Divisions in Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) evolved into open conflict on the background of President Bashir’s declaration that he intends to step down at the end of his current term in 2015. Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Attabani, the head of the party’s parliamentary bloc, raised the stakes when he stated that the interim constitution bars President Bashir from running for a third term in office. Attabani took the opportunity to voice a wider criticism of the performance of the government and the ruling party and declared openly his support for the reform initiatives of the younger Saihoon dissidents, the rather loose association of committed Islamists and former Popular Defense Forces (PDF) combatants who wished to elect him as secretary general of the Islamic Movement last year. He demanded that the government abide by the constitution and take concrete measures to lift restrictions on political freedoms if it was sincere in starting political dialogue with the opposition.
Attabani’s statements followed the announcement by First Vice President Taha of the government’s willingness to engage all political forces including the armed opposition in a national ‘constitutional dialogue’. Taha invited Malik Agar and Abd al-Aziz al-Hilu of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement in North Sudan (SPLA/M-N) to take part the process stressing that partial deals have failed to resolve Sudan’s problems and that it was time for a comprehensive approach to Sudan’s multiple conflicts. The government, he said, was ready to discuss issues of national scope with the SPLA/M-N but only as part of wider multilateral process. The SPLA/M-N dismissed the government’s offer of a national dialogue as lacking in credibility but suggested instead a similar process mediated by the African Union High Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP). It was not clear though how the SPLA/M-N’s own negotiations with the government would relate to this higher order process
The meeting between Taha and the deputy secretary general of the Popular Congress Party (PCP) Ali al-Haj was presented by the former as a first step towards the proposed dialogue. Taha commended Ali al-Haj for his readiness to gloss over the grievances of the past and expressed optimism about possible reconciliation between the NCP and the PCP offering even to meet the PCP chief Hassan al-Turabi. Vice President al-Haj Adam Yusif did meet Turabi and press reports claimed that efforts were being made to pave the way for a meeting between President Bashir and PCP chief. Turabi, nevertheless, continues to overvalue his worth. A captain of his party said the sheikh was only ready to discuss an ‘interim’ constitution not a ‘permanent’ one.
President Bashir on his part renewed the pledge to hold a national dialogue with all political forces in the country in a speech to the National Assembly. As a gesture of goodwill, the President ordered the release of all political prisoners in the country. Actually released until now were a limited number of politicians arrested for signing the New Dawn Charter, an activist in the protest movement ChangeNow, and according to one report two security operatives associated with the former spy chief Salah Gosh who were detained in relation to the November 2012 coup plot. The presidential pardon has not reached far. Detainees held for links to the SPLA/M-N and the Darfur rebel movements remain in custody as do the military and security officers of the November 2012 coup plot. The in-house rebels of the coup plot reportedly waived their right to appeal and raised a petition to the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) high command asking for clemency under the blanket of President Bashir’s pardon after a military court sentenced the army officers to dismissal from service and between two to five years in prison. The confrontation presented as a David and Goliath challenge between bold jihad veterans and an ossified military bureaucracy cooled off to a rather drab negotiation dressed as a court procedure.
The NCP’s leadership bureau responded to Attabani’s pronouncements with a decision relieving him of his position as head of the party’s parliamentary caucus, effectively the entire house. At the same meeting chaired by President Bashir, Nafie Ali Nafie, the deputy chairman of the NCP, was named official spokesman, a step that the party’s deputy spokesman said was meant to discipline the NCP high priests into line. Nafie busied himself the next day with a visiting delegation of the Chinese Communist Party. The coincidental chuckle of history passed unnoticed. Attabani issued a statement to the press challenging the decision with the argument that he was elected by fellow parliamentarians and could only be removed through a vote by the caucus. The allegedly enraged parliamentarians formed a committee of five to discuss the matter with Nafie, the same man they approached several times in the past months to pay their lofty car loans. The calculating Nafie sent them back with the instruction to prepare a “feasibility study”. Mohamed al-Hassan al-Amin, chairperson of the parliament’s defense and security committee and one of the brave five set the limits of their adventure with the statement: “The parliamentarians will abide by the party’s decision whether they are convinced or not.”
It would be misleading to speak of a confrontation between hardliners led by Nafie who would prefer to see President Bashir in power for another term and reformers represented by Attabani whose initiatives are hampered by President Bashir’s continued hold on power. Rather, it seems competing camps in the regime are pursuing divergent calculations. Nafie and allies consider President Bashir an asset, a guarantor of their influence unlikely to accept a political arrangement that would threaten the grip of the NCP over the state institutions, let alone expose the security establishment to closer scrutiny or drop the blanket immunities that protect its members. Ghazi Salah al-Din al-Attabani and supporters have come to see President Bashir as a liability and his continuation in office a threat to the power of the NCP in the short term and the political chances of the Islamic Movement in any future dispensation. President Bashir in this calculation is framed as a scapegoat with the bargain that his elimination would redeem the suppressed reformers inside the ruling party and the Islamic Movement of the baggage of the NCP’s long reign. In their pursuits, contenders in the NCP are reaching out to the opposition, primarily the PCP and the SPLA/M-N, with offers of dialogue and reconciliation that effectively copy often repeated calls for a ‘national constitutional conference’, the mantra of the opposition, with the outlook of buttressing their inside positions with an external ally. President Bashir and associates believe they retain considerable headway however, thanks to the slowly materializing rapprochement with South Sudan, the pledges of the Darfur donors’ conference and attempts at sealing a strong partnership with the new Egypt of the Muslim Brotherhood. If and when the government’s coffers begin to fill up it would be hard to see why the NCP’s middle ranks outside the Khartoum preserve should opt to back al-Attabani’s reform agenda rather than stick it out with the Bashir they know. Indeed, the NCP in Sennar and the While Nile published paid advertisements in the Khartoum press pleading President Bashir to reconsider his fateful decision. Come the presidential elections, I would vote for Insaf Medani and Ayman al-Rubo as running mate.