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Sudan's Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi: Death of a political imam

Al-Mahdi had been a controversial figure, politically and ideologically, since he took over the leadership from his father, Al-Seddiq Al-Mahdi, in 1961 until his death

Haitham Nouri , Tuesday 1 Dec 2020
Death  of a political imam
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Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi wrote a significant chapter in the book of Sudan’s turbulent history.

Sudan closed a critical chapter in its history with the death of Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi from coronavirus last week. Al-Mahdi had led the Ansar Sufi order and the National Umma Party for six decades.

Al-Mahdi had been a controversial figure, politically and ideologically, since he took over the leadership from his father, Al-Seddiq Al-Mahdi, in 1961 until his death.

The political and religious figurehead was known as the Imam of Ansar, whose tribes stood alongside his grandfather, Al-Imam Al-Mahdi, in his revolt against Khedive Tawfik in 1881. His revolution succeeded and he took Khartoum and established the Mahdi state which remained until Sudan’s fall into the hands of British occupation in 1898.

To the Sudanese people, he is Al-Sayed Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, descendant of the most famous religious family in the country, and to everyone else he is the last prime minister of an elected government to this day, until the Islamists staged a military coup led by now toppled president Omar Al-Bashir in June 1989.

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi’s life had always been rife with complications and controversy. His education began in seclusion, which is traditional for memorising the Quran and learning reading and writing. His wealthy family enrolled him in a regular education school, Al-Ahfad, which was a famous civil school. Then they moved him to Al-Kamboni, a missionary educational institution associated in Sudan with the graduation of the elite of southern Sudan, before his grandfather Al-Imam Abdul-Rahman Al-Mahdi sent him to Victoria College in Alexandria.

Al-Mahdi left Victoria College after his second year there, while his school friends included a number of Arab princes and wealthy people, such as the late king Hussein of Jordan and international actor Omar Sharif. Al-Mahdi said his decision was based on the students’ dissociation from their Arab and Islamic heritage, as recounted in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly.

Rejecting regular education, Al-Mahdi went back to his family’s house in Omdurman, the national capital of Sudan, where he was educated by Sheikh Al-Tayeb Al-Sarrag, one of the most prominent Arabic language teachers in Sudan.

A famous Egyptian teacher in Sudan, Thabet Girgis, convinced Al-Mahdi he should pursue regular schooling, so he enrolled in the Sciences Faculty of Khartoum University.

Shortly after, Al-Mahdi enrolled in Oxford University, where he joined the newly created faculty to study philosophy, politics and economics, later Saint John College. At Oxford, Al-Mahdi represented his college in tennis and got the chance to witness British politics up close.

He ignored his desire to study agriculture in the US and he returned to Sudan to work at the Ministry of Finance in 1957. He resigned two years later following the coup staged by Ibrahim Abboud, who became prime minister, and the death of his grandfather, the famed leader of Ansar.

This was when Al-Mahdi, who was raised by his father, the staunch opponent of Abboud’s regime, became a political and religious leader.

Following his father’s death, he took charge of the National Umma Party, leading a united front towards the October 1964 revolution that toppled the first military rule.

The leadership of Ansar went to his uncle Al-Imam Al-Mahdi for a decade. Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi was 28 at the time and the law didn’t allow those under 30 years of age to join parliament. Two years later, he became a parliamentary member representing Al-Gezira constituency and he competed against Mohamed Al-Mahgoub, a veteran independence leader, for the premiership.

The close circle of Al-Mahdi tried to dissuade him from the premiership because he was young. However, he refused their advice, giving the example of William Pitt, who became the youngest prime minister of Great Britain at the age of 24 in 1783.

Al-Mahdi became prime minister for one year before the premiership went back to Al-Mahgoub who was overthrown by the 1969 coup led by Jaafar Numeiri.

Throughout the second democracy (1964-1969), Al-Mahdi grew closer to the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, led by Hassan Al-Turabi who became his brother-in-law. This Islamist alliance was formed to face the Sudanese Communist Party that enjoyed a powerful influence among students, labourers and professionals in the 1960s.

The Islamists and their leader Al-Turabi betrayed Al-Mahdi and overthrew his government in the 1989 coup that was masterminded by Al-Turabi and executed by Al-Bashir.

Al-Mahdi’s differences with his uncle Al-Hadi and Numeiri and his leftist leanings grew when the latter quelled the revolt of Ansar in south Khartoum in August 1970. Numeiri killed Al-Hadi and the political and religious leadership came into Al-Mahdi’s hands, just as it was in his father’s.

Al-Mahdi became Numeiri’s fiercest opponent until national reconciliation between them in January 1977.

Throughout the 1970s, Al-Mahdi’s intellectual prowess emerged. He wrote a book on legitimate penalties that is more enlightening than the ideologies of the Muslim Brotherhood, and to counter their ideas.

Al-Mahdi wrote more than 100 books and booklets and hundreds of articles and lectures throughout his life.

The Muslim Brotherhood manipulated universities, trade and all aspects of life thanks to funds from the Gulf, which drove Numeiri to appease them by announcing the application of Islamic Sharia in Sudan in September 1983. Conflicts broke out in the country and steps towards the fall of the regime accelerated until it was overthrown in April 1985.

After a year, Al-Mahdi’s National Umma Party won the majority in the Constituent Assembly to form a coalition government with its partner the Federal Party. The Islamists remained the third force and the main opposition party.

Al-Mahdi became more mature when he assumed the leadership of the government for the second time. He did not pause before the Mirghani-Garang initiative in 1988 for peace and halting the civil war, though without mentioning the right to self-determination for South Sudan.

The agreement created ire among the Muslim Brotherhood, prompting the group to accelerate its coup that toppled the government of Al-Mahdi, said Khaled Mahmoud, an Egyptian journalist who specialises in Sudanese affairs. This was when Sudan witnessed the bloodiest civil war that led to the independence of the south in July 2011, after two million people were killed and the destruction of what remained of the poor country.

In the 1990s, Al-Mahdi grew closer to Egypt, breaking the ice between his people and Egypt after a century of cold relations.

“Al-Sadiq warmed our relation with Egypt, which became our country of choice when the Muslim Brotherhood took control over Sudan,” says Muawiya Hamad Al-Nil, a lawyer and a prominent figure in the Ansar community.

“In the 1960s, Al-Mahdi grew closer to Egypt when his government agreed to [former president Gamal Abdel] Nasser’s request for the presence of Egyptian forces in Sudan after the 1967 War.”

Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the imam, premier and controversial intellectual, has passed. One thing is sure, however: he wrote the most significant chapter in Sudan’s history since its independence in 1956.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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