Home | Comment & Analysis    Tuesday 24 January 2012

Sudan: The Intibaha Spring


By Magdi El Gizouli

January 23, 2012 — Some ten days ago the Deputy Chairman of the National Congress Party (NCP), Nafie Ali Nafie, received a memorandum reportedly signed by one thousand members of the Islamic Movement, the semi-clandestine ancestor organisation of the ruling party. The document which became known as the ‘corrective memorandum’ summarized what its author(s) perceived as the commendable successes of the regime and its stark failures, and proposed a reform agenda to address its deficiencies. The 1999 fracture of the Islamic Movement into two fratricidal camps, the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) led by the veteran chief of the Movement, Hassan al-Turabi, and the governing NCP headed by President Bashir was identified as the most significant setback of the Islamic experiment in Sudan. To this the document added rampant corruption, political inconsistency as evidenced by the swing from a “totalitarian one-party system” to the current tolerance of opposition parties, “errors” committed by the government in Darfur, and the regime’s security obsessions.

Had the Islamic Movement not seized power in its 1989 coup, said the author(s), the country would have either fallen into the hands of Baath Party elements or Egyptian agents in the army, who were all jockeying to topple Sadiq al-Mahdi’s government. Guided by its innovative reading of Islamic scriptures (ijtihad) the Movement took the right decision at the right time, said the document, and thus obstructed the Western plot to install the rule of a Christian minority led by John Garang and his rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) over the country’s Muslim majority. This scenario, it went on, would have entailed the “ethnic cleansing” of Sudan’s Arabs, a repeat, it said, of the 1964 tragedy in Zanzibar and long before that the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia. The Movement faced up to this challenge, said the authors, defeated the rebels on the battlefront, and eventually managed to attain peace through a tortuous and exhausting negotiation process that culminated in a self-determination vote and the breakaway of South Sudan. This conclusion, stated the document, might be criticized by some as another of the Islamic Movement’s failures although it should count in its favour politically and intellectually.

Publicly, the NCP’s leading figures welcomed the memorandum as an instance of awareness in the ranks of their party remarking that all the issues it discussed were already addressed in the party’s national convention held in December last year. However, neither President Bashir, the Chairman of the NCP, nor Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, his deputy and the Emir of the Islamic Movement, to whom the memorandum was directly addressed, made any public comments in its regard. The critical nature of the document compounded by the conspicuous silence of two men at the top prompted observers in the Khartoum press to compare it to the famous ‘memorandum of the ten’ that signalled the 1999 conflict between President Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi. The NCP bigwigs dismissed the comparison and rubbished projections of an imminent split in the party as unjustified exaggerations. Qutbi al-Mahdi, the chairman of the party’s political sector, argued that the memorandum’s signatories had acted in good faith by preserving their anonymity.

Qutbi, I presume, is right, but only in a false sense. The ‘corrective memorandum’ does not compare to the ‘memorandum of the ten’, and is unlikely to be the foreplay of a power struggle as fierce as the 1999 divorce between Turabi and Bashir. Its author(s) did not challenge the authority of the party’s leadership and their demands were largely a re-run of the NCP’s official line. The document detailed a set of reforms that the NCP, being the ruling party, should implement with the objective of rooting out corruption and achieving “comprehensive social and political justice”. These included the establishment of a judicial anti-corruption body, promotion of the regime’s political transformation towards an elections-based order that respects the free will of the citizenry, promulgation of a permanent constitution for the country, and guarantee of the independence of the judiciary. Regarding the NCP’s organisational well-being the document demanded that the ruling party sever its organic links to the state structures and develop binding rules to govern the office terms of its leaders. Apart from the reform rhetoric above the document made a few recommendations that deserve attention: continuation of the regime’s project to “Islamize” the state and society, “fearless enforcement of sharia without hesitation”, and coordination with the Islamic forces in the country to combat secularism and moral subversion.

So what then is the correction of the ‘corrective memorandum’? I suppose al-Tayeb Mustafa spelled it out in his address to the Shura (Consultative) Council of his party, the Just Peace Forum (JPF), a few days after his paper, al-Intibaha, published the text of the memorandum. He told the meeting that the country’s troubles would only be resolved if and when the JPF is invited into the government. This, to my knowledge, is the first time that Mustafa loudly voices his power ambitions. Recently, al-Intibaha chided the NCP for accommodating the ‘sectarian’ forces of old Sudan at the expense of the Islamist vanguard. In fact, the ‘reform memorandum’ that al-Intibaha attributed to the mujahideen of the Islamic Movement, i.e. the combatants of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) who took part in the war against the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), reads like an editorial in the paper. Al-Intibaha actually dedicates a daily page to the glory of the mujahideen and their accomplishments. If not authored by al-Intibaha’s folks the document, it can be safely stated, mirrors their fantasies. Mustafa, of course, denied any links to the document but stressed that it did not go far enough. The Islamic Movement, he said, is in need of a “genuine revolution” and not the timid inking of demands. Lately, the JPF has been mobilising support in Sudan’s central states as a separate entity from the NCP. The party chairman, al-Tayeb Mustafa, tours the country to spread his message and receive vows of allegiance. The JPF teamed up with several forces from the Islamist fringe and drafted an ‘Islamic constitution’ for the rump (North) Sudan which they eventually delivered to President Bashir. The NCP notables, Ghazi Salah al-Din, Amin Hassan Omer and Qutbi al-Mahdi all publish frequent musings in al-Intibaha and are habitually celebrated on its pages. Ghazi in particular has lately become a favourite of al-Tayeb Mustafa. The man stands out in the crowd of the NCP nomenklatura by his 2008 attempt to displace Ali Osman Mohamed Taha from the leadership of the Islamic Movement. Although largely dormant and hollowed out the Movement remains a handy tool in the contests of the ruling elite.

The memorandum in a certain sense defines the limits of the permissible in today’s Sudan. Criticism of the NCP functionaries, even the bitterest, is tolerated if not encouraged in the same fashion that prohibitions cry out for their violation, provided that the ultimate authority of the man at the top is acknowledged. He and his intimate captains, Bakri Hassan Salih and Abd al-Rahim Mohamed Hussein, identify with the domain of sovereignty, the establishing violence of the political order that came into being with the 1989 coup. Even the polished Ghazi would not dare transgress that line. In his recent lecture at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London he argued for the same set of reforms proposed in the ‘corrective memorandum’, i.e. the necessity of a permanent constitution, a wider concept of justice and ‘democratization’, however within the framework defined by the formal requirements of state formation and institutionalisation, bluntly stated submission to the hegemonic order he shares in running. This unqualified distinction between state formation and competition for political power is equally prominent in the debates of Khartoum’s opposition. Shafie Khidir, for instance, developed the theme of a neutral space guaranteed by a democratic constitution and state structures equidistant from the political parties and formations where contestation for power is to take place once the NCP regime is dislodged. The state, however, is never the neutral arbiter it is presumed to be, even less so when it relies on gate-keeping i.e. the control of export-import outlets for its very existence. In concrete terms, what Sudan is being promised is deliverance from the NCP proper to the JPF and allies under the benevolent watch of Bashir and his fellow officers.

The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at m.elgizouli@gmail.com

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