This is part one in a series of two posts on the reorganisation of the Islamic Movement in Sudan by Magdi el-Gizouli. Magdi el-Gizouli is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute, a regular contributor to the Sudanese press, and author of the influential blog StillSUDAN. Come back on Monday for part two!
Earlier this month the Shura (Consultative) Council of the Islamic Movement, an extended central committee of four hundred members, held an extraordinary meeting to discuss a draft new constitution of the Movement to replace a set of ad hoc rules to which only its members had access. The new constitution identified the Movement, the parent organisation of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), as a cultural, social and religious organisation and effectively surrendered its political mandate to the ruling NCP. News of the 11 May Shura only reached the media in the form of a concise communiqué. In fact, the Islamic Movement itself can be considered a semi-clandestine organisation; it has neither headquarters nor a legal personality. A private citizen in Sudan can only access the Movement as a member, and it rarely demonstrates its existence when not in crisis. In January of this year news surfaced in Khartoum that a memorandum signed by a thousand members of the Islamic Movement had been submitted to Nafie Ali Nafie, the deputy chairman of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). Initially, the party denied that any such document existed, but was soon forced to go public under the pressure of al-Intibaha, the newspaper which eventually published the document, now dubbed the ‘memorandum of the thousand’ following established tradition.
Memoranda are a distinctive genre of political writing in Sudan imbued with a particular fetishist awe. High politics, to the ruling classes, is at most no more than the exchange of such texts. The first in that line in Sudan’s modern history is arguably the audacious 3 April 1942 memorandum of the Graduates Congress ‘in the name of the Sudanese people’ to the Condominium government requesting “the issue on the first possible opportunity by the British and Egyptian governments a joint declaration grating the Sudan… the right of self-determination, directly after the war”. Douglas Newbold, the civil secretary at the time replied saying the Congress had “forfeited the confidence of the government”. There could be “no restoration of that confidence” until the “Congress had so reorganised the direction of its affairs” that the government could “rely on having its wishes respected and its warnings observed”. In private Newbold took a more lenient line with Ibrahim Ahmed, the President of the Congress, and his fellow seniors, widening the split between so-called moderates who favoured reconciliation and extremists who sought confrontation. Ibrahim Ahmed, and Newbold, prevailed, but Sudan was delivered to the effendiya of the Congress a few years later.
The ‘memorandum of the ten’
The ‘memorandum of the thousand’ invoked comparison with the famed 1998 ‘memorandum of the ten’, addressed to the Islamic Movement by ten of its prominent figures and presented to the 10 December 1998 meeting of the NCP’s Shura Council. The memorandum of the ten identified four issues of concern in the functioning of ruling party and its mother movement: (a) a deficit in shura; (b) a split in the leadership, resulting in (c) a lack of institutionalism, and (d) threatening internal divisions. To address these issues the memo suggested a set of reforms, namely (a) ordinary convention of the Shura Council every six months, or upon request of one fifth of its members or the leadership bureau of the party; (b) chairman of the party (Bashir) to replace secretary general (Turabi) as chairman of the leadership bureau, while the latter is to continue chairing meetings of the bureau. Veiled in the ideological prose was the fratricidal dispute between Omar al-Bashir, the head of the state and chairman of the ruling NCP, and Hassan al-Turabi, the veteran chief of the Islamic Movement and secretary general of the NCP, the fallout that eventually led to the eviction of Turabi and the fracture of the Islamic Movement into two camps, a majority led by Ali Osman Mohamed Taha that chose to side with President Bashir and a minority that followed Turabi into the wilderness of opposition. Turabi lobbied the NCP crowd in the peripheries, particularly Darfur and Kordofan, against President Bashir, who insisted on maintaining the central grip on the affairs of the regions, be it in the state or the party. The confrontation reached a peak in December 1999 when Turabi, the speaker of the national parliament, pushed through a set of constitutional amendments stripping the President of the authority to appoint state governors. President Bashir, threatened by a majority trained to rubber stamp the proposals of their sheikh, the speaker of the house, resorted to the extra-constitutional underpinnings of naked power. He declared a state of emergency and ordered the dissolution of the National Assembly. The episode resembled a Shakespearian operation to kill the father, where Taha, once Turabi’s trusted deputy, shifted allegiance to the officer he had acquainted in the Mayom garrison in the late eighties.
The ‘memorandum of the thousand’
Compared to the memorandum of the ten and the tumult it signalled, the memorandum of the thousand was a text born out of frustration rather than plot. The 1999 fracture of the Islamic Movement into two embittered camps, the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) led by the veteran chief of the Movement, Hassan al-Turabi, and the governing NCP headed by President Bashir was identified as the most significant setback of the Islamic experiment in Sudan. To this the document added rampant corruption, political inconsistency as evidenced by the swing from a “totalitarian one-party system” to the current tolerance of opposition parties, “errors” committed by the government in Darfur, and the regime’s severe security grip. Had the Islamic Movement not seized power in its 1989 coup, said the author(s), the country would have either fallen into the hands of Baath Party elements or Egyptian agents in the army, who were all jockeying to topple Sadiq al-Mahdi’s government. Guided by its innovative reading of Islamic scriptures (ijtihad) the Movement took the right decision at the right time, said the document, and thus obstructed the Western plot to install the rule of a Christian minority led by John Garang and his rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) over the country’s Muslim majority. This scenario, it went on, would have entailed the “ethnic cleansing” of Sudan’s Arabs, a repeat, it said, of the 1964 tragedy in Zanzibar and long before that the expulsion of the Arabs from Andalusia. The Movement faced up to this challenge, said the authors, defeated the rebels on the battlefront, and eventually managed to attain peace through a tortuous and exhausting negotiation process that culminated in a self-determination vote and the breakaway of South Sudan. This conclusion, stated the document, might be criticized by some as another of the Islamic Movement’s failures although it should count in its favour politically and intellectually. The document detailed a set of reforms that the NCP, being the ruling party, should implement with the objective of rooting out corruption and achieving “comprehensive social and political justice”. These included the establishment of a judicial anti-corruption body, promotion of the regime’s political transformation towards an elections-based order that respects the free will of the citizenry, promulgation of a permanent constitution for the country, and guarantee of the independence of the judiciary. Regarding the NCP’s organisational well-being the document demanded that the ruling party sever its organic links to the state structures and develop binding rules to govern the office terms of its leaders. Apart from the reform rhetoric above the document made a few recommendations that deserve attention: continuation of the regime’s project to “Islamize” the state and society, “fearless enforcement of sharia without hesitation”, and coordination with the Islamic forces in the country to combat secularism and moral subversion. Senior figures of the NCP applauded the memorandum as evidence of sharp awareness among the Islamist rank and file claiming further that all the reforms suggested by the memo had already been approved by the December 2011 General Conference of the NCP. President Bashir, much like Newbold the civil secretary, was not convinced. Evidently guided by suspicion of the machinations of the NCP nomenklatura he chose the national television to voice his solid rejection to the memo’s veiled demand, namely the institution of the authority of the Islamic Movement proper over the ruling NCP. When asked by his interviewer what he made of the memo the President responded that the signatories of the document constituted but a minute fraction of the NCP membership, an estimated five million people he claimed. “There are no guardians over the NCP”, he declared without naming the Islamic Movement. The NCP will not tolerate a clandestine core that claims authority over its decisions, and the signatories of the memorandum will be investigated and disciplined for violating party regulations. The General Conference is the highest authority in the NCP, and it alone dictates the policies of party and determines the office terms of its leaders. The President, however, made the habitual pledge that the next NCP conference will elect a new chairman and a new leadership council to leader the party.