The role of Islam in politics has re-emerged as a contested topic in post-Bashir Sudan, after its striking absence during much of the protests. Towards what sort of future might the protestors march?
The protests that emerged from the northern Sudanese city of ‘Atbara in December 2018 represented an outpouring of anger at a regime that had attacked the social fabric of the country as much as it had decimated its economy. It was perhaps for this reason that the slogan that came to characterize it—“tasqut bas!” (it should just fall!)—was not so much political (calling for a particular set of rights, reforms, or new modes of governance), as it was poetic, a raw and powerful expression of a desire for change, with exactly what that change would look like left in suspension.
That the protest movement came out of the railway town of ‘Atbara indexed the way that labor, a mode of belonging that transcends political, ethnic and religious divides, had a power to create a mass movement in Sudan in a way that traditional parties and identities were unable to muster. “Laborer” is an identity all shared—even if this movement, spearheaded by the Sudanese Professionals Association, emerged out of a particularly elite form thereof—and the disconnect between that labor and human flourishing had become obvious to all, regardless of persuasion.
Truncating the famous Arab Spring call of al-sha‘b yurid isqat al-nizam! (“The People want the fall of the system!”) to the economical two-word slogan “tasqut bas!” (it should just fall!) protesters were engaging an apophatic politics, its solidity founded on a process of negation. “The people want the fall of the regime” was being cited, but without even “the people” to hold onto any longer, perhaps due to its implicit reference to the socialist and populist movements of Sudan’s past (al-haraka al-sha‘biyya, al-mu’atamar al-sha‘bi, etc.). Though the professional umbrella model has precedent in the 1964 and 1985 popular uprisings, it is important to point out that today’s movement has relied not at all on the political forces, figures, and frames of Sudan’s recent history: left, right, or center, Islamist, secularist, or otherwise. It was as if a clearing-of-ground was necessary before anything new could be built. As one protester commented, as quoted by the New York Times, “They led us to freedom but we don’t know anything about them.” In the apropos phrasing, then, of tasqut bas, not only alliances but even identity is intentionally left wide open, the future uncharted.
Since the resumption of the protests on April 6, however, and particularly following their successes on April 11, with the fall of ‘Umar al-Bashir, the blank canvas the December protests laid out has begun to be filled, both of course with a clear set of political principles, as well as with a new and intriguing set of images that have come to frame its more civilizational demands. Remarkably, the movement has drawn on Sudan’s ancient Nubian past as a storehouse of resources meant to stabilize this most post-modern revolution. The contrast with the popular Islamic histories of Sudan on which the previous regime was so fond of pulling could not be starker. Neither Islamic nor secular, neither Arab nor African, the conflicting identities around which Sudanese politics has been constructed since the time of independence, at least, these Nubian images point to something else entirely.
A sign often photographed at the rallies proclaims, “My grandfather is Tarhaqa and my grandmother is a kandaka,” pulling a line from a poem that has been popular amongst protesters since the uprising of 2013, but only gained national prominence in recent weeks. Tarhaqa refers to a pharaoh from the 7th century BC who ruled over a wide swath of territory stretching from central Sudan to the Levant, remembered in the history as a great builder of temples and pyramids, and under whom a period of prosperity was inaugurated. Kandaka, on the other hand, was the title of the Nubian queens of Kush in Northern Sudan from the 2nd century BCE to the 4th century AD.
As has been widely publicized, the video still of 22 year-old Sudanese activist Alaa Salah, which is now referred to in the press as the “kandaka picture,” references this history in all sorts of ways. Though, as Nesrine Malik has pointed out, drawing on this Nubian history could be read as once again celebrating a people who have monopolized power in Sudan, and thus as upstaging the very critiques the protests activated, it is worth mentioning that while Northern Sudan today may contain groups from which the elite are derived, the region is claimed as origin by Sudanese from many backgrounds: even South Sudan itself flirted with the idea of naming itself Kush (the appellation of the most prominent of the Nubian kingdoms) on independence. Despite the difficulties in using this history for presentist goals, references to the Nubian past express a desire to go back to the beginning (or at least the recorded beginning) so as to choose another path for Sudan’s still undetermined future.
Yet even though this image and the pasts it evokes have gained considerable press, what has received almost no attention is what exactly Alaa Salah was saying at that moment she was frozen in time; words that reference a very different, and far more recent, Sudanese past. If one watches the videos of this moment, one can hear that she is reciting the now famous poem with the line depicted on the billboard. The poem, however, though it references Tarhaqa and kandaka at its conclusion, is in fact primarily not about Nubian history. Instead it is a commentary on the Islamization of the state for which the most recent Sudanese regime is famous. It goes like this:
…Oh mother, my blood boils…when the country is agitated,
when these soldiers, who distorted Islam bring their vanities.
They jailed us in the name of religion.
They burned us in the name of religion.
They oppressed us in the name of religion.
They killed us in the name of religion.
Religion is innocent, oh mother.
Religion says, if one lets go of one’s right one dies.
You become a brother to the devil.
Religion says go out, go out, stand in opposition and face the rulers.
Religion says that if one sees an abominable wrong not to shut up…
…My grandfather is Tarhaqa.
My grandmother is a kandaka and (southern Sudanese nationalist activist of the 1920s) ‘Abd al-Fadil al-Maz, [all of them] brave knights.
Oh, mother, the youth live, and I with silence die.
The popularity of the poem Alaa Salah recited is only one piece of evidence of the return of “Islam” to the theater of debate as the protest movement has progressed. The emergence of labor as the idiom of political action in the current protests, after a very long period of dormancy, has been truly remarkable. However, one wonders now if the increasing place of Islam as a topic of contention is evidence of the lack of currency that labor has as a language of dissent for both local and international partners. Both protesters and the military regime seek to solidify their support in different ways. In short, while the protest movement that began in December of 2018 engaged in an apophatic politics, an inclusive dialogue that sought to bring Sudanese together regardless of political color, now, since the fall of al-Bashir, a discourse has emerged that has presented itself as very distinctly and loudly anti-Islamist, with both sides of the political divide jostling to present themselves as cognizant of the threat that such a politics poses. While the desire to separate religion from the state is by no means universal among the opposition, the most visible components of both sides seem eager to express a commitment to a political order free of “Islamist” involvement.
For the “new” military regime in power in Sudan, the assurance to both protesters and the western powers that the specifically Islamist elements of the regime are being purged seems a major component of its stability. However, which individuals of the regime exactly count as “Islamist” and which do not, and how that distinction will be made, is another question entirely, even if each day the press reports the fall of another “Islamist” figure in the military council as a concession to protesters.
In the meantime, it is worth mentioning that the most brutal example of a global proxy war based on—at least in part—a commitment to fight an Islamic menace, is the wide-scale military campaign taking place in Yemen with the use of Sudanese ground troops and pilots. Sudan’s involvement is assured to continue by the head of the military transitional council that now rules Sudan. ‘Abd al-Fatah Burhan, and his chief assistant Muhammad Hamdan Dalqu (Himaydti), head of the Rapid Support Security Force, have been instrumental to Sudanese-Saudi/Emirati cooperation on the Yemen front for many years. It is no surprise, then, that the Saudis and Emiratis have now agreed to provide Sudan with US $3 billion, in cash and kind, to support the military junta’s stability. With this, the military regime seems committed to sidelining its native Islamists at home (the Muslim Brothers who have been a thorn in the side of these Gulf states), while bombing others of another variety (the Houthi rebels understood to be proxies of Iran) abroad. The military’s imposition of a freeze on the planned march by the “Victory of Shari‘a Movement,” even if conceded by the march’s organizers, may not stay frozen forever, at which point it may have a very difficult decision to make. Recent military assurances that Shari‘a will remain a main source of legislation in the interim seems carefully designed to head the “Victory of Shari‘a Movement” off at the pass.
A different discourse around the place of Islam in Sudan’s uncharted future has emerged among the protesters in the street who are standing up to the military regime. While the protesters have clearly rejected the meddling of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, “the Islamic” has also appeared for them as both a frame and an object of their resistance. In regards to the latter, Islamists who were in the opposition, and played a considerable role in the protests (the Reform Now Movement, the Popular Congress youth particularly after the killing of one of their leaders in detention, etc.), are now complaining of exclusion from the groups that are planning Sudan’s political future, as a recent al-Jazeera report outlines in detail. The recent attack on the Popular Congress Party meeting, swiftly condemned by protest leaders, is indicative of the danger that this political purge of Islamist forces could turn into a physical one if not managed carefully. The same can be said about the mobbing of Salafi Shaykh Muhammad Mustafa ‘Abd al-Qadir at a spare parts store by a crowd of revolutionaries, following his disparaging sermon about protesters and leading to an apologetic press conference where he sought to remind the audience that he had been a vocal critic of the Muslim Brotherhood (and thus the regime) years before the uprising was ever imagined.
While this exclusion of the Islamists is directed across the spectrum, particular vitriol is reserved for those who were close to the regime. A recent image circulating around social media—clearly photoshop and not photo—depicts protesters at a rally marching behind a banner that reads “Hey American Intelligence Agency: ‘Abd al-Hay Yusuf he is the one who planned the events of Sept 11” flanked with the seal of the Sudanese Professionals Association. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hay Yusuf is a religious scholar who flourished under the regime, and even now, post-coup, delivers fiery sermons arguing that “the religion of God is a red line” that the new rulers and their opponents must not cross, no matter Sudan’s political future. Trying to distance him from the previous regime, his followers seek to vindicate him as a neutral defender of Islam, speaking truth to the regime’s power, and have produced slick video montages of clips of his sermons to this effect, with the sounds of the protests playing in the background. For many among the protesters, however, figures like ‘Abd al-Hay Yusuf are irredeemable, mere relics from the past when Sudan rightly earned a reputation as a hotbed of extremism, and thus have no place in its future.
Notably, however, and parallel to the protesters’ critique of Islamists like ‘Abd al-Hay Yusuf, is an attempt to capture a role for Islam in a certain kind of resistance politics, as indicated in the kandaka poem I cited above, where (true) Islam was depicted as an inspiration to stand up against oppression, rather than solely the idiom of state oppression itself. Another related image that has been circulating a lot on social media is this one, which several of my Sudanese friends sent out over WhatsApp. It depicts a massive group of protesters praying, flanked by the words:
About which Islam were the Salvationists [citing the self-appellation of the regime] speaking?
This [referring to the picture of the lines of people praying] is Islam and these are Muslims…
A majestic scene of what exceeds two million Muslims in a gathering not in Mecca or ‘Arafat, but in the heart of Khartoum.
The land of #the sit-in at the military headquarters.
The Islam of moderation is the Islam that glorifies its rituals and respects diversity and [other] religions. Islam of peace from the land of peace, freedom and justice, Sudan.
Sudanese have long waited to realize this dream of peace, freedom, and justice, and now, more than ever in recent memory, there seems to be an opportunity to do so. What frames of resistance and resilience will be used to craft such a future, and what resources will be drawn on to do so? How can a movement that is as inclusive as it is forward-thinking emerge as Sudanese think together about these new beginnings? Given the instability of developments as they are happening in real-time, the answer to these questions remains open. Yet, as the struggle continues, the unmistakable scent of hope is in the air, a more just future visible right over the horizon.
I thank Nisrin Elamin, Magdi el Gizouli, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, Sean Jacobs, and Jeremy Walton for their extremely helpful comments and suggestions on this essay; Amel Gorani and Dalil Muhammad Dalil for helping me work through the kandaka poem; Muhammad Khalifa Siddiq and Dalil Muhammad Dalil for going above and beyond in sending me much of the material on which this essay is based; and Rachel Cruz for the internet sleuthing.