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A Tale of Two Presidents by the Nile

Revolutions are seldom given but rather taken through deliberate acts. By the normal meanderings of the River Nile, two recent events have signalled the strength of people power and the powerlessness ensuing from divided publics rendered fearful through the fact and threat of state violence. Sudan’s entrance to the ousted dictators’ hall of fame in the spring of this year was a long-delayed event. Omar al-Bashir had outwitted his own Islamist allies and patrons to entrench his control of a country and an economy spiralling out of control. Brute force and the paralysing fear that accompanies it gave this military man his staying power founded on an-ever receding circle of clients, primarily militia leaders and their rag-tag followers, accused of carrying out war crimes and genocide in Darfur. Nonetheless, anger and discontent were mounting in Sudan. In 2013, thousands of Sudanese had protested against Bashir calling on him to step down amid steep price hikes but the response of his regime was swift and ruthless with estimates of around 200 deaths. The ousting of Bashir this April after three decades in power was preceded by the latest round of protests beginning in the winter months of last year.

Crowds once again demonstrated the seemingly tenuous grip on power of yet another long-term authoritarian leader. Fear was replaced by courage. We should not miss the record of the Sudanese people in mobilising for political change. They had taken to the streets of Sudan for nearly a decade for revolution in what could be taken to be expressive of their sceptical attitudes towards Bashir’s continued survival. Mass mobilising tactics finally paid off targeting the Sudanese Army’s headquarters. Increasing numbers of protesters had joined the demonstrations around Sudan and more importantly in the capital Khartoum. The signalling of the demonstration effect was received. Political veterans such as Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Ummah Party threw their weight behind the protests and new political groups Sudanese Professionals Association and the Freedom and Change Forces have spearheaded the mass campaign of civil disobedience.

Sudan’s senior generals had acted to remove Bashir similar to the ousting of Hosni Mubarak by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Egypt in 2011. The positions of Bashir and Mubarak were felt to be untenable in light of the national security of their countries and the survival of the military complex that formed an integral component of the state. Between 2011 and 2013, Egypt’s top generals had tried to outmanoeuvre revolutionary forces and Islamists only for the latter to dominate both the presidency and parliament. A short-lived alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF buckled under increasingly potent counter-revolutionary winds sweeping the Arab world. Protests and counter-protests led to a surge of tensions and the jeopardising of the ‘national security’ of Egypt in the eyes of its army’s generals. Despite the late Muhammad Morsi being elected president as a result of competitive polls, his Islamist affiliations crossed a lot of red lines for a number of actors, including the judiciary and police.

The end of ousted President Morsi’s government in July 3, 2013 followed a sequence of events that on almost a daily basis reminded the Egyptian people of the dubious loyalty of the Brotherhood to Egypt and its state institutions. Only the national army was patriotic enough to ensure the country’s safe passage from the brink of theocracy to one undivided nation. All outward manifestations of perceived religiosity of Islamists were tantamount to national security risks despite the fact in the recent past Anwar Sadat adopted the reverent title of ra’is al-mu’min (the believer-president) and Mubarak presided over and encouraged an increasingly assertive class of clergy at the institutions of al-Azhar. Human rights, democracy and pluralism were filtered through the sieve of national security with very little of these norms passing through into state practices. Following the summer of 2013, Egyptian public spaces have witnessed a rapid proscription of Islamist and revolutionary activism. Constant surveillance of politics no longer tolerates dissent in the form of political parties in the name of an intertwined national security and banal ‘Islamic reformation’.

Morsi’s death on June 17 can be understood to be a culmination of an official state narrative that locates Islamists outside of the normal political space. Unwanted in the public sphere, Islamists were and are physically removed to the only places that can sanitise their presence, prisons or courtrooms. Thousands are currently languishing in prisons alongside revolutionary and socialist activists caught in the sweeping out of political opposition. In recent memory, the democratic experiments involving Islamists were met with trumped-up and politically motivated charges when Mubarak was president which belie the  cherished myths of the ‘inclusion-moderation hypothesis’ faithfully followed by a number of scholars of Middle East Politics. A parliamentarian in Egypt’s parliament in the 2000s, Morsi was no stranger to winning elections and the accompanying rewards of a prison sentence. Indeed, Morsi was holed up in custody when the popular uprising against Mubarak had gotten underway only to be ironically accused of helping prisoners to escape.

The proscribing of public spaces for Islamists could also be seen in the bloody crackdown of Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in August 2013. Army soldiers and police tried to physically eliminate the presence of protesters who massed in the square named after a revered Sufi saint for over a month. Egypt’s southern neighbour Sudan has similarly seen the proscribing of public spaces for organised and peaceful dissent with brutal repercussions for protesters.  On June 3 of this year, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), headed by Muhammad Hamdan Daglo ‘Hemiti’, carried out its own a cleaning-up operation of protesters from Khartoum’s streets and the ‘Colombia’ neighbourhood.  Over a hundred deaths were reported at the hands of the RSF with further accusations of rape and theft.

Hemiti, the current deputy leader of Sudan’s military transitional body, and his militias were officially recognised as the RSF by Bashir in 2013. This rag-tag group had already acquired a notorious reputation in conducting Bashir’s counter-insurgency policy in Darfur and policing immigration on the Libyan-Sudanese border as part of the EU-funded ‘Khartoum Process’, also euphemistically known as the ‘Better Migration Management’. The former beleaguered president scrambled around for loyal clients often at the expense of the regular army and the RSF became a key cornerstone of support. Rejection of ‘chaos’ and a return to ‘law’ for Hemiti in a post-Bashir Sudan were couched in the manifest language of force. Legality meant nothing less than the meting out of punishment in the form of violence against perceived transgressors.

One of the unintended consequences, they have been many and contradictory, of the Arab uprisings is the collapsing of the difference between violence against unarmed civilians protesting (read Rabaa and ‘Colombia’) and national security threats. Peaceful protest is a collective act that has been criminalised and public spaces continue to bear the brunt of a heavy police presence. The tale of two presidents by the Nile consists of the suspicious death of an elected head of state in custody after a military overthrow and the arrest of a dictator abandoned by his erstwhile clients.

Mohammed Moussa is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University. He has engaged with the challenging questions posed by tradition, the ubiquity of power and Islam in the contemporary world in a variety of forums. His publications include a monograph on the political thought of Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali (2015) and a recent article on democratic learning in North Africa (2018). Mohammed is a Fellow of the Muslim Institute and a regular contributor to Critical Muslim.