Sunday, 15 July 2012

Ayman al-Rubo: the politics of pollution

A frequenter of Sudanese universities, with the exception of the ‘beautiful and impossible’ Khartoum University, cannot miss the name of Ayman al-Rubo in rough print on cheap but countless posters next to stage names like Najat Gurza, Rasha al-Samrab, Hiba Jabra, Asha Bob, and many others. Al-Rubo holds the title of Sudan’s Keyboard King and Rasta General. A talented keyboard player he invented a Sudanese brand of hip hop tuned to the wildcat lyrics born of Khartoum’s underclass subculture and widely referred to as ghuna al-banat (girls’ song), a term that only compares to the pejorative notion of qadi nuswan (judge of women’s affairs) once employed by Sudan’s cosmopolitan elite to ridicule sharia judges in the ‘good old days’ when their mandate was restricted to family matters.
Rubo, an ecstatic performer, and the young women singers he accompanies with his keyboard and occasionally bass guitar, since his talents are multiple, do not feature in the acknowledged inventory of Sudanese music. Their creativity is judged across the spectrum to be degenerate as expressed in the blanket term ghuna habit (degenerate/corrupt song). The parallel is compelling with President Bashir’s dismissal of the protestors against his rule as ‘social outcasts’. Haidar Ibrahim Ali, a prominent Sudanese sociologist and avowed critic of the National Congress Party (NCP) regime categorized the “spread of degenerate girls’ songs” together with the resurgence of Zar, male singers who carry female names and illicit abortions amongst other phenomena as elements of a pathological underground culture which he described as flourishing under a hijab, i.e. hidden and covered up. This underground world, argued Ibrahim, is the complement of the official culture of exorbitant consumption masked by fetishist piety. What is dismissed, both in President Bashir’s reflex and Haidar Ibrahim’s critique of popular culture, occupies the position of the excremental excess that sustains the hierarchical order of the societal whole. 
The ideological map shared by the NCP and many of its opponents envisions society as an organic one or a multiplicity of organic components bound by language, ethnicity and religion. In that regard the NCP’s championing of Arab Moslem domination, the African identity flags carried by the insurgencies of the peripheries, and the harmonising proposals of the Khartoum establishment, i.e. a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural political order, share the same ideological coordinates. Sublated in these competing narratives is the class antagonism that constantly threatens the allegedly peaceful organic unity of the social body, be it the imagined community of pious Arab Moslems or the fantasized pre-conflict paradise of communal satisfaction and inter-communal conciliation in the peripheries. In fact, both the Islamic Movement and the liberation movements of the peripheries owe their emergence to this primary antagonism, the negative power tearing through the very formations they espouse. 
In his moments of frustration President Bashir provided the anti-regime protest movement with the blue-print for the emancipatory collective. Obviously, the street anger defied the President’s ‘objective’ social categories, the racial-ethnic-religious cartography of the country. Neither individual agents of ethnicity nor a combination thereof the demonstrators were rather the excess that overflows the sum. It is this extra, the part of no part, that al-Rubo and his girls approach in the eroticized fragmentary open access lyrics of ‘degeneracy’. One popular tune features something like a MacMichael list of Sudanese ethnic groups in the context of the vain search for the subject supposed to provide, the lover ready to lift the shameless implorer from the agony of need to the bright lights and big city of plenty. The ambiguity of the text invites the double interpretation of the egalitarian list as a series of failed promiscuous partners or prospective grooms. Does this not mirror the political fatigue in the country expressed most aptly in Mansour Khaled’s condemnation of the Sudanese elite as addicted to failure? President Bashir, I suggest, contributed the missing finale to this seemingly endless tune/list by proposing ‘social outcast’, a subjectivization of the enemy spread across the social corpus whatever its ‘objective’ disguise, to define the threatening nightly shadows that polluted the streets of al-Deim with their anger. Returning to al-Rubo and the girls, only the ‘social outcast’, the excess turned universal agent, will endure the tests of love. It is no coincidence, I claim, that al-Rubo’s associates, fellow performers and fans call themselves 'al-khafafesh' -  the bats - on Facebook.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Bashir: sharia shopping

Obviously challenged by the stubborn show of anger against their long rule in the heartland of the country the high priests of the National Congress Party (NCP) shifted gears from unashamed dismissal to defensive posturing with sharia. “What is happening is a struggle between the camp of sharia and the camp of secularism”, said Nafie Ali Nafie, the deputy chairman of the NCP last week. He was addressing a religious function in Khartoum to mark the holy night of mid-Sha’aban in the Hijra calendar hosted by followers of the late Sheikh al-Burai in Khartoum. President Bashir had the same to say on Saturday to an impressive crowd in Wad al-Fadni, a centre of Sufi preaching east of the capital. President Bashir borrowed class categories to buttress his message. We come from the people, the normal masses, not from the big families or the palaces, he yelled, a reference I presume to Sudan’s pseudo-aristocracy, the Mahdi and Mirghani families, and the Khartoum establishment of old. The country’s upcoming constitution, reiterated the President, will be ‘Islamic’ and “serve as a model for all the people who have aspirations to apply religion to all aspects of their lives”. He then announced the formation of a committee with generous representation of religious forces and Sufi brotherhoods to draft the new constitution. The President, it seems, thinks he can pull it off by emulating Jaafar Nimayri’s sharia gymnastics in 1983. The attempt, even as an oral phenomenon, is both a farce and a tragedy.
Separately, the President’s uncle, al-Tayeb Mustafa, advised his nephew to withdraw from the NCP and initiate a process of political reform in the country with free and fair elections as its endpoint. Thereby, he argued, the President could streamline an Arab Spring in Sudan without going through its risky pangs, the non-alcoholic beer of a revolution without a revolution. Power would be delivered to the people, and not to the NCP or any of the other political centres, concluded Mustafa referring to the success of the Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The NCP’s Amin Hassan Omer had a diluted version of the same to offer. In an interview with the Qatari newspaper al-Raya he declared the readiness of the ruling party to organise new elections in case the protests against the government expanded further, while cautioning that the Islamic Movement would in any case remain a permanent feature of the political landscape. 
The established parties of the opposition, meanwhile, fielded their ‘vision’ for a post-NCP future in a document titled the ‘Democratic Alternative’. The opposition parties imagined a three years transitional period governed by a caretaker cabinet and a presidential college with rotating chairmanship. Each but one of the seven signatories of the document would occupy the chairmanship for a period of six months. Yasir Arman, the Secretary General of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement in North Sudan (SPLM-N), responded with composed frustration to the opposition’s plans. The parties, he correctly stated in a press release, are simply repeating the bad habits of old by excluding the forces of the peripheries and the actual protesters ‘elbowing’ the regime from the kitchen of power in Khartoum. 
President Bashir’s underclass pretentions phrased in sharia-thirst and Arman’s criticism of the establishment parties bring to the fore the challenge of bridging the urban struggles of Sudan’s middle class internet-generation and the lot of the rural masses, fractured in turn according to common ideological depiction into the privileged acquiescent ‘Arabs’ of the heartland and the marginalised rebellious ‘Africans’ of the peripheries. One #SudanRevolts tweeter said it all when she labelled the lady tea-sellers and gentlemen rikshaw drivers in Omdurman as security informants in a warning to her fellow protesters.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The stir of the Sudanese mole - part one

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.
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.