- The Islamists Who Fell Under the Bus (1-3) Poacher turned Gamekeeper
- The Islamists Who Fell Under the Bus (2-3) - Bitter Harvest
By Mohamed Elshabik
Walking down memory lane, the 30th of June 1989 was, with hindsight, a momentous Friday morning in Khartoum. The June dust storms wake Khartoum’s inhabitants, though it was the well-known army orchestra coming from Omdurman Radio that made the greatest fanfare, signaling a military coup. Yet again, for the third time in Sudan’s modern history, the army interfered in its political life. Khazoug¹ came out of the cannon, to quote Mustafa Sid-Ahmed.
No matter how hard I tried to avoid the past I found myself driven by personal belief that the approach to the future should be both some kind self-awareness and backward-looking.
Before the year 2011, the Middle East was portrayed as the region of the world where democratic governance had made least progress. The exceptions to this indisputable fact were two countries; Sudan and Lebanon.
Sudan in fact has the distinction of being the only African country where democratic governance was established even before it was decolonized.
Recently the Arab world has been shaken by a series of upheavals in what has been depicted as the Arab Spring. The concept of an Arab Spring is not new to the Sudanese – it is named in Sudanese political folklore as Intifada. The Sudanese experienced their Intifadas on two occasions. The first was 47 years ago when the mass demonstrations and civil disobedience in October 1964 led to the downfall of the first autocratic regime in the region. In April 1985, the Sudanese did it again with a second unpopular dictatorship.
The Sudanese response to the debate of whether Sudan is yet to see its Arab Spring is the Noah story principle, which goes: “No more prizes for predicting the rain. Prizes only for building the arks”. Ark aka Democracy.
Alas, democracy was not a quick fix for Sudan’s problems. Neither the Sudanese, nor the western world where the neo-liberal rhetoric of democracy is coming from, has boosted democracy in Sudan. In fact, when Al-Bashir came to power heading the military coup, the change was largely welcomed by the western liberal world, particularly by the U.S administration. In the eyes of many, this is a form of hypocrisy on the part of the US. Phrased less aggressively, a policy of self-interest, the same policy that made the US administration be the first to welcome the electoral results of 2010 just few months prior to Southern Sudan’s secession.
Lasting democracy in Sudan was a threat to all the authoritarian regimes in the region, long ruled in the name of unity and imperialism resistance. Thus, despite the theoretical commitment to democracy, empirically Sudan’s continuous attempts over the decades to sustain democracy were not backed. The result is the present perilous situation that affects not only Sudan but the entire region.
In the year 1989 the democratic government of Sudan was about to reach a peace deal with the Rebel Movement (SPLA). This peace deal could have averted the many calamities to come in the Islamist era and could, potentially, have saved Sudan’s unity.
When Brigadier-General Omer al-Bashir made his first televised communiqué to the Sudanese people on that dusty Friday of 30 June, he stated his movement’s reasons for embarking on the change. Chief among them was to prevent the peace deal.
I quote from Bashir’s first speech ‘Political chaos has led to the loss of freedom and democracy…, politicians have failed to unite Sudan by raising the racial and tribal issues…, Economic conditions have extremely deteriorated, all efforts have failed to bring about development or to halt the economic collapse…, the prices of commodities have soared, which made it impossible for citizens to afford to buy them, consequently citizens are living at the edge of famine…, The economic recession has led to the collapse in public sector institutions represented in health and education services…’, ‘… corruption dominated the scene of the public life…, Political patronage and nepotism replaced qualifications in the public sector, for the sake of a so-called public interest many professional and patriots have lost their positions …’ ‘The provinces were neglected and the capital of Sudan became isolated from the rest of the country…’ ‘Sudan as a country became entirely isolated from its Arabic and African surroundings…’.
Likewise, Bashir vowed to eliminate corruption, protect national unity, protect Sudan’s territorial integrity, bring a dignified peace, improve the developmental and economic situation, maintain good relations with the external world and purge the country from the renegades and enemies of the people and their armed forces. The first statement Bashir made represents the Islamists’ terms of reference, for which they should be held accountable.
After almost 24 years in power, the Islamists in Sudan have utterly lost their legitimacy. Sudan today suffers a unique constellation of problems; current internal wars in Sudan seem to be increasing rather than decreasing. The conflict in Darfur continues unabated as it whirls towards its new decade. Sudan has lost a third of its land by the secession of its southern part; nonetheless, the amputation of the southern section was no cure for Sudan’s cancer. The two countries are on the brink of war. Oil revenue is disputed, as are as borders, the most famous of all being the disputed area of Abyei. Sudan also has two other territories in the east and north which are occupied by Ethiopia and Egypt respectively. Moreover, Sudan is encountering a severe economic crisis. In a short-sighted reaction to the oil boom, the non-oil section has been neglected, and this neglect has been aggravated by the brain drain. Together these factors have ruined the non-oil economy of the country. The economic crisis is marked by currency devaluation, soaring unemployment, growing migrant populations, unaffordable food prices, cuts in fuel subsidies, and an increasing rate of inflation. Sudan also faces crippling debts, maladministration and a corrupt, dysfunctional public sector, gutted civil liberties, a repressed press and appalling human rights records. On top of this Sudan’s president is the only sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court.Tragically, in the Islamist state neither growth nor liberty has been proposed.
Most of all, after the ousting of the Islamists’ godfather al-Turabi in the famous feud of 1999, and in the aftermath of September 11, the Islamists’ ideological appeal has faded. There is no vision, and no goal. It’s basically a day-to-day survival project led by a clique of corrupt opportunists exclusively driven by self-interest.
When the Islamists came to power, they named their movement as The National Salvation Revolution. The catchphrase term that was widely used in the propaganda of those days was ‘Almashrouá Al Hadari Al Islami’, a term that could be translated as The Islamic Renewal Project; or literally as The Islamic Civilization Project, a vague term aimed to symbolize the new ideology and intended change. This term was widely used in Islamic propaganda to elicit sympathy and support not only from Sudan but also from the entire Islamic and Arab world.
The current Islamists’ state in Sudan is another example of how authoritarian regimes can stay in power long after their ideological appeal has faded. Ghaddafi and his green book, Bashar and his Ba’ath ideology in Syria were not the first, and Bashir and his Islamists won’t be the last. Such authoritarian regimes have proved the high cost of dictatorship. All circumstances in Sudan suggest that the country is on the brink of collapse, yet 24 years in power has proved that the Islamists, just like Gaddafi, may opt to destroy the country rather than undergo a radical change that might be conducive to democratic politics.
The present NCP hydra in Khartoum is a combination of different elements; the President and his close circle, the NCP, the Islamic movements, NCP beneficiaries, in addition to the two largest traditional parties who are practically allying with the regime.
The weakest head of the hydra are these two parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the National Umma Party (NUP). The NCP was able to engage the leaders of these two parties in different committee and individual agreements. Practically speaking, these two parties are working alongside the NCP in the name of national unity.
However, the concept of wider government was not based on the common ground of national unity, but on individual and political ambitions. The two party leaders Mohamed Osman Al-Mirghani and Al-Sadig Al-Mahdi have decided to participate in the government basically through their sons. This move, which appeased the NCP, came as no surprise to the Sudanese. The two leaders have been known for their affluent lifestyle through exploiting the marginalized and simple followers in the name of religion. The DUP decided to join the government, but they participated through politicians and not the technocrats that could bring about some solutions to the country’s difficult economic and political challenges. The NUP on the other hand, did not join the government except through the sons of its leader, the party leader who has been a crucial survival element for the regime, by being the first to throw a lifeline to the NCP during crisis.
The last fact to mention is that Al-Mahdi was the first to pull out from the recent New Dawn Charter agreement. On a different occasion, in the famous June 2012 protest, the NUP not only washed its hands of the first serious Khartoum antigovernment demonstrations, but they disheartened the protesters who took refuge in the Al Ansar Mosque in Omdurman when they described them as ‘alleged revolutionaries’, claiming that it was not the right time to demand regime change. This right time has long been awaited. As I write this, the headline news two weeks ago was that ‘Alsadiq Al-Mahdi is ready for dialogue with NCP to achieve democratic transition’, a dream that Mr. Mahdi himself knows will never come true. Al-Mahdi’s appeal appears virtuous, but nonetheless both naïve and elusive. This weak leader’s stance is no surprise, as the man is widely known as being the only politician in the world who can have one foot in opposition and the other in government.
Traditional parties are equally accountable, in fact the author is known for describing the current Islamists’ era as the Second Dervish State. It is a time when demagogues have ruled and replaced thinkers.
The fourth, less important hydra head is the NCP’s beneficiaries. Those include the huge network of patronage including the Fakah² parties, businessmen, the Islamic right radical groups, signatories to the various peace treaties in the East, West and North, and SPLM deserters. Like its predecessor this group has no real influence, and is likely to pull out as soon as the boat starts to sink.
The third head of the hydra is the Islamic Movement (IM). This is the component where all the evil began and is likely to end. In November 2012, the IM council elected its new Secretary General, Al-Zubair Mohamed Al-Hassan, a conciliatory NCP figure, to succeed the vice president Taha. Al-Hassan’s only contender was Dr. Ghazi Salah Al-Din, a thinker and a proclaimed reform leader, that has never walked his talk.
The outcome of the last IM convention of November 2012 was a catastrophe for those calling for reform. The conference established a high command that, according to the new constitution, is to oversee the movement; it is again to be chaired by President Bashir and his deputies. Thus the option of merging the movement, NCP and the government fell under Bashir’s command.
The risk posed by these discontented members in this component is presently moderate and contained. But they are growing in numbers. If the government is unable to please these groups they are likely to cause trouble. They have recently shown their support for the released members who have been accused in the recent failed coup attempt by referring to those officers as their leaders.
The second head of the hydra is the NCP itself, the executive arm of the regime consisting of a clique of Army and NIF hardliners. This group controls all the commercial corporations, business and the security apparatus. The NISS (National Intelligence and Security Service) is a significant element that falls under this component.
The NCP is a typical third world, corrupt, government party. Its leaders lack ethics and the discipline needed by the country as a consequence of their succumbing to earthly gains. They are living a most affluent life in a country suffering from poverty and on the brink of collapse and war. With these growing frustrations, and the increasing signs of change, more elements of this component are dragging their feet back to the third component, ‘the grumbling IM’.
The first head of the hydra is the president and his close circle. Just like all dictatorships, the Islamic Renewal project ended up as a family affair. Bashir is no different to Saddam, Ghaddafi or Bashar Assad. Bashir’s close circle (family and friends) are represented in all influential positions in the state.
Bashir’s circle is the de facto ruling coterie. Depressingly, this ruling group acquires its ideology from the al-Intibaha newspaper which is owned by the president’s uncle Al-Tayeb Mustafa. Intibaha is very influential and has played a key role in the secession of South Sudan through spreading the message of hatred. Intibaha still plays a key role in the current ongoing war in the Southern Kordufan and Blue Nile, and has managed to destroy the June 2011 agreement made by the President’s Assistant and strong man in the regime, Dr. Nafie.
It’s important to mention that President Bashir, despite being a member of the first component, still maintains a great deal of acceptance from all of these different components. This is a unique form of the mythical hydra, which despite having distributed powers through different heads, maintains central control.
In an interview published in March with a Qatari newspaper, President Bashir reiterated his intention not to run for presidential elections in 2015. This announcement raised some contradicting reactions among the NCP senior leaders, with concerns and speculations about his possible successor. Apparently even the reformers in the NCP represented in the wanderers group fear change and prefer Bashir to retain the leadership to avoid any leadership contest and change of the safe status quo.
In this author’s opinion, Bashir won’t step down and the NCP will reelect him for two reasons; Bashir is a dictator who will always remain threatened by the ICC verdict. He knows that his safety is guaranteed only as long as he remains protected by his status as President. And secondly, the NCP won’t agree on his successor as the party is fragmented in different groups, none of them reaching ultimate consensus.
The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) is an important institution and does not lie within any of the above components. The SAF has been undergoing fundamental restructure during the Islamist years, but the history of Sudan tells us that no matter how loyal the SAF is to its commander, it has always taken the right side at times of historical importance. The growing dissent within the Army, specifically towards the Minister of Defense (one of the closest in Bashir’s circle), is very likely to force an honourable historical stance by the Army on D-Day, if change comes from inside (Intifada).
THE WIND OF CHANGE IS BLOWING
The government’s survival project in Sudan reveals greediness and short-sighted leadership. Sudan is promised further fragmentation if the status quo prevails for long.
With the historical failure of the South Sudan secession, Sudan needs change to protect its coherence and the remainder of its territory. At this juncture, it becomes very clear that resolving Sudan’s complexity and challenges will not be realized by the Islamists. Change is inevitable, and Sudan needs to be ready for it.
Sudan’s narrative demonstrates that the two previous uprisings against dictatorships were not motivated by poverty or by demands for food, but by demands for freedom and democracy. Present empirical evidence in Sudan suggests that the growing dissent of the Sudanese is not so much because of their harsh living conditions, but mainly because of changing priorities in the people’s values.
The rise in emancipative values makes the Sudanese judge their regime more and more on the basis of their legitimacy. Where Sudan was in 1989 and where it is now? What progress has been made? What has been ticked off Bashir’s terms of reference of 30 June?
What I would like to suggest is that despite the flagging economy, the likelihood of the regime’s fall because of economic conditions is minimal. In the nineties the Islamists overcame even worse economic circumstances. The reality of Sudan remains that people scratch a living, but they are not starving. Sudan is a unique country. Despite very harsh living conditions, the country still accommodates economic migrants from neighbouring countries, particularly Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea and even Turkey. A Turkish barber’s monthly net revenue in Khartoum equals 1,000 USD, a sum he wouldn’t make in Istanbul.
The production of gold is unlikely to equal South Sudan’s lost oil or to solve Sudan’s economic problems, but it is providing a good source of income for many new, ordinary, artisanal miners in the Northern, Westerns and Eastern states.
Moreover, the Islamists in Khartoum have positioned themselves as the guardians of stability, and for this reason the people are reluctant to embrace change, uncertain of what the future may hold. The policy of divide and rule has had a negative effect on any potential opposition, generating popular concern as to whether a political alternative would offer any improvement to their lives.
On the other hand, newspaper reports from Khartoum revealed in February that the number of Sudanese doctors who fled the country in 2012 is estimated as 94,000; and this sector reflects the general status of the Sudanese intellectual, educated youth, academics and thinkers. Sudanese people are frustrated and disillusioned. What frustrates them are corruption and the lack of strategy, vision and leadership. These feelings are not peculiar to government opponents, but also to its formerly staunch advocates.
A recent book with a title The Islamists: The Crisis of Vision and Leadership tells the story of the rising and grumbling voices of NCP youth. The author of the book belongs to the younger generation of the Islamic movement and reveals the level of frustration with and the corruption within the regime. The book represents a manifesto for young Islamist reformers. Surprisingly, these young reformers call for fighting corruption, reform, democracy and expanding dialogue with the opposition.
This phenomenon in itself is commendable, but many remain skeptical that it might produce the third version of the Islamists in power. Many recall Turabi’s claims that the first split of 1999 was motivated by his calls for reform.
Notwithstanding the growing dissent, and the different regime’s elements that have started to crack, the Sudanese should not be fooled again. Counting on the regime’s undertaking serious internal reform, or the change to come within the Islamist groups, is like using palliative measures to solve Sudan’s problems that require major surgery.
Regime reform did not happen in 2005 when the CPA agreement provided a uniquely peaceful intermediate transmission for Sudan. The entire democratic transformation agenda was left behind. The piecemeal settlement (Doha, Egypt, Khartoum, Cairo, Gipouti. etc) is illusive and will only prolong Sudan’s unique problems.
What the Sudanese need is to start entering into dialogue with each other, starting with smaller community groups within Sudan and abroad. This is a bottom-up approach ascending from small conventions that pour into bigger channels to form a broader understanding, with the idea of finding affinities rather than differences. Self-criticism is needed to first admit our historical failures, and secondly to accept our diversity and to embrace it. The grievances of the past will surface, but once the heated polemics have cooled, the essential commonality of hope for a new Sudan should bring us all together.
The South Africa pattern of democratization is noteworthy. Just like the Islamists in Khartoum, in South Africa a small minority used the vast monopolized wealth of the country. The hard-line apartheid policy of the government initially triggered a small reaction by protesters. Predictably, different forms of armed resistance and civic movements forced this most racial government to back off and accept diversity. In South Africa, remarkable leaders from both sides rose to the challenges of the time. Echoing Margaret Thatcher, in his Long walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela in a letter to his companions describes President F.W. De Klerk as ‘a man we can do business with’. For their foresight, both leaders were able to save their country from a raced-based confrontation that seemed inevitable.
Will Sudan ever have its Mandela? Will the NCP generate its De Klerk? This seems to be a very pessimistic moment in Sudan’s history. But throughout history great leaders have always emerged during difficult times.
The Sudanese need to stop talking about the absent alternative and move on. What matters is what we make of what we have, not what we are given. Local community conversations could evolve to different recommendations that need to be shared at a higher level. Civil society organizations need to lead the process and lead the proposed change not only in issues of governance but also in the way the people think.
The current political and social quagmire needs people’s participation. This can only be achieved through civil society taking a robust role. Both governance and identity issues need the bottom-up participation of CSOs. The Sudanese people need to understand their role in achieving democracy and in maintaining it. At this moment, the perception is that people’s participation in democracy is limited to casting their votes, and mass demonstration against prices increases. The CSOs have to play an effective role in raising awareness, helping in civic education, ensuring governmental accountability and in combating corruption.
An impressive example of the power of civil society is what a single journalist, Mr. Alfatih Jabra, was able to achieve in his famous column’s signature “What about Heathrow line?” In fact because of him almost all Sudan is aware of the story of the stolen landing rights at Heathrow airport. This phrase, repeated daily for one year, forced president Bashir to investigate the incident.
The role of non-partisan civil society should replace the old lame traditional parties. It’s really impressive how these young growing communities are able to create and generate an impetus for change. The peaceful protests of last year are the hope for a new prosperous Sudan.
In their last days, the Islamists seem to have twisted values and then believed them. They manipulated the image of the outcome, rather than the outcome itself. They mixed the concept of a strong country with a brutal one, a barbaric project with a civilized focus on renewal. People lived in fear which they interpreted as trust. They replaced competency with loyalty and a dependable developing state with a resilient one; leaders who enlisted others, by those who repressed them. They did not understand the advantages of constructive dissent and preferred to live in denial under dirigiste rule in a hostile political environment.
The rule of the army always ends up as a one man show. Unfortunately most of the time this man is not the wisest in the land. The rule of the Islamists was never progressive but tyrannical. Their rule has led to a torn country with a very centralized capital, to the impoverishment of the peripheries, to the decay of education and health, to the ruin of economy, to war and conflict. Bashir’s supremacy through the hieratical orders has led to lax morals and the disregard of ethical principles; to a privileged party ruling through its political apparatus.
What can you do? The time comes in the life of any nation when there remain only two choices: submit or fight. There is a role for everyone. If you are an activist, you can change from raising awareness to teaching and advocating. Researchers can work on development and conflict management issues for a post-Ingaz period or for different innovations that make peace dominant. The least you can do is to make vocal your dissatisfaction with what’s going on in Sudan. Civil society can bring about the long awaited change.
The New Dawn Charter is not inclusive, but is on the right path towards the collective efforts of a united Sudan with one strong community. The force of bottom-up debate on governmental reform and constitutional review will feed into wider areas.
However, we remain realistic and slightly tentative as to what the future holds. Our objective is clear, and we do our best to achieve it, which is to rebuild a democratic Sudan, a Sudan for all which accepts its diversity and embraces all its people. To bring freedom and to combat poverty, disease and ignorance. The process is long and slow, but incremental. The expectations at the beginning need to be limited to avoid setbacks and disappointments. If the reformers in the government are willing to engage in such inclusive and transparent processes, then they need to join the movement, or be overtaken by events. The change starts with you. Ask not what Sudan can do for you, ask what you can do for Sudan.
- Khazoug or Khazouk is an instrument used during Ottoman Sultanate to execute opponents by impalement ; in the common definition the word is used to express a state of dilemma, of being stuck in a very bad situation.
- Fakah parties are smaller units that originally broke away from larger traditional parties. These break-aways were engineered by individuals who are basically employment seekers who separated under the NCP’s policy of divide and rule, which was initially intended to fragment the opposition.
Mohamed Elshabik is a Sudanese International Social Worker, he publishes his opinions at his blog - http://elshabik.blogspot.com/ - and different Sudanese forums. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org