Khartoum, April 23. General ‘Abd al-Rahman Siwar al-Dhahab, in power since April 6, was expected to name an interim cabinet on Monday, April 22, to govern the country under army supervision for a transitional period of one year. In the meantime, General Siwar al-Dahab appointed an interim cabinet for southern Sudan, headed by General James Lawrence Marou, a member of the Transitional Military Council. Two high level officers of the Sudanese Army traveled to Libya on Sunday, April 21, to try to improve relations between the two countries.

The Staff Club at the University of Khartoum was the scene of joyous and emotional reunions in mid-April. Intellectuals, political activists and trade union militants were finally able to meet again, after years of detention, exile or life in the underground. They reminisced about the grim years of the Ja‘far Numairi regime, and they discussed the democratic system they intended to build, something everyone had his own ideas about.

The Staff Club is a very British milieu, where professors and students used to meet and debate philosophical questions over a cup of tea. Now it serves as the headquarters of the trade unions and political organizations, and a key nerve center in the Sudanese revolution. Posters, manifestos and petitions adorn the walls, testifying to the legalization of all political parties and freedom regained. Where three or four major parties used to conduct their activities in secret or abroad, there are now some forty new parties, most embryonic or transitory, products of the imagination and enthusiasm of small groups of well-intentioned citizens.

Freedom also means an end to the police informers who used to haunt the streets and public meeting places. People no longer lower their voices around tables at the Staff Club to criticize a general in the Transitional Military Council, which took power “in the name of the people” on April 6. Willingly or not, General al-Dhahab’s junta has dismantled the formidable internal security authority, a private army which Numairi ran separately from and parallel to the regular forces. The junta arrested all of its more than 400 officers, and about 3,000 of its members. Some 30,000 to 40,000 police spies are now out of work; although they could be called back into service at any time, no one seems concerned. The popular uprising which virtually paralyzed the country between March 26 and April 6 lies behind this Sudanese feeling that they are in control.


The most remarkable thing here is the lack of anarchy, in a state where authority is on vacation. Except for the ongoing guerrilla war in the south, a spirit of self-discipline and mutual tolerance reigns everywhere. There have been no disturbances at the large party meetings attended by 5,000,10,000 and sometimes even 20,000 people a day. Speakers avoid criticizing other parties by name and stick to explaining their own program. A “national pact” was concluded during the night of April 5-6, and the political parties, the unions, the professional associations and finally the junta have all pledged to support it. Weeks later, the consensus seems to be holding.

Except for the Muslim Brothers, headed by Hassan al-Turabi, all organizations proclaim similar principles. The arsenal of repressive laws, including shari‘a (Islamic law, introduced by Numairi in September 1983), should be dismantled and not merely “suspended,’ as the junta ordered. Numairi and anyone else who is guilty of crimes or corruption should be brought to justice. The state administration and the civil service should be purged and reorganized. A constituent assembly elected on the basis of universal suffrage before the end of the present transitional stage of one year should codify a multiparty system, a parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary and civil liberties in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is still stipulated in the national charter.

Sudan’s “Pasionaria”

The parties and the unions are not content merely to formulate their demands. They resort to direct action when they feel the junta has not lived up to its promises. Since no law has been decreed specifically reestablishing freedom of the press, journalists have taken on the task themselves. Less then two weeks after the ouster of Numairi, they calmly occupied the offices of the two major Khartoum dailies, politely ejected the managers and editors-in-chief who had been appointed under the old regime, and set up provisional committees elected by the members of the editorial staffs. Suddenly the papers are doing so well that they are sold out almost as soon as they are off the press. A similar purge is expected in radio and television.

The “creeping revolution” is gaining ground in the unions, where a docile leadership, installed through fraud and intimidation, had been completely subservient to the old regime. Union leaders and rank-and-file militants have come out of hiding to call meetings in a number of companies to elect new local leadership. Trade union committees, illegal under the dictatorship, are handling union affairs until the elections scheduled for May 8, when the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) will elect new officers. Then it will become clear whether the Sudanese Communist Party, the most influential in Africa and the Arab world 15 years ago, has reestablished its traditionally dominant position within the trade union movement.

The Communist Party is the only one that has yet to come out into the open, although its pamphlets and flyers are circulated and its posters can be seen right alongside those of the Muslim Brothers in the University Staff Club. One of its leaders, Mahjoub Osman, represents the party in the National Salvation Front and took part in bargaining with the generals of the junta, particularly on the question of appointments to the provisional government. And the Sudanese “Pasionaria,” Fatima Ibrahim, can be seen everywhere.

Fatima Ibrahim is the widow of Shafa‘i al-Shaikh, the former Secretary General of the GFTU who was executed in July 1971. Dressed from head to toe in the traditional veil, she moves from table to table in the Staff Club, holding lively discussions with activists of all tendencies. She is a fiery orator at union meetings. She pushes her way into offices of the junta generals to “demand” in the name of “one-half of the Sudanese nation” that two women be named to the provisional government. Practically a fixture as president of the previously banned Union of Sudanese Women, she spoke at the first public meeting held by her organization in 14 years on Sunday evening, April 21.

But the Communist Party itself remains in the shadows, and it is difficult to determine its size and strength. In the words of SCP Secretary-General Muhammad Ibrahim Noghoud, “We are a serious party, but our experience during the past fifteen years has taught us not to take useless risks.” He received us in the middle of the night in the home of a “sympathizer,” after taking numerous security precautions. “I will make a public appearance very soon, and we are planning a big demonstration for May 1,” says Noghoud, adding that his party intends to “profit from all the advantages of legitimacy.” But when asked whether we will see only the tip of the iceberg, he responds with an enigmatic smile.

The two traditional parties, the Umma and the National Unionist Party, “bourgeois” expressions, of the rival Ansar and Khatmiyya sects, apparently have no fear for the future, while the leftist or secular parties are untiringly optimistic about their possibilities. But the professional associations, which spearheaded the popular uprising, are starting to run out of steam. They are caught between the political parties, which are now trying to shunt them aside, and the junta generals who are demanding increasing concessions. The leaders of this group—doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, bank clerks—failed to accomplish the task they were assigned immediately after the uprising, which was to form a provisional government of independent technocrats who had the confidence of all parties concerned.

Some of the candidates they proposed for ministerial positions were challenged on the basis of their alleged “Islamic tendencies,” others for their “communist sympathies.” But the failure of their efforts can be attributed in large part to the refusal of the southern rebels, lead by Colonel John Garang, to participate in any government until “the army returns to its barracks.” The junta has no intention of relinquishing power, and any government would lack credibility and effectiveness if it did not include representatives of the southern rebels.

The situation is worse than uncertain. There will be serious problems if the current impasse persists. Faced with famine, the Sudanese are growing increasingly impatient, and morale is deteriorating among the army and the police, who are themselves divided into “moderates” and “radicals.”

The Torrent Contained

Khartoum, June 18-20. Sinking into the plush seats of his bulletproof Mercedes, preceded and followed by a cavalcade of motorcycle policemen, Numairi was driven to Khartoum Airport on March 27, en route to Washington, DC. In spite of the revolt brewing in the capital and the insults shouted by demonstrators along the route to the airport, he probably had no idea that 10 days later the “street” would sweep aside the regime he installed sixteen years ago.

No doubt history will credit Numairi with having triggered the revolutionary process. In a speech just two days before his departure for the United States, he asked, “Why do the Sudanese need to eat three meals a day?” He explained that the food shortage and price explosion were primarily due to “excessive consumption.” He was addressing an assembly of well-fed specialists, but his remarks were broadcast and heard by millions of Sudanese who were actually facing starvation, who had just been told by Numairi himself that the price of basic necessities, particularly bread, had been increased by 33 to 100 percent. What the chief of state had failed to tell the people was that the latest inflationary rise was the result of a series of “austerity” measures demanded by both the International Monetary Fund and the United States as a way to “improve” the economy.

The next day, students from the Islamic University of Omdurman marched in Khartoum’s twin city shouting, “The people are hungry! Down with America! Down with the IMF! The World Bank will not rule Sudan!”

The following day, it was the turn of the trade and technology students. They took to the streets, ransacking the offices of banks and commercial houses, including one owned by the brother of President Numairi. But Numairi left for the United States that day, confident that the rioting would be easily put down.

Before leaving the presidential waiting room at the airport, he signed a decree that had been sitting on the shelf for a year. It increased the salaries of the police, who had shown some softness toward demonstrators. Numairi was certain that the army was in good hands. Defense Minister Siwar al-Dahab was an “apolitical” officer, a conservative and almost a caricature of discipline. General Omar al-Tayib, first vice-president, was a man of proven loyalty. If circumstances required, he could activate the 45,000-man internal security authority under his personal command. These troops were heavily armed and had stores of weapons, including anti-tank rockets, in arsenals discreetly positioned around the country. They also had their own communications network and radio and television broadcasting facilities. This praetorian guard could neutralize the regular army.

But Numairi had underestimated the level of demoralization in the army, which had been held back by its leadership and humiliated by the southern guerrillas. He had also misjudged the popular mood and the irrepressible vitality of the clandestine political parties, still active even though decimated and disorganized by a continuing harsh repression. The trade unions, professional associations and the student organizations were thriving, and they had been at the forefront of every revolutionary upsurge since the battle for independence in the 1940s.

The student demonstrations of March 26, 27 and 28 began spontaneously, but within a few days they had been transformed into popular demonstrations organized or led by the professional associations and the main parties. On March 29, workers and the unemployed poured into the capital from the suburbs, attacking symbols of wealth and shouting slogans supplied by clandestine cadres of the Communist Party, the least numerous but the best organized of the large organizations.

On March 30, the Communist Party made its first public statement, a call for an unlimited general strike until the downfall of the government. The next day, the call was taken up by professors, lawyers, judges, doctors, nurses and engineers, as well as by the railway and textile workers and bank employees, whose unions had formed a Trade Union Assembly for National Salvation in January.

All political parties began preparing for the “mass demonstration” of Wednesday, April 3, that would tip the balance in the army and bring it over to the side of the insurrection. Statements signed by anonymous “free officers” denouncing “the tyrant Numairi” began circulating on March 31.

On April 1, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the spiritual and political leader of the Ansar sect and a former prime minister, met secretly with two senior officers. One of the men, General Taj ad-Din ‘Abd Allah, would be a principal figure in the army revolt. Al-Mahdi told the officers, “We need your support. Without it, the strikes and demonstrations will lead to a bloodbath.” Shaken by al-Mahdi’s plea, the officers replied, “The army will not suppress the popular movement, but neither will it join the revolt unless it becomes irresistible.” On the same day, President Reagan gave Numairi a warm welcome at the White House, promising him that American aid, cut off months earlier, would be fully restored and even increased, based on implementation of the austerity measures “recommended” by the IMF.

“We Want Numairi’s Head”

By this time, the entire country had joined in the uprising. Starving people attacked government offices in villages throughout the countryside, capturing the stores of food that had been stockpiled, in many cases for speculative purposes. The few counter-demonstrations were pathetic fiascos. About a thousand people, mostly dignitaries and government officials, gathered in Khartoum in support of the regime on April 2.

The next day, April 3, saw the largest demonstration in the history of the Sudan. It was even bigger than the 1956 demonstration celebrating independence, or the popular uprising of October 1964 against the martial law regime of General ‘Abboud. Between one and two million people, a good part of the population of Omdurman and Khartoum, marched on the capital to express their anger and show their determination to put an end to the dictatorship. The human tide flooded the major thoroughfares and side streets, the bridges and public squares. From east to west and north to south, the republic chanted, “We want Numairi’s head! Bread and freedom are worth a million martyrs!”

Policemen fraternized with demonstrators and soldiers were ordered to retreat. The army returned to its barracks. The security forces, under the command of General al-Tayib, made a short-lived attempt to contain the crowds, but quickly abandoned the effort. They also refrained from shooting, apparently for lack of orders. Meanwhile in Washington, Numairi declared that “no one has the power to throw me out of office.”

General al-Tayib took an extremely conciliatory stance on the following day, April 4, when he was “invited7rdquo; to “consult” with the high command. He met with 13 of the 15 generals who would assume power two days later. They asked him not to declare a state of emergency and not to use the armed forces to put down the revolt. General al-Tayib accepted the recommendations of his subordinates without hesitation. But he told them that Numairi was urging him by transatlantic telephone to deal ruthlessly with the demonstrators and the ongoing general strike.

According to General Taj ad-Din, the “brains” behind the April coup d’état, “General Tayib betrayed Numairi from the very start. He minimized the importance of the events in Khartoum and discouraged Numairi from returning to the country. He was hoping to take over himself, based on his command of the army and the fact that the constitution named him as interim president in the president’s absence.” It was generally assumed in political circles that General al-Tayib had “an agreement with the Americans and Egyptians.”

Whether or not this was the case, General al-Tayib took no action to quell the rioting throughout the following day, April 5, when senior army officers informed him that the junior officers were demanding the ouster of Numairi, otherwise they would “take matters into their own hands.” Two other developments were increasing the urgency of the situation. Representatives of the political parties, trade unions and professional associations were in the process of drafting a common program that would give the revolutionary movement a united leadership, specific goals, a strategy and an irresistible momentum. They adopted the new “national charter” during the night of April 5-6. Meanwhile, Numairi had left Washington and was on his way back to the Sudan. A bloody confrontation seemed unavoidable.

The generals decided they would have to take control immediately in order to avoid such a “catastrophe.” General al-Tayib accepted their decision without protest. At 7 am the next morning, he curtly informed the cabinet that a coup was to take place in two hours.

The junta’s first statement sparked an explosion of joy among the thousands of Sudanese who had occupied Khartoum since before dawn. Crowds of demonstrators converged on Kober Prison, breaking down cell doors with axes and liberating 1300 prisoners, including 400 political prisoners whom they bore home in triumph on their shoulders.

Although some 10 people had been killed, a major bloodletting had been averted. But the revolutionary surge had also been contained. And the putschists made sure they had the necessary tools for this task. They declared a state of emergency, a move they had opposed only two days earlier. And rather than unconditionally abrogate the repressive legislation introduced under Numairi, they merely suspended shari‘a and the so-called state security laws. The Transitional Military Council promised to “restore democracy” after a period of one year.

Side by Side

Sixteen years of dictatorship did not change the tolerance of the Sudanese. Several days after the Numairi regime was swept away by the stormy popular uprising, regular political life resumed as if it had never been interrupted. “Long Live Sudanese-American Friendship,” reads a giant banner in the center of Khartoum, hanging across,an avenue where hundreds of thousands of Sudanese had marched to shouts of, “Down with the United States.” On nearby buildings, posters still celebrated the Sudanese Socialist Union, the single party of the fallen dictatorship. The walls of the university were covered with contradictory manifestos, communiques and lampoons. Texts from the Communist Party and the Muslim Brothers, from secular and religious political groups, from trade unions and discharged army officers, from southern autonomists and unity nationalists—all were mixed together in apparent harmony.

Many people filed past the display: idlers, political and trade union militants, teachers and students, all reading mpassively and then going off without a word. “No one would think of tearing down or slashing a poster that they didn’t like,” explained someone.

The Sudanese don’t need any supposed apprenticeship in democracy. In 29 years of independence they have had to submit for 22 years to the harsh rule of two military regimes—General Abboud’s (1958-1964) and Field Marshal Numairi’s (1969-1985). They have risen to overthrow both, to reestablish the parliamentary system that was theirs at independence in 1956. In both, the catalysts and leaders of the popular uprisings were the professional associations, the trade unions and the political parties, all of them deeply-rooted mass organizations that had developed in the 1940s.

The democratic institutions that Sudan borrowed from neighboring Egypt during their common struggle against British occupation fell on fertile soil. Sudan’s nomadic population had enjoyed what they considered natural liberties from time immemorial. Feudal relations on the land and personal servitude were unknown. The land had remained largely the collective property of the tribe or clan. Since consensus was indispensable for the running of such a community, dialogue was the rule, mainly in the form of the shura (consultation) within the Islamicized tribes. This prototype parliamentarianism was even practiced within Marshal Numairi’s single party, which tolerated tendencies and diversity of opinion, though only to a limited degree.

During periods of political freedom, politicians belonging to hostile groups left the National Assembly after heated debates and sat down together on the terrace of a grand hotel. There they could be seen talking together with great conviviality over a cup of tea or a glass of whiskey. Members of the Sudanese elite often maintain close personal relations. Few in number, they come from the same class, the same schools, and from tribes, clans and families allied by marriage. Their differences rarely lead to a total break.

Hassan Turabi, head of the Muslim Brothers, was for a time minister and then personal counsellor of Numairi. When the regime collapsed, he fell into a warm mutual embrace with his longtime political adversary, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the spiritual and political chief of the Ansar religious brotherhood. Turabi’s wife is the sister of al-Mahdi. Similarly, throughout 15 years of clandestine life, Communist Party Secretary-General Muhammad Ibrahim Noghoud continued to meet with members of the government and close advisors of Numairi. Along with Turabi, they had been his classmates in secondary school.

The repression that came down on all groups helped bring their leaders together. Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Sudanese right, had his own discreet meetings with the clandestine Communist leader before carrying on talks with Tayib al-Tigani, the party’s number two man. The two had shared the same cell in the Kober prison for 15 months in 1983-84. Exchanges between the leaders of all parties led in July 1984 to the formulation of a plan to overthrow the regime. On April 5, 1985, the eve of the downfall of Numairi, they created a “National Salvation Front” which brought together parties, trade unions, and unions of professionals in support of a common program.

Between Hammer and Anvil

The political groups lost much of their distinctiveness from then on. With the exception of the hard-line wing of the Muslim Brothers, led by Hassan Turabi, all the groups, from the Islamic right to the Marxist left by way of the staunch nationalists, spoke for the abrogation of the “scoundrel laws,” including the shari‘a; for the indictment of the leaders of the former regime and the confiscation of illegally-acquired wealth; for the liberation of the economy from the “grip of imperialism”; for non-alignment in foreign policy; for a constitution that would guarantee all individual and collective liberties, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, multiparty competition, and the autonomy of the south; and finally for the election by universal suffrage of a constitutional assembly before April 1986, when the military’s ransitional period would, in principle, be over.

This consensus is not without conflict, of course. Sadiq al-Mahdi may have given credit to the “positive role” of the Communist Party and Muhammad Ibrahim Noghoud may have praised “the democratic and humanitarian aspects of Islam.” But the two have a very different perception of the future institutions of the state. The leader of the Ansar brotherhood, like the leaders of the other confessional groups, wants to establish an “Islamic state“—however democratically constructed—adapted to the needs of modern life, and conforming with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the same time, the Communist Party, as well as Baathists, Nasserists, and especially Christian and animist southerners, demand a secular state which would fully assure their future in the political community.

Sadiq al-Mahdi offered to all groups, whether Islamic or not, a “long-term strategic alliance” which would promote an effective struggle against famine and underdevelopment and set up modern and democratic institutions. The Communist Party, conducting a policy of “opening” in “all directions,” posed a condition that the agreement not lead to the “stifling of the class struggle, motor of all progress.” It refused to restrict the “freedom of action of the trade unions” and the right to strike.

The Provisional Government of April 22nd, composed of “independent technocrats,” is itself caught between the hammer of the Transitional Military Committee and the anvil of the National Salvation Front. The professional associations, the trade unions, and the parties already question its representativeness, its ability to solve the problems of the country, and above all its “submission” to the junta. Such reproaches might seem unjust, given the fact that legal power is in the hands of the Military Committee and that the Provisional Government is simply its executive arm. But this does not keep the government from cracking under the pressure of centrifugal forces.

The Military Committee itself is not politically homogeneous. General Siwar al-Dhahab and other junta members served the old regime loyally, whether through conviction or “apoliticism.” They are not the only ones. General Taj al-Din “Abd Allah, the number two man on the committee and the real brains behind the coup, is a fervent nationalist who many times disputed the decisions of the former dictator. A member of the National Security Council, he opposed (in vain) the alliance with the Muslim Brothers, the institution of the shari‘a, the division of the south into three provinces, the “provocative” attitude of Numairi towards the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and Libya, the granting of military facilities to US forces, and the enforcement of a financial program dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

A Facade of Unity

There is also the case of Brigadier General Osman “Abd Allah, the minister of defense. Within the Military Committee he is a representative of the “radical” young officers who threatened to take things into their own hands if their elders declined to act. Intelligent, cultivated and ambitious, General Osman led the delicate negotiations which resulted in the agreement between the army and the political and union groups. Three or four of the 15 members of the Military Committee are close to leaders of the the Communist Party, or at least sympathetic.

Judging from the behavior of the Military Committee, it seems that the “conservatives” are in control, at least for the present. The junta preserved the arsenal of repressive laws, banned popular demonstrations and parades in mid-May, and placed the two main daily newspapers under government control. The junta has also put the brakes on the purges of those implicated in wrongdoing and freed many leaders of the old regime, reducing substantially the number of those who can be brought to justice.

Can the Military Committee maintain its facade of unity? Will it be forced to accede to the pressures of the parties and the unions, supposing that they can preserve their own unity? In fact there is a third player in the Sudanese game: John Garang, formidable chief of the guerrilla movement in the south, who more or less holds the future of the transitional regime in his hands. There are also, of course, foreign powers. They may not have the means to decisively determine events, but they can certainly influence the direction of developments.

What does John Garang really want? Neither the National Salvation Front which led the popular uprising, nor the Transitional Military Committee which overthrew Marshal Numairi, nor the Provisional Government, nor the cabinet which was designated at the end of May to govern the now-unified three southern provinces, lives up to his expectations. As for the southerners associated with the new government—two generals in the junta, three members of the provisional government including the deputy prime minister, and all the members of the new southern regional council—he considers them either “corrupt” or ldquo;traitors.” According to him, the conflict is not between the Christian or animist south and the Arab-Muslim north.Rather, it opposes all the population of the Sudan against their “oppressors” and “exploiters.”

John Garang has said no to everything, including offers by the Transitional Military Committee to enter unconditional negotiations with him. His reply has been invariably the same: rather than having talks with the “gang of four” (the generals who organized the coup), he would continue with hostilities, calling on his fellow citizens in the north to join him in armed struggle until the victory of democracy, the institution of a socialist secular state, the recognition of the right of all Sudan’s peoples to self-determination, and the adoption of a policy of national independence.

The leader of the Sudanese Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) is paradoxical. He presents himself as a champion of national unity and democracy, but he is hostile or skeptical towards Sudan’s political parties (which he calls “reactionary” or ldquo;opportunist,” towards the elections that will revive parliamentarianism in a year’s time, and towards the newly-restored freedoms that he views as illusory. By assigning a “vanguard” role to the SPLM, he seems to want a single-party state under his own tutelage. In any case, is he not alienating his natural allies, the secular parties, the trade unions and the professional associations who occupy a key place in the political scene of the north?

Like everyone else, John Garang must have analyzed the balance of forces. And they do seem to justify his ambitions. The regime of April 6th is vulnerable. The 12-15,000 guerrillas that he leads are particularly active in the three southern regions, fighting against a central government army that is insufficiently equipped and considerably demoralized. Three-quarters of the soldiers are black, by contrast to their officers who are mostly Arabs. These black soldiers are sympathetic to the ideas of “Africanity” and “identity” that the southern rebel radio broadcasts all day long.

The defeat of the transitional regime seems all the more likely because its treasury is empty and its foreign debt—now at $10 billion—continues to grow. The war in the south costs the government $100 million per year; the International Monetary Fund refused supplementary credits because the government failed to pay overdue interest charges of $120 million. All the foreign exchange earned by exports cannot even pay interest on the debt.

More Militant Neutralism?

The junta in Khartoum, also doubtless evaluating the balance of forces and finding them unfavorable, has tried to go directly to the protectors of John Garang. Proclaiming its “non-alignment,” the junta took steps to improve relations with the USSR and, in the name of “good neighborliness,” sent missions to Ethiopia and Libya, both of whom furnish the SPLA with Soviet arms, funds and logistical facilities. Since April 23rd, diplomatic relations have been restored with the government of Libya. As soon as this was concluded, Sudan closed the military training camps of the Libyan opposition and expelled them from the country. Tripoli, in exchange, furnished oil and food and most importantly has promised to stop all assistance to John Garang. But the honeymoon had hardly begun when Qadhafi asked for more. He wants Sudan to denounce formally the Camp David accords, clearly take its distance from Egypt and the United States and begin on a path of unity with Libya.

Ethiopia has posed even more difficult conditions. To “abandon” John Garang, Ethiopia is demanding that the Sudan deport (perhaps even extradite) the leaders and cadre of the independence movements of Eritrea and Tigray whose headquarters are in Khartoum. Ethiopia would also have Khartoum forbid any political activity by the million refugees from these Ethiopian provinces, and tightly close the extensive frontier between the two countries.

Materially, the Sudanese authorities do not have the means to control a frontier so long, so imprecisely drawn and so inaccessible. Politically, Sudan doesn’t want to risk getting into trouble with the countries which aid the Ethiopian opposition movements—notably the United States, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Ethiopia has absolutely refused to accept such arguments. Its intransigence is similar to that of John Garang. Perhaps Ethiopia is also counting on the fall of the present regime and the emergence of a new, more friendly government. Such a calculation seems to have a real basis, since the broad anti-Americanism in Sudan could lead to a much more militant neutralism than the non-alignment of the current leaders.

Sudanese of every political current bitterly resent the United States. For 14 years, the US supported Numairi and used Sudan as its satellite. Upcoming “treason” trials of the former leaders may well turn into a trial of the United States.

The local press, as in Iran just after the fall of the shah, has begun to publish information and documents, some of which seem unquestionably authentic, on various secret accords between Washington and the deposed leaders. One such report mentions four air bases designed to take units of the Rapid Deployment Force, and the construction of a powerful listening station near Port Sudan which is now nearing completion.

The Muslim Brothers claim that considerable quantities of American arms have been stored in the country. The Communist Party claims that the CIA has installed its regional branch in Khartoum and launched from there Operation Moses, transferring some 8,000 Ethiopian Falashas to Israel. The London Observer, cited by all the Sudanese media, has added that Marshal Numairi and his collaborators received $56 million for their complicity in the operation, or $7,000 per Falasha. Also, according to the Observer, the former leaders of Sudan were offered “tens of millions of dollars” for their authorization of the dumping of radioactive wastes in Sudan’s western desert.

Probably drawing lessons from their Iran experience, US leaders noted Sudan’s neutralist drift and came swiftly to the aid of the junta. They added new grants to the $400 million offered this year to Marshal Numairi, including $50 million for the army. New monies include $30 million in food aid for those affected by the drought and $62 million for importing energy products. Saudi Arabia has furnished free oil, financed imports of key necessities and on occasion simply refilled the empty state coffers.

This generosity has paid off, at least partially. The leaders and politicians of Khartoum have adopted a relatively moderate position. Communist Party Secretary-General Noghoud told us that the Sudanese people “thank” the United States for their aid and do not want to follow the Iranian example by breaking diplomatic relations between Khartoum and Washington—what he called an “archaic form of political reprisal” Hassan Turabi, supreme guide of the Muslim Brothers, assured us that in spite of Washington’s scarcely-disguised hostility towards his movement he opposed the “obsessive anti-Americanism of many of his compatriots.” But both politicians, as well as Sadiq al-Mahdi, leader of the Ansar brotherhood, affirmed that they will demand the abrogation of accords between Washington and the old regime which tarnish the sovereignty and neutrality of Sudan by dragging it into the East-West confrontation.

Another demand emerging from the national consensus is the abrogation of the Common Defense Treaty of 1976 with Egypt and the Integration Charter signed by the two countries in 1982. “These agreements are not in conformity with the popular will and we consider them henceforward null and void,” declared the president of the Provisional Government on May 22nd. The Sudanese have not yet forgiven their “brothers” to the north who supported the deposed dictatorship and granted political asylum to the “criminal Numairi.”

Since Cairo has turned a deaf ear to the extradition demands—even though they conform to a convention between the two countries—the junta in Khartoum has requested that the former dictator not be allowed to leave Egypt. This might lead to a test of strength such as that between Iran and the United States over the extradition of the shah. But no one in Khartoum wants that to happen as long as there is still a possibility of restoring good relations between the two countries.

In the final analysis, a powerful dynamic is at work in Sudan. Passionate nationalism, a will to leave the “American camp” and to put an end to the ruinous civil war, a desire to improve relations with the USSR, Ethiopia and Libya—these have set in motion changes that will be hard to stop in Sudan and perhaps also in neighboring countries as well.

From his point of view, maybe John Garang is right in deciding to fight on to the bitter end.


Translated by Diane James and Jim Paul


Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Le Monde on April 24 and June 18-20,1985. It is published here by permission of the author.


How to cite this article:

Eric Rouleau "Sudan’s Revolutionary Spring," Middle East Report 135 (September/October 1985).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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