EL DAEIN, SUDAN — MORE than a thousand spears glint in the hard sunlight, as chanting Arab warriors astride horse and camel surround the airstrip to meet Sudan's President Lt. Gen. Umar Hassan al-Bashir.
The general steps from his plane and for 20 minutes makes his way past the noisy crowd, stirring enthusiasm. The stink of sweaty saddle leather and dust is heavy in the air. Until last year these warriors fought with spears and AK-47 rifles in a bloody tribal war against black Africans in Western Darfur Province.
For President Bashir, a previously unknown mid-ranking Army officer who overthrew Sudan's last elected government in June 1989, this Arab admiration is a pleasant momentary distraction. Sudan earned international isolation after backing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, its economy is in severe crisis, and Khartoum is currently waging a "final offensive" against the mostly Christian rebels in the south.
Bashir told the Monitor in a rare interview that "achieving peace" was his most important goal. But it is clear that his idea of peace is military victory over the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) - which has been fighting against the imposition of Islamic law over southern Sudan for nine years.
The offensive is thought to be a move by the regime to take advantage of a split within SPLA ranks that surfaced last August. The heavy attack, which began March 8, is primarily directed at Col. John Garang's side of the SPLA, not the breakaway faction led by Commander Riek Machar. Rebel sources from both factions based in Nairobi, Kenya, confirm that fighting is heavy in the towns of Pochala and Kapoeta in southern Sudan.
The president has decreed Sudan's adherence to a "new democracy" for both north and south Sudan. He says his government, a complex system of layered popular committees and councils, will "allow the people the chance to participate in power" and "revive hopes and expectations of God's blessings."
Bashir says this new political system - supposedly tailor-made for Sudan's diverse cultural needs - will be complete within two years, followed by direct presidential elections. Western diplomats, however, doubt that the "democratic" process is little more than a facade for the military and fundamentalist Muslims to consolidate their power.
"Sudan has known this vicious cycle of multiparty democracy followed by a military regime three times," the president says. "Now there is a widespread conviction among Sudanese that Western-style democracy has failed here."
Bashir's latest move has been to create a 300-member Transitional National Assembly which he recently opened in the "People's Hall."
Though he admits that all assembly members were hand-picked by his ruling Revolutionary Command Council of National Salvation, and that a majority are fundamentalist Muslims, he says the assembly members "are all citizens who have been subject to all forms of academic, professional, social, and political elections." They have been given "immunity, without interference from the government, to speak their minds."
But critics who have suffered most under Bashir's half dozen security agencies take a different view.
"There has never been as much fear here as there is now," laments one Muslim man who is not among the protected wealthy Islamic elite. "People are waiting for someone - anyone - to take them from the fire."
That person could, in time, be Sadiq al-Mahdi, the elected prime minister who was ousted in 1989 and now is the strongest opponent of the Bashir regime. Jailed for many months after his overthrow, Mr. al-Mahdi is now followed everywhere he goes and can't leave Khartoum.
"This regime is even worse, from a democratic point of view, than other military dictatorships," he told the Monitor. "They say we will elect a new assembly, but when you know of the security forces and intimidation, you know they will weed out all opposing views. Because there are no longer any human rights here, you can ensure that this assembly will sing one tune.
"The problem for this regime is not foreign isolation, but internally having to keep their own people at bay," he says.