Sudan's Unbowed, Unbroken Inner Circle

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 3, 2005

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- The men who control Africa's largest country -- the key architects of the conflict in Darfur -- hail from two tiny, interwoven Arab tribes. Many of them grew up together and graduated from Khartoum University. They often sit together in cafés beside the Nile, bickering about politics and religion over endless cups of sweet tea.

They attend the weddings of one another's sons and daughters, who frequently marry within the two tribes. They are neighbors and rivals, nephews and cousins. Politics in Sudan is often a family affair, and as in any family, there are occasional feuds.

For instance, Hassan Turabi, a college professor and radical Islamic cleric, led a military coup in 1989 against his brother-in-law Sadiq Madhi, the country's popularly elected leader. The main backers of the coup were Turabi's protégés, Omar Hassan Bashir and Ali Uthman Muhammad Taha, now Sudan's president and vice president. Yet not long before that, Madhi had presided over the wedding ceremony of Taha and his bride, Turabi's cousin.

"In Sudan we say, 'You meet your enemies at weddings,' " said Turabi's son Issam, 39, whose father has been jailed or under house arrest for nearly five years after a bitter falling-out with Bashir and Taha. "All of politics in Khartoum is a bunch of warring families trying to stay in power over one another."

This is Sudan's ruling elite: shadowy and insular, cliquish and fractious. It's an unusual arrangement for a continent more accustomed to the rule of patriarchal Big Men, such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, with a single personality dominating the national psyche.

Despite their tendency to feud, the ministers and security officials in Sudan's inner circle form a tight web of power that combines tribal, religious and military elements. Its formal name is the National Islamic Front, but it is known in Khartoum as the "security cabal."

The cohesion of this club has enabled the government to weather the chill of world condemnation for years -- first in the 1990s for harboring terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and waging a protracted war against African rebels in the south, and now for carrying out a second armed campaign in the western region of Darfur.

Even though both the Bush administration and the United Nations have spoken out on the situation in Darfur, with U.S. officials even terming it a case of genocide, the Khartoum government has remained entrenched. And Taha, the man widely viewed as the chief architect of Darfur's war, has now repackaged himself as the voice of reconciliation, heading peace talks with its rebel groups.

"When this government first came, they had their own project" to build an Islamic state, said Mahjoub Mohamed Saleh, editor of Al Ayam, an independent newspaper here. "But eventually it became survival politics -- to remain in power at any cost.

"If that means dropping an Islamic agenda and kicking out bin Laden, then fine," he said. "If that means making peace in the south, then fine. If that means reversing themselves on Darfur publicly, then fine. As long as they stay in power, they are willing to appease the international community and do just enough to maintain control."

A New Power Rises

During the 1960s, Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood was born on the campus of Khartoum University, once one of Africa's most prestigious schools. The charismatic, urbane Turabi taught law there, wearing neckties as comfortably as turbans, sliding easily between Arabic and English, and courting Western visitors with warm hospitality.

Yet Turabi was also a religious leader who inculcated his students with a mission that included spreading the Arabization of Africa and spearheading the rise of Islam as a form of government in secular states. In 1985, the Muslim Brotherhood was renamed the National Islamic Front, and in 1989 it seized power.


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