Hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Muslims took to the streets in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities on October 13, to celebrate the release from house arrest of Shaikh Hasan al-Turabi, the leader of Sudan's Islamic movement and of the Popular National Congress (PNC) party. He had been the country's senior-most political prisoner since his arrest in May 2001. Seven other PNC prisoners were also released by the same decree from president Omar al-Bashir, and the bans on PNC political activities and on its official newspaper were also lifted. Human-rights organizations say that Turabi and his aides were the last political prisoners in the country.
Speaking to reporters after arriving home later the same day, Hasan al-Turabi, who is now 69, said: "I will continue working for the same principles for which I was arrested: democracy, freedom of expression and human rights."
He also told the press that his release had been the result of domestic and international pressure on Khartoum, something the government denies. Dr Qutbi Mahdi, a government minister, said that the real reason for his release was that "there was no reason to continue detaining him." In August the Sudanese government had pledged to release all political prisoners as part of the peace deal with the southern separatist rebels that is currently being negotiated in Kenya.
In a press conference on October 16, Turabi gave the first clues to how he might use the political freedom that he and his party now appear to enjoy, warning Bashir's government against any attempt to form a political partnership with the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) after a peace deal, while excluding other Sudanese political parties.
He developed the same theme in the first interview he gave after his release, published in the Al-Khartoum newspaper on October 19. In it, he called for early elections to bolster the peace deal, saying that it is important that power not be concentrated in central government and that local regions deserve to be given extensive powers, including on matters of Islam and shari'ah. "Elections should be held as soon as possible," he said. "Sudan is too big to be governed from one centre."
"Family laws, personal laws... what you drink, the way you dress, the way you associate with people... these laws have to be personalised. Other laws have to be local. Each federated state parliament should develop its own laws," he said, adding that he had opened communication with other Sudanese political parties and leaders to discuss the country's current situation.
He also criticised the US's war on terrorism, saying that it was responsible for the anti-American feeling in the Muslim world. "The worst thing is happening now because the whole Muslim world is announcing that America is the devil," he said. "Americans are anti-Islam, The world terrorism is used simply as a cover-up for the war on Islam."
How these ideas will translate themselves into PNC policy remains to be seen. Much will depend on the political situation that emerges from the talks currently being held in Naivasha (Kenya) between the Sudanese government and leaders of the SPLA, to end the 20-year civil war in the south of the country. This war, which is thought to have killed up to 2 million people and displaced 4 million others, has long been maintained by assistance to the rebels from neighbouring African countries, supported by Western governments.
However, the US appears recently to have put its support behind efforts to find a negotiated settlement, which, combined with a desire on the part of Khartoum to improve relations with the West and have itself removed from Washington's blacklist of states which "support terrorism", have moved the negotiations forward. As this article is written, US secretary of state Colin Powell is expected to join the talks in Naivasha on October 22, adding to the expectations of a breakthrough. Any final settlement is expected to allow for power-sharing in Khartoum, and a referendum for secession in the south of the country in six years' time.
Turabi's arrest in 2001 came after a falling out with Omar al-Bashir, the military general who became president in 1989, in a military coup supported by Turabi and Sudan's Islamic movement. Turabi himself had become speaker of Sudan's parliament and was widely regarded as the regime's ideologue and de facto leader. He was criticised, however, by some Islamic movement commentators, notably the late Kalim Siddiqui, who argued that a regime that came to power by means of a military coup, instead of popular support, and in which the head of the military remained head of state while the leader of the Islamic movement occupied a junior position, could not be an Islamic state. These worries were confirmed when relations between Bashir and Turabi gradually deteriorated in the late 1990s, resulting in Turabi's arrest and imprisonment, thus confirming the relative positions of the military and the Islamic movement in Sudan's government. Turabi had earlier also lent his support to the regime of Jaffer al-Numeiri from 1977 to 1985, and also made strategic political alliances with other political figures at various times. All this led many to regard his willingness to engage with non-Islamic political forces as a serious weakness of his political understanding.
Nonetheless, there is no doubt that he remains a major figure in the contemporary Islamic movement, with progressive and forward-looking political and social ideas. During his house arrest he worked on writings on Islamic political thought, including a major book on Islamic democracy, launched in London earlier this year. He also retains considerable political support among various social groups in Sudan.
At a time of some uncertainly in Sudanese political affairs, his contribution will undoubtedly be welcomed by many Sudanese Muslims, and have an impact that the Sudanese government and other political forces cannot afford to ignore.