December 9, 2005
KHARTOUM, Sudan — A turbaned Hassan Turabi sinks back into a large, plush sitting-room sofa, his stockinged feet barely touching the floor.
It's hard to comprehend that this aging former law professor with a chipmunk grin is the same man condemned by Western leaders as a terrorism-loving extremist and jailed repeatedly by Sudanese dictators he once helped empower.
"I'm an old man," the white-bearded Turabi, fresh out of his latest stint in prison, says with unconvincing modesty.
But behind the glinting teeth and rectangular spectacles is one of Africa's most influential Islamists, a man who has arguably had more impact on Sudan than anyone else.
Nicknamed "The Fox" at home and "The Pope of Terrorism" abroad, Turabi is climbing his way back onto Sudan's political stage, forging an opposition alliance, preparing candidates for the next election and criticizing the recently formed unity government as a failure.
Insiders in the Sudanese capital predict, some with a touch of dread, that even at 73, Turabi may have one more act to play out in his career.
"He's trying to make a comeback," said Edward Ladu Terso, an editor at the Khartoum Monitor, one of Sudan's few independent newspapers. "Turabi is addicted to power."
Since jumping into politics in the 1960s, Turabi has either been whispering in the ear of the president or languishing in a prison cell on charges of treason.
In the 1980s, Turabi helped ignite a 20-year civil war by trying to impose Islamic Sharia law on animists and Christians in southern Sudan. He was a founder of the National Islamic Front, which joined the government of Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup. As the power behind the throne, Turabi turned Sudan into a haven for militants, opening borders to terrorists such as Osama bin Laden and Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal.
Turabi's hand is even seen in the conflict in the western region of Darfur, where the Muslim scholar has long enjoyed support. A disciple of Turabi's heads one of the main rebel armies there, the Justice and Equality Movement.
"If you trace everything back, you find Hassan Turabi," said Eltayeb Hag Ateya, director of the Peace Studies Institute at the University of Khartoum. "Turabi is a very dangerous person. I'm sure the government is worried. Sudan is in a very precarious transition right now. People should expect just about anything."
Sudanese officials are watching Turabi's latest moves with a mixture of amusement and alarm. One bureaucrat joked privately that he was happy that elections wouldn't take place for four more years because "maybe Turabi will be dead by then."
In a 90-minute interview, Turabi said he was not slowing down. He's drafting a new manifesto for his opposition alliance, which includes his once-banned Popular Congress party and former Prime Minister Sadek Mahdi's Umma Party. The alliance, which is also reaching out to communists and southern rebel parties, is to hold its first conference in Khartoum, the capital, this month.
Repeated prison sentences — Turabi spent 11 of the last 36 years in jail — have done little to silence him. Upon his release in June, Turabi immediately began denouncing the new constitution, which brought some former southern rebels into a coalition government in Khartoum. He's once again a regular face on Arab channels, though TV hosts have had a hard time finding guests willing to face off against the sharp-tongued scholar.
Turabi is a master of telling an audience what it wants to hear. During a recent interview with the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat, Turabi lambasted Americans as the "world's ignoramuses." Speaking to U.S. media a few days later, he stressed democracy, women's rights and Americans' "generosity."
Turabi denies any desire to hold office again and sees his role as guiding an Islamic revolution in Sudan and around the world.
"There is an awakening everywhere, even in America," Turabi told The Times. "Muslims are all awakening to their identity. Spirituality produces energy, and if it is not misguided, it's like a flood."
Turabi said the Islamic movement he helped create in the 1980s was hijacked and betrayed by military leaders such as Bashir, and politicians such as Second Vice President Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, whom Turabi mentored.
Growing political and economic frustration makes Sudan ripe for dramatic change, he said, adding, "I always prefer evolutions to revolutions."
Born in eastern Sudan in 1932, Turabi got his first taste of revolution in France in the 1960s, where he studied law at the Sorbonne during student protests.
Turabi returned to Khartoum and promptly became spokesman of a rising Islamic tide, which started as an offshoot of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood but eventually splintered off under his guidance.
When Gen. Jaafar Numeiri seized power in 1969, Turabi was jailed for seven years. Later Numeiri appointed him attorney general, only to fire him.
In 1986, Turabi joined the democratically elected government of Mahdi, his brother-in-law. But many believe he worked covertly to support the 1989 coup led by Bashir and Taha.
During the peak of Turabi's power in the 1990s, his hard-core Islamic programs turned Sudan into a global outcast. Al Qaeda moved into Sudan and Bin Laden became one of Turabi's neighbors; the U.S. added the nation to its list of states that sponsor terrorism. Sudan's East African neighbors, including Ethiopia, Eritrea and Uganda, accused it of fostering radical Islam in their backyards, and it was also accused of orchestrating a failed 1995 assassination attempt in Ethiopia against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
In 1999, Bashir fired Turabi from his post as parliament speaker, hoping to repair relations with the United States. "Power corrupts people," Turabi said. Bashir "wanted to be 'the Man' of Sudan."
Turabi launched his Popular Congress party and made one of his many political U-turns, forming a surprising alliance with southern rebel leader John Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army. Alarmed by the partnership, Bashir had Turabi arrested in 2001.
The crackdown helped ignite a crisis in Darfur, where Turabi is widely admired for welcoming the long-marginalized western tribes into government, particularly as soldiers. When Turabi was jettisoned, thousands of Darfurian soldiers were also ejected from their jobs.
It was a move reminiscent of the dismissal of the Iraqi army after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. "The soldiers went home frustrated and joined the militias," said Ateya of the Peace Studies Institute in Khartoum.
Turabi, who had been released in 2003 but was jailed again in March 2004, is critical of U.S. policy, saying U.S. presidents are ill-informed. President Reagan, he said, once mistook him for a South American, and President Clinton ordered missile strikes against a Khartoum factory that Sudanese officials insist made only aspirin. President Bush, Turabi said, has galvanized Muslims worldwide with the U.S. war on terrorism.
"People from a distance think all Americans are anti-Islamic," Turabi said. "Believe me, almost every single Muslim in the world, though they may not say it, is anti-American."
The struggle, Turabi predicted, would come to a head in Sudan. He said he wouldn't be surprised to find himself behind bars again.
"The government is a little bit frightened to let Turabi go," he said. "If someone is dangerous, you either co-opt him or destroy him."
And despite his insistence that a new crop of Islamic leaders should take over, Turabi leaves the window open for a possible return.
What if followers nominated him as the candidate who could lead them into the future?
"Well," he said, with a smile, "health-wise, I am all right."