In Egypt’s constitutional crisis today, there are echoes of the rise of the National Islamic Front (NIF) in Sudan.

In 1989, Sudan was a scant four years removed from the 16-year quasi-dictatorship of Ja‘far Numayri, a former army officer who fancied himself a Sudanese Nasser. Numayri was deposed by generals of Islamist leanings who suspended the constitution, but left in place two legacies of Numayri’s rule: his arbitrary administrative division of southern Sudan and the so-called September Laws, strict interpretations of shari‘a (Islamic law) that Numayri had rammed through in 1983 in an attempt to coopt Islamist challengers in the army and outside it. The generals said these questions should be resolved by an elected Constituent Assembly, which would govern Sudan while drafting a new constitution. The state was at war with rebels in the south.

Elections to the Constituent Assembly were held in 1986, despite many calls by the wide array of social and political groups responsible for the 1985 popular intifada for a longer interim government wherein an assembly without binding legislative powers would draft an interim constitution and legalize all political parties so as to give them time to campaign. These groups, which called themselves “the modern forces” (al-quwat al-haditha), insisted that a longer interim period prior to national elections would allow parties long suppressed and banned by the Numayri regime to organize and campaign across the country. Only then, these “modern forces” said, should there be elections — rather as much of today’s “civil opposition” in Egypt argued after the fall of Husni Mubarak.

The 1986 balloting returned an Assembly split between the Umma Party and Democratic Union Party (DUP), two venerable political groupings derived from rival Sufi orders. The surprise third-place performer was the NIF, which won 18.5 percent of the vote. The NIF’s strong showing was a result of two important factors: First, the NIF was amply funded since, with significant state largesse and support, they had established a vast array of Islamist-dominated commercial and financial institutions, and second, Numayri had cultivated their support after 1977 when the other opposition parties had refused to enter into a strategic partnership with the regime. It was in this context that the NIF persistently urged early elections. Southerners boycotted en masse. Through various shenanigans, meanwhile, the NIF actually wound up with a seat in the southern city of Juba. Sadiq al-Mahdi of Umma assumed leadership of a tenuous coalition government of shifting membership. The politics of constitution writing were dominated — and most often paralyzed — by the twin questions of the south and shari‘a.

Southerners, mostly Christian and animist, naturally opposed the September Laws; so did many northern Muslims, including workers, members of professional syndicates, political parties that had opposed their top-down implementation by Numayri in 1983, and even high-ranking members of the military establishment, who protested against them. As in Egypt today, it was not shari‘a in the abstract that aroused opposition; it was the scope of implementation. In particular, hudud punishments (such as cutting off hands of thieves) were opposed by the vast majority of social and political forces in the country, as was the imposition of shari‘a-derived laws in the south and among non-Muslim minorities in the north. Nor was this opposition limited to secular and liberal forces. Indeed, the wholesale implementation of shari‘a was also opposed by major Islamic sectarian political parties; in late 1988, the leader of the DUP in fact concluded a pact with the Southern People’s Liberation Army calling for suspending the September Laws until such time as a ceasefire could be reached and a more representative constitution-drafting body convened.

Forward to 1989: On March 22, Umma, the DUP and others formed a majority bloc in the Assembly. The goal was to “freeze” shari‘a implementation pending deliberations upon and eventual drafting of a new constitution, as well as pursue a ceasefire in the south. On June 29, Sadiq signed an order suspending the September Laws, which was to be ratified in two days’ time by the Constituent Assembly. Fearing the freezing and possible repeal of shari‘a laws promulgated by the former military regime, and concerned that the centerpiece of their legitimacy would evaporate, on June 30, officers belonging to the NIF staged their military coup.

Under Gen. Omar al-Bashir, the NIF would go on to reinstitute the September Laws, purge non-Islamists from the military, ban all independent labor unions and professional syndicates, suppress political party activity, and persecute and torture political opponents belonging to a wide range of civil society groups. Naturally, these increasingly authoritarian policies not only prolonged the war in the south, they eventually induced southerners to opt for secession.

Despite some key differences, most notably the still largely autonomous Egyptian military establishment and the lack of an ongoing civil war, developments in post-Mubarak Egypt have followed a parallel trajectory. The Muslim Brothers (now sponsoring a political party) did not play a leading role in the initial stages of the popular Tahrir Square uprising, and like their Sudanese counterparts they had been afforded a degree of political accommodation with the previous regime as compared to other political parties and civil society groups. Nevertheless, once Mubarak was ousted the Muslim Brothers pushed for elections quickly despite protests from most of the Tahrir revolutionaries and the organizations and parties they had founded. These forces insisted that a longer interim period would deepen the democratic transition by ensuring that the emergency law was repealed; that long-banned political parties could form freely; that voting laws were put in place to guarantee more representative electoral outcomes; and, most important, that a wide range of political forces responsible for the revolution would have a say in drafting the constitution. Theirs was and remains a representative, rather than majoritarian, view of democracy.

In this context, and in the contemporary Egyptian instance, it would seem that Muhammad Mursi’s presidential decree has served the same purposes as the NIF-inspired military intervention: to outbid opposition parties, to place the executive above the law and to push through constitutional stipulations against the wishes of secular people, non-Muslim Brother Islamists, women, workers and others, while expanding the scope of shari‘a implementation.

The Sudanese echoes are more than faint.

How to cite this article:

Khalid Mustafa Medani "Sudanese Echoes," Middle East Report Online, December 19, 2012.

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