Friday, 21 March 2014

The sheikh and the officer: a tale

Omar al-Bashir stood outside the presidential guest house on 14 March to receive Hassan al-Turabi, the two men offered the camera wide grins as they shook hands, and proceeded through the door with guards on their sides to a wide hall where they were joined by loyal captains, other men in jellabiyas with a common history and shared memories. From President Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) there were Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Nafie Ali Nafie, Ibrahim Ghandoor, and the President’s new deputy Bakri Hassan Salih, in addition to Ibrahim Ahmed Omer, Awad al-Jaz and Mustafa Osman Ismail. Turabi was accompanied by his deputy Abdalla Hassan Ahmed and his long-term companion and trusted aide Ibrahim al-Sanosi, behind them a younger crew of Turabists including Bashir Adam Rahama, Kamal Omer and Mohamed al-Amin Khalifa. 
The ‘get together’ was by all means an anti-climax, closer to a mujamala (courtesy) drop by than a meeting of political giants as popularised by the NCP’s media machine, partially because the real meetings, where the hard bargaining reportedly took place, had already happened in the dark of night, much like the distraught prayers of repenting sinners. On that assumption, the 14 March encounter was an event for the cameras where the attendants simply played themselves. Suitable armchairs were placed in a row at one end of the hall for the men of calibre to occupy. The footage on Sudan TV showed Omer al-Bashir sitting in the middle of the schoolboys’ row, to his right Hassan al-Turabi and then Abdalla Hassan Ahmed and to his left Bakri Hassan Salih followed by Ibrahim Ghandoor. The five men were positioned at the head of two arcs of armchairs where the delegates of the two parties sat facing each other in the President’s divan. Thanks to the presence of two women, Samya Ahmed Mohamed from the NCP and Thuraya Omer from the PCP, dirty jokes were out of question I suppose. The delegates chatted the time away with the help of refreshing drinks served by impeccably dressed catering staff, a good hour or so, before spokesmen announced an agreement to agree on a timeline and agenda for ‘national dialogue’, the current buzzword in Sudan’s political club. 
The Bashir-Turabi meeting, conveniently held on a Friday, the Muslim day of rest, was reported live on Sudan TV’s evening news bulletin and subsequently made the headlines of every printed newspaper in the country on Saturday, but with almost no content to accompany the announcement. Editors had only the past to fill the white of their pages, profiles of the two men, the sheikh and the officer, and summary re-runs of their dramatic divorce fifteen years ago. The notion that a cordial encounter between competing lords would open a new chapter in political life has deep roots in the imaginary of the ruling elite. Indeed, commentators wishing to implant life into the Bashir-Turabi mujamala drew a comparison with the historic ‘meeting of the two sayeds’, the patron of the Khatmiyya Ali Mirghani and the patron of the Ansar Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi, on 3 December 1955 in the run up to the declaration of Sudan’s independence on 1 January 1956. 
At the time, Sudan was poised for a self-determination referendum to ascertain its political future, choice being between association with Egypt, the declared objective of the National Unionist Party (NUP) affiliated with the Khatmiyya, or complete independence, the rallying cry of the Ansar’s Umma Party. The self-rule elections of 1953 had delivered government to the NUP with Ismail al-Azhari as prime minister. By August 1955 discussions were underway about a self-determination referendum under the supervision of an international committee joining representatives of seven countries chosen by parliament. The opposition Umma Party and the independent press called for a ‘national government’ to lead the country through self-determination but Azhari, the Prime Minister, balked arguing the democratic credentials of his government. Azhari’s position however did not find favour with Ali al-Mirghani, who nursed suspicions of Azhari’s popularity and autonomous machinations. Division between Ali al-Mirghani, the sheikh, and his officer Ismail al-Azhari led to the collapse of the government. Under instructions of the sheikh, a handful of NUP members of parliament joined the opposition in voting down the government’s budget proposal on 10 November 1955. A majority of NUP parliamentarians, mostly Azhari loyalists, declared on 11 November their objection to the formation of a ‘national government’. On the next day, 12 November, delegates of Ali al-Mirghani met with Azhari in Omdurman to negotiate a settlement. The Khatmiyya’s newspaper, Sawt al-Sudan, published on 14 November a statement issued by Ali al-Mirghani advising all political forces in the county to eschew partisan rivalry and commit to ‘national’ interests, phrasing that translated into support for formation of a national government. Azhari and his captains met with Ali al-Mirghani on 14 November to sort out the situation. According to the reporting of al-Ray al-Aam, Ali al-Mirghani said he did not specifically want a ‘national government’ but a government of a national character. Accordingly, Ali al-Mirghani instructed parliamentarians under his authority to vote Azhari back as prime minister and indeed Azhari won confidence of the house on 15 November with a margin of two votes. Hassan al-Tahir Zaroug, the single communist member of parliament representing the Anti-Imperialist Front, abstained. 
Ali Mirghani still had a card to play against the stubborn Azhari though. The Khatmiyya patron met on 3 December with his arch-rival, Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi of the Ansar. A joint statement issued by the two sayeds said they had reconciled and agreed to work together for the good of the nation, and expressed their hope that the political parties under their influence, the NUP and the Umma Party, would agree to form a ‘national government’. The message obviously targeted Azhari’s ambitions. Under pressure, Azhari’s cabinet announced on 6 December 1955 an invitation to the political parties to negotiations on formation of a ‘national government’. The talks between the ruling NUP and the Umma Party, while they did take place, proved a futile exercise, since Azhari refused to surrender the premiership to a consensual candidate. Faced with the impending possibility of a Khatmiyya-Ansar alliance that would undercut his parliamentary support and almost inevitably cost him his office, Azhari’s stroke of genius was a motion to parliament on 19 December to declare Sudan a sovereign independent country. Nobody in the house could vote against him. To discipline Azhari, Ali al-Mirghani had to form his own party, the People’s Democratic Party and capture government in alliance with the Umma Party against Azhari’s NUP. When all space for manoeuvring was consumed, the two sayeds, Ali and Abd al-Rahman, agreed to invite the army leadership to take over on 17 November 1958. 
Now, Bashir and Turabi might imagine themselves two sayeds doing business, but their prayers, unlike those of the baraka-laden Ali and Abd al-Rahman, do not echo far beyond the presidential divan. In the really existing ‘New Sudan’, even a Rizeigati chief like Musa Hilal has a separate sheikhdom, protected by the steel baraka of guns mounted on hijacked vehicles.

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