Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
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Sudan plays wait and see

By Mahmoud Murad in Khartoum,
Mohamed Khaled and Dina Ezzat in Cairo

This is a crucial time for Sudan. But it is also a turning-point -- for the better -- in Cairo-Khartoum relations.

Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir arrived in the Egyptian capital yesterday, seeking support, which he was certain to get, in his conflict with Hassan Al-Turabi, speaker of the dissolved Sudanese parliament.

The visit, at Egypt's invitation, followed Al-Bashir's decision on 12 December to declare a state of emergency and dissolve parliament. Al-Turabi, widely believed to be the power behind the throne for the past few years, was also viewed as responsible for strains in Egyptian-Sudanese relations.

Cairo has taken Al-Bashir's side with top Egyptian officials endorsing his presidential prerogative to "ensure Sudan's security and stability".

Al-Bashir flew in from Tripoli, where Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi brought him together with the leaders of Uganda, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to play peacemaker in their quarrels.

"All at this mini-summit are determined to support our brother President Omar Al-Bashir," Gaddafi said on Libyan television. "Even those who have had disagreements with him took the initiative to telephone him before arriving in Tripoli to express their support, because he protects the unity of Sudan and saves Sudan."

In addition to Gaddafi and Al-Bashir, the gathering was attended by Eritrea's Isayas Afewerki, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Democratic Republic of the Congo's Laurent Kabila.

Gaddafi said the leaders had agreed to free prisoners, send ambassadors back to their posts and reopen air links.

President Hosni Mubarak, during a Gulf tour that ended on Tuesday night, managed to drum up the support of the four states he visited -- Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- for Al-Bashir.

Moreover, Al-Bashir's visit to Egypt was expected to encourage Cairo to send an ambassador to Khartoum to fill a post that has been vacant for five years due to Egyptian accusations of Sudanese involvement in the 1995 assassination attempt against Mubarak in Addis Ababa.

"Our main objective, at this stage, is to improve ties with Sudan," commented an Egyptian diplomat. Sending an ambassador back to Khartoum will be a big boost for Al-Bashir's position.

Meanwhile, Sudan seems poised for a tough confrontation between Al-Bashir and Al-Turabi factions. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly in Khartoum, the Sudanese president said that he was ready for a conditional reconciliation. "You lose by turning down reconciliation," said Al-Bashir. However, he added that reconciliation does not mean that he would go back on his 12 December decisions.

His action against Al-Turabi, Al-Bashir told the Weekly, was unavoidable after three years of simmering trouble between the two men resulting from Al-Turabi's attempt to marginalise the Sudanese president. "Sudan must have one leadership, the president of the republic, who exercises his authorities with the assistance of the various constitutional institutions," he stated.

But the situation remains blurry. Al-Turabi seems to be the weaker side, with Al-Bashir enjoying the strong support of his influential Vice-President Ali Othman Taha, Defence Minister Abdel-Rahman Sirr Al-Khatim and Foreign Minister Mustafa Othman Ismail.

"Al-Turabi is the type of man who would want to work alone and make all the decisions himself," said Ismail.

"Al-Turabi thinks that we are his students; but even students have the right to argue," said Information Minister Ghazi Salaheddin.

For his part, Al-Turabi has given Al-Bashir a one month ultimatum to go back on his decisions or else face a tough confrontation. Al-Turabi has managed to gain the support of some prominent figures in Sudan's Islamist movement. Some of those living abroad are arriving in Khartoum to demonstrate support for him.

Informed sources in Khartoum suggest that, during the coming few days Al-Turabi may encourage a number of cabinet ministers and influential civil servants, who promised loyalty, to resign.

But many observers, inside and outside Sudan, believe Al-Turabi will not resort to force, particularly since he does not have a strong hold over the army.

Al-Turabi is not Al-Bashir's only problem. Sudan's president must also worry about the strong Sudanese opposition, especially the armed faction of southern rebel leader John Garang.

After securing the support of African neighbours, Al-Bashir will be promised that Cairo will make a greater effort with the Sudanese opposition. "Foreign Minister Amr Moussa is planning to contact Garang. He is also planning to meet with a number of opposition leaders to encourage them to listen to Al-Bashir's ideas," said a diplomatic source. Moreover, Egypt and Libya are keeping alive their joint initiative for a national reconciliation in Sudan, an initiative in which Al-Bashir is now showing increased interest.

A recent call by Al-Bashir for the opposition to return to Sudan has been received with disinterest. A statement issued by the National Democratic Alliance, the umbrella organisation for the opposition groups, described the latest crisis as a power conflict within the Islamist movement. Opposition figures say that both Al-Bashir and Al-Turabi are two sides of the same coin.

It is hard to predict what will happen next. It is a wait-and-see situation.

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