While the United States is reacting cautiously to the military coup in Sudan, diplomatic observers suggest that the overthrow of President Nimeiry may lead to better management of that impoverished and turbulent country. Many factors played a part in the coup, which took place Saturday as Mr. Nimeiry was in Cairo en route home from a visit to the US. Diplomatic experts say those factors include:
Public anger over cuts in subsidies on food and other essentials, which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) required as the condition for aid.
The rebellion in the non-Muslim southern provinces.
Nimeiry's ``Islamization'' of the country, followed recently by a nationwide crackdown on the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood -- erratic policies that alienated all groups.
Rising economic pressures caused by regional drought and the influx of thousands of refugees from neighboring Ethiopia, Chad, and Uganda.
Popular opposition to Nimeiry grew steadily over the years as he became increasingly unpredictable, especially after a religious conversion. There have been various coup attempts. Whether the present one -- virtually bloodless -- sticks is too early to tell, say experts. The new government will likely be a holding operation.
The President was ousted by the commander of the armed forces, Gen. Abdul-Rahman Sawerddahab. A longtime top aid of Nimeiry, General Sawerddahab has declared a state of emergency, but he promises to relinquish power to civilians within six months. He also has pledged political, economic, and social reforms and said that he will guarantee freedom of the press, political organizations, and religions and open a ``direct dialogue'' with the southern rebels.
Middle East experts say they believe the coup is potentially a good move. General Sawerddahab is viewed as apolitical, and some charges that Libya was involved appear to be unfounded.
``It is significant that this was carried out by the senior army staff and not the junior staff or by the mobs,'' says Helen Kitchen, director of African Studies at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. ``This could be a good thing for Sudan, depending on who takes over civilian rule, because Nimeiry has been very unpredicable in the past year.''
``Nimeiry over the past 10 years has been a disaster,'' says William Quandt of the Brookings Institution. ``Things can't get much worse, but can they get better? The country has formidable problems.''
The most encouraging sign, say diplomatic observers, is that the southern rebel leader was in touch with the Army command before the coup. This suggests that Sawerddahab is serious about seeking a solution of the north-south problem. Nimeiry in 1972 negotiated an end to the civil war by promising autonomy for the southerners, who are anamist or Christian. But later he reneged on the agreement, dividing the south into three provinces and later imposing Islamic law.
For the Reagan administration, the coup is something of an embarrassment. Nimeiry was just returning from Washington, D.C., where he was received by President Reagan. Signaling support for Sudan's austerity moves, the administration released $67 million in US aid for Sudan while Nimeiry was here.
Administration officials are still watching the situation and awaiting clarification. But they say that the aid will go forward and that recognition is not an issue because the US has relations with the Sudanese government not with a particular leader. ``If the new group consolidates power I presume we will do business with them,'' says a State Department official.
What happens in Sudan is important to the US for strategic and political reasons. Sudan is one of five countries in Africa that the US military's rapid deployment force counts on for access to the Middle East and South Asia in case of need. (The others are Egypt, Kenya, Somalia, and Morocco.) Last year, Nimeiry permitted US forces to hold joint military exercises in Sudan's vast and empty desert areas.
Sudan, which borders Soviet-backed Ethiopia on the east and Chad, the Central African Republic, and anti-Western Libya to the west, is also important because the Nile River is crucial to Egypt and Egypt is crucial to the US. American sympathy for Sudan grew, especially after Nimeiry supported the Camp David accords and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Sudan was the only Arab state to support the agreements.
Yet internal opposition to Nimeiry dates back to the Camp David accords, which are not popular with the Sudanese. Letting the Falasha, the Ethiopian Jews, transit through Sudan on the way to Israel recently was also resented.
``Nimeiry has not been a widely respected leader for a long time and that goes back to his support for Camp David,'' says Hermann Eilts, former US ambassador to Egypt.
Given Sudan's economic woes, a quick return to civilian leadership may prove difficult, say experts.
Putting Sudan's economic house in order is problematic.
The IMF and the US have pressed for changes in economy policy. Yet the austerity measures, including devaluation of the pound, led to public demonstrations -- and a political coup.
Discovery of a major oil reserve in Sudan holds out promise for the future.
But the field is in the south, and rather than build a refinery there, as the southerners would like, the government arranged with Chevron to carry oil through a pipeline to the Red Sea for export. This has compounded unrest in the south.