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Sudan: The Front and its Fluctuations - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat- Fathi al Daw, Sudanese journalist who resides in the US, authored the book ‘Mihnat al Nukhba al Sudaniya’ (The Crisis of the Sudanese Elite), which is widely circulated among the country’s elite. In his book, al Daw states that the two Sudanese leaders Dr. Hassan Abdallah al Turabi, the spiritual leader of the Islamist movement in Sudan, which holds the controlling reins of power in one way or another, and his historic opponent Sadiq al Mahdi, head of Umma Party can both agree upon: “ambition and the love of power”. However, al Daw believes that al Mahdi assumed power using legitimate means, such as consultation, democracy, and the people’s acceptance of his ideas. As for al Turabi, al Daw sees that he assumed various positions of power by using “renewed Machiavellianism”. The last of his endeavors was when he masterminded the military coup in 1989 which came to be known as the National Salvation Revolution and which al Turabi justified as, “a step towards establishing an Islamic state in Sudan… and an opportunity to promote the idea of applying religion to politics [Islamization] in the country” – a notion he had been advocating for decades.

However, al Turabi’s opponents regarded this coup as, “an illegal step resorted to by al Turabi in an attempt to assume power”. The majority of al Turabi’s opponents agree with al Daw’s opinion in which he asserts that al Turabi utilizes a renewed Machiavellianism which he employs in dealing with public issues in order to obtain power. This Machiavellianism is the groundwork upon which analysts base their interpretations of any political step, strategic or tactical, adopted by Islamists who are affiliated to the Islamic movement in Sudan. This stems from the fact that the majority of these ‘Islamists’ were raised under the supervision and support of al Turabi since their formative years to the point where they even mimic his gestures and his smile.

But political analyst and National Congress Party (NCP) affiliate, Moussa Yacoub disagrees. Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, he rejected the claim that the Islamic movement is Machiavellian in nature, believing it to be essentially founded on regeneration, mobility and openness. Since it’s inception in the 1960s, the movement came to be known as the Islamic Charter Front (ICF) to later become known as the National Islamic Front (NIF) in the eighties after which it bore its present name; the National Congress Party. The NCP is a melting pot that includes: Islamists and non-Islamists in addition to “those rebelling against their own parties,” in the words of an activist from the NCP who requested anonymity. He added that alliances emerge from the ‘jurisprudence of necessity’, which is the very trait that is deemed Machiavellian by the opposition.

Last week, the NCP made a sudden announcement through its Secretary-General, Dr. Mustafa Othman Ismail that the party seeks to stand in the forthcoming elections as part of a ‘front’ that includes other parties under a unified program. Those opposing the NCP view this unexpected announcement from a tactical perspective – which is an inherited one that is strongly present among Islamists through which they seek to achieve a particular objective using various methods to provide justification, and which are not always subject to regulations or controls. According to Dr. Ibrahim al Amin, a renowned figure in the oppositional Umma party leadership, “[the aforementioned trait constitutes] an illusory line that will help the NCP pass through the next phase in which it will face intense competition from other political forces.” He also told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “All the alliances forged with the NCP are but a lure for political parties to become assimilated into it in return for attaining everything but power – which the Islamists are striving to solely retain.”

Prominent Islamist leader Dr. al Tayib Zein al Abideen believes that the alliances which the NCP presently aims at forging in the form of a ‘front’ are a necessity dictated by the stage that had created new powerful competitors, such as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), following the endorsement of the peace treaty [2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)]. Zein al Abideen told Asharq Al-Awsat that he believes this to be a tactic that the NCP will use to get through that stage without distancing itself from the realm of power in which it has been orbiting for years.

Contrastingly, Yacoub views the idea of alliances as a favorable thing, “in the sense that it is consistent with the idea of openness to all the other political forces. It is an idea that the National Congress Party (NCP) was founded on,” he said and added that, “one of the NCP’s privileges is its ability to be open to all other parties.” Whatever the case, the success of the idea proposed by al Bashir’s party concerning contesting elections through a front was dependent on the party’s ability to adopt programs that could attract and mobilize political forces into the arena towards the creation of the aforementioned ‘front’. This is especially because the party “does not have a good legacy in its earlier alliances with political forces,” according to al Amin. He noted that, “Others have lost confidence in the NCP by virtue of it superior ability to go back on agreements and dissolve alliances. However, observers believe that the ruling party’s most recent orientation, although its features are yet to be determined, is intrinsically linked to a series of small and major transformations that the party has undergone since its inception during its early phases following the coup in 1989 under the pretext of a political committee.

Those closely observing the transformations of Sudan’s ruling party have suggested that the committees that were formed by the members of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) directly after the coup were the nucleus of the NCP. This was followed by an expansion in the NCP as an entity after which it took shape following the emergence of the so-called National Dialogue Conferences, which were aimed at tackling a range of subjects the most prominent of which were, “matters relating to trade unions, political, economic, media, diplomatic and legal issues, among others.

The diversity of the conferences, their objectives, recommendations and the extent of participation in them were responsible for inspiring the political leadership of the time, headed by al Turabi, to establish a political entity able to provide a degree of political participation and openness to non-Islamists as well – without having to bear the burdens of parties and partnerships,” according to an active Islamist who worked in the National Salvation RCC. He added, “Al Turabi constantly talked about establishing a political entity that could accommodate the present stage, which was what the call for the political conference was based upon. The conference was attended by nearly all of the figures who had attended the dialogue conferences.” They were, “a mix of Islamists, supporters of the rule of [Jafar] Numayri, party affiliates, independents, clerics and tribal leaders.” The conference concluded with a number of recommendations that paved the way for establishing ‘the conference system’ as a gradual ‘progressive’ form that starts in the district then moves to the city, then the governorate followed by the state so that it ends in a public conference. Through this system, the processes of governance and the participation in them were achieved. This system merges between the People’s Congress system, which is prevalent in Libya, and the Socialist Union system that governed Sudan during the reign of former Sudanese president, Jafar Numayri, in the period between 1969 and 1985.

According to close affiliates in the NCP circles, it was “these conferences that paved the way for the formation of the NCP.” Former member of the Political Committee Secretariat for the National Salvation Revolution and current Secretary-General of the National Constitutional Review Committee (NCRC), Magid Youssef, said, “In addition to the dialogue conferences’ recommendations and the gradual nature of these conferences, there exist internal and external developments that have necessitated the establishment of the NCP. Among these developments were external calls regarding the necessity of making the shift from immediate legitimacy to constitutional legitimacy.”

Youssef told Asharq Al-Awast that he believes the NCP to be “the natural evolution of the situation following the coup.” However, other Islamists, including Dr. Abdul Rahim Omar Mohieddin, the author of ‘Al Turabi wal Inqaz: Siraa al Haweya wal Hawa’ (Turabi and Salvation: Conflict of Identity and Passion) believe the formation of the NCP to be consistent with al Turabi’s philosophy since the October Revolution in 1964. The revolution was founded on the necessity of expanding the Islamic movement and attracting the largest possible number of leaders and members of the Sudanese society – the objective being to create a large, strong and effective reform movement. This idea was coined “al Turabi’s theory of establishment and dissolution” by Mohieddin. Based on that, the National Congress Party body was established in the first half of the nineties. It included Islamists, Christians, Muslim clerics and members from Southern Sudan, Sufi orders, tribes, national figures, and a substantial number of Numayri supporters. In its preamble, the idea that the NCP was not a political party was stressed and that it was rather a collective entity representing the people of Sudan. The allegiance section stated the following: “Spreading the call of Islam, striving and struggling so as to enable religion to rule over all aspects of life, the elimination of civil partiality, political partisanship and Shia sectarianism.”

The NCP’s Secretary-General at the time was Brigadier Hassan Hamdeen, and the party included a number of illustrious names from the group that had carried out the coup, in addition to other non-Islamic figures such as the expert on committee systems, Awad al Karim Moussa. A year and a half later, the NCP organized a general conference for members ranging across Sudan of which the result was the appointment of Dr. Ghazi Salah al Din as secretary-general of the NCP after stiff competition with al Shafei’s Ahmed Mohamed. The electoral competition’s validity was questioned by many conference members.

Commenting on this stage, Islamic activist Dr. Mohieddin, told Asharq Al-Awsat that this idea of a ‘collective entity’ distances Islamic leaders from political action, as the Islamic movement’s Shura Council was dissolved on an institutional and organizational level. “Its oldest members were summoned to a farewell ceremony where they were handed copies of the Quran in recognition for the roles they had played in the past, also signaling an obligatory retirement,” he said.

In his book ‘Turabi and Salvation: Conflict of Identity and Passion’, Mohieddin states that after the dissolution of the Islamic movement, “some continued to govern in the name of the movement for although the institution [the Shura Council] had been dissolved, its members remained, propagating their individual opinions in accordance with their whims with no deterrent, supervisor or leader.” He added that, “It was not Sheikh Hassan al Turabi who oversaw the dissolution but Sheikh Ibrahim Ahmed Omar, the president of the movement’s Shura Council at that time.” Mohieddin believes that, “Al Turabi erred in rushing the dissolution of the Islamic movement under the pretext of expanding its scale and establishing a large body for it – the National Congress Party. He is chiefly responsible for all that transpired because he was the one entrusted and entitled [with the mission]”

Dr. al Tayib Zein al Abideen noted that during that period the dissident voices between the civilians and the military emerged. Led by al Bashir, the military believed in the necessity of the subsistence of military rule, based on revolutionary legitimacy, whereas al Turabi advocated the continuation of the process of openness. Zein al Abideen noted that, “The whole army, with the exception of Mohamed al Amin Khalifa voted for military rule in the famous Islamic movement’s conference, which was held in the al Alifon district, east of Khartoum, however al Turabi’s openness policy presided over the meeting so that the military – especially Omar al Bashir – sensed the imminent danger posed by the civilians and thus clung onto their military identity as a line of defense.”

Mohieddin believes that the dissolution of the RCC warned Bashir of the impending potential dangers resulting from these transformations that had occurred for the benefit of the civilians. In the session that followed, the party elected al Turabi as secretary-general of the NCP, at the same time in which he occupied the post of speaker of the Sudanese parliament. This stage bore witness to fast-paced and dramatic shifts towards openness in accordance with ‘the jurisprudence of possibility,’ which sought to establish an intermarriage of alliances in the name of openness and the adherence to basic principles,” according to political analyst Moussa Yacoub, who furthermore stated that these transformations aimed at “creating a pluralistic entity able to cope with the local and present conditions.”

According to Dr. Zein al Abideen, al Turabi introduced the interim constitution which in turn was responsible for introducing the law of political succession which allowed for the existence of political parties in the country for the first time since the coup – only permissible after registering with the registrar for political succession [a governmental official solely assigned with this task]. The first party to advance and register was the NCP, especially since it is quintessentially based on the idea of ‘collective entity’. A number of smaller parties followed the NCP in the registration process, including the oppositional Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and Ahmed al Mahdi’s wing of the Umma Party, in addition to the Umma party faction led by al Nour Gadeen [known as the Nour wing], which was later integrated into the NCP.

The process of registration continued to increase until 12 small parties had registered in total. However, the political forces’ rejection of the experience in addition to external pressures hampered the progression of the process as it was initially intended. The outcome was that the government was forced to amend laws concerning the registration of parties, which made merely ‘notifying’ the registrar sufficient. The first party to have benefited from this experience was the Umma party, the Reform and Renewal wing led by Mubarak al Mahdi, which is a faction of the Umma party led by Sadiq al Mahdi [There are five active political factions within the Umma party, each claiming political legitimacy].

However in 1998, along with the notion of ‘political succession’ the NCP witnessed a state of tension due to the reemergence of conflicts related to the Islamists who formed Sudan’s National Salvation Revolution Council. The distinction between civilians and the military became pronounced when the news leaked to the Sudanese press that al Turabi had tendered his resignation as the speaker of the parliament to take on the position of secretary-general of the NCP, “so that al inqaz [the ruling salvation regime] had shifted being the government’s party to becoming the party’s government.” And thus, al Turabi was elected to the new post in February 1998 amidst signs of various fractures within the country’s ruling body.

Three days following this development, Sudanese Vice-President, General al Zubair Mohamed Salih was killed in a plane crash south of the country, leaving the post vacant. In accordance with the constitution, the ruling party nominated three figures to replace Salih, requesting that al Bashir select one of them for the position. These were: Dr. Hassan Abdallah al Turabi, Ali Othman Mohammad Taha and Dr. Ali al Hajj Mohammad. Al Bashir appointed Ali Othman Mohammad Taha as vice-president, a move that al Turabi interpreted as the beginning of a form of rejection at his expense by President al Bashir. But the Islamist leader was careful when abandoning his post in the parliament and devoting his efforts to the NCP’s secretariat; he started to move in two directions in an attempt to regain his clout, which was evinced when he was not chosen as vice-president. On December 10 1998, 10 leaders from the NCP Shura Council were shocked to receive a report that made clear al Turabi’s dominance on the overall performance of the party that undermined the state. The report demanded that his power as secretary-general be reduced. It was welcomed by participants as they exchanged recommendations, much to the anger of al Turabi and his aides. Among the most distinguished signatories of the report were: Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed Omar, Dr. Ghazi Salah Eddin, Sayed al Khatib, Hamid Ali Turin, Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie and Bahaa Eddin Hanafi.

And yet it was through the parliament that al Turabi began to prepare for a new battle against al Bashir, which took on the form of visiting the states in the country. His visits were aimed at attracting supporters for the inevitable battle that was destined to take place at the NCP general conference in October 1999. During the conference, al Turabi dealt President al Bashir a major blow when he dismissed the president’s supporters who had signed the report, removing them from the leadership office and the Shura Council, among these figures was Professor Ibrahim Ahmed Omar.

Famous for his stubbornness, al Turabi didn’t stop there. Through the parliament, he started intensifying campaigns that aimed at summoning ministers from al Bashir’s government, a process through which a number of major controversial issues were raised such as the ‘Inqaz road’ project [a highway project that never materialized despite huge sums of money being allocated. It was supposed to be built between Khartoum and Western Sudan] and the scandalous matter relating to the expired pharmaceuticals, among others. He later organized a conference for the federal government in which the recommendations were made pertaining to the electoral process, attaching a proposal to the parliament with constitutional amendments. In this recommendation, al Turabi also offered another proposal in which he suggested the creation of the post of ‘prime minister’, which is a position that al Bashir occupies. The showdown escalated between the two influential men on the salvation front; al Bashir sharply intervened and voided the proposed amendments before they were passed in the parliament through the resolution he issued on December 12 1999, which came to be known as the ‘Fourth of Ramadan Resolutions’ through which he dissolved the parliament, removed al Turabi from office and voided a number of articles in the constitution relating to the electoral process whereby al Bashir became the sole party able to appoint governors.

The battle between the two parties took on all forms, cards were laid open on the table between the two men and the taboo issues were addressed. On 5 May 2000, President al Bashir called for a huge conference for the supporters of the NCP, which he intentionally held in the party’s headquarters. Through the meeting, known as ‘Ramadan mobilization’ meeting, al Bashir severely attacked al Turabi and, for the first time ever, explicitly accused him of attempting to topple the national salvation system. The next morning al Bashir issued a decree to dissolve the secretariat of the NCP, headed by al Turabi, and furthermore dispatched security forces who seized the party’s headquarters and imposed a ban on entry. Thus, al Turabi lost his last remaining post and official fortress. Al Bashir pushed forward with his plan against al Turabi, calling for a Shura Council of the ruling party meeting to be held on 26 July 2000. The meeting concluded with the adoption of resolutions stated the excluded of al Turabi from the NCP secretariat, replacing him with Professor Ibrahim Ahmed Omar, who was temporarily elected as the chairman of the Shura Council. Subsequently, al Turabi announced the final chapter in his battle with his adversary when he declared the formation of an oppositional party known as the Popular Congress Party (PCP).

Following this stage in which “there was a retreat in the party’s progress” the opposition was of the view, and it is one that is shared by Dr. Mohieddin that, “All the party [NCP] has rushed to promote the president,” and added, “when the president takes an oath, the party becomes occupied with strenuous work to adapt things in accordance with his oath.” Similarly, al Tayib Zein al Abideen says, “Everything within the party is in the hands of President al Bashir.” But analysts believe that the NCP has succeeded, to a large extent and for a long time, in dealing with matters, especially given external pressures on the Darfur issue in the south. This raises some hope, as expressed in the words of Mustafa Othman Ismail when he said, “The strictly professional and political performance of his [al Bashir’s] party surpasses that of the oppositional political parties, which do not have a clear political program, unless attacking the NCP were to be deemed one.” This is endorsed by statements from analysts who believe that the alliances which the party seeks to establish with others to contest elections will succeed in widening the scope of influence of the ruling salvation regime on a tactical level. The grip will be “strong and effective” if the party were able to attract one of the oppositional parties to this “proposed slot” – particularly if it were the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) led by Mohammad Othman al Mirghani – however the two parties have a history of “mutual animosity”.

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat

Asharq Al-Awsat is the world’s premier pan-Arab daily newspaper, printed simultaneously each day on four continents in 14 cities. Launched in London in 1978, Asharq Al-Awsat has established itself as the decisive publication on pan-Arab and international affairs, offering its readers in-depth analysis and exclusive editorials, as well as the most comprehensive coverage of the entire Arab world.

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