This is a monumental week for Sudan's political future, writes Gamal Nkrumah
An air of fin de régne hangs over Sudan. We can draw comfort from the fact that Sudan is today at centre stage. Sudan is the bellweather of radical political reform in Africa and the Arab world.
Institutional paralysis must be avoided at all costs. Consensus-making by a Sudanese government of national unity is now an absolute prerequisite for political stability in Sudan. And, that is all the more reason for making policy interaction among the disparate Sudanese political groups as predictable as possible.
There is in Sudan today an overwhelming feeling that the old way of running the country has become obsolete. But, that is not to say that the people who ran the country are on their way out. The same political characters who have figured so prominently in Sudanese politics in the past three or four decades will continue to do so. But they are most indispensable because they operate in a place where the rules are a little blurred. Some say this must change. And changes are currently underway. Even so, the country is celebrating the 16th anniversary of the 1989 military coup that brought Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Beshir to power.
In political terms this might be seen as a contradiction. Some believe that the celebrations indicate that not much has fundamentally changed in Sudan. Others see the celebrations as a self- congratulatory swan-song. Still, there is widespread feeling that much has indeed changed. For one, the Sudanese authorities decided last week to release all remaining political prisoners, including the country's most powerful opposition figure, the venerated Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi, Sudan's chief Islamist ideologue.
Wisal Al-Mahdi, Al-Turabi's wife, told Al-Ahram Weekly that hundreds of supporters came to congratulate her husband. "Many people, women and men, young and old from all the various ethnic groups of the country, came to see him upon his release," she said. "People came from Kordofan, Darfur, from the far north, and from the east and even from south," she added.
He had spent a total of four years in prison since he fell out with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir.
The PCP is not involved in the new government of national unity. Only the Democratic Unionist Party headed by Othman Al-Mirghani and the Umma Party led by Sadig Al-Mahdi are involved in the new government of national unity.
She also said that the family was enjoying its reunion and that her husband, 73, was in "perfect health". She said that he planned to rest and focus on private matters for the next couple of weeks. "We are happy because we are preparing for the wedding of my youngest son, Mohamed Omran . "
Wisal Al-Mahdi spoke of the close traditional ties between Egypt and Sudan and the critical importance of those ties at this particular historical juncture. "We love Egypt. There is no reason for us to hate Egypt. From a personal standpoint, my own maternal grandmother is Egyptian. Egyptian blood runs in my veins, and in the veins of many other Sudanese. We are essentially one people. Our histories are intertwined."
Moreover, the Sudanese political establishment is to decide this weekend on the new Sudanese government of national unity. But what exactly will this week's new measure achieve?
Opinion, inevitably, is split between the old guard, who think the changes go too far, and reformers, who wish the changes had gone much further.
Al-Turabi was set free on Thursday 30 June and the party he leads, the militant Islamist Popular Congress Party (PCP), received authorisation to resume its activities and re-open its Khartoum headquarters. Yesterday, Al-Turabi held a rally at Midan Al-Mouled in the Sudanese capital. He stressed that no political group, including his own, be left out of the political equation. He claimed that his party is the most popular in Sudan today. And his boast pins him down precisely as someone without qualms at all, just a gut sense for a good political move.
"Freedoms are still forbidden," Al-Turabi said soon after his release. He complained that press censorship is still in place and he criticised the restrictions on political parties and bans on street demonstrations. The Sudanese authorities also made clear that the emergency laws will be lifted soon.
Sudan's political changes come at a time of great economic need. The United Nations estimates that 3.5 million people need food aid in Sudan this year. Western governments, however, insist that Sudan should be denied debt relief and international assistance. Indeed, on the eve of the G8 summit of the most highly industrialised countries which takes place in Gleneagles, Scotland 6- 8 July, Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo of the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Hague, Netherlands, told the UN Security Council that he will step up his probe into rape and murder in Darfur. Moreno-Ocampo urged the Sudanese government to collaborate more closely with UN authorities. "We will need co-operation from the Sudanese authorities and the African Union to ensure security on the ground," he said.
International human rights organisations strongly backed the ICC prosecutor. "My main concern is that the council fully and strongly backs this prosecutor's investigation and not leave him to just dangle in the wind when the going gets rough," said Richard Dicker of the New York- based Human Rights Watch.
Whatever else you may say about him, Al-Turabi is a critically important player in Sudanese politics. He intends to have a say in the period of intense jostling for position. Al-Turabi claims that he does not know precisely what is going on, but bravely continues his crusade anyway.