Though stripped of his political posts, Sudan's veteran Islamist ideologue Hassan Turabi still commands the admiration of a diehard core of followers.
Hundreds, if not thousands of students and other Islamists stage pro-Turabi rallies following Friday afternoon prayers at the mosque at Khartoum University. They also meet together in smaller groups on other days.
"He's a brilliant Islamic leader. He's a pioneer," says Turabi aide Tajelsir Abdullah, who is also a manager at Sudan Airways.
"He's our hero, our savior," says a young supporter.
Erupting in chants, the Islamists ran after Turabi -- a wiry, bearded and bespectacled intellectual who speaks French and English fluently -- as he sped by the mosque in a car last Friday.
He did not address the crowd.
Though he has freedom of movement, Turabi is banned from making speeches since President Omar el-Beshir suspended him on May 6 as secretary general of the ruling National Congress party, months after ousting him as parliament speaker.
Turabi does not appear ready to challenge the ban, at least not for now.
In an interview with AFP at his villa in the Sudanese capital, where he holds court daily and nightly with his aides and supporters, Turabi, wearing traditional Sudanese white robes and turban, appeared serene and confident.
Though dismissed by many foreign and domestic analysts here as a political has-been, Turabi said it is his following that counts and not the positions he lost.
"People know me all over the world, not just in Sudan. My influence is not in my positions but in my books, my ideas," Turabi said over fruit juice in a vast air-conditioned lounge where aides came in for consultations.
"Who knows who President Beshir is?" he asked rhetorically.
Turabi added that he endured seven years in jail under former Sudanese President Gaafar Nimeiri, who served from 1969 until he was deposed in a bloodless coup in 1985.
Although viewed as an exporter of extremism in the West and as dictatorial by some Sudanese, Turabi advocates an Islamic democracy like that which he said was practiced in Arabia in the 40 years after the prophet Mohammed's death.
But he outlined no clear plans for the future.
Nor did he propose a way to check what he feared was an increasing tendency by Beshir -- the general whom he helped to power in a 1989 bloodless coup -- to crack down on the press and resort to the security forces to apply decisions.
Instead, Turabi appears to be biding his time.
Mussa Mahadi, a young engineer who supports Turabi, said Islamists were awaiting "peaceful instructions" from their spiritual leader about how to advance their cause.
"Until now he's silent," Mahadi said.
When pressed to explain what sets Turabi apart from other leaders, Mahadi replied: "He's dealing with real Islam. He's for justice, equality and for democracy."
A Western diplomat said Turabi is actually "widely unpopular in this country" and only commands a small following among university students, some other Islamists as well with people in towns and villages west of Khartoum.
"Turabi tried to abolish the easy Sudanese way of living," he said.
They objected to his push for Western efficiency under an Islamic-style democracy and blamed him for driving away Western development agencies, he said.
Sudanese are an easy-going people who do not accept strict codes of living, the diplomat added.
Although under Islamic law, Sudan is a far cry from Saudi Arabia where there is broad segregation of the sexes, and an absence of movie houses and mixed public dancing.
Though Turabi's supporters and the government alike appear intent on avoiding confrontation, efforts at compromise have failed and tension is rising.
An AFP correspondent who had interviewed Turabi supporters was detained briefly for questioning at a police station, with an officer asking him to understand such checks were needed because of the tension - (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)