A few days after the fall of ex-President al-Bashir, and while protesters are still gathered in their hundreds of thousands, outside the army HQ, refusing to leave until their demands are met fully, an alarming trend is surfacing: the rise of a Sharia discourse and calls against the formation of a civil state in favour of an “Islamist State”.
Between April 12th-14th, antagonism against non-Islamic political parties and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a coalition of informal trade unions that have led the protest for four months, began to spread. Individuals were spotted speaking to protestors and soldiers about the SPA being non-Islamic and dominated by communists, secularists and apostates. One of the soldiers safeguarding the protest said, on April 12th, after the ‘Freedom and Change Forces’ announced their team were to meet with the Transitional Military Council, “We are betrayed. The Sudanese Professional Association are communists. We thought they were people like us and not secular.”
Amongst the melee, a young man was trying to influence protesters to believe that to have a civil state means legitimising adultery and social corruption. He said having a non-Islamic state meant Sudanese traditions and Islam would be history. He concluded by saying that they were protesting against corruption and not against Islam.
In January 2019, six weeks into the Sudanese revolution, a video with an unknown producer went online, warning protestors about the chaos that would take place if the regime fell. In a dream scene in the video, a young man sitting at his laptop posting on social media about the protests, falls asleep. He visualises how things will escalate out of control should the regime actually fall. His dream shows terrorist attacks and bomb explosions in Khartoum. The video was first shared by pro-regime accounts and pages. The threat of chaos from the rise of Islamist groups, if the regime were to change, was constantly flagged by the former regime.
None of this is new. The former regime, who came into power in 1989 through a military coup staged by officers, was affiliated with the National Islamic Front; a group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood international movement. They advocated for the implementation of Sharia law and translated it into laws and regulations in the early 1990s. This mainly affected women, both in public and private spheres.
The regime caused the closure of civic space to civil society and non-Islamist political parties which left a vacuum in which Islamist groups flourished, with little opposition and sometimes with the regime’s support.
In 1993, Sudan was listed by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of international terrorist groups such as the Abu Nidal Organisation, Palestine Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah. Former Al Qaeda Leader, Osama Bin Laden, lived in Sudan for five years, between 1991-1996.
From the early 2000s, Sudan started cooperating with the US on counter-terrorism. However, the threat of Islamist groups in the country and their relationship with terrorist groups in the region still remain a source of concern. A report by the US ‘Bureau of Counter-terrorism and Countering Violent Extremism’ mentions that three out of the four people convicted of killing two US embassy staff in Khartoum in 2008, escaped a maximum-security prison in Khartoum in 2010 and were killed fighting alongside terrorist groups outside Sudan. One of them was killed in a US airstrike in Somalia in 2017.
In 2014, Sudanese authorities released most of the 25 detainees, taken in December 2012, in a raid on a terrorist training camp near Dinder National Park. They had been charged with terrorism and the murder of police officers during the raid.
In 2017, a group with unknown affiliations mistakenly detonated a bomb in Arkawit neighbourhood of Khartoum.
Extremists Efforts to Control Women’s Participation in Public Life
Women’s presence in the public sphere, especially in the sit-in area outside the army HQ, has also been brought into question. On April 13th, a man using loud speakers addressed the protestors in the sit-in area saying, “Consider all the girls here as your sisters. If you see them behaving badly, change that behaviour with your hand or use force”.
That day was the day when security teams at the sit-in checkpoints started confiscating cigarettes from women protestors.
Women’s attire also became a popular topic, with security teams telling female protestors to cover their hair and not to wear tight jeans.
After almost a week, when both men and women attending the sit-in had laid down together on the ground outside the army headquarters, calls came to allocate space exclusively for women. Calls to separate men and women became amplified. On April 15th, a few women were reportedly asked to leave the sit-in area because they were “indecently dressed”.
By April 17th, what seemed to be an organised campaign against “indecently dressed” women protestors was gaining popularity. Sudanese social media platforms and the sit-in area was rumour mongering that the former regime was paying women to dress indecently to ruin the reputation of protestors. As a result, protestors formed groups to fight “indecent behaviour” and urged female protestors to dress decently, wear headscarves and not smoke in public.
Islamists Warn of Secularisation and Call for Jihad to Preserve Sharia
A Salafi Islamist scholar, Dr Mahran Mahir, recently launched a hashtag on social media, translated as: “Islam represents me”. Mahran posted on Facebook, “We are against the former regime, but we are not against Islam, which prophet Mohamed bled defending. We praise the protestors, but we oppose communists and those who call for secularism.” He also posted a video of an interview with an SPA spokesperson confirming they were fighting against an Islamist regime and were calling for a civil state.
Adding zeal to the call for Sharia, Dr Abdul Hai Yousuf, a member of the Sudan Scholars Corporation, a semi-official religious entity close to the former regime, warned the new rulers of Sudan, in his Friday 19th April prayers speech, from over stepping Islam and Sharia. He warned that, in defence of religion, blood could be shed, and people could be killed. He said he was ready to mobilise crowds. He reminded people that Sudan was created in the name of religion for which people had struggled. Therefore, Sudan should not allow other countries to intervene in our affairs nor abandon our religion. “We will not go back to an era in which adultery was allowed and drinking alcohol was not criminalised.” He called all Muslims to join in the jihad to defend its religion.
Yousuf appeared on Aljazeera Mubashir, on April 21st, along with Mohamed Abdul Karim and Mohamed Al Jizouli, an “Islamist leader close to Isis”, warning the Transitional Military Council against secularisation and urging them to implement Sharia. The trio said they have a group of five thousand Imams aligned to them and advocating for Sharia.