Just like Tunisia’s uprising that expelled Ben Ali, Egypt’s uprising that ousted Mubarak, and Libya’s uprising that drove out Gaddafi, Sudan was the undisputed pioneer of the Arab Spring with its peaceful and early uprising that ousted its dictator president Jaafar Nimeiri, who had oppressed the hearts of the Sudanese for years. But we Arabs have a short memory, as the Sudanese Spring in the 1980s nurtured a flower with a scent that spread to all Arab nations; Field Marshal Abdul Rahman Swar al Dahab [name translates literally as ‘bracelet of gold’], who responded favorably to the Sudanese popular uprising and overthrew President Nimeiri in 1985. He took over power and headed the interim ruling system, which had the same name as the Libyan transitional council, and promised to hand power to the elected government, which the overwhelming majority of Arabs and non-Arabs alike did not believe at the time. However, they were wrong to mistrust him as he was not intoxicated with authority, and handed power over voluntarily to the elected Prime Minister Sadiq al Mahdi. Al-Dahab left the government at the height of his power and never once went back on his word. That was the early Sudanese Spring; however it was followed by a tame democratic autumn and a cold military winter. The cards of the Sudanese renaissance that were built by Swar al-Dahab had collapsed. Sudan’s spring could have been led by al-Dahab, and perhaps if he had come at the time of the Arab Spring of Revolutions, the situation would have been different.
What prompted me to write about the historical Arab leader Swar al-Dahab was the wave of recent Arab uprisings, which is a more accurate description than the term “revolutions”. A lot of readers wrote to me and contacted me in reproach (and they were non-Sudanese), asking how could I forget this “golden” man and not mention him in alongside [Nelson] Mandela and Mahathir [Mohamad], as in a previous article I had alluded to the two great non-Arab figures of our developing world. I wrote that we are proud of these two global figures who voluntarily stepped down from power. Their people felt a great deal of love for them without there being any need to mobilize the masses, orchestrate stories and songs of praise, raise banners, and write glorifying slogans in large headlines.
I completely agree with my readers’ observations and honesty. I did not forget this “beautiful” man and his rich experience when I wrote my article, but rather I did not think that Swar al-Dahab was comparable to Mandela in terms of his historical legacy, nor does he resemble Mahathir in his achievement in development. Where I failed to link him to them, and this was wrong, was when I complimented Mahathir and Mandela in the framework of voluntarily stepping down from power, and this is the merit that Swar al-Dahab shares with them.
This noble leader has a beautiful story, and if you read it without any names you would think that it was about the righteous Caliph Omar Ibn Abdulaziz. When al-Dahab handed over the reins of power to the elected government, he wrote the Prime Minister a letter in which he said that King Fahd, may God grant him mercy, gave him and his accompanying delegation a piece of a Kiswah [cloth that covers the Kaaba] whilst he was on an official visit to Saudi Arabia. He requested that the new Prime Minister keep it, because al-Dahab realized that if he had lived in his mother’s house [in a reference to the Hadith that suggests that people in power should not accept gifts that are given to them because of their position or authority], he would not have received this gift, so he presented an honest and transparent inventory upon stepping down. Caliph Omar Ibn Abdulaziz was famous for being righteous, and remained in power for no more than two years. Swar al-Dahab held power for only one year, and he has been remembered for decades.
How beautiful Sudan is when it finds a bracelet of gold. How it wishes for another after it fell from its wrist.
(The writer is a journalist and former member of the official Saudi National Organization for Human Rights. This article was first published in Arab News on August 30, 2011.)