Thursday 25 August 2011

Shari'a politics

The Khartoum press reported on 23 August that a number of Islamist groups had declared a new political alliance dubbed the ‘Islamic Constitution Front’ with the sole aim of propagating strict adherence to shari’a and the constitutional enactment thereof in post-secession (North) Sudan. Apart from the vocal Just Peace Forum (JPF) headed by President Bashir’s uncle and the chief of al-Intibaha, al-Tayeb Mustafa, the signatories included the Wahhabi Ansar al-Sunna, the Moslem Brothers, the Moslem Forces Union and the Moslem Clerics Association, in essence all the strictly speaking Islamist forces other than the mainstream Islamic Movement of old, split since 1998 into President Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP). The chief of Ansar al-Sunna, Abu Zaid Mohamed Hamza, was named Chairman of the new front and the veteran guardian of the Moslem Brothers, Sadiq Abdalla Abd al-Majid, its Secretary General. A fortnight ago, on 10 August, Vice President Taha had outspokenly affirmed the government’s commitment to the establishment of a “just Islamic order” while addressing the annual Ramadan breakfast of the Ansar al-Sunna brotherhood in Khartoum. Separately, the official Sudan Clerical Board, a fatwa body attached to the Presidency, submitted on 15 August a memorandum to the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir, detailing its ‘vision’ for the new constitution. Speaking on the occasion, the chairman of the board, Mohamed Osman Salih, told reporters that the experiment of Islamic rule had not been free of faults and omissions and requires a reinvigorating “reform”.  
With the hint of Vice President Taha’s declaration the usually politically quiescent sheikhs of the extra-NCP Islamist spectrum were apparently invited into the playground of power and offered a calculated space to occupy. Both the Ansar al-Sunna and the Moslem Brothers had suffered internal divisions and factional strife over their relationship with the NCP. The two sheikhs named above, Hamza and Abdel Majid, are the heads of the factions that chose to ally with the NCP against fierce criticism from their comrades in Islam who doubted the NCP’s Islamic credentials and denounced its perceived lax implementation of shari’a. The political muscle of extra-NCP political Islam, in particular the orthodox Salafi camp, is nevertheless a factor to consider. Over the past few years organisationally loose but ideologically stringent student associations such as the ‘Union of Moslem Forces’ have become a bloc to reckon with in Khartoum’s universities. Outside the campuses they have remained largely shy when it comes to immediate power questions, except in the instances when the NCP seeks their political clout. Throughout the period of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) the Moslem Clerics Association and its aggressive spokesman, Mohamed Abd al-Karim, targeted the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) with surgical fatwas and government-sanctioned Friday demonstrations designed to counter its possible political ascendancy in the Sudanese heartland. An oft quoted fatwa issued by the Association declared Moslem adherents of the SPLM outright apostates on the grounds of its agitation against the imposition of shari’a laws.
The NCP’s preferred jumpsuit into the future of the rump (North) Sudan remains an alliance by engulfment with the National Umma Party (NUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the two traditional sectarian business networks of the old Sudan. Lately, President Bashir actually spelled out his fantasy, a new mega-party uniting the three under the eerie title, the Umma Unionist Congress. Rightfully, the President noted that the three parties, the NUP, the DUP, and the NCP’s ancestor, the National Islamic Front (NIF), had echoed each other in terms of programmes in the 1986 elections. Short of such safety the NCP is ever ready to tap its more extreme flanks whenever need be. The JPF served the objective of reconciling public opinion in the North with the secession of South Sudan through racist propaganda. The tame sheikhs of orthodoxy are now invited to set the maxims of political debate against contending forces including Sadiq al-Mahdi and his soft shari’a. The game of the NCP is to emerge as a reasonable arbitrator representing the pious majority. It is by no means a safe one though; the fatwa it can buy today it may not afford tomorrow.   

Thursday 18 August 2011

Democracy by the gun

In a rush attempt to revive the ‘New Sudan’ project propagated by the unionist faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) Yasir Arman, the Secretary General of the Movement’s (North) Sudanese organisation (SPLM-N), and Abdel Aziz al-Hilu, its rebellious Deputy Chairman, signed recently a military-political pact with the twin factions of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM) led by Abdel Wahid al-Nur and Mini Minawi, with the declared aim of waging war against the regime of the National Congress Party (NCP) and establishing a secular democracy in Sudan. Notably, it was the same Arman who missed the ‘democracy’ game in April 2010 when he, a presidential candidate, pulled out of the race citing inevitable fraud and the situation in Darfur, in line with the mainstream SPLM’s preference for a safe trade off to South Sudanese independence.
A spokesman of the SPLM-N, who until recently was a reporter for its associate Khartoum newspaper, Ajras al-Hurriya, claimed that the declaration of the brand new Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) was signed in Kauda, the SPLM’s capital so to speak in South Kordofan. The NCP press reported that the agreement was sealed inside South Sudan. Ajras al-Hurriya was recently closed down by order of the Press Council on the grounds that its shareholders included South Sudanese citizens. A cynical guess is that the pact was signed in Kampala or over the phone. Both Mini and Abdel Wahid have recently moved to the Ugandan capital, the first from Juba and the second from Paris, where they reinvented the absentee leadership of the pre-Addis Ababa Agreement (1972) South Sudanese political figureheads.
The cause of a secular Sudan did not sell well with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) which refused to join the pact, and expectedly irked the SPLM-N’s ambivalent allies in the Khartoum opposition, namely the National Umma Party (NUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) had before voiced its rejection of the SPLM-N’s secular agenda. The first two are more likely to seek a co-existence formula with the NCP in the really existing new Sudan, or the Second Republic to use President Bashir’s depiction of the rump North; while the third, carried away by the vengeance of its chief, prefers to invest in the promise of an ‘intifada’, possibly with the assistance of collateral guns.
Before his exit from the electoral race in April 2010 Yasir Arman and his crew had rather successfully generated a momentum for the dividends of ‘democracy’ and ‘secularism’ on a mass scale. The political space they managed to create then is today doomed to dwindle with the gun as its declared protector. Rather than unite Sudan’s dispossessed the more likely consequence of the SPLM-N’s current military fantasies is the generation of divisions within its own ranks. No wonder the organisation’s very Chairman, Malik Agar, has largely kept a distance from his colleagues designs. The governor of the Blue Nile, backed by a constituency he managed to organise politically, is more a challenge to the NCP’s hegemony than the SRF with its three armies, liberated areas, and busy satellite phones. 

Saturday 6 August 2011

An effendi’s democracy

Failing to think in other than their self-defeating legalistic categories the leaders of the Khartoum opposition, lumped together in the rather wobbly National Consensus Forces (NCF), could only ruminate yet again the claim that President Bashir’s government has lost its ‘legitimacy’. The opposition  had made the same pronouncement at each and every major milestone of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), notably after the April 2010 elections, following the announcement of the results of the January 2011 referendum on the future of Southern Sudan, and now that the South has been christened an independent state. The argument this time is that the Interim National Constitution, an amalgam of the CPA and the National Congress Party’s (NCP) 1998 constitution is no longer valid considering that the CPA has reached its final station. On each occasion, the secretary of the NCF leadership, Farouq Abu Issa, busied the local media with the pledge of a nation-wide political campaign to challenge the NCP, a declaration of next to no substance.
The ‘legitimacy’ argument while formally presentable cynically exposes the opposition for what it currently is; a domestic but detached observation mission with little political muscle to back its proclamations. During their years of abstinence from power the crown leaders of Khartoum’s political parties have done little more than rehearse a fantasy of post-NCP ‘democracy’ that will restore the status quo ante of the pre-1989 Khartoum and simultaneously do away with the country’s many ills in an instantaneous puff of freedom.  Paradoxically the major proponent of this Newfoundland beyond the NCP’s Sudan is Hassan al-Turabi. To that end the veteran leader of the Islamic Movement has recently developed a new look altogether. Revising his political career he declared himself the prime leader of the 1964 October Revolution against the military government of President Abboud and reinterpreted his entire adventure with power as a continuous battle to wrestle freedom from the grip of evil dictators.
The democracy in question I suppose, paraphrasing Georges Sorel, is the paradise of which unscrupulous effendiya dream. Of course, the standard wisdom of Khartoum’s opposition it to blame the chronic crises of the country on the recurrence of military rule, and thereupon to conclude that once democracy is restored the suitable conditions for the resolution of the country’s incessant dilemmas would be created. The argument obviously supposes an unqualified divorce between form and content, a rift through which the tanks of the army have repeatedly rolled. Rarely does it cross the minds of Khartoum’s elite that the doom of their democracy may not necessarily be an imposition of fate but a consequence of its very nature. 
In its heyday the Communist Party attempted with a degree of nuance to address this question and develop an alternative historical narrative of the post-colonial Sudan. To overcome the impasse of Sudan’s abortive democracy, formally sound but by necessity reliant on a rural-urban schism whereby Sudan’s hinterlands are condemned to provide the rulers in Khartoum with votes and resources, the Party suggested alternative forms of government borrowed from the experience of third world liberation movements. In the 1960s the Communist Party advocated for ‘direct democracy’ or ‘popular democracy’ led by a ‘national democratic front’ uniting the nation’s progressive forces as it were. Once the fantasy became reality under Colonel Nimayri the communists were quick to reconsider and soon rediscovered the safe mode of parliamentary rule albeit with a taste of bitterness. Shocked by the bloody confrontation with state power in 1971 the Party simply dropped its critique of the concrete Sudanese mode of democracy without further investigation, to the detriment of both itself and the country.
While the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in South Sudan has chosen its particular response to Khartoum’s democracy, namely breakaway, the Khartoum opposition, if it is to develop into a credible alternative to the NCP, has to rethink its own. What democracy, and for whom?    
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This work by Magdi El Gizouli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.