DARFUR REBEL LEADER DISCUSSES SECESSION, SECULARISM AND TIES WITH ISRAEL
Abdul Wahid Muhammad al-Nur, the Fur leader of the Darfur rebel movement known as the Sudan Liberation Army/Movement – Abdul Wahid (SLA/M-AW) has returned to Africa after five years in Paris. He recently discussed a variety of issues with pan-Arab daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, including his rejection of secessionism as a solution to the Darfur crisis, his support for a secular government in Khartoum and his controversial support for diplomatic relations with Israel (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 19).
Al-Nur has come under strong criticism from other rebel leaders in Darfur for leading his movement “from the cafés of Paris.” Al-Nur, however, justified his absence from the battlefield as necessary due to “pressure” applied by Eritrea and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of South Sudan, as well as turmoil resulting from splits in the original Sudan Liberation Army/Movement (SLA/M), founded by al-Nur and several others at Khartoum University in 1992.
Al-Nur insists the creation of a “liberal, secular and democratic state” can only be achieved by toppling the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and making its leaders accountable for war crimes in Darfur. According to al-Nur, “secularism is the answer for all of Sudan so religion cannot be used to kill people, annihilate them, oppress them, and confiscate their rights.” The rebel leader draws a distinction between secularism and atheism, citing examples from the time of the Prophet Muhammad of issues whose resolution was achieved without reference to religious law. The Salafists, says al-Nur, view Islam only in terms of punishments, these being applied only against the poor.
Al-Nur visited Israel in February 2009 after establishing an SLA/M office there a year earlier (Sudan Tribune, February 27, 2008). Both moves were controversial, as they appeared, at least superficially, to validate President Omar al-Bashir’s long-repeated claims that the rebellion in Darfur was orchestrated by Israel. His visit came in the company of a number of prominent European Jews and was reported to have included meetings with Israel’s Mossad spy agency (Ha’aretz [Tel Aviv], February 16, 2009; Associated Press, February 16, 2009). During his time in Paris, al-Nur became close to Jewish philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy, who claims responsibility for convincing French President Nicolas Sarkozy to begin military operations in Libya and recognize the Benghazi-based rebel government. Though Khartoum has never recognized Israel, al-Nur maintains that his movement would establish diplomatic relations with Israel should it take power and would allow the opening of an Israeli embassy in Khartoum.
The SLM founder was coy about his exact whereabouts amidst continuing criticism regarding his absence from the front, saying only that he was now “in the heart of Africa.” “Nobody knows if I am in the field or not, this is one of our secrets… the Sudan Liberation Movement is a political movement that has a military wing. This means that my physical presence is not important because I am directing a military battle that requires planning, field commanders, diplomatic efforts, communication, and negotiation.”
The South Sudanese were forced into a referendum on secession by the NCP, says al-Nur, who believes in a unified Sudan, though he respects the choice of the southerners. Nonetheless, he says his relationship with the SPLA/M has deteriorated recently despite government claims the SPLA/M is supporting his movement. Al-Nur rejects talk of secession for Darfur (which remained an independent sultanate until 1916) but says he cannot prevent others from discussing the possibility given the political atmosphere created by the NCP.
After years of continuing splits within the original SLA/M (“Every three people can now form a faction while sitting under a tree”), al-Nur has been engaged in a major campaign to reunify the Darfur opposition, signing unification deals with the SLM-Minni Minawi, the SLM Juba-Unity and the Revolutionary Democratic Forces Front (Radio Dabanga, May 28; Sudan Tribune, May 15; May 20).
LIBYA’S WARFALLA TRIBE SWITCHING LOYALTIES?
Four decades of changing tribal policies in Qaddafi’s Libya, combined with the effect of urbanization on traditional ways of life, has made any attempt to gage the loyalties of Libya’s tribes one of inherent difficulty. In the case of Libya’s largest tribe, the Arab-Berber Warfalla, this is certainly the case. Incorporating over one million of Libya’s six million people, the loyalty of the Warfalla to the Qaddafi regime is considered to be one of the most important factors in the survival or demise of the existing power structure.
Shortly after the Libyan rebellion began, early reports suggested the Warfalla had gone over to the rebel side in wholesale fashion. However, these reports ignored the complexity of the issue of Warfalla loyalty and did not take into account several factors, including the importance of the Warfalla in the Libyan security apparatus and the ability of the regime’s patronage system to purchase or coerce loyalty when necessary. As cash and arms flooded into Warfalla communities, it soon became apparent that the regime was able to continue to count on the loyalty of large numbers of Warfalla.
The Warfalla, together with the Qadhafa and the Magarha, have traditionally been considered the pillars of the Qaddafi regime, dominating the security services and the leadership of the military. In the case of the Warfalla, however, this support has been inconsistent, most notably in the mounting of a coup attempt by Warfalla members of the regime in 1993 as a result of their rivalry with the Magarha for top positions within the government. The failure of this attempt to overthrow Qaddafi naturally resulted in a temporary decline of Warfalla influence in the Libyan power structure as many leading members were purged and eventually executed. Nonetheless, the Warfalla remain prominent in the regime’s “revolutionary committees,” a paramilitary force entrusted with securing loyalty to the Qaddafis, by force if necessary.
Even the Warfalla stronghold of Bani Walid, a city in the Misrata district, has witnessed both pro and anti-regime demonstrations. The tribe’s paramount leader, the U.S.-educated Mansour Khalaf, has made an art of riding the fence in these difficult days, persuading both sides to refrain from public demonstrations and professing loyalty to the regime while hesitating to commit Warfalla fighters to the regime’s preservation.
A recent conference of Libyan tribal leaders held in Istanbul may indicate the beginning of a major shift in loyalty away from the Qaddafi regime (though it should be noted that many Warfalla in the Benghazi region have been committed to the rebellion from the start). Over 100 tribal leaders, most of them Warfalla, met on May 28-29 to call for an end to the fighting in Libya and the removal of Mu’ammar Qaddafi and his sons from the Libyan government (al-Jazeera, May 29; Tripoli Post, May 30). Many of the delegates were described as senior professionals from Libya, while others were dissidents who have been living in exile for some years. The Istanbul conference followed earlier meetings in Dubai and Qatar and its location was intended by its organizers as a means of acknowledging Turkey’s support for the Libyan people in the ongoing crisis (Today’s Zaman, May 29).
Delegates to the conference agreed on the following points:
• The “full participation” of Bani Walid in the rebellion, a step that would relieve pressure on besieged Misrata and the Berber mountain communities of western Libya.
• The need to end the bloodshed, eliminate “tyranny,” and remove the Qaddafi family from any positions of power or influence in Libya.
• A warning to all those involved in violating human rights on behalf of the regime that they would be held to account for their actions.
• A request to the Libyan leader not to leave the country “because we want to bring you to justice, we will have you tried for the 42 years that you have enslaved us” (Tripoli Post, May 29, al-Jazeera, May 29).
After the regime learned of the conference on May 29, there were reports that government security forces had entered Bani Walid, resulting in a series of clashes in which at least 11 people were killed (al-Jazeera, May 29).
However, it is unrealistic to believe the Warfalla act in concert under a unified leadership when the “tribe” is actually more of a confederacy of 52 sub-tribes spread across Libya, each with its own local leaders, local concerns and varying degrees of affiliation or loyalty to the existing regime. Similarly, like many of the other major Libyan tribes, large numbers of Warfalla are urbanized residents of the coastal cities. As such, intermarriage with other tribal groups and separation from traditional tribal leaders has reduced the number of Warfalla who take direction from the traditional leadership. While a shift in allegiance on the part of some tribal leaders may result in a decline of support for the regime, such support was never unanimous in the first place – thus such a shift can be expected to have at best a significant but relatively limited impact on the struggle for Libya. While various Warfalla have declared support either for the regime or the opposition, it would be accurate to say most members of the tribe continue to wait in pragmatic fashion for some definitive change in the regime’s fortunes before making a final and likely irreversible decision on the direction they will take in the future of the Libyan state.