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20 May 2008

Sudan’s Islamist rebels

The Justice and Equality Movement once offered hope to Darfur's desperate population. Now its violen

By Philip Honour

An ill-fated attempt on 17 May to overthrow the Khartoum government marked a new peak in the intensifying operations of Sudanese rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). Led by Islamist Khali Ibrahim and driven by the teaching and rhetoric of notorious cleric Hassan Turrabi, JEM also draws inspiration from the Che Guevara-era liberation movement. The group has increasingly exploited Darfur’s escalating crisis in order to advance its ambition of overthrowing the Sudanese government.

The JEM is comprised predominantly of Turrabi loyalists, who became disillusioned at the ruling government after the disintegration of president El-Bashir’s relationship with his former ideological mentor. The group rose to prominence after the ill-fated peace talks in 2006, that led to multiple split’s within the resistance movement in Darfur.

JEM draws much of its motivation from the so-called ‘Black Book’, a document written before the Darfur conflict came to international attention in 2002. This manifesto outlines the perceived marginalisation of the Darfuri people by successive Sudanese governments since the country’s independence in 1956.

At first, JEM were regarded by many as freedom fighters and protectors of Darfur’s population. However, the reality quickly became apparent – that they were committed to unleashing a campaign of violent direct action aimed not just at liberating the Darfuri population, but intent on forcefully removing the unpopular Sudanese government. By refusing to take part in peace talks and by launching fatal attacks on international peacekeepers and African Union forces, they have established themselves as a serious threat to regional peace. As popular support within camps for internally displaced refugees has waned, the acts have grown deadlier and their struggle has seemingly become less about people and more about power.

These actions, while deplorable, do not legitimise the state’s prolonged and systematic assault on the Darfur region. Nor should they lead to an outpouring of sympathy for the oppressive Khartoum regime, which has directly supported mass murder and crimes against humanity – and which thinks nothing of torturing refugees seeking shelter in Khartoum, to extract information about rebels that they generally do not support.

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The international community should be wary of being perceived as taking sides and whilst condemning this ill-thought out attack on the regime, it should not seek to exploit this unexpected turn of events as a chance to legitimise relations with Sudan, regardless of the undoubtedly important role they play in intelligence gathering, and as a trading partner. Huge reserves of oil and strategic importance in the war on terror, cannot be used as an excuse to turn a blind eye to Khartoum’s continued assault on its own population.

Recent events have illustrated the importance of deploying in full the currently stalled UNAMID force. Although it was expected that 25,000 troops would be on the ground by now, the number stands at just 9,000. And as the UN tries to negotiate itself out of a diplomatic stalemate with Khartoum over the balance of African and non-African troops within the UN peacekeeping force, the political vacuum that such wrangling has created is being exploited by JEM, and providing the space to launch a new resistance movement in Sudan. In an interview with the Sudan Tribune yesterday, Khali Ibrahim declared that last weekend’s assault was, “the start of a process, and the end is the termination of this regime”.

It is beholden upon all international observers and concerned parties to ensure that this is not the case, and that instead, the end of this process is a lasting and peaceful settlement.

Philip Honour is a writer and campaigner based in London. He has contributed to a number of publications and media outlets on the subject of Darfur.

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