When recounting the deeds of the Sudanese Islamic Movement (SIM) before the final session of its 8th General Conference in Khartoum’s Chinese-built Friendship Hall last Saturday the outgoing Secretary General and First Vice President of Sudan Ali Osman Mohamed Taha identified “the increase in the rate of religiosity” as its first accomplishment. Taha, a lawyer by training and devout bureaucrat by profession, borrowed from the jargon of state statistics to justify the maintenance of an organisation that has long lost its lustre as a political vanguard, an expensive feat indeed when one considers that the three days event came at a cost of around 1 billion Sudanese Pounds (over 226.5 million US Dollars) according to the conference spokeswomen, Sanaa Hamad al-Awad. Unaccounted for in this sum are the series of local and state-level mini-conferences held in preparations for the Hajj to Khartoum. The same Taha admonished the Sudanese a few months ago for spending beyond their means in order to show off among family and friends as he bullied parliamentarians from his own party into approving drastic austerity measures to counteract the loss of oil revenues in the aftermath of the secession of South Sudan.
If anything the SIM was showing off among peers in the region and beyond, in what appeared like a second act of Hassan al-Turabi’s 1991 Popular Arabic and Islamic Conference, without Turabi. The ‘pious and religious’ of the ‘Arab Spring’ were all there to witness the facelift of the SIM: Rashid al-Ghannushi of the ruling Ennahda Movement in Tunisia, Khaled Meshal of the Palestinian Hamas, the General Guide of Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood Mohamed Badie, the General Guide of the Libyan Moslem Brotherhood Bashir Abd al-Salam al-Kebti, the Deputy General Guide of the Syrian Moslem Brotherhood Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni, as well as the Emir of the Pakistani Jamaat e-Islami Syed Munawar Hassan, and representatives of Islamic movements from Chad, Senegal and Nigeria among other countries, each of course in an entourage of followers and assistants. Syed Munawar Hassan for instance was accompanied by five others including his wife and women league leader of the Jamaat, Begum Aisha Munawar. The list of attendants was sufficiently ‘internationalist’ as to ignite the suspicion of Arab Gulf governments weary of the machinations of the transnational Moslem Brotherhood. A critical tweet from the Dubai Police chief Dhahi Khalfan Tameem suggesting that the brothers were in Khartoum to conspire against the sheikhdoms of the Gulf prompted the conference chairman, al-Tayeb Ibrahim Mohamed Khair, to issue a statement declaring that the SIM had full respect for the sovereignty of individual Moslem countries. Taha, however, could not resist the temptation of the international platform. After dwelling on the religiosity rate and other issues of Sudanese relevance he broke into a shrieking staccato of sloganeering in rhyme to stumble into “no to the United Nations”, “no to the Security Council”, “no to the international injustice council”, “Islam is coming”, “from Sudan coming, from Egypt coming, from Libya advancing, from Sri Lanka coming, from Nigeria creeping, from Somalia keeping pace, from all the Ummah…”. The Vice President’s voice broke a little before climbing up to a finale of prayer, President Bashir was apparently amused by the performance, and the conference delegates were enthralled. Rather than bring out the composure of the statesman Taha displayed the worn out fashions of his student career as Chairman of the Khartoum University Students’ Union (KUSU) during the ‘leftist’ seventies, a time when the SIM was a small pack of rustic youth angered by the ‘cosmopolitan’ vices of Khartoum.
For a moment there Khartoum seemed like a Moscow of pan-Islamic revolution. The Hamas politburo chief vowed revenge for the Israeli attack on the Yarmouk factory as Gaza was being bombed, and Taha proclaimed the ‘liberation of Palestine’ a priority for an Islamic international in the making. The entire fanfare had a much more immediate function though, one limited to the maintenance of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its Islamist base. At the mighty price tag above the post-Turabi state-administered SIM managed to secure a degree of regional legitimacy that placed it on par with ‘Arab Spring’ counterparts. Mohamed Badie and Khaled Meshal delivered Friday sermons in Khartoum mosques praising Sudan’s pioneering Islamic experiment, and President Bashir played host to Rashid al-Ghannushi, a man who has Turabi to thank for safe sanctuary and a Sudanese diplomatic passport during years of exile. A spiteful Turabi wrote an open letter to the ‘brothers’ from abroad renouncing the SIM of Taha as a fake and pleading for recognition as the legitimate and sole figurehead of modern political Islam in Sudan but to no avail. They dined, exchanged ‘pious’ jokes and posed with President Bashir while Turabi tended to his wounded pride at home, a general without an army or rather a disowned father.
The magic of an Islamic international assembled in Khartoum to witness Sudan’s Islamic experiment impressed the delegates of the conference as much as it cost the treasury. Taha and Co wooed the floor into approving the draft constitution proposed by the last meeting of the SIM Shura (Consultative) Council, an inflated Central Committee of four hundred members, with no more than punctuation modifications. Over the past year, the Islamist rank has been consumed in a dispute over the relationship with the ruling NCP and the government, a rather dull remake of the conflict that ended with the break-up between President Bashir and Hassan al-Turabi in 1998/1999. Two leading figures of the SIM framed the dispute in clear terms shortly before the start of the Conference. Ghazi Salah al-Din, the ‘hope and change’ candidate of the younger ranks of the SIM, advocated in a brief article published in two Khartoum newspapers simultaneously for the autonomy of the SIM from the NCP and the government, a notion that one of his sympathizers phrased as “the liberation of the Movement from the state”. On the other end, the SIM veteran Ahmed Abd al-Rahman called for the dissolution of the SIM as such in the NCP and claimed wide support for the idea in the upper echelons of the ruling party. In formal terms, the conflict crystallized around two clauses in the draft constitution presented to the conference, one dictating the election of the Secretary General from the Shura Council instead of the General Conference, and a second clause that provides for the establishment of a ‘Supreme Leadership’ for the SIM composed of its committed members in the leadership of the government, the ruling party and the ‘special branches’, i.e. the security services. To Ghazi Salah al-Din and his supporters the first clause undermined the legitimacy of the Secretary General, and the second stripped the office of all authority. The General Conference voted in favour of both articles adding only the qualification ‘coordinative’ to the definition of the Supreme Leadership. Plainly put, President Bashir and his deputies in the government and the party, i.e. Ali Osman Mohamed Taha and Nafie Ali Nafie, as well as the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir, and security and military chiefs, will continue to watch over the shoulders of the Secretary General lest Turabi’s ghost settle into his jellabiya.
The motley Ghazi camp came out of the second day of the General Conference defeated and bitter. Writing in al-Intibaha, one of the Ghazi’s sympathizers dismissed the proceedings of the day as a ‘democratic’ fiasco, where numbers overwhelmed the merit requirements of Islamic shura. It was the women of the SIM, he complained, undeservingly granted equal votes to men, who tilted the count in favour of the two disputed clauses. Modernity, it seems, had caught up with the SIM rejuvenators where they hoped it would serve them better. Ghazi himself leaked to al-Intibaha the decision to withdraw from the competition for the general secretariat, an office he ridiculed as worthless with the Supreme Leadership weighing over its occupant. Elections for the Shura Council were held on the third day of the conference in a closed session that extended to the early hours of Sunday. The General Conference elected 340 members of the 400 strong Shura Council, the ‘mass’ complement to a safe core of sixty including President Bashir, his deputies in the Presidency and party, SIM members in the cabinet, and top ‘special branches’ officials. The new Shura Council convened the next day in the smaller, shabby al-Zubeir Mohamed Salih Hall in Khartoum to declare al-Zubeir Ahmed al-Hassan (b. 1955) Secretary General of the SIM, the only contender for the post after Ghazi Salah al-Din’s withdrawal, and one of three nominees favoured by President Bashir. Ghazi’s name was not written, to quote Adil Imam. An economist by education al-Zubeir cycled through the Sudan’s Islamic banks before becoming deputy governor of the Bank of Sudan and then Minister of Finance. He left the cabinet in the recent reshuffle and currently chairs the economic sector of the NCP besides his seat in the National Assembly.
The new Secretary General of the SIM appeared the next day on the Blue Nile TV in the flowing white jellabiya and shoulder wrap of the pious Sudanese elder. He stroked a generous white-grey beard as he responded to the calibrated questions of a prudent host. Until a day before only an Ustaz, the title of the Sudanese effendi, al-Zubeir was now the ‘Sheikh’, a veneration that ranks him equal to the grand heads of Sufi tareeqas (brotherhoods). al-Zubeir defended the worth of his office against Ghazi’s critique, and went further. In rejecting the benign notion of coordination between the SIM, its ruling party and its government in the form of a coordinative Supreme Leadership the opponents of the new constitution were attempting to lift the Secretary General of the SIM above the President, he accused. The new ‘Sheikh’ said he was ready to engage Hassan al-Turabi towards the greater good of unifying the Moslems. Thanks to the 1998/1999 fracture in the Movement both the government and the opposition are currently dominated by Islamist forces, added al-Zubeir with content.
Rather than “liberate” the Islamic Movement from the state the 8th General Conference consummated its ‘nationalization’ as it were. The rebirth and rejuvenation that Ghazi’s supporters wailed about would have required the heresy of a sectarian split (I depend here on Slavoj Zizek’s reading of T.S. Elliot), an adventurous and costly undertaking that neither Ghazi, who prides in being a Khartoum dandy, nor his core support base of state-spoiled young professionals, were ready to dare. The entire episode started with a memorandum, it should be noted, the plea of the ‘thousand brothers’, now a Facebook group chattering away their dissatisfaction.