Sayyid Abdullah Khalil

Sayyid Abdullah Khalil (1892-1970) was a Sudanese military officer and political leader and the second prime minister of the Republic of the Sudan.

Abdullah Khalil was born into a Mahdist farming family in the western Sudan. He was educated in the military school in Khartoum and subsequently served as an engineer in the Egyptian army and after 1925 in the Sudan Defense Force. During his military career he served in the Dardanelles campaign during World War I and against the Italians in Ethiopia in World War II. He retired in 1944 with the rank of brigadier general.

Khalil first became involved in politics in the early 1920s, when he was an active member of the Sudanese Union, a group of young, educated Sudanese who sought closer ties between Egypt and the Sudan. His political activities on behalf of Egypt ended in 1924, when the Egyptian government failed to support a pro-Egyptian mutiny among Sudanese soldiers stationed in Khartoum. After his retirement from the army he became active in politics again, this time as a leader in the moderate anti-Egyptian Umma (Nation) party, which was formed to oppose the pro-Egyptian Ashiqqa party led by Ismail al-Azhari.

Politics in the Sudan during the period before independence was dominated by the future relationship between the Sudan and Egypt. The simple division between those who desired "unity of the Nile Valley" and those, like Khalil, who sought a Sudan independent of both British and Egyptian rule was complicated by deep religious rivalries in the Sudan. On the one hand, Khalil's Umma party was strongly supported by the Mahdists, who had driven the Egyptians from the Sudan in the late 19th century. On the other, al-Azhari's Ashiqqa party and later his National Unionist party (NUP) was supported by the Khatmiyya sect, which had a long history of friendship with Egypt. These sectarian divisions split and confused the nationalist movement almost from its inception.


Desire for Independence

Between 1948 and 1956 power shifted from one side to the other. In 1948 the Umma party received a majority of the seats in the new Legislative Assembly, in which Abdullah Khalil quickly emerged as the principal leader. His willingness to cooperate with the British weakened the position of the Umma leaders, however, and in 1953 al-Azhari's NUP won a stunning victory in the nationwide elections for the first independent Sudanese Parliament. Khalil and the Umma party bitterly resigned themselves to opposing al-Azhari's government, adamantly objecting to any future but an independent Sudan.

Recognizing that his pro-Egyptian policy did not have the support of the majority of the Sudanese people, al-Azhari declared the Sudan an independent republic on Jan. 1, 1956. This victory for the Umma party's program signaled the end of al-Azhari's dominance. In February he invited Khalil to join a "ministry of all talents," but this temporary expedient could not prevent his downfall. In June, when some of his former supporters founded the People's Democratic party (PDP), which established a coalition with the Umma party, al-Azhari was forced to resign, and Khalil became his country's second prime minister on July 5.


Internal Divisions

Khalil's government, however, was from the beginning a coalition of convenience. The Umma party and the PDP could find common cause in their opposition to al-Azhari; they could not, however, agree on a common program to deal with the major problems facing the newly independent Sudan. The principal task facing Khalil's government was to prepare a constitution acceptable to all segments of the population.

The Umma party wanted a strong presidential system, like that of the United States, which they felt would be dominated by the leader of the Mahdist sect, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi. Neither the PDP, which was dominated by Khatmiyya supporters, rivals to the Mahdists, nor al-Azhari's NUP would accept this solution, arguing for a parliamentary constitution similar to Great Britain's. The southern Sudanese distrusted both claims, wanting a federation which would grant the south substantial internal autonomy. Faced with these opposing views, Khalil's coalition became increasingly unable to lead or even govern the country.

During 1957 and early 1958 the political situation in the Sudan continued to deteriorate. In the south the government launched a program to Arabicize and Islamize the southern peoples. In the north relations with Egypt became increasingly strained over a series of border incidents along the Sudanese-Egyptian frontier, continued disagreement over the future division of the vital Nile water, and the strident antigovernment propaganda launched by the Egyptians. In addition, an economic recession hit the Sudan when the world price of cotton, the Sudan's major export, fell below the price the government needed to maintain a favorable balance of payments and to support their development projects.

When Khalil attempted to rectify the situation by artificially holding prices above the world market, Sudanese cotton remained unsold. When he negotiated an aid agreement with the United States, he encountered such strong opposition that his government nearly fell. Soon party politics and intrigue replaced parliamentary principles. Corruption was widespread, while the political maneuvering increasingly involved Egypt, raising fears among Khalil, the Umma, and the army that the Sudan might easily become a political dependency of Egypt.


Bloodless Coup

By November 1958 the situation had reached a crisis. Khalil was desperately trying to serve his government by including his old opponent, al-Azhari, in the coalition. Al-Azhari, meanwhile, was rumored to have been negotiating with President Nasser of Egypt. Unable to govern, on the one hand, while fearing an increase of Egyptian influence, on the other, Khalil did not oppose the intervention of the army. On the night of Nov. 16, 1958, the army under Gen. Ibrahim Abboud occupied Khartoum and seized power. The military coup d'etat was unopposed and bloodless, and the civilian government collapsed with little protest. The military take-over ended Abdullah Khalil's career as a powerful political leader in the Sudan and relegated him to quiet obscurity. He died on Aug. 23, 1970, in Khartoum.


Further Reading on Sayyid Abdullah Khalil

For background material on Khalil and the Sudan see J. S. R.Duncan, The Sudan: A Record of Achievement (1952); Henry C. Jackson, Behind the Modern Sudan (1956); and Mandour El Mahdi, A Short History of the Sudan (1965).