A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia
A protester holding a Sudanese national flag rides a horse during a demonstration against the military junta outside the Defense Ministry in Khartoum, Sudan. (Photographer: Fredrik Lerneryd/Bloomberg)

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

(Bloomberg) -- There’s a party in Osama bin Laden’s old neighborhood and Nasr Aldin has brought the booze to get things hopping. At 38, he’s no teenager, but it’s the first time he hasn’t feared the wrath of the authorities.

Being caught with alcohol in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum used to mean 40 lashes under former President Omar al-Bashir, who turned the African country of 40 million into an autocratic Islamic state over three decades. He was ousted by the army in April, and now the country that emulated Saudi Arabia in its pursuit of puritanism is rivaling the kingdom when it comes to loosening up.

“The old regime wanted to bury us alive,” Nasr Aldin said of his recent exploits in the Khartoum district of Riyadh, which al-Qaeda’s founder once called home in the 1990s. “We want to do things that are normal everywhere in the world,” he said, talking above the hubbub of a sidewalk cafe as smoke from the previously banned hookah water-pipes filled the air.

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

The power struggle between Islamists and secularists has dominated Sudan for generations and the risk is that the new era is just a prelude to another incarnation of that culture war.

In the meantime, Sudanese men and women are carving out new freedoms that would have been unthinkable at the start of the year when frustrated citizens took to the streets against Bashir. They braved bullets and tear gas as firebrand clerics declared them heretics. In contrast to Saudi Arabia’s top-down approach, the changes are now being driven by Sudan’s activists with the government trying to keep up.

Sudan’s school curriculum is being revised to restore classes in philosophy, music and theater. And the country is going beyond Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s social transformation across the Red Sea. The government last week scrapped the much-loathed public-order law that criminalized drinking alcohol and the wearing of revealing clothing.

“This law is notorious for being used as a tool of exploitation, humiliation and violation of rights,” said Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the former United Nations official appointed in August by the power-sharing committee overseeing Sudan’s transition to democracy.

Armed with a bottle of potent homemade spirit, Nasr Aldin caroused the night away on a recent evening, swaying to the hits of Bob Marley and watching battered Toyotas spin donuts in the streets. The police now just don’t care, he shrugged, though he declined to be identified by his full name or give his occupation like others interviewed for this story.  

Elsewhere in the city, others dance to live music by the banks of the Nile, attend vibrant public debates or just sip tea with the opposite sex at all-night cafes. Dress codes are changing too. Some women have abandoned the headscarf, others are donning trousers—clothing that once drew charges of public indecency.

Nagla, a 22-year-old student, is defying her family by casting off her veil. The aspiring IT engineer was hanging out in the early evening at Midan Etani, a rundown plaza of crumbling, butter-toned colonial-era buildings.

Near the presidential palace where protesters battled police in early 2019, Etani is now an outdoors hub for Sudanese who strum guitars, go on a tentative date or listen to impromptu lectures on culture, history and religion. Revolutionary graffiti cakes the nearby walls, and the tracks of Ayman Mao—a Sudanese-American rapper and fervent Bashir critic—provide a soundtrack.

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

“One of our revolution’s main goals is to promote personal freedoms,” said Nagla. “We won’t abandon this and go back to Bashir’s oppression.”

But it may only be the opening salvo in a fresh struggle over Sudanese culture and traditions.

So far, the backlash has been limited. Supporters of Bashir’s National Congress Party took to the streets last month, flexing their muscles for the first time since his ouster. When a once-banned book fair was staged in Khartoum, one enraged visitor destroyed a stand devoted to a famed Islamic reformer who was hanged in 1985 for apostasy.

The conservatives have some outspoken and influential backers, though, and some Sudanese fear that the remnants of Bashir’s regime will block all but cosmetic changes. They include the leader of a notorious militia, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who is arguably the country’s most powerful man. His Rapid Support Forces are accused of a crackdown on a mass protest outside a military headquarters in June in which more than 100 people were killed.

There’s also Nagi Mustafa, a Shariah professor whose sermons target the civilians in the government. He’s among a group of clerics that recently created an alliance whose name translates as “The Current to Support Shariah.”

“This group of secularists is cheating the youth and pushing them toward vices and underground practices,” Mustafa said in an interview. “The Sudanese community will stand by its traditions and Islamic values and defeat those brought from outside.”

Straddling the Sahara, Sudan was once a well-worn path for Arab warriors and traders who eventually spread Islam as far as West Africa. But it didn’t suddenly plunge into a puritan dictatorship.

Its Islamic traditions include a strong Sufi element that emphasized mystic practices over rigid social codes, and in the years after independence from Britain in 1956, liberal and Communist parties were among those vying to rule. Celebrities vacationed in Khartoum during its colonial days, and some visited well into the 1960s—including jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong, who played the capital’s main stadium.

A series of rulers, all of whom came to power with the army’s blessing, steadily shifted Sudan toward the religious conservatism being embraced elsewhere in the Middle East. In 1983, then-President Jafar al-Numeiri imposed Shariah in a bid to shore up his waning support that instead sparked what became Africa’s longest-running civil war with the mainly Christian south.

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

When Bashir, a then-little-known paratrooper, eventually seized power in a 1989 coup he worked in concert with Hassan al-Turabi, the Sorbonne-educated leader of a Muslim Brotherhood branch who’d spent years in prison and exile. Sharia was further institutionalized, opponents were executed or jailed and political parties and newspapers banned.

Turabi, who vowed to make Sudan the “vanguard of the Islamic world,” invited groups designated terrorists such as al-Qaeda and Carlos the Jackal to set up shop. In 1993, the U.S. listed Sudan as a state sponsor of terror, later imposing crippling economic sanctions that lasted until 2017.

Sudan’s diverse identity traditionally meant its version of Islam was moderate and resistant to some of the radical ideas originating from the Middle East like the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, according to Haidar Ibrahim, head of the Cairo-based Sudanese Studies Centre. That changed with Bashir and Turabi, who  “did unimaginable things to change the minds and behavior of the Sudanese,” he said.

Eventually a sort of pragmatism won out. Bin Laden, who had arrived after battling the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, was expelled at Saudi Arabia’s request. When a power struggle erupted with Bashir in 1999, Turabi was booted out of government and jailed. He later formed an opposition party and spent his final years as a critic of his former protege.

That didn’t mean the end for crushing conservatism. As Bashir saw further challenges to his rule—including a war in Darfur that may have claimed 300,000 lives, and southern Sudan’s drive for independence—he vowed his commitment to Islamic law.

There was periodic use of extreme punishments, including the severing of limbs for theft, while Christians and Sufis were persecuted. In 2014, a pregnant Christian woman was sentenced to death for apostasy after refusing to renounce her faith in favor of Islam. She was freed and left the country after a global outcry.  

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

Nabil Adib, a veteran human rights lawyer, remembers it all. He defended some of the most prominent transgressors, including Lubna al-Hussein, a United Nations worker whose 2009 trial for wearing trousers also became a cause celebre.

“The police and prosecutors have lost their support with the regime,” Adib said. “We need to enshrine these changes by altering the laws. But I don’t think this progress can be rolled back.”

On a recent night, relations between men and women were the hot topic among one mixed-gender group of friends sitting at an informal sidewalk cafe.

“It’s still a very sensitive topic, it shouldn’t be like that after the revolution” said one of them, Abdo. Crammed into a plastic chair alongside him, friend Samar said she didn’t think Bashir’s rule was the sole problem. “Discrimination against girls and young women starts with the families and the entire community, though the laws supported it,” she said.

A Social Revolution to Rival Saudi Arabia

Women played a major role in Sudan’s protests and after the army and demonstrators struck a power-sharing deal in August several have assumed high-profile government roles, including foreign minister and chief justice. In a more symbolic step, Sudan’s first nationwide female soccer league began in October. One cleric promptly accused the sports minister, Wala’a Alboushi, of apostasy. She’s suing him.

The newly empowered youth and women “are a source of worry for the religious leaders,” said Ibrahim at the Sudanese Studies Centre. “They have an interest in keeping the historical privileges they had under Bashir.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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