The Arab Spring has brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in Tunisia and Egypt, and may yet in Libya and Syria. Observers have speculated on how they will govern now that they finally lead governments where the practical problems of managing public affairs will confront them. But we need not speculate too much, since the Muslim Brotherhood has governed one country for 23 years: Sudan. Omar al-Bashir, president of Sudan, and Hasan al-Turabi (one of the pre-eminent Islamist theologians and political theorists of the past half century) are the leaders of Sudan's Muslim Brotherhood. Bashir took power in a coup in June 1989 planned and organized by Turabi.
Bashir and his government were followers of Turabi, and six months after taking power Bashir and his ministers pledged their fealty to him. It was Turabi who masterminded the policies of the government for 10 years until he and Bashir had a falling out in 1999. The Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood made several unsuccessful attempts to heal the breach between the two men and their followers.
How did Bashir and Turabi govern Sudan?
One of their first acts was to end promising peace negotiations between the North and South Sudan, which had been at war off and on since 1956. Turabi publicly announced his strategy of Arabizing and Islamizing both South Sudan and sub-Sahara Africa using Sudan as the base of the revolution he sought to organize. Any peace agreement between the North and the South would likely have exempted the South from Sharia (Islamic) law (the South is principally African and Christian and wanted nothing to do with Sharia) and given some measure of autonomy or even independence to the South which would have set back his plan. So he shut down the negotiations.
Turabi organized the Popular Arab and Islamic Congress as an alternative to more moderate Arab League, reportedly with a $100 million contribution from Iran, which tied together the most radical and violent Islamist groups from across the Muslim world. Turabi and Bashir invited these groups, including Osama bin Laden, to move their headquarters and training camps to Sudan. This alarmed moderate Arab states and the United States, and they pressed Bashir to expel these groups. Bashir eventually bowed to the pressure. This led to the breach between the two men, as Bashir had realized Turabi's support for Islamism outside Sudan had put the fragile Sudanese state at risk.
Over their first decade in power Bashir and Turabi transformed the nature of the Sudanese state by purging the civil service and military of those who resisted the Brotherhood's agenda and gradually replaced them with Islamists. By 1999 at least half of the officer corps had been hand-picked by Turabi for their loyalty to his agenda. Turabi and Bashir created the Popular Defense Force as a tribal militia parallel to the regular army to prosecute the civil war with the South, by burning villages, massacring the men, and the mass rape of women, according to numerous human rights reports. Two studies published by the U.S. Committee for Refugees—the first researched and written by Dr. Millard Burr, a noted scholar of Sudan and demographer—document the death of more than 2.3 million Southerners (between 1983-1999), of which 1.5 million Southerners died while Turabi and Bashir ruled. The Brotherhood's plan to transform Sudanese government did not end with the security sector—it also extended to the court system.
Turabi, a legal scholar trained at the Sorbonne who later became Dean of the University of Khartoum Law School, designed the Special Courts Act which created a parallel Islamic court system to aggressively enforce Sharia law. This Koran-based legal code among other things allows the use of stoning and crucifixion as a means of execution, and the use of Hudud as a punishment—the cross amputation of a foot and hand for certain crimes. The respected Sudanese Bar Association, which had been a defender of democracy and human rights in Sudan, was abolished. To ensure control Bashir and Turabi created one of the most brutal secret police apparatus in the Arab world that has been accused by human rights organizations of regularly employing widespread torture and extra-judicial executions.
When a tribal rebellion began in Darfur, Bashir tried to crush the rebels by destroying their homes villages which, according to a comprehensive study on mortality published in January 2010 in the respected public health journal Lancet, is estimated to have led to the death 300,000 people. The International Criminal Court has indicted President Bashir and other members of his government for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur.
When the Bashir/Turabi government originally took power, Sudanese intellectuals told me that at least this new government was honest and corruption-free, even if brutal and repressive. This probity did not last long. By 1999 oil revenues (most of the oil is in South Sudan) started pouring into the national treasury, and President Bashir and his party have since been accused of stealing $9 billion.
Sudan's governance problems—which have plagued the country since independence in 1956—were not caused by the Muslim Brotherhood, but its political ideology has made these problems worse. It is the Brotherhood's blood-drenched history of crushing rebellions in various regions of the country, its brutal repression of political opposition, its culture of corruption, its mismanagement of its oil resources, and its destruction of Sudanese institutions that have resisted the Brotherhood's political agenda that have contributed mightily to Sudan's descent into a failed state. But state failure means little to the Muslim Brotherhood because it ideology dismisses the importance of the modern state.
Hasan al-Turabi argues that the nation state is an artificial western contrivance inappropriate for an Islamic society rooted in the Koran, Sharia law, and divine revelation; he proposes instead restoration of the Caliphate (which had been the supreme theological and political authority in Sunni Islam) as the governing system for all Muslims (it was legally abolished in Turkey by Kemal Ataturk in 1924).
The ideology of the founders of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and of Turabi himself dismisses as a corruption any interpretation of the Koran written after the three generations following the Prophet Muhammad, and thus any modern efforts by Islamic scholars to interpret the Koran to address the problems of modern life are seen by the Brotherhood as a corruption. Any dissent from the Truth as they see it must be suppressed. Turabi once said that legislation—and elected legislative bodies—would not be needed in an Islamic society as the Koran and Sharia law contained all the guidance needed to govern. This world view imposes on heterogeneous societies such as Sudan's a rigid and doctrinaire ideology that has contributed to the unraveling of the Sudanese state.
Bashir's government does have one shining accomplishment: He negotiated an end to the North-South civil war that provided for a peaceful means for South Sudan to secede and form a new country (which it did on July 9, 2011). That agreement ended a nearly continuous state of war between the two regions of the country since independence which caused the death of 4 million Southerners. But Bashir and his vice president, Ali Osman Taha—who negotiated the agreement with the South—sought peace out of political pragmatism (and heavy pressure from the United States, European, and African leaders), not ideological or theological correctness. The two men were aggressively attacked by their fellow Islamists for negotiating the agreement.
The Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries may well take a different path than the one Bashir and Turabi chose for Sudan in 1989. It is a complex movement and took power in both Tunisia and Egypt through democratic processes in what their leaders would argue was a populist uprising. They may well move in the direction of Turkey, rather than Sudan or Iran. But if you ask the growing Sudanese opposition to Bashir's rule how the Muslim Brotherhood has ruled Sudan, they would tell you it has been a nightmare not a blessing. And should Sudan become the model for other countries the Arab Spring will turn into the Arab Winter.