Unusually for an Arab president in the era before the ‘Arab Spring’, Field Marshal Abdel-Rahman Mohammed Hassan Suwar Al-Dahab ruled Sudan for only a year before stepping down. Born in 1935, he became president after the 1985 uprising as head of the armed forces, and then retired from politics and devoted himself to religious pursuits. He spoke to The Majalla about the unprecedented wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world.
The Majalla: As a military man, and a former president, how do you view the Arab Spring?
I consider it a real spring that will deliver the Arab nation from autocracy—in which one man imposed his power by iron fist—to democracy. Definitely, this will mean the Arabs look forward to a brighter future, after spending years hoping to find it. Now, it can be achieved and will help the Arab nation get out of a deteriorating situation and to real democracy.
Change should take place peacefully. Now there is determination to achieve sound democratic rule in the whole world. Our peoples are not less sophisticated than the rest of the world; they should enjoy democracy. We are witnessing the spring of the nation that is extending to all Arab states. Expression can never be subjected to force. By these Arab revolutions, the Arab citizen proved that he is able to express his opinion in a civilized manner. So I hope to complete these revolutions and achieve the democratic rule that we have been seeking in all Arab states.
Everybody knows Egypt’s position in the Arab world. It is like a locomotive of historical change. I expect that change in Egypt will definitely have positive reflections on the Islamic and Arab nations. I think that Egypt will be a pioneer in the field of democracy, Arab solidarity, integration with Sudan, and (God willing) Arab unity that we aspire to achieve – it will pave the way to our bright future.
Given the opportunity, Egypt will move towards stability, and exercise its leading role in both the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Q: Is there true democracy in the Arab world, or just the superficial appearance of it? Is there hope for change?
Change is coming, but it will not be accompanied by the violence that happened in Libya and now in Syria. The Arab Spring has taught a lesson to all the rulers who use oppression and injustice against their people. I think that if al-Assad in Syria spoke with the people, who suffered from oppression for a long period, and responded to their demands, it would have been better for him in order to avert the woes of war and destruction. President Bashar al-Assad and his associates are trying to protect their own interests. They fear punishment for their crimes, so they will desperately defend their regime. They should understand the lessons of history, which is that the people are invincible.
I advise leaders and rulers to be wise and respond to their peoples’ demands because the desire of protesting peoples will inevitably be achieved, especially under current circumstances. The Islamic and UN organizations had advised rulers who are greedy for power to respond to the demands of their people in order to avoid wars and seditions in their countries.
Q: How do you evaluate the experience of Islamists in Tunisia so far?
In Tunisia, the elections are considered a great success and an important step towards democracy in the country whose revolution ousted the regime of the former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and inspired the rest of uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world.
The victory of Ennahda Movement Party proved that the elections were fair. I believe in Rachid Ghannouchi’s rationality and keenness on the interaction of Arab culture and the Islamic reality with universal values, and pairing Islam with modernization, especially as he doesn’t intend to change prevailing laws. Everybody knows that the Tunisian economy mainly depends on tourism, which needs flexible laws.
Q: Are Islamists able to rule?
I don’t think that our society could accept a political Islamist regime today, but Islamists can reach power incrementally. Islam was revealed gradually and this is wise. It doesn’t mean that we stray or act opposite to sharia. The second Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab gave us an excellent example when he annulled cutting off the hand of the thieves in the year of al-Ramada (famine) until conditions became more stable.
Q: Why is there a link between military men and dictatorship, and why were you an exception?
When a military man comes to power, he finds people around him seeking authority, gilding the road to dictatorship in front of him, so he comes to believe he is the inspiring leader and the rescuer of the nation. But I overcame the glitter of power, because I was fully convinced that I had done my duty, and had to give a chance to others. This false glitter attracts rulers and makes them executioners of their people in order to keep power.