By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
NAIROBI, May 12 -- One of Sudan's most important Islamist ideologues and spiritual mentors was arrested and later released by Sudanese officials Monday, having been accused of backing Saturday's surprise rebel attack on the capital, Khartoum.
Analysts said the detention of Hassan al-Turabi, an urbane, Sorbonne-educated lawyer, was part of a broader crackdown on perceived government opponents now underway in Khartoum and the suburb of Omdurman, where the attack by fighters from Sudan's Darfur region was crushed Saturday.
"Turabi is the tip of the iceberg in this clampdown," said John Prendergast, co-chairman of the Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity. The rebel attack "will be used by the ruling party to justify all kinds of assaults on civil liberties and preparations for next year's elections," Prendergast said.
The leader of the group that staged the attack, the Justice and Equality Movement, has openly expressed support for Turabi's Islamist agenda, though Turabi has denied any connection to the rebels.
Turabi, a central figure in Sudanese politics for decades, has been picked up repeatedly by authorities since a bitter falling-out with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in 1999. Officials on Monday offered no evidence of his involvement in the weekend attack or an explanation for the quick release.
A curfew was extended in Omdurman, where gunfire was heard Monday as soldiers searched for rebels, the Reuters news agency reported.
Bashir's government is at its most brutally efficient when challenged, the most notorious example being the campaign in the country's western Darfur region. There Bashir's Arab-dominated government has used ethnicity to rally nomadic Arab militias to attack the region's population, who are farmers and tend to identify themselves as ethnically African. Some experts estimate that as many as 450,000 people have died there.
Reports filtering out of Khartoum on Monday suggested that Bashir's government was already well into a harsh response to the unprecedented assault by the rebel group, whose leader, Khalil Ibrahim, has promised more attacks. There were unconfirmed reports of house-to-house searches for people belonging to the rebels' ethnic group, as well as indiscriminate arrests, beatings and torture.
"It's not only Turabi -- a mass of people have been arrested," said Bahar Abu Garda, chairman of another Darfur rebel group, the United Resistance Front, speaking by satellite phone from Sudan. "They are especially seeking people from Darfur, even students. This is what is happening now, and I think it will continue."
Khartoum is a sprawling and diverse capital of 8 million people, a sand-street city where most people live in poverty amid signs of the country's new oil wealth -- malls, cafes and a $400-a-night, five-star hotel. Despite its extremes, the capital remained peaceful for years, partly because of a culture of caution that prevails.
"There's the dictum that today's friend can be tomorrow's enemy, but the opposite is also true," said Alex de Waal, a Sudan scholar and analyst with the Social Science Research Council in New York. "So Sudanese tend to keep open to anyone, and that translates into a calm at the center."
But analysts have long said that with the right spark, Khartoum could explode into the sort of politically driven ethnic violence that the rest of the country has suffered. In recent months, the city has become more volatile.
A number of groups that identify with al-Qaeda and Islamist ideals have emerged, mostly gangs of young men who feel that Bashir's government has cooperated too closely with the United States on intelligence. The capital has also absorbed displaced people from Darfur, along with numerous members of other ethnic groups who've fought each other elsewhere in Sudan.
"The major concern I have right now is social polarization," de Waal said. "If that isn't handled by political leaders with appeals to moderation, we could see ethnic and racial strife in the city itself, which we've hardly ever seen before."