As President Ben Ali of Tunisia was ousted from power by a popular revolution underwritten by the army on the 13th January, and the voting period for the referendum in South Sudan finished at midnight on the 15th January, Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the Sudanese opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP), who had previously warned of a popular uprising in Sudan, was on the 17th January once again arrested.
The events in Tunisia prompted an NCP representative at Chatham House in London to make the link – unprecedented in NCP public discourse – between the Tunisian coup and Omar al-Bashir’s own rise to power. It was a tacit admission of the power of coups to create and dismantle regimes in Islamic Africa. It gave an even greater insight into the fear that now stalks the NCP, and other ruling parties in North Africa, that the mechanisms by which they attained power provide a model for their undoing.
It was against the backdrop of this regional political climate, especially just up the Nile in Cairo, that the NCP took the opportunity to arrest al-Turabi. The international scrutiny on the referendum in South Sudan led Omar al-Bashir and the NCP to welcome the South’s decision while making positive noises about cooperating with Salva Kiir’s Government of South Sudan (GoSS) to bring about a workable split – particularly with regard to the disputed oil territories.
However, this has led to unrest in the Khartoum, particularly as many Northerners fear that al- Bashir’s conciliatory tone will result in a smaller share of the oil fields. The political effect of a large withdrawal of oil revenues from the economy of northern Sudan could be devastating for the NCP. With international scrutiny necessitating an expedient and conciliatory approach to the South’s secession, al-Bashir has used the media and diplomatic smokescreen of the revolution in Tunisia to crack down on the opposition and maintain his stranglehold on power in Khartoum.
Hassan al-Turabi has been arrested many times before. From February 2001 to October 2003 he was imprisoned after signing a memorandum of understanding with the Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A). From March 2004 to June 2005 he was imprisoned after being linked to the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a rebel group fighting against the Khartoum backed Janjawiid in Darfur. When the JEM subsequently attacked Khartoum and Omdurman in May 2008, he and other PCP officials were detained and released later the same day. Continuing his habit of agitation, al-Turabi called on Omar al-Bashir to present himself to the International Criminal Court (ICC) over alleged genocide in Darfur and was arrested from January to March 2009. Finally, he was arrested from May to July 2010, after the Presidential elections which returned al-Bashir by an implausible margin, for declaring them to have been rigged.
This current arrest comes as the latest punishment for a series of assaults by al-Turabi on al- Bashir’s right to govern. Each time he has been arrested he has been questioning the democratic processes of the NCP and aligning himself with peripheral threats to al-Bashir’s authority: whether the internal threats of the SPLM and the JEM, or the external threats of the ICC’s indictment or popular resistance in Tunisia and the Maghreb.
The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) dictates that there must be a political reshuffle in the ministries of the government in Khartoum once the South’s secession is ratified. This is purely practical, since many of the politicians currently sitting in the NCP led Government of National Unity (GoNU) will become key members of the new government in South Sudan. This will, of course, leave open a number of key portfolios. This was initially cause for optimism among the Sudanese opposition who hoped that, in keeping with the conciliation sought with the SPLM, there might be a new spirit of compromise in Khartoum. Many hoped that they might be brought into the fold. The independent daily newspaper Al Sahafa was even able to quote a government source as suggesting that any new cabinet might well include opposition parties.
However, under the guise of austerity measures, it has now become clear that the government in Khartoum intends to respond to the exodus of SPLM politicians from the GoNU by reducing the number of ministries by eradicating some and integrating others. From the current 34 portfolios in the cabinet, the number is likely to shrink beneath 20. This will of course reduce the scope for opposition parties’ inclusion in the governance of northern Sudan. In the wake of the Tunisian revolution, the arrest of al-Turabi has set the tone for what to expect from a new government of Sudan once the South has officially seceded.