Sudan’s last democratically elected prime minister and the head of the National Umma Party (NUP), Sadiq al-Mahdi, 85, died on Thursday from the novel coronavirus at a hospital in the United Arab Emirates.

Al-Mahdi was the grandson of Sudanese independence leader Muhammed al-Mahdi, who led the liberation movement against British colonialism, remaining in power from 1881 to 1899.

Born in Omdurman — the largest city in Khartoum state — in December al-Mahdi became a leader of the Ansar, one of the largest religious sects in the North African country.

He studied at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt (1948-1950), later attending St. John’s College, Oxford University (1954-1957) where he obtained a master’s degree in economics.

Al-Mahdi is a politician, thinker, imam of the Ansar movement and one of the most prominent and controversial politicians in Sudan.

His first appearance on the political stage was in opposition to the regime of the former Sudanese president Ibrahim Abboud, who was in power in 1958-1964.

His last political position was his rejection of Sudan’s normalization with Israel.

Al-Mahdi considered normalization with Israel to contradict not only public sentiment in Sudan, but also its national interests.

Rejecting normalization espoused by the new government, al-Mahdi withdrew from a conference organized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments in the capital Khartoum.

He was elected prime minister on July 25, 1966, and served until May 1967.

After a coup by military officer Jaafar Nimeiry in 1969, al-Mahdi was arrested several times, the longest being from 1973 until 1974.

In 1977, al-Mahdi signed a national reconciliation agreement with Nimeiry’s regime, among other political forces in the country. However, al-Mahdi quickly withdrew, accusing the regime of deception, and he remained in opposition until the fall of Nimeiry in 1985 amid popular uprising.

The following year, al-Mahdi was elected prime minister until a military coup overthrew him in 1989 when former President Omar al-Bashir came to power.

Al-Mahdi was arrested and imprisoned under al-Bashir’s rule numerous times and he spent two years in pretrial detention until 1992.

He left Sudan in 1996 and headed the opposition from abroad against Al-Bashir.

In November 1999, al-Mahdi met with Al-Bashir in neighboring Djibouti, where his opposition National Umma Party signed the so-called Call of the Nation agreement with the regime in Khartoum under the auspices of the Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Al-Mahdi returned to Sudan in 2000 to lead negotiations with the Sudanese regime, remaining in opposition to al-Bashir’s regime until it was overthrown by the army on April 11, 2019, under pressure from popular demonstrations denouncing the deteriorating economic conditions in the country.

Al-Mahdi was one of the most prominent leaders of the Declaration of Freedom and Change, which encouraged the popular protests that led to Al-Bashir’s ouster.

He chaired the Global Forum For Moderation and is a member of multiple regional and international institutions, including the European Islamic Council in London.

In 2013, he won the Manila-based Gusi Peace Prize in the Philippines.

He authored a variety of publications, including books on his home country, as well as on different subjects relating to Islam.

In his last article before his death which he wrote on Nov. 9 after he was infected with COVID-19, al-Mahdi said, “I have been infected with coronavirus since October 27, 2020, a painful pain that put me in the shoes of Ayyub,” referring to the Muslim prophet known for his patience in the face of illness.

*Bassel Barakat in Ankara contributed to this report

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