I am responding to your two posts, about activism and the review of John Young’s book The Fate of Sudan.


Defining activism, you believe one of the main tasks of activists is to challenge U.S. power, I think here is a major mistake, for many reasons:


(1) l think the better strategy for activists—that is, democracy activists—is to define their role in a positive way. For example, as democrats in the global south our principal role is to struggle with our people to achieve a national political system that fully secures internationally-recognized human rights—including civil and political rights, socio-economic and cultural rights—and then to decide according to concrete analysis of the specific situation who is our ally and who is our enemy.


(2) If the priority is as you suggest, to challenge U.S. power, many crucial questions arise, for example, is U.S. power the only power? What about our local regimes? And what about the power of international Islamic fundamentalism? Should any rational democrat side with Al-Qaida against U.S. power? And what kind of a globe we will have if for any hypothetical reason Al-Qaida    triumphs over U.S. power and its allies? And what about Chinese power: is this better for the global South than U.S. power?


Those who define their role in such a negative way end up supporting the dictators of the South, like Saddam, Gaddafi and Bashir, who are more backward and brutal than U.S. power.  And I think this is one of the fatal mistakes of the so called post-colonial theorists. In this respect I hope you think about the fact that Prof Mahmood Mamdani has been invited and highly welcomed by the regime in Khartoum, is in itself is sufficient signal of significance of his challenge to U.S. power in the Sudanese context!


(3) I can see clearly that you are very angry with Enough, to the extent that you have deviated from your recognized objectivity. An example is your critique of Hollywood actors. Is this a problem?  Isn’t it a commonly-accepted practice by all civic organizations, based on psycho-sociological findings that celebrities can influence more effectively public opinion? You know all that better than me but I believe you are excessively angry.


The Hollywood actor whom you are talking about—George Clooney—visited the camps of Sudanese displaced before us as Sudanese democrats, and highlighted the tragedy much better than we did. Yes he focused on the ethnic dimension describing the conflict as between Arabs and non-Arabs, while the conflict is in reality multidimensional: it has political, socio-economic, and religious dimensions, but the simplification of Clooney’s definition is justified by two reasons. First, there is the fact that the ethnic dimension is one of the main aspects to the conflict, whether we like it or not. Second is the reality that victims, who are mainly non-Arabs, actually attribute more importance to the ethnic dimension than to the others. For sure, this analysis needs fine-tuning, but is it the role of Clooney to do that?


And me as a Sudanese democrat, I believe that Enough represents me much better than any other western organization. It is not fair to argue that Enough is not challenging U.S. power. The Obama Administration is, I believe, confused and confusing in its policy on Sudan. Thanks to the American open democratic system with its lobbies and actors such as Enough, there is a hope for challenging the policies and changing them for the better.


(4) I still remember our first discussion in London years ago, and as a result I still embrace the conviction in your deep knowledge and humbleness. But I also remember your rejection of my argument that if the Abuja  Agreement for Darfur was going to achieve anything it must break the majority of NCP at least in the legislative. You rejected that on the basis that the ceiling of representation was enshrined in the CPA, although it was clear at that time that the problem of CPA was exactly that it gave the NCP a majority and that this continued to block democratization. Also I still remember the workshop organized by UN before the referendum in which you played a key role. At that meeting, I and many other Sudanese democrats kept saying that the western policy of trying to avoid democracy in Khartoum will not lead to a soft separation, but you along with all other western scholars were not ready to listen to us . And I still remember our discussion in the office of Yasir Arman in Khartoum, when you were trying to convince him not to boycott the elections of 2010, in a situation where there was no freedom of expression, no independent judiciary and no independent electoral commission. In fact your position at that time was typical to all western actors who want to avoid democracy so as to facilitate the so called soft separation! All that proved to me that the thesis of John Young is more correct than yours.


We all–Sudanese and internationals—committed mistakes. I personally admit that I supported the CPA for many years in a naive and mechanical way. But unfortunately most of the western scholars and actors are still suffering from the syndrome of continuing along the same path even when it is demonstrably mistaken, for fear of going back. After the outbreak of war in Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile and between North and South still the majority of western actors are not ready to conclude that democracy is the only way to stability in a huge multiethnic and religious country like Sudan. They are not ready to conclude that fascist regimes are aggressive by nature.

(5)  As a Sudanese democrat I have the feeling that the West is still trying to consolidate the NCP in power, within a wrong

policy based on a mechanical and unthinking approach, for example the assumption that the choice is between either collaboration in counter-terrorism or supporting democracy! If we believe NCP is genuinely collaborating in counter-terrorism, which is doubtful, in the long run you cannot combat terrorism without democracy. The west should learn from recent developments in the region, including the experience of Egypt and Tunisia: did avoiding democracy result in stability or combating terrorism? And in Sudan actually the situation is less complicated, because terrorists are in power, and the country is in a position where it must choose between democracy or disintegration and chaos.


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5 Responses to In Defense of International Activists

  1. Alex DeWaal says:

    Dear Warrag,

    Thank you for this reasoned and articulate reply to my postings. It deserves a serious response: there are issues where we agree and disagree, and areas in which I don’t think you have adequately represented my position.

    First, defining the role of activists in a positive way. This is an important point, and I agree. But a positive definition is not as easy as it may seem. The key question is, who defines the problem and sets the agenda?

    A key role of the democratic activist is to define the problem and set the agenda, in a way commensurate with the interests and demands of the affected people. I contend that this is the role specifically for the national or local activist—and I see the foreign activist as a secondary and supporting actor. I get worried when I see an international advocate applying general principles to a foreign country, not because those principles are erroneous or inappropriate, but because the application of them to any situation demands a political judgement about which among the various principles should be prioritized. It’s important that the principles serve the case, and the people involved in the case, and not the other way around.

    Second, I didn’t argue that challenging U.S. power should be the only, or the priority, activity of all activists around the world. Of course, activists should challenge national oppressors, and indeed national activists should target their own oppressors. Rather, I said that as a matter of principle, international (western) activists should be ready to challenge the biggest powers, namely the U.S. and its allies. This doesn’t mean letting the likes of Presidents Assad and Bashir off the hook, and still less does it mean supporting the enemies of the U.S. such as al Qaida. (I’m sure you didn’t mean the latter: you are too principled to stoop to the level of arguing that anyone who doesn’t support every part of your case is an advocate for President Bashir.) But it does mean that American activists should challenge American policies.

    And yes it also means that activists should be critical of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan. This is part of the reason for my unhappiness with the U.S. lobby groups on Sudan. I believe that they did the Sudanese people a big disservice by their failure to criticize the SPLM/SPLA when it was most warranted, for example during the Machakos-Naivasha peace process. The same holds for their subsequent readiness to allow the SPLM/SPLA and the Government of South Sudan to behave in unacceptable ways without raising their voices in criticism. The SPLA/SPLM is a military-political formation not a social advocacy movement. The SPLM leadership was massively at fault for some of the shortcomings of the CPA and its implementation. I suspect we disagree on quite a lot of this.

    Third, I am intrigued and concerned that you feel that the Enough Project represents you. For sure, I understand how the Enough Project echoes your own opposition to the government in Khartoum, and how you feel satisfaction when your own anger at the abuses and betrayals of that government is endorsed and amplified on a wider stage. And, of course foreign advocates will simplify—though I would propose that they simplify the Sudanese message in a way that reflects the basic Sudanese demands.

    But I pose the question: who is driving this process and do you trust them to deliver? Let me give an example: I think that Abdel Wahid al Nur was spectacularly badly served by his north American political advisers, who actually just represented themselves and not the Darfurian people.

    I submit that it is not Sudanese democrats who are setting the Enough agenda, and therefore that Enough cannot be trusted to see the project of democratization through. The Congolese democrats have their own unsatisfactory experience with how their agenda was subverted by outside campaigners. South Sudanese campaigners for democratization don’t see their concerns represented by foreign advocates. And the democratic agenda for Sudan that was pushed by Justice Africa and the coalition “human rights in the transition” pushed ten-to-fifteen years ago, including bringing the civilian parties and Darfurians into the IGAD peace process, was opposed by people who were then in the U.S. administration and are now leading these lobby groups. I think you would do better to trust the Sudanese to lead the movement.

    Which brings me to your fourth point, the story of our various discussions over the years. As you know, the background to all my post-CPA work was the strenuous and ultimately unsuccessful effort by Justice Africa to bring the civilian parties and the Beja and Darfurians into the peace negotiations. Some of the byproducts of that process were published in the two Justice Africa books, Al Mashru al Madani and When Peace Comes. We didn’t succeed.

    And unfortunately, once the NCP majority in the national assembly (for the first part of the interim period) was included in the CPA, it couldn’t be renegotiated. What could be done was to work around it, in particular by trying to enable the progressive political parties in Sudan to develop a common front for the elections. At Abuja, we struggled to persuade the Darfurian armed movements that the principal function of a Darfur Peace Agreement was as a buttress to the central pillar, which was the CPA, and they would be well served by joining it and joining the electoral process, with the objective of securing a strong representation for all democratic and progressive groups. Darfurians’ representation at the center was insufficient for sure. However, (a) the original vision of the Transitional Darfur Regional Authority, was to create a well-funded and autonomous structure that would be, for the interim period, dominated by the representatives of the armed movements, and (b) the DPA gave just enough time for Darfurians to join the political process in advance of the elections. It didn’t work.

    What I remember most vividly from the November 2009 seminar in Khartoum, was that Deng Alor most clearly indicated that southern Sudan was headed for secession, and in the plenary he clashed with Ghazi Salah el Din. Having prepared and presented a paper that made the case for a civil society engagement with the national political process—what we called a “Sudan-Sudan dialogue”—it became clear that the drumbeat for separation was overtaking everything else.

    I followed the elections closely with a growing sense of frustration, with the NCP and the official mechanisms on one hand, but equally with the opposition and its disappointing performance on the other. But nonetheless, I was hopeful that if the opposition participated in an election, albeit a flawed one, the prospects for democratization would be brighter than if they boycotted. I quoted the conclusions of an academic comparative study of transitional elections, which are almost always flawed and marked by a playing field tilted in favor of the incumbent. The advice to the opposition from one of the scholars on the topic, Andreas Schedler, was:

    ‘First, don’t boycott. Protest instead. Build up mobilizational capacities and take your followers onto the streets. Withdrawing from the electoral arena hurts you in the short run (which hurts a lot) and probably over the long haul (where everything is more uncertain). Counteracting authoritarian manipulation through active protest, by contrast, pays tangible benefits within one electoral cycle. Second, in preparing for presidential elections, fight for media freedom and an open field of competitors. Censorship and exclusion, more than anything else, are likely to debilitate you in the personalist competition for the presidential office. Third, take legislative elections seriously…. Your relative immunity to manipulation in the legislative arena provides golden opportunities for conquering congressional positions of power and publicity. All in all, even if weather conditions look less than inviting, keep protesting in the rain.’

    We can look back on those elections with many regrets. The prospects for genuine democratization in one bound were slender—but democracy usually takes several electoral cycles for consolidation. Many important chances were missed in the run-up, notably in the registration process, where the opposition really lost. But the elections themselves did not need to be futile. There was remarkable freedom of expression and association. Although the outcome was the complete domination of two parties, that was not predetermined. For sure, President Bashir was destined to be re-elected, but there was much to be gained by gaining an electoral foothold and playing the political game by constitutional rules.

    Lastly, I don’t believe there is a conspiracy by western governments to keep the NCP in power. There isn’t much western sympathy for the regime—but there isn’t much for the opposition either. Most western governments are weary of Sudan and deeply frustrated by years of effort for little result. However, on your final point, I fully agree: “the country is in a position where it must choose between democracy or disintegration and chaos.”

  2. Khalid AlMubarak says:

    Well, well. One of my grandmother s”Batoul Bit Alfaki Makkawi” who lived very long before bowing out ,used to repeat: Taeesh kateer tashoof kateer (if you live long, you witness a lot that surprises you). Alhaj Warraq has certainly surprised me. Our political background is similar, though I never reached the top echelons of Communist party leadership. I had a great deal of sympathy for his position when he parted company with the party. I kept in touch with both Dr Khalid Al Kid and Al Khatim Adlan until we lost them because I appreciated the intellectual and personal courage they and Warrag had to realise the cul de sac the party was in and to suggest an alternative. I expected the campaign of misinformation that they were bound to face.

    However, I differ with what Warrag has written on this blog.

    First: There isn’t ONE USA. There is the US of innovation and cutting edge technology,the US of Lincoln, Martin Luther, Jubran Khalil Jubran, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, John Esposito and the US of the Neoconservatives, the racists and those who believe in hegemony and militarism, support the gun lobby, the far right Israel lobby and the unregulated financial system that has created the current international crisis. In her book “celebrity” the British writer M. Hyde, analysed the reason the US congress listens to some celebrities. Their testimony helps to “bury” the voices of those who are the real experts. I can give an example that supports her argument. On the Sudan Dr John Voll, Dr Carolyn Fleuhr Lobban and tens of other Sudan experts were overlooked in order to hear what the actor G. Clooney has to say. Indeed the whole system of lobbies is flawed. It is part of democracy; but democracy itself is a process (as Hillary Clinton famously reminded us). President Obama does not like the way business can finance election campaigns and has said so openly. The Enough Project is not the beautiful face of US capitalist lobby. People associated with it have opposed the CPA, the Abuja agreement and tried to cancel the Doha Donors’ Conference for the reconstruction and development of Darfur. Heading the call for that conference was Dr Tigani Al Sisi who was, like me, with the opposition in London for many years.

    Second: The NCP does not rule with a One-party structure. It has agreed to elections as a way out of confrontation. The best formula now is for the opposition to prepare for elections and stop hoping for a level playing field as a condition. Is the playing field level in the US or UK?How much did the Obama campaign spend.I have watched interviews of the other candidates who had no money for TV ads like the 2 main rivals.

    Third: There are different shades among the Islamists. Their “mufasala” split of 2000 has demonstrated that. Without it the CPA would not have materialised. Some of them do not like what I do or say; but they know that in a coalition partners do not have to be identical. The West was and is very wise to engage with them (even if the activists do not like that as Andrew Natsios has opined).

    My grandmother was right. I have lived to read the intelligent and politically shrewd Warrag declare that the Enough Project represents him better than any other western organisation. No Western organisation represents me dear Warrag.

  3. Khalid AlMubarak says:

    Another point to consider in this context. To claim that democratic transformation is not 100% is fair, because it is not 100% anywhere else on the planet; but to say that more than 50 newspapers (many openly inimical to the government) do not represent change is unfair. To believe that the leaders of the parties who meet regularly and hold press conferences denouncing president Bashir’s policies are not proof of democratisation is a denial of reality. When Mike Thomson of the BBC visited Khartoum last February, he met Sayed Sadiq AlMahdi and other critics of the Government. To assume that the parties that have joined the NCP-led coalition (including the DU Party led by AlMirghany) are irrelevant is plainly wrong. To assume that JEM and allies have grassroot support is not true. JEM’s catchment area is in Chad not Darfur where the Zaghawa are a minority.

  4. […] Elhaj Warrag wrote an article and so did Moniem Al Jak, about many of Alex De Waal’s latest articles including […]

  5. […] was borrowing and applying a script derived from a particular narrative of the Arab Spring, or even the Enough Project, rather than exploring how best to innovate methods appropriate to the specific circumstances of […]

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