Some observers in the West might see this as Sudan taking a step toward liberal democracy, recognizing that the transition remains delicate. But survey data from Arab Barometer — a nonpartisan research network providing insights on the views of citizens across the Arab world — suggest that Sudan’s population may not widely support these moves. The December 2018 survey, completed less than two weeks before the outbreak of the revolution, revealed 61 percent of Sudanese said the country’s laws should be based entirely or mostly on sharia, while almost a third of the population (27 percent) said the law should be equally based on sharia and the wishes of the people. Only 10 percent said the law should be based mostly on the wishes of the people.
To many outside Sudan, these results are surprising in light of the widespread social protests that ousted President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019. Sudan’s longtime leader had come to power in a bloodless military coup in 1989, backed by Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, the leader of the National Islamic Front. Together, their Islamist regime embarked on a top-down Islamization of Sudan, building on President Gaafar al-Nimeiry’s previous efforts transforming state institutions along ideological lines and imposing sharia. Following Turabi’s vision of creating an Islamic republic, harsh measures such as the segregation of the sexes, banning of alcohol and the accompanying hudud punishments for violations of these rules aimed to transform the social and political order of Sudan.
Why do Sudanese support sharia?
So why is Sudan’s government turning away from sharia while its population seems more sympathetic to the legal code? One way to understand this may be in how the Sudanese people think about government under sharia, what sharia means in a particular time and place, and the political-historical context. The idea that the meaning of sharia varies across time and place is not new. When the Arab Barometer survey asked about the most essential aspect of government under sharia, two-thirds of respondents said that what mattered most was a government that provided basic services or one that was free of corruption. In comparison, only 27 percent primarily identified corporal punishment or restricting the rights of women as that most essential aspect. In short, the vast majority of citizens primarily thought of sharia as representing good governance.
This important finding provides a more nuanced understanding of Sudanese preferences about the future social and political order when combined with their thoughts on the role of religion in the political process. About half (52 percent) said religious leaders should have influence over decisions of government, while 43 percent said religion was a private matter that should be separated from public life. Younger Sudanese were significantly more likely to favor a limited role for religion, with those ages 18-29 being 10 points less likely to want religious leaders to influence government decisions than those aged 50 and older, with similar data on the percentage that considered religion to be a private matter.
Will the views of the young change Sudan?
This generational gap is important, and it ties into the broader political-historical context of Sudan. The Islamist regime, which came to power in a military coup led by Omar al-Bashir in 1989, masterminded by Sheikh Hassan al-Turabi, is all that many in the country have known. The younger respondents in this survey would have been born well after their leaders, Bashir and Turabi, hosted the likes of Osama bin Laden and his associates until 1996, making their country an international pariah because of its ideological orientation, and also after the sidelining of Turabi in 1999.
Since Turabi’s Islamization project does not seem to have succeeded, and Sudan’s bloody and brutal civil wars continued, it’s not surprising that only 53 percent of Sudanese in the survey said they trusted religious leaders, and 61 percent affirmed a belief that religious leaders were as likely to be corrupt as nonreligious leaders. Again, those ages 18-29 were less likely to trust religious leaders than Sudanese who were 50 and older (17 points less likely) and to believe that religious leaders were as likely to be corrupt (nine points more likely), suggesting a significant generational divide on the role of religion in politics.
Law in Sudan has long been based on sharia. Although not all Sudanese seem to want to change this arrangement, it’s clear that many, particularly younger citizens, favor a decreasing role for religious leaders in political life. The corruption of the old regime, which claimed to uphold religious principles, appears to have soured this generation on a religion-based system of governance.
If the transitional government can deliver on providing basic services to the country’s citizens and tackling corruption, the formal shift away from sharia is likely to be acceptable in the eyes of the public. However, if these problems remain, a new set of religious leaders may be able to galvanize a movement aimed at reinstituting sharia as a means to achieve these objectives.
Michael Robbins (@mdhrobbins) is a researcher at Princeton University and serves as director of Arab Barometer (@arabbarometer).
Lawrence Rubin (@lprubin73) is associate professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology, and an associate fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.