Sudan’s common denominator

Dr. Al Khalafalla
Dr. Al Khalafalla
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With attention in the Arab world focused on the civil war in Syria, the proxy battles between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the upheavals that some called the Arab Spring, it is easy to miss an important regional development. Sudan has been torn by wars between the ruling National Congress and rebels and other parties with grievances.

But significant developments are taking place quietly, as the American Administration and the government in Khartoum engage in the first steps of a diplomatic effort that could lead to sustained direct contact and eventual lifting of U.S. sanctions that have been in place since 1997. There have been high-level exchanges between Princeton Lyman, the recently retired U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and South Sudan, and the Khartoum government. President Bashir, although prevented from direct contact with the U.S. Government by international legal restrictions, is sending a high-level advisor to conduct direct diplomacy with Washington. In February the Administration eased sanctions on educational exchanges with Sudan.

As this thaw continues, it is important for American Administration and policy analysts to pay attention to a leader of great influence in Sudan and throughout the Horn of Africa, Al Sayed Mohammed Osman Elmirghani. Policy makers in Washington would be wise to pay attention to Elmirghani, and to understand the history and extent of his influence in Sudan, South Sudan and the Horn of Africa.

Elmirghani’s ancestor, Al Sayid Mohammed Uthman Elmirghani Alkhatim, founded the Khatmeyyah Order with followers throughout Africa, the Arabian peninsula, Asia, Europe and the Americas. He was an Islamic Scholar and a descendant of the Prophet Muhammed, and had such great influence that he founded an entire Islamic school of thought, the Khatmeyyah Order in the Sufi tradition.

In the 18th Century, Elmirghani taught progressive ideas such as women’s education; moderate religious instruction; the equality of all people; and the abolishment of slavery, which he described in his literature as an ugly deed. He traveled to meet the people, rather than forcing them to make pilgrimages to the Great Teacher. His travels were instrumental in delivering teachings to Sudan, and over one third of Sudanese are adherents of Khatmeyyah today.

Because Al Sayed Elmirghani AlKhatim was descended from the Prophet through the line of Hussein, the famous martyr of Shi’a Islam, his family and the Khatmeyyah Muslims are respected by Shiite Muslims today, although they practice Sufi Islam. This makes the Khatmeyyah a common denominator between Shiite and Sunni that is increasingly rare in the rest of the Islamic World.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the presence of the UDP in the government. It is the only Sudanese party ever to rise to power through democratic elections, and never to have taken part in a coup.

Dr. Al Khalafalla

The Khatmeyyah Order was founded in the Mid-18th Century, and by the mid-20th Century it supported the National Unionist Party (NUP), the mainstream, secularist union between Sufis and urban citizens that was the ancestor of today’s Unionist Democratic Party UDP. The NUP led Sudan to independence, but its successor, the UDP, was later outlawed by the Communist Numeiri after he seized power in 1969, and again in 1989 by National Congress leader Bashir. Elmirghani went into exile during the Bashir years, and he was a founding member of the opposition to the Bashir government. He returned in 2008, for the funeral of his brother Alsayed Ahmed Elmirghani, the elected president of Sudan from 1986 – 1989.

Last year, Elmirghani made a surprise move by bringing the UDP into the government. His youngest son is now an assistant to the President, and his presence in the government lends credibility to the political process. Elmirghani sees enough signs of hope to start working toward a comprehensive solution for Sudan, rather than just stay in opposition, or in exile.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the presence of the UDP in the government. It is the only Sudanese party ever to rise to power through democratic elections, and never to have taken part in a coup. It has a long history of supporting political freedom and pluralism, social justice, progressive economic policies, and full religious freedom. The UDP always was a staunch opponent of the National Islamic Front, and is the bulwark of the opposition to the extremist policies of the NIF. It is considered the mediator among the other political parties and factions. With its strong identification with the Khatmeyyah and urban population, it may represent a plurality of Sudan’s voters. The UDP rejects groups who want to splinter the country: it opposes geographical fragmentation, and wants to see a unified Sudan.

Elmirghani said the UDP joined the government to preserve the country. Coming from a traditional politician, this would sound like political rhetoric; but coming from him, it rings true, because it is in keeping with the traditions of the family that go back centuries. Al Sayed Mohamed Osman Elmirghani has significant influence over a plurality of voters in Sudan and Southern Sudan, and has great influence also in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, and Uganda – all countries that can make or break the peace accords between Khartoum and Juba, and that can help broker peace and security in Darfur. He has a reputation for honesty and for devotion to freedom. He heads a political denomination with a tradition of independence, freedom of conscience, and democracy. Policy makers and analysts in America and the Western world should be beating a path to his doorstep.

Dr. Al Khalafalla is a director at Humpty Dumpty Institute and President of the Bahrain American Council. He serves on the Board of the United States Institute of Peace Darfur Forum, and has received awards for humanitarian efforts on behalf of refugees.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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