Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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The Sudanese crisis

By Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed It is a truism that internal political crises can rarely be overcome by opposition forces based outside the country in which such crises erupt. An obvious example is Iraq, but it is by no means unique. Accordingly, in contemplating the possibilities available for overcoming a political crisis in a given country, one thinks first of internal rather than external forces. It is perhaps from this perspective that Egypt and Libya decided to back Omar Bashir against Hassan Turabi in the current Sudanese crisis. True, Bashir is the head of state and the symbol of legitimacy. But sometimes it is the exception and not the rule that works best in a specific situation, and an external force can be more effective than an internal one in overcoming the crisis. The crisis in Sudan is the culmination of a power struggle that has been playing out between Sudan's president and its speaker of parliament for some months, indeed, according to Bashir, for several years. It erupted when Turabi presented a draft bill to parliament amending some provisions of the constitution. The proposed amendments would have stripped Bashir of his power to appoint provincial governors and required him to give up the post of prime minister that he holds in addition to the presidency, as well as to appoint a vice-president. Turabi's campaign to curtail Bashir's powers did not stop with the constitutional amendment bill: he tried to push new legislation through parliament giving the prime minister wider powers and giving parliament the right to remove the president from office with a two thirds majority.

Although Bashir asked Turabi not to put the draft bills to the vote until he had had a chance to study them, Turabi jumped the gun by submitting them the next day, prompting Bashir's supporters to walk out of the session. In the ensuing uproar, Turabi realised he could not obtain the two thirds majority required to pass the new legislation and adjourned the session to the following morning. Bashir moved swiftly to reassert his authority: later that same evening, 12 December, he declared a three-month state of emergency, dissolved parliament and dismantled the provincial councils.

And so the two former allies, who have shared power since Turabi backed Bashir's military coup in 1989, are now at loggerheads, and, despite all attempts at mediation, no reconciliation is in sight. Indeed, a more likely scenario is that each will deploy his power base -- Bashir the army, Turabi the Islamist forces -- in the confrontation, exhausting one another and creating a power vacuum that could degenerate into total chaos.

This is a typical situation where internal forces are more likely to aggravate the crisis than to resolve it, making it imperative to consider the alternative of looking to external opposition forces for a solution. The name that immediately springs to mind in this connection is Sadeq Al-Mahdi, the former prime minister who was ousted by Bashir in the coup that was later dubbed "the Salvation Revolution". Not only does his very name carry weight in Sudan, but he is the only opposition leader who enjoys direct relations with the three main components of the political setup in northern Sudan.

To begin with, he is part of the opposition forces grouped outside Sudan under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance. True, certain elements within the Alliance disapproved of his recent meeting with Bashir in Djibouti, which they saw as a threat to the cohesion of the Alliance, but all agree that this should not be a reason to cut relations with Al-Mahdi. Then he is in contact with Bashir, and their recent meeting in Djibouti may have been instrumental in Bashir's decision to bring his long simmering feud with Turabi to a head by stripping his one-time mentor of all his official powers. Finally, he is related through marriage to Turabi, who is married to Al-Mahdi's sister. He is thus uniquely placed to act as a catalyst in overcoming the Sudanese crisis, his relations with all the protagonists allowing him a freedom of manoeuvre that no other party enjoys.

The only protagonist with whom Al-Mahdi is not on good terms is John Garang, leader of the rebellion in the south. However, this could change as it was thanks to Al-Mahdi that Garang came to be recognised as a valid interlocutor by all the political forces in the north.

Historically, Sadeq Al-Mahdi, who heads the Ummah Party, and Mohamed Osman Mirghany, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, represent the traditional, conservative forces in Sudan. Today they are working in tandem with other opposition forces to the left of their natural constituencies, including the banned Sudanese Communist Party, within the National Democratic Alliance. As to Bashir and Turabi, they represent forces that emerged on the Sudanese political stage after breaking away from the Muslim Brothers, and which only acquired a distinct identity after seizing power in a coup d'état. In a way, they represent a coalition between an Islamic religious movement, led by Turabi, and elements within the army who are sympathetic to that movement, led by Bashir.

This is a highly unusual marriage of convenience in a region where the relationship between the military establishment and the Islamists is usually an adversial one. Such is the case in Turkey, Algeria and, to a lesser extent, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and even Egypt. The power-sharing formula between the army general and the Islamist ideologue in Sudan was an exception to the rule. Though it lasted longer than many believed it could, it too has now succumbed to the pattern of polarisation between the military and the Islamists that has established itself elsewhere in the Middle East.

For Sudan's neighbours, this is a highly disquieting development. A power vacuum in Khartoum carries many dangers, most notably the partition of Sudan into two separate states: a Christian/animist south and a Muslim north. The crucial question is which Sudanese leader can prevent this from happening. Is it Bashir, who now feels he has to affirm his Islamic credentials even more strongly after dismissing Turabi, or is it Al-Mahdi, a consummate politician who has proved his ability to adapt to modern realities and has successfully managed to build bridges with all Sudanese political forces, including the left?

The prospect of a power vacuum in Khartoum is particularly worrying for Egypt and Libya, who came forward with a joint initiative calling for a dialogue between all Sudanese political forces. At the same time, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), made up of a group of countries around the Horn of Africa, has offered to mediate between Khartoum and Garang. But with Khartoum in the throes of a power struggle between Bashir and Turabi, any mediation efforts must be put on hold. In the meantime, Garang is pressing ahead with his own agenda in the south.

The danger of Sudan's fragmentation led Egypt and Libya to stand squarely behind Bashir in his showdown with Turabi. Both Cairo and Tripoli are aware that the Sudanese crisis could be exploited by many parties to further their own interests. There is, first of all, Israel, which would be only too happy to see the south secede from the north. This would offer it a foothold in the Nile Valley -- an enormous advantage in view of the looming water crisis -- as well as a chance to play on the contradictions between Arab Africa and Black Africa.

Then there is the growing interest of the United States in the strategically important area of the Horn of Africa. An added incentive for Washington's interest in Sudan is the discovery of oil in the south. The United States is playing the IGAD initiative card against the joint Egyptian-Libyan initiative. Despite Madeleine Albright's declaration that the United States recognises Egypt's special interest in Sudan, she is still giving the IGAD initiative priority over Egypt's policies towards the situation in Sudan.

Certainly the regime in Egypt is closer to Bashir than it is to Turabi. But if it had to choose between Bashir and Sadeq Al-Mahdi, it might well opt for the latter, even if historically he has stood against unity with Egypt. For there is no doubt that Al-Mahdi is better placed than any other party to resolve the crisis in Sudan and avert its partitioning, a worst-case scenario not only for Egypt because of its dependence on the waters of the Nile, but also for all the Arab countries because it would set a dangerous precedent for other countries in the region, beginning with Iraq. After standing firmly behind Bashir in his feud with Turabi, Cairo would like to see him mend his fences with the Sudanese opposition forces grouped under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance, in particular with Sadeq Al-Mahdi, and to work out with them a joint strategy aimed at preventing religion from becoming a reason for the division and fragmentation of Sudan.

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