Sudan's new military leaders face familiar problems

The jubilant popular reaction to the overthrow of President Jafaar Nimeiry is beginning to subside here. In its wake, three overriding facts stand out.

The first is the depth and intensity of public dislike of the man who had led the country for almost 16 years.

``Nimeiry, the butcher, is finished,'' bellowed one of the thousands of exuberant Sudanese who poured into the streets after the coup. ``He's finished; the country belongs to the people.''

``Nimeiry, he's nothing,'' spat a student. ``Let him sell lemons.''

But the second fact is that the Sudanese people's predicament remains largely unchanged by the switch in regimes. Life may be returning to normal, but the people still face famine and refugee crises that threaten the lives of millions, a collapsing economy, a $9 billion foreign debt, and the possibility of continued civil war.

The third fact is that, confronted by this array of challenges, the new government under Gen. Abdel-Rahman Swareddahab is insinuating cautiously that Sudan will seek to improve relations with two of its more radical neighbors, Libya and Ethiopia. Libya was the first country to recognize the new government and warned other outside powers not to interfere.

The Swareddahab government has reassured the United States, its largest supplier of aid, and Egypt that it will continue the former regime's pro-Western policies. But it would hardly be surprising if the new rulers also tried to soothe previously antagonistic relations with Libya and Ethiopia.

Amid the euphoria at Mr. Nimeiry's ouster, some of the slogans being shouted on the streets here had an anti-American, anti-Western theme.

``Down, down, USA,'' was one such slogan. ``International bank, we have suffered enough; we don't need you,'' was another, referring to the International Monetary Fund's attempt to draw Sudan out of its economic morass through austerity.

On discovering an American journalist in their midst, however, the members of the crowd said almost apologetically that such condemnations were not directed at the American people but only ``those governments which supported the Nimeiry regime.''

The new military leadership, according to recent government communiqu'es, recognizes Sudan's severe economic predicament and the country's regional problems. Referring to last weekend's coup as a ``popular revolution,'' it has called for a democratic transitional administration. This is said to include political participation, freedom of religion, an independent judiciary, and a solution to the civil war in the south over the question of local autonomy.

[Reuters reported that the rebels in the south called Tuesday for the new military rulers to resign within seven days or face renewed rebellion. And Khartoum's new administrator imposed a ban on protest demonstrations Tuesday and banned all political gatherings without a permit.]

Sudan's high command announced that all political detainees throughout the country would be released, and had begun to release them. It also began arresting ministers and other high officials of the former regime.

``Now comes the real challenge,'' said Mohamed Bashir, professor of politics at Khartoum University. ``Destroying the regime was not as difficult as we thought. Now the professional politicians must get together and make the national charter work.'' Whether this is possible is still unclear.

Statements of support for the new regime have come from Sadiq al-Mahdi -- the former prime minister who is the current chief of the Ansar religious movement -- as well as from the coalition of workers, professionals, and students now known as the ``spring movement.''

But this fanfare has been tempered by fears that the new junta would not promote real political change.

Said a spokesman for the Khartoum University faculty association: ``We just rid ourselves of a military government. We will not accept another.''

Various Sudanese political parties and unions have called for an immediate return to civilian rule. ``We have not fought for a continuation of a military regime,'' said a representative of a trade unions group that includes at least 45 professional unions and political parties.

The new military leadership had already agreed to such union demands as the dissolution of the security police. But its approach remains cautious.

At time of writing, Sudan's airspace and borders remained closed.

For several days last week, rumors had abounded that Saturday would be the decisive day. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, people began trickling into the capital from the outlying areas.

Protests and strikes had been gaining momentum for more than a week. Angered by rising prices, government misrule, and other factors, first the students, then the doctors -- followed by lawyers, engineers, and other professionals -- came out demanding Nimeiry's resignation. By late last week, Sudan was in the grip of a general strike and cut off from the outside world.

The riot-helmeted police, with their long, wooden batons, and the armed soldiers patrolling the streets, had been performing their duties with restraint, if not reluctance during the daily disturbances. Only the dreaded plainclothes state security police launched repeated forays against the dissidents, hitting them with the butts of their rifles or hauling them off to jail.

Hundreds of antigovernment protesters, possibly several thousand, are believed to have been arrested and at least eight persons shot dead during this period. Journalists were harassed and even beaten for trying to report the demonstrations.

But when the day of the putsch finally came, Khartoum was eerily quiet. During the early hours of the morning, the military and police blocked roads leading to the city. They surrounded the headquarters of the state security police, whose estimated 5,000 hardcore members plus more than 30,000 informers were considered to be staunch supporters of Nimeiry.

Shortly after nine o'clock, however, Radio Omdurman announced that the military high command had over-thrown the regime in response to the wishes of the Sudanese people.

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