Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
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Al-Mahdi changes allies

By Mohamed Khaled and Dina Ezzat

Leaders of the Sudanese opposition movement are to start a crucial meeting this week in Kampala, amid indications that the controversial agreement reached last week in Djibouti between Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the former Sudanese prime minister and head of the Al-Umma Party, and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir would not be welcomed by Al-Mahdi's allies in the opposition umbrella organisation, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

While Al-Mahdi has claimed that the agreement takes account of 95 per cent of the NDA's demands, other NDA members saw it as an individual move on Al-Mahdi's part that did not bring them any closer to their final aim of bringing an end to the fanatical and authoritarian regime in Khartoum.

"A substantial portion of the NDA's demands are included in the declaration," Al-Mahdi told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview, while admitting, in the same breath, that the Sudanese government under Al-Bashir had been unwilling to meet many of the NDA's demands.

"The peace agreement that they have signed with some rebel factions and the tewali law [the law which regulates the formation of political parties] are two issues that the government is most unlikely to surrender at a moment's notice," he said.

Al-Mahdi's strategy in cooperating with his allies in the NDA has had a 'take it or leave it' character up to now, and in his recent comments Al-Mahdi merely underlined his own view of the correct strategy for the NDA to take.

"We are prepared for discussions with those who agree with our move, and who want only to suggest improvements or amendments to it. However there is no way in which we can reach an agreement or cooperate with those who believe that the eradication of the government in Khartoum is the only solution," Al-Mahdi said.

Nevertheless Al-Tigani Al-Tayeb, a member of the NDA leadership council and a representative of the Communist Party of Sudan said that he believed that the "Djibouti Agreement is something that cannot be improved... All the NDA factions who have arrived in Kampala until now are against this agreement," he told the Weekly.

Farouk Abu Issa, the NDA spokesman, also reiterated that the "Djibouti Agreement is directly against the principles of the historic agreement of the NDA, which united the Sudanese nation with the exception of the National Islamic Front (NIF) for the first time."

Al-Mahdi has argued that there are two contradictory approaches within the NDA to the present political crisis in the Sudan, being one which calls for a comprehensive political solution to the crisis and another which calls for the eradication of the regime. "There is no chance of an agreement between these two approaches," he has commented, nevertheless adding that despite the criticisms he was confident that his project would meet with success.

"Al-Bashir has changed his mind in favour of a political solution, and the notion of a religious state has become out of date," he said.

The Djibouti Agreement has also had other repercussions, this time on the regional and international levels. Over the past three weeks, intensive efforts have been made by Egypt to sell the joint Egyptian-Libyan initiative for a peaceful settlement in Sudan to Washington, which has consistently opposed this joint mediation. With the Djibouti Agreement between Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir these efforts have now been set back, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa commented this week that "the Djibouti deal could have a [negative] impact on all the elements of the Sudanese issue, including the Egyptian-Libyan initiative."

"So far, and despite our contacts with Al-Mahdi and with the Sudanese government, we have not received any good explanation why this had to happen, in the light of its negative impact on relations within the Sudanese opposition and on our sincere efforts to conclude peace in Sudan," said an Egyptian diplomatic source.

Cairo and Tripoli are now monitoring the situation, both countries waiting to see the result of the Kampala meeting before deciding on their next move.

Meanwhile, despite its dismay with Khartoum, Cairo is keeping its channels open with the Sudanese government. Egyptian officials told their Sudanese counterparts that they erred by signing the unilateral deal with Al-Mahdi. But they are also telling them that Cairo and Tripoli are still determined to make their joint initiative work.

On Tuesday, in France, Moussa met his Sudanese counterpart on the fringe of the Afrique-France conference. Sources say that Ismail tried, with little success if any, to sell the agreement to Moussa. The foreign ministers agreed that all factions of the Sudanese opposition should have a say in any final peace settlement. Still, Moussa and Ismail have not yet determined what to do in order for this to see the light of day despite the outcry the Djibouti deal has prompted. "We hope to see the NDA coming together again," Moussa said.

And, despite the protests of other opposition groups within the NDA and international criticism, recent statements by Al-Mahdi have sent clear signals that he is determined to go ahead with the Al-Umma Party's project to achieve a political settlement with the Sudanese regime.

"We are serious about a political solution because of the many dangers looming ahead, and the fact that the country's sovereignty and unity will be threatened if we don't move fast enough to reach a peaceful settlement," Al-Mahdi said.

Speaking of his party's relations with the NIF, Al-Mahdi commented that the Al-Umma Party was not looking for a separate settlement with the NIF but rather hoped to establish an alliance with it. "If our allies in the NDA reject our proposal, with the NIF expressing enough commitment practically to bring it about, then this will impose on us a new situation," he said.

He added that as far as Al-Umma's relations with the opposition Sudanese People's Liberation Movement were concerned, "our stance is clear as there are specific agreements between us. If they have an agenda other than that on which we have agreed, then we will have a different stance," Al-Mahdi said in an interview on Sudanese television this week.

For the SPLM however "there is no room for any degree of acceptance of the Djibouti Agreement," said Yassir Arman, the party's spokesman in a statement to the Weekly.

All things being equal, this week's Kampala meeting seems likely to witness a split in the NDA with the Al-Umma Party breaking away and proceeding with reconciliation with the government.

Meanwhile sources say that US officials at recent meetings with Al-Mahdi have indicated that they do not see him as the man of the future in the Sudan, and "accordingly Al-Mahdi is moving fast to conclude a deal with the NIF," said one observer.

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