The prominent Sudanese political leader, Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the head of the National Umma Party and the head of the Ansar sect, recently passed away. He was 85.
His passing comes at the end of a long and very fulfilling life that represented a crucial addition to the country’s political life during its most difficult moments.
Al-Mahdi’s death has affected large sectors of Sudan with a mixture of sadness and a sense of terrible loss, as the man was not only just a prominent politician. He was also one of the founding fathers of modern Sudan who laid the building blocks of independence, having been active since 1956 – the date of his country’s independence. Right up until his passing, he left a mark in every political development in the country.
Al-Mahdi collected sharp contradictions that it would be difficult for a politician to tame. The leader of a liberal, democratic, Western-style party, in the form of the nationalist Umma Party and the leader of the Ansar religious sect of Sufism, he also belonged to traditional Sudan with its tribal fabric.
At the same time, he was a modernist who believed in Westminster democracy, whilst also believing in political action in the traditional cross-party parliament. His beliefs extended to the revolutionary street struggle, from demonstrations to civil disobedience, and even followed the path of armed action twice in 1976, after the opposition meeting as part of the Asmara Conference in 1995.
Al-Mahdi was a believer in the old Sudan, the Sudan of 1956, which was dominated by the Arab Islamic elite. Yet he was also open to the “New Sudan” project formulated by the late John Garang, even if he called it “a renewed Sudan”, that is, a Sudan which becomes the home of all races, religions, and cultures.
The erstwhile politician lived through the country’s three democratic revolutions of 1964, 1985, and 2018, confronting the dictatorships of General Abboud, Jaafar Nimeiri, and Omar Al-Bashir, respectively.
He held a prominent leadership role in these three revolutions, becoming Prime Minister twice, just as he lived through the hardships of such an exhausting life. On the opposite side, he was arrested several times and spent more than eight years in prison, and 12 years in exile.
However, despite all these meanderings and perhaps because of them, Al-Mahdi also committed many mistakes, and his pages were not spotless.
He was subjected to many criticisms throughout his career, including for his complicity in arming “Arab Al-Marahil” in 1987, which some considered the beginning of the manipulation of the demographic balance between the Arab and African tribes in western Sudan.
He also faced criticism for his support of the Sudanese Communist Party’s dissolution, in a story that was fabricated and exploited by the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood.
Or there was his mistaken appreciation for the Islamic Front movement led by Hassan Al-Turabi, which exploited democracy until it was toppled in the 1989 coup. There was also his interaction with the “soft landing” approach, through which Al-Bashir tried to block the path to change towards democracy.
But these criticisms against Al-Mahdi, despite their seriousness, did not lead many, including his opponents, to reduce him or his career, as they saw his continuous and solid struggles for a democratic Sudan as outweighing his sins and mistakes. These mistakes, and what followed from the criticisms, played a role in his not being turned into a flawless man.
In addition to his political role, Al-Mahdi was also a true thinker of a high calibre, with dozens of books to his name. His intellectual focus was on the pressing issue that preoccupies the region and the world today, which is ensuring that Islam keeps up with the contemporary world and the issue of Islamic intellectual renewal and efforts to present supportive religious jurisprudence. This would cover science, women’s rights, human rights, and democracy, among various issues. Through his writings, he sought to confront extremism and militancy.
In a few words, Al-Mahdi’s path through life was a kind of “second Mahdiyya”, a continuation of the “first Mahdiyya” whose chapters were made by his grandfather at the end of the 19th Century.
If the first Mahdiyya was a national epic in the face of the English occupier, then the second Mahdiyya is a democratic march to create a modern party, the Umma Party. This saw his participation in drafting a parliamentary experiment in the second and third democracies, a march whose owner was not destined to live to see his homeland shine in the fourth democracy.
Khaled Mahmoud: Journalist and political expert on Sudanese affairs