The Khartoum government this week has found itself caught between a rock and hard place. As the southern half of Sudan awaits official confirmation of their vote for independence, the Arab world to the north is reeling after Tunisia’s popular revolt and presidential toppling. Public discontent in northern Sudan is rising.

Protests in Khartoum over the arrest of prominent opposition leader Hassan al-Turabi on Tuesday were broken up with water cannons and tear gas. This follows violent demonstrations last week at two of north Sudan’s universities over the dropping of subsidies on petrol and sugar. Farmland and sugar crops were destroyed in separate protests.

These price hikes and ensuing demonstrations are in line with events seen in across North Africa in the past few weeks. But the situation in Sudan is complicated by the fact the country is about to be split in half — and the people in the north are about to lose the vast majority of their oil wealth.

Yet the arrest of al-Turabi and subsequent demonstrations must be seen in the context of events in Tunisia. Turabi’s latest imprisonment — he has been in and out of jail a lot in the past few years — followed shortly after he made statements indicating that Sudan should expect a Tunisia-style popular uprising.

Hassan al’Turabi is a fascinating figure. He is a renowned sponsor of terrorism and was responsible for radical Sharia law being instituted in Sudan. He has also been an advocate for women’s rights and legal liberalisation and has spoken out against genocide in Dafur. Turabi is a hard-line extremist with hands drenched in blood, yet his imprisonment has been condemned by Amnesty International. In interviews he comes across as a frail and kindly uncle about to tell a knock-knock joke. He is a political wizard.

Interestingly for someone regarded as one of Sudan’s major opposition figures, Turabi was actually one of the lead organisers of the 1989 military coup that originally installed the present administration. In a recent interview with al Jazeera, he described dressing a small group of civilians in army uniform to storm the presidential palace and install General Bashir — they only told other high ranking members the military after the event.

Turabi’s ties to terrorism are also worrying. It was Turabi who personally invited Osama bin Laden to Sudan. Bin Laden made Sudan his base of terrorist operations for six years and is said to have married one of Turabi’s nieces.

Turabi’s arrest is being billed by some people — certainly those within his own party — as a potential catalyst for a Tunisia-style uprising. But Turabi is a strange fit with those sentiments. The movement in Tunisia has been a popular one — crucially it has not been the work of Islamic organisations. Turabi’s history of fundamentalism and support of terror does not obviously position him as a natural leader for such an uprising.

Sudan does not seem ready for a popular revolution — but it certainly seems a lot more possible than it did just a few weeks ago. While South Sudan is enjoying its historic taste of freedom, the north seems to be taking notice. For a political chameleon such as Turabi, the role of martyr in a populist revolution — as ludicrous as it sounds — might just feel like a fitting swansong.

Peter Fray

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