Sayyid Ismail al-Azhari

Sayyid Ismail al-Azhari (1898-1969) was a political leader of the Sudan and is often called the father of the Republic of the Sudan.

Sayyid Ismail al-Azhari was born in Omdurman, the son of a religious notable. He studied at Gordon College in Khartoum and the American University in Beirut. He became a teacher of mathematics and then an administrator in the Anglo-Egyptian condominium government that ruled the Sudan during the colonial period. He and other educated Sudanese demanded greater participation in the administration of the country, and to promote their objectives they formed the Graduates' General Congress in 1938. Al-Azhari's election as secretary to the congress launched him into a career in politics.

Although the congress at first had no political aspirations, in 1942 it asserted its claim to act as the spokesman for all Sudanese nationalists. When the wartime British administration rejected this claim, the congress split into two groups: the moderates, who were prepared to work with the British toward full independence, and a more extreme group, led by al-Azhari, which distrusted the British and sought unity with Egypt in the postcolonial period.

In 1943 al-Azhari and his supporters from the congress formed the Ashiqqa (Brothers') party, the first true political party in the Sudan. His main support came from the Khatmiyya brotherhood, one of the two main Moslem groups in the country. When the more moderate nationalists formed the Umma (Nation) party in 1945, its principal support came from the chief rival of the Khatmiyya, the anti-Egyptian Mahdist sect.

Between 1944 and 1953 al-Azhari, as the leading advocate for uniting the Sudan with Egypt, fought tenaciously against any act which appeared to weaken the "unity of the Nile Valley." Thus, in 1948 he boycotted the elections to establish a legislative assembly in the Sudan, and his propaganda and demonstrations led to his arrest and imprisonment for subversion in 1948-1949.

The military coup d'etat in Egypt in 1952, which ended the regime of King Farouk and brought Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, dramatically changed the situation in the Sudan. Farouk's government had exerted all its influence to unite Egypt and the Sudan and block Sudanese independence. Nasser and his half-Sudanese compatriot, Col. Naquib, were more flexible and not unwilling to permit the Sudan to achieve independence.

In 1952 an agreement was reached between Egypt, the Sudanese, and their British rulers for immediate internal self-government, to be followed within 3 years by an election to determine the future relationship between Egypt and the Sudan. Although his imprisonment and the quarrels within his own party had for a time undermined al-Azhari's power and prestige, he was able to reunite his followers under the banner of the National Unionist party (NUP) in time to campaign vigorously for the combined parliament and constitutional assembly which was to rule the Sudan for the next 2 years. Throughout the campaign al-Azhari emphasized his hostility to the British and his support for Egypt so that when the NUP won a victory in the elections of 1953, it was widely regarded as a victory for al-Azhari's efforts to link the Sudan to Egypt.

In 1954 al-Azhari became the Sudan's first prime minister. His government faced three major problems. The first was the critical constitutional question of the Sudan's relationship with Egypt. It soon became clear that the Sudanese people did not want to be tied closely to Egypt, and in his greatest act of statesmanship al-Azhari dramatically reversed the position which he had long advocated and, with the support of the principal political leaders, declared the Sudan independent on Jan. 1, 1956.

Then al-Azhari was faced with the second problem, the task of organizing a permanent government. His principal opponent, the Umma party, wanted a strong presidential system. Al-Azhari advocated a British parliamentary form of government, but he never resolved the issue during his tenure and the problem remained into the 1970s.

The third problem which confronted al-Azhari's government was the uniting of the black, non-Moslem Southern Sudanese with peoples and traditions very different if not opposed to the Arab, Moslem north. Neither by his background nor by his political convictions was al-Azhari sympathetic to the aspirations of the Southern Sudanese, and he sought to control the Southern Sudan by a combination of military and police repression on the one hand and negotiations and discussion on the other. The failure of the policy became apparent in 1955, when a mutiny in the Equatorial Corps precipitated disturbances throughout many of the districts in the south. Thereafter, relations between the Northern and the Southern Sudan remained the principal problem facing successive Sudanese governments. Their failure to meet Southern aspirations undermined their authority, just as it had drained al-Azhari's political strength.

These and other problems began to weaken al-Azhari's coalition. His reversal on unity with Egypt undermined the political strength of the NUP by depriving it of its principal ideology. The mutiny in the south damaged al-Azhari's prestige. More importantly, the fragile alliance between the Khatmiyya sect and the NUP began to disintegrate, leaving the Prime Minister without the popular support he needed to rule effectively. As a result, he reformed his coalition into a "government of all talents" in February 1956, but then his former Khatmiyya supporters deserted to form the People's Democratic party in June. In July he lost a vote of confidence in Parliament and resigned.

Al-Azhari opposed the government led by Abdullah Khalil, who replaced him, and also the succeeding military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Abboud. In 1961 al-Azhari was arrested and exiled for several months to Juba in the Southern Sudan. In 1964 the military regime resigned in the face of student-led demonstrations, and party politics reemerged in the Sudan. Al-Azhari sought to regain power, but without a strong political base even his skill as a politician was insufficient to lead a government in the Sudan. In March 1965 he became president of the Republic of the Sudan, but this was primarily an honorary position with little real power. He remained president until May 1968, when a military coup d'etat ended his political life. Known as a skilled if not crafty politician, al-Azhari was respected but not loved. His tenacity to survive the many vicissitudes of Sudanese political life was even admired. Ironically, his most statesmanlike decision—not to press for unity with Egypt—destroyed the principles upon which his political life had been constructed, leaving only manipulation to achieve political power. He died on Oct. 26, 1969.


Further Reading on Sayyid Ismail al-Azhari

There is no full-length biography of al-Azhari. P. M. Holt, A Modern History of the Sudan (1961), contains a great deal on the life and work of al-Azhari. In K. D. D. Henderson, The Making of the Modern Sudan (1952), al-Azhari figures prominently. See also Mekki Shibeika, The Independent Sudan (1959).