Ghazi Salahuddin al-Attabani, once an aide to president Bashir and head of the ruling party’s parliamentary caucus, declared his breakaway from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) in a press conference held in his Khartoum home on 26 October and his intent to form a new party that would “bring new hope to Sudan”. Ghazi’s decision came in reaction to a ruling by a disciplinary committee formed by president Bashir, the NCP chairman, calling for the dismissal of Ghazi and two of his close associates, Hassan Osman Rizig and Fadlalla Ahmed Abdalla, from the party and the suspension of several others for a year. The cohort of NCP figures, chief among them Ghazi, had issued an open letter to president Bashir at the height of the September riots in Khartoum protesting the brutal security crackdown and calling for the reversal of the government decision to lift fuel subsidies. “The legitimacy of your rule has never been at stake like it is today,” said the letter addressing the brother president.
Besides discipline by dismissal, a task he entrusted to the parliament’s speaker Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir and the oil minister Awad al-Jaz, president Bashir addressed the split in his party with the routine tactic of assuming the rhetoric of his adversary. “Reform and change is a daily process for us” he told parliament on 28 October in a speech marking a new session of the house. ‘Reform’ is the key word that Ghazi and his supporters from the NCP have been throwing around for the past two years, while ‘change’ is the favourite term of the secular-minded opposition, as in ‘hope and change’, the slogan of Yasir Arman’s aborted presidential candidacy in 2010, ‘Change Now’, the association of younger political activists advocating for the overthrow of the regime, and the online newspaper ‘Change’ that hosts a number of Khartoum’s barred journalists, blocked from publication in the printed press by order of the security service.
President Bashir’s greatest investment however remains the alliances that carry the NCP in rural Sudan, a terrain that Ghazi al-Attabani as well as the Change Now activists seem badly prepared to navigate. Challenged in the capital, the president sought refuge in North Kordofan, at his side its new governor Ahmed Haroun and the minister of electricity and dams Osama Abdalla. The first he fondly called his “batch” in the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the second a man he can trust to carry out duties when others falter. A jolly crowd welcomed the stick-waving president in dusty Um Bader where he inaugurated a new water dam on 25 October. For his enemies the president expressed only contempt. “Bandits”, “saboteurs” and “infiltrators” responsible for leaking information against him to the ICC they were. Since the September protests the president has made it a rule to bring up the ICC in almost all his public appearances, priding himself in the claim that he looked the lion in the eye and the lion blinked in reference to the US refusal to grant him entry visa to attend the sixty eighth session of United Nations General Assembly in New York.
It is may be time to think again the politics that grew out of president Bashir’s indictment by the ICC. The arrest warrant transformed the demand of justice for crimes committed in the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur to one of regime change. As an indicted head of state president Bashir’s foreign travels and diplomatic standing were severely curtailed but not sufficiently as to strangle his crucial regional relations. Each of his trips abroad was portrayed by the regime as a national achievement, a snub at international justice and more haughtily a challenge to an inherently unjust international order.
One immediate domestic consequence of the indictment was the marginalization of the question of justice in Darfur in the political arena, amplified as it was in popular depiction to become an element in the regime’s confrontation with its international enemies. Politically, the president’s international indictment became another in a list of teasers that the opposition employs to challenge the government. The regime, on the other hand, framed the issue as a question of national sovereignty, and as a side-effect managed to drown the demand for domestic justice in Darfur in an excess of propaganda particularly that the African Union (AU) effectively sanctioned the position taken by Khartoum. In the process the quest for justice for crimes committed in Darfur became almost irrelevant. In a perverse sense the ICC indictment of president Bashir justified the blanket immunity that his juniors going down to the singular army and militia fighter already enjoyed, the argument being ‘If he can get away with it why not we’.
Following the independence of South Sudan president Bashir reached out to the larger mainstream opposition parties with the outlook of negotiating a post-secession power-sharing arrangement. On the agenda of these negotiations was the condition that whoever wishes to partner with the regime must commit to secure the president from international prosecution, rephrased the president must live and die in office; power could be traded and sliced but not transferred. Mohamed Osman al-Mirghani’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) accepted these terms and joined the NCP in the cabinet, and Sadiq al-Mahdi of the National Umma Party (NUP) is yet to make up his mind.
Today, the gravest risk facing the president comes not from the mainstream opposition but from within his very own NCP. Conscious of the possibility of a re-arrangement of blocs and loyalties inside the ruling party that could challenge his position, president Bashir reacted swiftly to the machinations of the ‘reformers’ in whatever garb they came. In that regard, the president’s antennae were well sensitised to memoranda intrigue by the precedent of Hassan al-Turabi’s ouster from the NCP back in 1999, an oedipal melodrama in which Ghazi al-Attabani and others shoved the dagger in Turabi’s back.
As veteran leader of the Islamic Movement and mastermind of its rise to dominance Turabi thought himself safe from such backstabbing. The ‘brothers’ as Sudan’s Islamists refer to each other proved to be Turabi’s truest disciples though, and plotted his elimination from the scene of power when he became more a liability than an asset. The dagger was a ‘reform’ plea, dubbed the ‘memorandum of the ten’, authored by Ghazi al-Attabani and nine others and delivered to a session of the NCP’s Shura Council on 10 December 1999 chaired by president Bashir in full military dress, the rather symbolic party chairman at the time, in preparation for the eviction of the all-powerful secretary general Hassan al-Turabi.
President Bashir, I suppose, with the ICC scales occupying his vision, fears such a scenario, pious intrigue by the Islamist ‘brothers’. When Ghazi al-Attabani and associates advocated for independence of the Islamic Movement from the ruling NCP ahead of the movement’s November 2012 conference in an attempt to secure an own platform, the president and his loyal officers responded with ‘reform’ measures uniting leadership of the party, movement and government in one office, the president’s. Exactly such centralisation was Ghazi al-Attabani’s demand in the ‘memorandum of the ten’ back in 1999 when he and others complained of the drawbacks of dual leadership, split between Turabi and Bashir, siding with the officer against the sheikh. Convenience eventually caught up with Ghazi who today cries for escape from the long shadow of the president he helped crown uncontested autocrat.
As he welcomed Ghazi al-Attabani out of the NCP, Tayeb Mustafa, leader of the Just Peace Forum (JPF) and president Bashir’s uncle, offered a formula that would secure the president in office and yet offer the Islamists dissatisfied with the NCP’s politics a horizon for action. In order to break the political deadlock in the country, Mustafa called on president Bashir to withdraw from the NCP and announce himself a national figure above partisan politics at the head of a ‘national’ government that oversees a transitional period which ends with free and fair elections, a proposition that mirrors what the NUP leader Sadiq al-Mahdi has been long advocating excluding the notion of a constitutional conference.
Paradoxically, the multiplicity of NCP breakaways, the Popular Congress Party (PCP) of Hassan al-Turabi, the JPF of al-Tayeb Mustafa and now the dissidents around Ghazi al-Attabani and the circle of intellectuals around al-Tayeb Zain al-Abdin, chairperson of the National Islamic Front’s Shura Council disbanded by Hassan al-Turabi following the 1989 coup, is generating a situation akin to what Turabi imagined would be the nature of an Islamic republic. In 1998, Turabi as speaker of parliament drafted a law that fell short of approving full-blown multi-party politics under the name of ‘al-Tawaly al-Siyasy’ (political allegiance). Under al-Tawaly, associations of a political nature would be permitted to compete for office as long as they committed to the primacy of sharia and the Islamic character of the state.
The Islamic Movement dispatched a committee of five of its veterans to Ghazi last week to re-negotiate his allegiance, the mediation effort is supposed to close the gap between the NCP’s official reform process steered by Ahmed Ibrahim al-Tahir and Ghazi’s richly televised version. It was al-Tahir who recommended Ghazi’s dismissal to the NCP leadership council headed by president Bashir, which in turn approved the disciplinary measure but will hand it down to the Shura Council next week for a final decision, since only the Shura Council has the authority to dismiss members. The NCP after all is a party of institutions, isn’t it? Ghazi al-Attabani in any case was its secretary general between January 1996 and February 1998.