"Gamil, gamil giddan [very pretty]," chortled a Sudanese driver as he steered his Toyota pickup on Khartoum's busy streets. "Nimeiri has opened up the country to you Americans now. Very pretty."
Ever since President Nimeiri announced bold new measures several weeks ago, reestablishing full relations with Egypt and hinting he would offer the US facilities in Sudan, Khartoum has been buzzing with interpretations of what it all means.
The President himself has had second thoughts. Several days after telling reporters he would be amenable to granting the US facilities (the Sudanese headlines had said "bases"), he had another journalist working for a Western news agency hastily summoned to his offices, where he read a statement saying he had been misquoted, and opposed any foreign presence in Sudan.
"Did he really say that about facilities?" one of the President's close advisers asked, aghast, after that first report came out.
"No, he wouldn't say that," he concluded, "it would get him into all sorts of trouble."
And it did. Libya proposed expelling Sudan from the Arab League and the nonaligned movement. A Kuwaiti newspaper and the Libyan-backed as-Safa in Beirut also attacked President Nimeiri.
But political analysts in Khartoum believe the Sudanese leader meant what he said, despite his later apparent backpedalling. Now more than ever, President Nimeiri feels threatened by the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar Gaddafi. High-level Sudanese sources say that the Libyan People's Bureau (embassy) in Sudan has been funneling more than $2 million into its account in Khartoum, presumably to encourage subversive activities.
The Sudanese Army, hampered by poor communications and aging equipment, has only a tenuous hold on the outlying provinces.
The Libyans enjoy the support of the Ansar religious sect. In 1976, with Libyan help, an Ansar uprising almost toppled the Nimeiri government.
The only way to stop the Soviet "cancer," President Nimeiri believes, is to counter it with a Western presence.
The warming of relations between Egypt and Sudan is also part of the new pro-Western line. In the complicated system of measures and balances in the Arab world, the removal of Egypt has sent the scales awry, with Soviet-backed Arab states pulling more weight. By restoring Egypt to the Arabs, believes Field Marshal Nimeiri, he will restore the balance.
For the Sudanese leader, however, heading West entails serious risks. President Nimeiri has managed so far to stay in power by a policy of national reconciliation with various domestic opponents. Many in Sudan still want their country to remain unaligned.
A new relationship with the Americans complicates Sudan's newly improved ties with Soviet-backed Ethiopia, whose relations with both Egypt and the US are cool.
As for the other Arabs, here again Nimeiri must tread carefully. Sudan is heavily dependent on Saudi and OPEC funds, and cannot risk a serious policy clash.
When it was suggested to one Sudanese editor that now would be a good time for an interview with Sadat he replied, "It would not be a good thing for my paper."
"Nimeiri feels he needs to draw closer to the Egyptians now," says a Sudanese intellectual, "but he knows he can't play that card too far."
In spite of the risks, however, with a faltering economy and weak Army, President Nimeiri now feels he has to choose sides.