Separating state and religion: Secular Sudan irks Islamists

Haitham Nouri , Wednesday 9 Sep 2020

Sudan’s agreement to separate state and religion is causing ire among Bashir’s Islamist remnants

Secular Sudan irks Islamists

The Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) signed an agreement in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa last week. The deal came as a surprise to many.

“For Sudan to become a democratic country where the rights of all citizens are enshrined, the constitution should be based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state,’ in the absence of which the right to self-determination must be respected,” the document states.

The pact gives residents of the Blue Nile and Nubia Mountains in the south the right to self-determination in case negotiations falter. It also gives them the right to self-protection, which means the movement can keep their weapons until “security arrangements are finalised and religion and state are separated”.

“The state shall not establish an official religion. No citizen shall be discriminated based on their religion,” continued the agreement.

The accord is part of Abdallah Hamdok’s efforts to close a chapter on four decades of Islamic Sharia laws interpreted as pleased the Islamic movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s arm in Sudan.

A few months ago Sudan criminalised female genital mutilation, replaced death sentences with time in prison for gays, allowed the sale of alcoholic drinks in some places and cancelled the infamous public order law that threatened women’s freedom of movement and clothing.

Sources told Al-Ahram Weekly that Islamists affiliated to the ousted regime of Omar Al-Bashir want to organise protests against the “secularism deal” and the amended laws.

The deal is an “initial agreement” that is to be followed by comprehensive peace that includes political agreements and security arrangements as well as compensation and separate deals for the Blue Nile and Nubia Mountains regions.

The agreement comes days after the government and the revolutionary front initialled a peace accord in Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Sudan’s Revolutionary Front comprises four armed movements that have been fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states in the south, and in Darfur in the west. The movements in Darfur include Sudan’s Liberation Army, spearheaded by Arko Minnawi, and the Justice and Equality Movement, led by Jibril Ibrahim. Other groups that signed the deal included unarmed movements in the centre, east and north, such as the SPLM-N faction headed by Malik Agar.

Absent from the accord, however, were the Sudan Liberation Army, led by Abdel-Wahed Mohamed Nour, that controls strategic locations in Darfur’s Marrah Mountains, and a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North, headed by Abdel-Aziz Al-Helw, whose forces are engaged in South Kordofan conflicts.

The country’s transitional period was extended for 39 months starting 1 September, as per the accord, during which time the armed movements’ forces should be disbanded and legally reintegrated as part of several security arrangements.

According to the accord, revenues and resources of the Blue Nile and Nubia Mountains states shall be divided between the federal authority, which will receive 60 per cent, and local authorities, that will be given 40 per cent.

Parties signatory to the agreement received three seats in the sovereign council (the membership of which will increase from 11 to 14), five ministerial portfolios (increasing the number of ministries to 25) and 75 members in the legislative council.

According to the Juba accord, armed movements will be disbanded and integrated into the army. Joint forces made up of the army, police and rapid support will be formed to preserve security in Darfur, the Blue Nile and Nubia Mountains where armed groups will comprise 30 per cent of the forces.

The agreement gave autonomous rule to the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, according to the 1973 Constitution, which stated local and federal authorities should enact laws and legislation and form commissions, the most important of which is the Commission for Religious Freedom.

Returning to the 1973 Constitution is a government initiative by which the state declares its wish to resort to peace. The constitution was approved following the 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement that ended war in South Sudan.

The 1973 Constitution is one of the leading achievements of former president Gaafar Numeiri, the US’s strong ally in central and east Africa. Numeiri had a role to play with Israel during the Falasha Jews’ moving from Ethiopia to Israel.

Sources close to the Khartoum government said Sudan requested Washington pay $10 billion to save Sudan’s plummeting economy. Sudan’s request comes in tandem with Sudan-Israel communication.

Sudan’s acting foreign minister, Omar Qamareddin Ismail, stated after US State Secretary Mike Pompeo’s visit to Sudan that Washington had suggested “non-worthy sums” of aid in return for peace with Israel. Qamareddin didn’t confirm whether the sum was $50 million as sources in the Sudanese cabinet had told Sudanese and Arab sources.

The agreement to separate state and religion puts Khartoum on the road to end the chapter of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Sudan. Islamist movements had rejected a similar deal during Al-Bashir’s negotiations with the SPLM led by John Garang between 2002 and 2005.

Al-Bashir’s government had rejected all of the SPLM suggestions for secularism in South Sudan, marginalised regions, the Blue Nile, Nubia Mountains and Khartoum. This, coupled with freezing the file of sharing oil revenues, led South Sudan to secede in 2010.

The Muslim Brotherhood is accusing Hamdok’s government of falling prey to the “republican” ideologies of Islamist intellectual Mahmoud Mohamed Taha in the 1960s. The Brotherhood contributed to the death sentence issued against Taha in 1985 during their alliance with Numeiri.

Hassan Al-Turabi, the then leader of the Islamist movement, had stated that Taha “wanted to apply the Sharia of Mahmoud, not that of [the Prophet] Mohamed.”

Local observers believe the secular leaning of the state is necessary to rehabilitate Sudan and reintegrate into the international community that no longer accepts racism.

US-Sudan rapprochement contributed to the success of the comprehensive peace process in Sudan, as was the case in 1972 following Khartoum’s political change from the Soviet Union to the US after the failure of the communist coup in July 1971.

Sudan aspires for ever-lasting peace and to benefit from its resources. It also wants to tempt South Sudan to return, even if it were in the shape of a confederal state.

This, however, is a much more complicated and longer road that requires more concessions from both sides.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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