The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) has “almost become a conglomerate of quarrelling tribes and ethnicities not a national platform for integration and harmony to work for the good of the nation”, declared Amin Hassan Omer, a leading figure of the NCP and minister at the presidency, in a piece published in Saturday’s edition of the party’s mouthpiece, al-Raed, marking the twenty third anniversary of the 30 June 1989 coup that delivered power to the Sudanese Islamic Movement, at the time politically active under the banner of the National Islamic Front (NIF). Rather than celebrate the astonishing survival of the ‘National Salvation Revolution’ into its twenty fourth year of rule the “bankrupt state”, in the words of the Minister of Finance, was busy battling protestors across the country. Hordes of police and plain-clothed security agents cordoned off areas of the capital where trouble was to be expected judging by the experience of ‘sandstorm Friday’ the preceding week.
The events of 29 June, dubbed ‘elbow-licking’ Friday by opposition activists, are well documented on social media outlets and received considerable coverage in the international press. The largest instance of mass action on the day took place in Wad Nubawi, Omdurman, where worshippers in Sayed Abd al-Rahman’s mosque marched out following the Friday prayers calling for the overthrow of the regime to face a drilled police force ready to counter their charge. The mosque carries the name of Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, the posthumous son of the 19th century Sudanese revolutionary Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahdi and the late patron of the Ansar brotherhood and founder of the Umma Party, its political wing. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Oxford-educated grandchild of Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, doubles today as imam of the Ansar and chairman of the Umma Party. Abd al-Rahman Jr., Sadiq’s son, serves as assistant to President Bashir, the man who deposed the father from his second spell as Prime Minister in 1989.
Wad Nubawi still carries the scars of an earlier and much bloodier confrontation with the coercive forces of the state. In 1970, al-Hadi Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, Sadiq al-Mahdi’s uncle and the imam of the Ansar at the time, challenged the legitimacy of Colonel Nimayri, the Nasser-styled officer who overthrew Sudan’s second parliamentary regime in 1969. The Ansar were split in loyalty between Sadiq al-Mahdi, the younger modernizer, and al-Hadi, the older uncle and imam of the brotherhood. Sadiq al-Mahdi led a faction of the Umma Party against Mohamed Ahmed Mahjoub, the veteran Umma politician and non-Mahdi who enjoyed the support of al-Hadi. The feud between Sadiq and his uncle over leadership was one of the major destabilizing factors of the parliamentary democracy that lasted between 1965 and 1969. The lordly ambitions of Sadiq al-Mahdi earned him the premiership at the age of thirty six. A coalition of convenience joining Umma MPs who supported Sadiq’s bid for leadership and the National Unionist Party of Ismail al-Azhari voted Mohamed Ahmed Mahjoub out of office in 1966 to replace him with Sadiq al-Mahdi. Azhari, who served as Sudan’s first Prime Minister at independence, was happy to embarrass his foe, Mohamed Ahmed al-Mahjoub, with backstage intrigue. Sadiq al-Mahdi’s government collapsed a year later, in May 1967, when the pernicious Azhari changed track to forge a coalition with al-Hadi’s faction of the Umma Party, and the People’s Democratic Party of the Khatmiyya brotherhood, once Azhari’s allies in the National Unionist Party. Eventually, Azhari mended his troubled relationship with Ali al-Mirghani, the patron of the Khatmiyya, and the two parties united to form the Democratic Unionist Party in November 1967. The Umma Party entered the 1968 elections in two, one wing led by al-Hadi and another led by Sadiq, to suffer a considerable electoral setback. They reunited in 1969 but were robbed the pleasure by Nimayri’s 25 May putsch.
The ‘progressive’ officers of the 25th May 1969 Revolution had it in their heads to demolish the sectarian forces of ‘reaction’ once and for all. The Khatmiyya chose to walk out of their way but the Ansar rallied behind al-Hadi acted otherwise. Sadiq al-Mahdi was briefly incarcerated and then shipped to exile in Egypt. His uncle, al-Hadi, withdrew to Abba Island, the Ansar stronghold on the White Nile. Fearsome of an Ansar rebellion Colonel Nimayri ordered the army to storm the island and arrest al-Hadi. Tens if not hundreds of Ansar were killed in the showdown. To crush the resistance of the Ansar fighter jets bombed Abba on 27 and 28 March 1970. Al-Hadi attempted to flee but was eventually gunned down by Nimayri’s troops across the Ethiopian border. Wad Nubawi was the site of a secondary episode of bloodletting on 29 March when the army clashed with the Ansar on the same stretch of ground that the protestors walking out of Sayed Abd al-Rahman's mosque shared with the riot police this last Friday.
Informed by this experience as well as the tragedy of the 1976 trans-Saharan attempt to storm Khartoum and depose Nimayri by force of arms Sadiq al-Mahdi has since learnt to defer rather than invite confrontation with the coercive forces of the state. On ‘elbow-licking’ Friday he advised worshippers in Sayed Abd al-Rahman’s mosque to sit in their frustration with the regime rather than act it out in demonstrations. While the Umma Party’s politburo discussed an adequate response to Friday’s events Sadiq al-Mahdi met separately in the party’s Omdurman headquarters with the NCP’s Mustafa Osman Ismail, possibly dispatched by President Bashir to sort matters out with the septuagenarian Umma chief. Sadiq’s son, heir apparent, and President Bashir’s assistant, Abd al-Rahman, officially disavowed by the Umma Party, voiced his opposition to any protests that endanger state or private properties. He told the press on ‘elbow licking’ Friday while the constitution provides for peaceful protests the government will repress acts of sabotage according to the law.
Obviously, neither the leadership of al-Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party, in compassionate coalition with the NCP, nor the leadership of the Umma Party, ever hopeful for a negotiated ‘delivery’ of power, are in a position to chart the unknowns of mass action against the NCP. Rather than despair the activists bracing to confront the NCP with ‘people power’ are invited to revisit the country’s revolutionary heritage. Yesterday, 2 July, marked half a century since the conception of the ‘mass political strike’ in Sudan as a decisive tool to rally and organise the forces of the nas (the commoners) in the pursuit of political and social transformation. The notion was introduced into the political armour of the nas by the Communist Party in a pamphlet released in August 1961, and provided the framework for the sustained organisation and agitation that culminated in the October 1964 Revolution that toppled the military dictatorship of General Ibrahim Abboud.