Is Sudan a “Post-Islamist” State?
In an interview published on 22 May in the London based Saudi Daily al-Sharq al-Awsat, Khalil Ibrahim, leader of Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) confirmed that he had been part of the Islamist regime of Khartoum when that regime declared its intention to pursue “a rule based on justice and equality.” However, Khalil claimed that it did not take him long to “discover that the regime and its troupe had stolen the people’s food and they were not more than a bandit of thieves who exaggerated [their claim] and manipulated Islam. That is why we rejected the regime and took arms against it.” Such a statement could provide to our thinking that Khalil claims that he alone represents true “˜Justice and Equality’ while the Khartoum regime represents a diversion from that pursuit. In the same interview, however, Khalil denied any relationship with Hasan al-Turabi or his Popular Congress Party (PCP) asserting that linking him to al-Turabi typifies a form of “condescension to the marginalized” by depicting them as “always in need for someone to plan for them and think on their behalf.” Two days after the Omdurman attack, Hasan al-Turabi and ten of his PCP senior members, were arrested by the regime, though some including al-Turabi were quickly released. Khalil added in the same interview “it is the viewpoint of the [Sudanese] Communist Party that could be closer to ours especially in relation to economic and social issues and also in relation to their vision regarding issues of democracy and rights.”
How are we to make sense of all this? Our memory needs only to be nudged so lightly to remember Khalil’s public speeches addressing his JEM troops who were interrupting and applauding him with their characteristic Sudanese Islamists’ response of Allahu Akbar. Such troops were slightly different in their costume and attire from those of the Islamists dababeen of the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) he led in Southern Sudan in earlier days, when he was part of the regime. Khalil’s former role was to organize mujahideen from Darfur to fight the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). It is interesting to watch video clips from both groups disseminated to global audience through YouTube.
Khalil’s 10 May attack on Omdurman was a reminder to some former fellow Islamists who ruminated in the Sudanese press and websites about his role as Amir al-Mujahideen in Eastern Equatoria during the time the Islamists’ regime declared its jihad in southern Sudan and the Nuba Mountains. Other Sudanese at home and abroad remembered also Khalil’s appearances on Sudan national TV weekly program fi sahat al-Fidaa (a program that propagated the jihadists campaigns in the South). Neither Khalil nor his sympathizers would like such images and memories and what they represent brought back to their attention today.
The difficulty in coming to terms with this baffling issue arises if we overlook the analytical tools needed to understand the wars of the Sudanese Islamists among themselves. We need to understand today’s conflicts in the context of the disintegration of the Islamist project in contemporary Sudan. Violent fighting among the Islamists is new but not mysterious. It rages not simply from religious or political disagreements over the proper form of establishing an Islamist state or over some doctrinal Islamic values or approaches pertaining to justice and equality, governance, or any aspect of liberation. Rather, these internal conflicts are themselves discordant realities which make up the disintegrating Islamist experience. Discord appeared in the earliest days of the Islamist republic after 1989 but its serious nature only came into open after the crisis that brought this republic to its end in 1999 (see Abdullahi Gallab, The First Islamist Republic: Development and Disintegration of Islamism in the Sudan, Ashgate, 2008).
Today, we can clearly perceive the contours of a bigger map of the Sudanese power struggle and its competing power groups and their claims. This includes but also goes beyond the violence and disputes among the Islamists, their different warring parties, and their control of, or exclusion from, state communities. Their contests draw in political, economic, militarized and professional groups and encompass their opposing visions which chart courses of action and responses to versions of Islamism within their ambitions and practice of power. The underlying currents of these conflicts were woven within a fabric that grew out of an engagement with the state and its governance, hegemony, and authority as imagined by the Islamists. Also related was an experience of local and global order, and the notions and recognitions and lack of rights as traversed with myth, ideology, and practice within a particular understanding of the politicization of religion.
Hasan al-Turabi played a hugely significant role in guiding the Sudanese Islamist movement through troubled seas. More than any other individual, he facilitated the transformation of the Islamists from barefoot activists into a propertied middle class. He taught them, as his supporters say, libs al-shal wa istimal al-jawal (to wear the neck scarf and use the cell phone). This class of Islamists grew into a privileged entity. They came of age as the Islamist movement became a “˜Corporation'””a financial and commercial entity with its security and political infrastructure. They consolidated their power position through their control of the state during the lifetime of the first republic. But the Islamists, contrary to their aspirations and claims, have neither been an autonomous nor a monolithic entity.
In fact, the Islamists resemble a class structure. And as such, the Islamist association reflects what Darhrendorf describes as a continuum of “two aggregates of authority positions ….one””that of domination””is characterized by an interest in the maintenance of a social structure that for them conveys authority, whereas the other””that of subjection””involves an interest in changing a social condition that deprives its incumbents of authority.” This continuum has created cleavages and forms of behavior. It has sharpened the exchanges whereby political actors within both center and periphery talked back, interacted with, and challenged each other.
Based on the above, and the analysis developed at length in my book, four conclusions can be drawn with regard to the transition of the Islamist state and its regime since 1999.
First, the conduct of the transition from the end of the first republic has brought about an unrestricted animosity and a never-ending conflict among the groups of Islamists, who have used the state’s coercive power against al-Turabi and those who supported him.
Second, the pattern of a statist transition is evident. At first, the Islamists’ stated aim was less an Islamic state thus totalitarian in nature; more an Islamic society through local jihad; and mega Islamic order through global jihad. But after 1999, the leading group””to use Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “˜bureaucratic centralism'””became “saturated, that is turning into a narrow clique which tends to perpetuate its selfish privileges by controlling or even stifling the birth of oppositional forces.” Therefore, in the transition to the current regime and its “˜bureaucratic centralism’, al-Bashir and his group are trying to control not only the other Islamist rivals but also other contending Sudanese political parties which are seeking to take advantage of the new situation for their own purposes.
Third, the growth of an Islamist decentralized private forms of violence, represented by the JEM, and centralized counter violence, represented by the regime and it allies, have both tried to benefit from the old structures of the militarized “˜Islamism/fundamentalism’ of the dababeen and (PDF) as each has been turned by its actors against the other.
Fourth, unregulated intellectual attacks from dissenting Islamists individuals are common and vicious. The number of these dissenters increases but they fail to group themselves into a one united front or political organization that can present itself as an Islamist or a post-Islamist alternative.
The Second Islamist Republic
The second Islamist republic was born out of the 1999 change of direction, or palace coup. It was executed by elements of the military in alliance with some of the Islamists’ “˜artisans'””the executives who were deliberately kept away from any ideological leadership by their mentor, al-Turabi, who positioned himself as Sudan’s sole Islamist theoretician. The state which they hastily created has concentrated power in the hands of “˜Umar al-Bashir, who now has all the power to manage that narrow clique. At the same time, the National Congress Party (NCP), which was once described as the ruling party has also been turned into the party of the state. The ruling elite of that state who have always been labeled as members of a riverain group that belong to the Jaaliyeen, the Danagala, and the Shaygiyya “˜tribes’. Such labeling, for all its oversimplification and exaggeration, is partly true, but incomplete.
The ruling elite behind the second republic can be divided into three distinct categories of Islamist artisans, although certain people have overlapping affiliations: senior party bureaucrats, security personnel, and the military Islamists. The first category includes Ali Osman Mohamed Taha, Ibrahim Ahmed “˜Umar, “˜Usman Khalid Modawi, Nafi Ali Nafi, Mahdi Ibrahim, Awad al-Jaz, Ali Mohamed Osman Yasin, and the group of physicians that Sudanese satire depicts as “˜Médecins Sans Frontií¨res,’ including Ghazi Salah al-Din al-“˜Atabani, al-Tayeb Ibrahim (Sikha), Mustafa Osman and the late Majzoub al-Khalifa. The security category includes Nafi Ali Nafi, Qutbi al-Mahdi, Hasan Dahawi, Salah Gosh, Ali Kurti, Abdelrahim Muhammad Hussien, al-Tayeb Ibrahim (Sikha), and Bakri Hasan Saleh. The last group includes “˜Umar al-Bashir, Abdelrahim Mohummed Hussien, al-Tayeb Ibrahim (Sikha), Bakri Hasan Saleh and al-Hadi Abdalla. These three groups emerged as the regime’s verkhushka [pinnacle of power]. They formed the new leadership of the NCP and the organs of state, as well as part of an Islamist commercial class. This verkhushka has been projecting itself as different now that they have freed themselves, the party, and the state from all vestiges of sheikh Hasan’s control and his troublesome way of conducting politics. On the other hand, their awareness of the weakness of the entire Islamist project became clear when the “sacred canopy” of the regime started to shred, forcing them to examine different sources of power through negotiated deals of reconciliation with national and regional oppositional groups. Chief among those with whom they have cut deals is their former sworn enemy, the SPLA.
Competition among these verkhushka groups and the feuds that have been brewing among the first category in particular, has created a new power with its own dynamics. It formally turned the transition to the second republic into some sort of domination without the charismatic leadership of sheikh Hasan. It also turned “˜Umar al-Bashir himself into a political power who manages all three groups of the verkhushka. To strengthen their positions, each member of these groups continued to build around himself a smaller clique with total loyalty to himself based on blood and “˜tribal’ relationship. One aspect of this process is the strategy employed to appoint governors, senior employees, and even leaders of local administration as a way of expanding the state machinery in the center and the regions and empowering a class of the Islamist elite through which the regime could control national life.
While it is true that al-Bashir has never been known for his vision or leadership and his verkhushka has not promised to restructure the regime or to implement any serious democratic changes, the transition to the second republic has taken a different route. First, the regime is founded on fear both as a primary representation and confirmation of its deeper feeling of insecurity and as a tool of survival for the regime. Thus, although they have been divided by their personal ambitions, fear remains the cement that has kept those verkhushka groups together. Second, the regime started negotiations with different opposition groups with a strategy that would turn reconciliation with the opposition, in the form of separate negotiated deals with each party, into a kind of complicity to recycle the entire political process into a new form of power relations through which the regime would emerge dominant. This has been expressed clearly by al-Bashir after signing the recent “˜national compromise agreement’ with the former Prime Minister al-Sadiq al-Mahdi on 20 May 2008. Third, the regime continues to exercise new forms of intimidation and ways of inducing fear, or using the state to extend or cut back rewards for those who have been opposing it.
As the 10 May attack on Omdurman and other recent events show, the regime is reworking its approach to the security forces and the legal system in an attempt to achieve its ends. In the first course of action, the National Security forces are given wide-ranging powers of detention, investigation, surveillance, and other access to the private homes and communications of citizens. The second course of action concerns the way in which the judicial system is used in the regime’s attempts at control. This is evident in the court system that was invented to deal with special cases. These two approaches are coordinated with equal intensity but in two different directions to deal with new problems as they unfold. And as the regime boasts about what it describes as the expanding margin of civil and press freedoms, serious steps have been taken toward an authoritarian system with maximum claim over all citizens.
Consequently, these developments, which indicate the decline of the Islamist project , illustrate the new course of Sudanese politics, as reproduced within the process of the regime’s disintegration, on the one hand, and the regime’s attempts of transition and consolidation, on the other. However, we must observe the operations deployed by the regime through the state apparatus and the party, and how such actions affect the system’s survivability. As the regime tries to circumscribe the expanding fields of political, press, and civil activities, a new shift in its strategies emerges.
A brief examination of four consequences of this transition follows. Matched by the violent trends and vicious cycles that set the tone of the conflict among the Islamists, these also reveal the tension between contending visions and ambitions in the pursuit for political power.
The events that began with the removal of al-Turabi from power in 1999 and escalated into his imprisonment have far-reaching consequences, not only because of their impact on the political orientation of the Islamist regime, but also because they released the jinni of long suppressed conflicts in the Islamist movement that had been brewing for some time. These events and the blind hatred that they inspired within the ranks of the Islamists not only baffled most Sudanese at home, but also dumbfounded other Islamists in the region and abroad. In a statement issued by ninety Islamist leaders from around the Muslim world and Europe, which was published in the London based al-Quds al-Arabi, they expressed their bitter feelings about the detention of the seventy year old sheikh by his own “brothers.” As for the Sudanese public, al-Turabi’s Islamist republic had died. This republic and its civilizational project, “had never erased the allegiance of those Sudanese loyal to the Mahadiyya and Khatmiyya Brotherhoods leaving Turabi the leader of a small minority movement in the urban communities where the Blue and White Nile meet.” For the official Arab and Muslim state members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), al-Turabi’s removal caused more than an audible sigh of relief. For Egypt and its president Hosni Mubarak, who accused Khartoum twice in 1994 and 1995 of exporting terrorism to Egypt and devising plans for his assassination, the removal of al-Turabi was a welcome step toward better relations between the two countries. Hosni Mubarak’s security chief Umar Sulaiman did not hesitate to suggest the liquidation of al-Turabi who represented a more serious threat to the Sudan than John Garang. Of course, the idea of liquidating al-Turabi was not confined to Sulaiman, as some of the Islamists in the NCP debated the idea. In his book al-Turabi wa al-Ingadh; Siraa al-Hawa wa al-Hawia, Abdel Rahim Umar Muhi al-Din documented that at least two of those who attended a meeting argued for his liquidation. Furthermore, it came as no surprise that the Board of Sudanese “˜ulmÄ‘ denounced al-Turabi in a statement issued on 27 February 2001, days after he signed his Memorandum of Understanding with the SPLA, describing him and his supporters as fiaa kharija [a small deviant group] and urging the state to take this issue seriously and by facing the al-Turabi-Garang coalition with decisiveness and caution and without transgression or injustice.
According to the Information Minister at the time, Ghazi Salah el-Din al-“˜Atabani, one of al-Turabi’s former disciples, al-Turabi was arrested for “conspiring with the rebels to topple the government.” His detention has followed several announcements, by himself and by some of his party leaders, about a ten-point Memorandum of Understanding signed in Geneva on 19 February 2001 between the PCP and the SPLM. Representatives of the two parties announced in Geneva that they had agreed on “the escalation of popular resistance to force the government to depart from its totalitarian course and let the nation choose a patriotic government that achieves just peace and builds true democracy that preserves liberties and basic human rights.” Later, in a press conference in Khartoum, al-Turabi himself called on the Sudanese people to rise up against “˜Umar al-Bashir.
Following the signing of the MOU, the regime cracked down on the PCP by detaining more than thirty senior party officials in Khartoum and elsewhere in the country along with al-Turabi as well as shutting down their daily newspaper Rai al Sh”˜ab and the party’s offices throughout the country. The cycle of enmity between the contending Islamist parties was taken a step further with the purge of most al-Turabi loyalists from government and the security apparatus, and by taking harsh measures that shook the financial standing of his supporters in the private sector. In what has been described as “a witch hunt”, al-Turabi’s “second and third tier supporters” were followed relentlessly. Badr al-Din Taha, one of al-Turabi’s senior disciples, claimed that the humiliation that they suffered from the other party was far worse than what the Communists did to them. But it was al-Turabi himself who expressed the bitterest sentiments about the hostilities between him and his former disciples.
i Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford: Sanford University Press, 1959), 176.
ii Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 1139.
iii J. Millard Burr and Robert O. Collins, The Revolutionary Sudan: Hasan al-Turabi and the Islamist State, 1989-2000, (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2003), 279.
iv “˜Abd al-Rahim “˜Umar Muhy al-Din, al-Turabi wa al-Inqadh; Siraa al-Haw wa al-Hawia Fitnat al-Islamien fi al-Sulta min Muzakirt al-Asharaa ila Muzakirat al-tafahum maa John Garang (Khartoum: Marawi Bookshop, 2006), 412.
v Ibid, 448.
vi AP, Former Sudanese Parliament Speaker Arrested (21 February 2001)
vii PANA, 21 February 2001
viii International Crisis Group, God, Oil, and Country: Changing the Logic of War in Sudan (Brussels: International Crisis Group Press, 2002), 42.
ix Muhy al-Din, al-Turabi wa al-Inqadh, 412.