab World,” World Development Report 14/6 (1986), p. 702.
[20] Ibid., p. 709. See also al-Majalla, January 16-22, 1991, p. 49.
[21] Al-Majalla, June 11-17, 1986, p. 31.
[22] Choucri, p. 709.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Al-Majalla, June 11-17, 1986, p. 30.
[25] Africa Confidential, January 25, 1991, p. 7.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Sudan Democratic Gazette (September 1990), p. 3.
[28] Africa Research Bulletin, April 16-May 15, 1991, p. 10376B.
[29] Al-Majalla, June 4-5, 1991, p. 51.

How to cite this article:

Abbashar Jamal "Funding Fundamentalism," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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