July 25 The predawn landing, with the swollen Nile below and a touch of freshness in the air, feels reassuring after two years away from Sudan. But at the airport exit a nervous officer holds back the passengers: security is tight since the inqilab, he mutters, using the Arabic word for “overthrow” instead of the official reference — “National Salvation Revolution.” The drive into town — usually a ten-minute dash, swerving around potholes and debris — slows drastically. Soldiers stop the car six times, scrutinizing the special papers that allow us to travel during the nighttime curfew. After this wary silence at night, what will be the mood on the sun-blasted streets during the day?

For four short years, Sudanese political life was freewheeling. Newspapers proliferated, political parties shouted slogans, unions agitated for better wages, and universities provided forums for non-stop debate. But underlying problems grew more acute. The Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) under Colonel John Garang gained control over virtually all of the south; a quarter million people died from famine or war last year alone; more than a million fled the south and west for the shantytowns of Khartoum. The civil war consumed a quarter of the government’s budget, exports stagnated, foreign debt soared to $14 billion and the finance minister admitted in June that the economy was spiraling into hyperinflation. The public was disgusted that Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi failed to control the corrupt dealings of his relatives and Umma party members and preoccupied himself with petty maneuvering.

On my first day, a journalist shows me the final editorial of the Sudan Times, published but not distributed on June 30, the day of the coup. It implored the prime minister to stop listening to his own elegant speeches and instead “attend to the problems of the people,” whom he had neglected sorely. Sadiq should be charged with the crime of destroying democracy, the editor adds bitterly, and his cousin Mubarak al-Fadil al-Mahdi should be charged with corruption. Instead, Mubarak has escaped to Libya.

July 26 During the morning, Khartoum seems normally abnormal. Friends swap anecdotes about seven-hour waits for gasoline; the faculty club runs out of Pepsi and allows only a spoonful of sugar for each cup of tea; soldiers discipline a crowd pressed around a kiosk to buy cigarettes; and my taxi breaks down in a swirl of dust.

At lunch a law professor and a leading historian outline the measures that self-promoted General Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir has taken to control the country. He has annulled the constitution, banned all political parties,
unions and newspapers, and proclaimed himself president, prime minister and commander-in-chief. He has dissolved all non-religious associations, including the fledgling Sudanese Human Rights Organization. Some 80 politicians are in jail, held without charge — although Bashir threatens them with military court trials.

The 3 pm (radio) news: the junta announces that military courts will try cases of corruption, embezzlement and even illegal brewing of alcohol, using whatever laws the officers prefer. Bashir affirms Nimeiri’s September 1983 decrees that instituted a distorted version of shari‘a (Islamic law) and imposed penalties of amputation and flogging for minor crimes. The law professor winces: due process has vanished. (Three days later, constitutional decree number 3 consolidates all power in Bashir’s hands and gives him sweeping authority over the judiciary, including the right to appoint and dismiss every judge. That night a new military court issues its first verdict: a currency black-marketeer is sentenced to life imprisonment. The court session and sentencing
are broadcast live on TV.)

July 27 Why did the coup occur? Bashir claims that he launched the &ldquorevolution” because the politicians had failed to resolve the economic problems and to end the war in the south. He promises “merciless blows” to solve those problems and swears “there will never be a political party in Sudan from now on.” (Reuters, July 2) But he seems to have no program and no comprehension of how to attract popular support.

Bashir is a 45-year-old brigadier who led a paratroop brigade in Muglad, near the frontlines with the SPLA. Bashir trained as a paratrooper in Egypt in 1966, obtained his military degree from Malaysia, and fought on the Egyptian front against Israel in October 1973. He served as a military advisor on secondment to the United Arab Emirates from 1975 to 1979, where he met several people whom he included in his cabinet. Married but without children, Bashir comes from a village near Shendi, north of Khartoum. Some say that his brothers are active in the National Islamic Front (NIF). Bashir is said to be opinionated and cocky, always wanting to win an argument.

Bashir says he plotted a coup against Nimeiri in March 1985; others say that he was sent south in 1986 because he had plotted against the transitional government. In late June Bashir returned to Khartoum where he orchestrated the bloodless takeover. 175 paratroopers and a dozen tanks were enough to topple the government. No one resisted him since he claimed to seize power in the name of senior officers — but he then abruptly dismissed them.

The junta only organized one public rally. Despite exhortations on TV the night before, people here say, barely 4,000 came to Martyrs Square on July 11: a motley crowd of bussed-in government employees together with some NIF organizers and secret police. Ringed by troops, the rally demonstrated popular apathy, not support.

In its first month, the junta has fired more than 300 military officers, pensioned off some 200 police officers, and retired dozens of civil servants and diplomats. The 15 members of the Revolutionary Command Council and the 21 members of the partly-civilian cabinet have virtually no experience operating a bureaucracy. The public holds them at arm’s length, unwilling to assist them and thereby confer legitimacy upon their rule.

The only organized group willing to endorse Bashir is the NIF: some estimate that half of the command council members are close to the Islamic Front as are a majority of the cabinet. But the junta denies NIF involvement, recognizing that the public might then shift from apathy to active antagonism. And the NIF is willing to operate in the shadows, knowing that it could be risky to tie itself to this weak regime.

July 28 Friday lunch at the home of a leading economist. We are joined by a former minister, recently released from Kober prison. He describes the strange atmosphere there. The detainees must get up before 4 am for prayers and breakfast, so the days are long. Plenty of time for frank discussions among all the political trends, as well as reading books and watching TV. Sadiq al-Mahdi (who was captured a week after the coup) has his own room, but all the cell doors remain open.

Although NIF leader Hasan al-Turabi is in prison, he indicates his sympathy for the junta: we will back whoever retains shari‘a, whether or not they are democrats. Despite Bashir’s denunciation of the sectarian leaders, he has approached Mahdi and DUP leader Muhammad Osman al-Mirghani in jail, asking them to outline terms under which they could be released. Is he discovering that it was easy to seize power, but not so easy to rule? Will he dare haul the political leaders before military tribunals?

Nonetheless, the mood is anxious. We’re sitting ducks, the professor worries. They can pick us up at any time. (Two weeks later the former minister is back in jail. Arrested late at night at home, a day passed before his friends realized what had happened.)

The conversation shifts to the regime’s economic measures. Bashir is obsessed with combatting the black market, but his actions are simplistic in the extreme. The TV broadcasts police raids of warehouses holding allegedly hoarded goods. Soldiers force vendors to sell charcoal for the equivalent of $3 instead of $9: the next day the market is empty. Prices for cooking oil, macaroni and meat are similarly slashed, and these goods disappear from the shelves. Currency restrictions halt private sector imports, factories are barely functioning, and workers openly express discontent. Downtown Khartoum and the sprawling Omdurman suq (market) are deserted after 2 pm.

Even so, a brief attempt at a general strike collapsed when the deputy commissioner of Khartoum, Lt Col Yusif Abd al-Fatah, broadcast bluntly: “Those who wish to…widow their wives and render their children fatherless will only have to keep their stores shut, bakeries idle and vehicles hidden.” (Reuters, July 18) Slashing prices and denouncing profiteering merchants may be popular momentarily, but empty shelves and alienated businessmen will create a more profound public disapproval. Even brash Lt Col Yusif cannot find non-existent goods to sell.

July 29 Everyone I talk to agrees that the key problem remains the fighting in the south. The coup took place just as an accord between the government and the SPLA seemed to be falling into place. After months of procrastination and under pressure from the military high command fed up with fighting the unwinnable war, al-Mahdi finally began to implement the pre-conditions set by the SPLA. Parliament ended the state of emergency, cancelled the military pacts with Egypt and Libya, and suspended discussion of a new Islamic criminal law until the constitutional convention scheduled for September. On the eve of the coup, al-Mahdi initialed a ruling that annulled the use of hudud (Islamic punishments). A final round of peace talks was scheduled for July 4 — four days after the coup.

The NIF was the only political force that starkly opposed the accord with the SPLA and felt deeply threatened by peace based on a secular system. Bashir’s pronouncements echo NIF views: prior accords with the SPLA must be scrapped; a referendum must be held on the application of Islamic law; and amnesty can be offered to “the rebels” who took up arms. Bashir calls for negotiations without preconditions, while seeking unity with Egypt and Libya, and he reaffirms the military ties with Cairo. Those views are anathema to the SPLA, which is bitter that months of painful negotiations have been undermined. Nonetheless, Garang is not in a hurry. The SPLA controls the ground and he knows that the northern officer corps has been decimated. He can afford to wait for the junta to meet his terms or let the situation ripen in his favor.

July 30 A southern Sudanese professor exclaims: Why is Egypt only concerned about Sudan in relation to its own security? Why doesn’t Cairo accept Sudan’s autonomy and uniqueness?

Sudanese-Egyptian ties and tensions date back to the 19th century. Cairo’s longstanding acrimony with the Mahdi family revived when Egypt granted asylum to Nimeiri in 1985. Irritation peaked when Nimeiri claimed in June that he was plotting a coup and would soon return home. Egyptian President Husni Mubarak greeted Bashir’s coup with obvious relief, and the Egyptian press trumpeted the “national character” of the Sudanese armed forces, above partisan wrangling.

By now reports from Cairo are more circumspect: the cashiering of senior officers startled Egypt; the involvement of pro-shari‘a NIF is disconcerting; politicians who support Egypt remain in jail; Bashir rejects the carefully crafted accord with the SPLA; and the junta’s lack of popular backing is glaringly evident. Moreover, European and Arab governments are cool toward the junta, and Washington is minimizing its contact. Egypt feels uncomfortable as the only country supporting Bashir.

July 31 A cool glass of lemonade in the evening beside the Nile. The flood is approaching and people expect rain any day. My friends recall the bloody crackdown by Nimeiri in July 1971: politicians who were executed and professors who fled the country until political rights were restored in 1985. They reflect on the mood in March 1985, when fear of arrest did not deter their efforts to topple Nimeiri’s 16 years of rule. And the mood a month later, when the uprising swept one of them into a ministerial post and another into a leading position in the faculty union.

I recall some of the questions people have been raising over the previous few days. Will the junta widen its bases of support beyond a narrow clique of NIF and military officers? If not, will passive resistance suffice to topple the regime? There are already rumors of splits within the junta over shari‘a and economic policies. Some maintain that a countercoup will occur within months: they talk of an emerging coalition of dismissed officers, professionals and clean politicians that would convene the planned constitutional conference and end the war in the south. Is that wishful thinking? People are bracing themselves for a difficult — and potentially bloody — struggle before public freedoms can be restored.

Tomorrow, eight union leaders are delivering a protest to the junta against the closure of the unions’ premises and the denial of the right to organize. They include leaders of the bar association as well as doctors, bankers and professors.

Already several intellectuals have been detained. Dr. Mom K.N. Arou, lecturer in politics at the University of Khartoum, was arrested and held for a week. Ushari Ahmed Mahmud, author of a study on Arab tribal attacks on Dinka refugees, is in jail, along with long-time activist intellectual Khalid Akid. The rumor spread today that three engineering professors were just arrested, a step that could portend a purge of the universities.

I will fly out of Khartoum in the morning, but the union leader will be in jail within days. One moment we discuss his plans for a sabbatical in the US and the cost of housing in New York. A minute later he comments that he must pack a small bag of clothes in case he is arrested that night.

How to cite this article:

Ann Lesch "Khartoum Diary," Middle East Report 161 (November/December 1989).
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