Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
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A coup for democracy?

By Mohamed Khaled and Dina Ezzat

It may take some time before the dust settles in Sudan. But the indications are that President Omar Al-Bashir has not been confronted with serious regional or international opposition for ostracising Hassan Al-Turabi, speaker of the dissolved Sudanese parliament and previously considered the "power behind the throne".

Now, for Al-Bashir to entrench his hold on power and drum up the required international support, he will need to respond positively to expectations that Islamist ideology is about to be abandoned in favour of greater democracy.

Both Egypt and Libya, sponsors of an agenda for peace in Sudan, have announced their support for Al-Bashir's declaration on Sunday of a state of emergency and dissolution of Parliament. On Tuesday, President Hosni Mubarak made a previously unannounced visit to Libya, where he conferred with Muammar Gaddafi. The two leaders, who held telephone consultations with Al-Bashir, issued a joint statement supporting the Sudanese president's moves, which they described as an attempt to secure stability in Sudan.

Moreover, at the request of the Sudanese government, both Egypt and Libya are now making regional and international contacts to ensure that Al-Bashir will receive the necessary support in the crucial period ahead. According to Sudanese and Egyptian sources, the Egyptian-Libyan efforts are vital because the Khartoum regime is apprehensive that neighbouring African countries hosting Sudanese opposition forces may seize the opportunity to launch a military attack on Sudan. It is also important, said one Sudanese source, that the concerned Western countries do not take advantage of the situation and step up their attempts to divide Sudan. One Sudanese diplomat said: "If Egypt and Libya succeed in mustering support for Sudan in these hard times, this will mean a lot for Khartoum's relations with the two countries".

Since Mubarak's brief sojourn to Libya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Chad -- all crucial states in terms of Sudanese national security -- have declared their support for Al-Bashir's move.

But what may transpire regionally and internationally depends a great deal on developments in Sudan in the immediate future. Al-Sadeq Al-Mahdi, the opposition figure who was thrown out of power in 1989 by Al-Bashir's and Al-Turabi's coup, is predicting a civil war. Not many share this view. Generally, the Sudanese opposition's reaction has been cautious, seeing Al-Bashir's move against Al-Turabi as an internal conflict within the ranks of the National Islamic Front (NIF) that has been simmering for the past year.

How far the current power struggle will affect the future of the Islamist regime in Sudan remains to be seen. According to one Sudanese political analyst Al-Bashir's move against Turabi is not aimed at bringing an end to Islamist hegemony in Sudan, but rather to save the "body" of the Islamist project, which Al-Bashir and his supporters within the NIF have seen as being increasingly threatened by Al-Turabi's militancy.

So far, the general impression inside and outside Sudan is that Al-Bashir is in control and that Al-Turabi is too weak to make a counteroffensive. "Al-Turabi has lost his hold over the Sudanese army. He is a wise man. He would not want to drag Sudan into a civil war," commented a Sudanese official.

Khartoum-based sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly by telephone said the president appears to have the country under his control. A former senior Sudanese military officer told the Weekly that Al-Bashir's action was well prepared by the president, Defence Minister Abdel-Rahman Sirr Al-Khatim and influential Colonel Ibrahim Shamseddin.

Moreover, Sudanese observers say that the general mood on the street is that people seem to be happy with Al-Turabi's removal. Al-Bashir seems to be reaching out for greater public and opposition support and sources suggest that "decrees in the direction of [greater] freedoms are expected in the coming few days".

Al-Turabi has described Al-Bashir's action as "illegal" and urged his own supporters in the Sudanese government to resign. "But even if this happens, as long as the Sudanese government has the support of a few countries such as Egypt, Libya and some European states, Sudan will be fine," said a Sudanese official.

Is there any chance that Al-Turabi will stage a comeback? Diplomats say this eventuality should not be excluded, although there are not enough indications to suggest that events will take that course. The more important question, for now, is whether or not Al-Bashir will be able to respond to local and international expectations of greater democracy.

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