AMERICAN concern over the ``military protocol'' signed recently between Libya and the Sudan is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the new Sudanese government's priorities. American administrations have traditionally fallen into the trap of viewing events in other regions as manifestations of American-Soviet rivalry, and once again critical domestic issues are being overlooked. If the new Sudanese regime is going to survive -- much less preside over the establishment of the new democratic government it has promised -- it has a single top priority in the coming weeks: It must end the civil war in southern Sudan by bringing rebel leader John Garang (an Iowa State PhD in economics) to negotiations, which he is still publicly refusing. This goal cannot be accomplished as long as Libya and Ethiopia continue to aid Dr. Garang's movement.
Without a solution to the southern conflict in the next few months, it will be impossible for the Sudan to begin to address its devastated economy. The only thing that makes the Sudan creditworthy in the short to medium term is the promise of oil production, and all production activities were halted in 1984 because of rebel attacks on facilities and foreign petroleum workers. Without the promise of oil revenues -- or at least self-sufficiency -- the Sudan's economic situation will remain desperate: the government unable to qualify for IMF or other external loans because of debt-service arrears and dropping standards of living (especially in the cities). To begin to salvage the economy and meet demands for a new democratic system, oil production efforts must be restarted. Oil production cannot be carried on unless rebel attacks on facilities are ended, and this will not occur until a settlement is secured with Garang.
The Sudanese experienced 17 years of civil war between 1955 and 1972, and, as in the first round of the civil war, it is clear that the current insurrection will not be settled by military victory for either side. Negotiations are essential and are probably being conducted secretly, through intermediaries, at this time. (Garang himself is likely to insist on secrecy because, if he tips his hand too early, many of his men may desert in the expectation that the war is about to end anyway.) Garang's positi on is strong at the moment, and he certainly wants to keep it that way until a settlement is reached: The government desperately needs to end the war; he probably still has supplies from past Libyan and Ethiopian aid; and he still has bases available in Ethiopia, just across the border. This is undoubtedly the reason for Garang's recent reported move north into Kordofan Province. He wants to be in the strongest possible position in the final stages of negotiation, and he knows that the government's rapproch ement with Libya and Ethiopia may soon cut off his aid from these quarters.
The fundamental reason, therefore, for the Sudanese government's new bonds with Libya has nothing to do with East-West rivalry and everything to do with Gen. Abdel Swaraddahab's need to cut off Garang's external support at the roots. If Libya and Ethiopia end their aid to Garang, no adjacent state would be willing or able to aid the insurgency as effectively. He will be compelled to negotiate.
As far as the military protocol is concerned, it was probably insisted upon by Libya. Although the Sudan has traditionally sought good relations with all its neighbors, both sides are aware that there were mercurial bilateral relations during the Nimeiry regime. On several occasions expressions of Libyan-Sudanese fraternal affection were mere faades of more hostile interaction. Libya wants to make sure that it has a secure relationship with the Sudanese government before it cuts off Garang, who is Qadda fi's trump card in dealing with Khartoum these days. Ethiopia has every reason to develop strong links with the new Sudanese government. For more than 20 years the Sudan and Ethiopia have, from time to time, held each other in a mutual hostage situation by aiding the other's rebel movements. Ethiopia has as much interest in ending Sudanese support of the Eritreans (or at least acceptance of foreign support for their moving across Sudanese territory) as the Sudan has in ending Ethiopian support of Garang.
It would be premature, even foolhardy, to misinterpret Sudanese-Libyan rapprochement as a move against Egypt and the United States. Limited aid to the Sudan at this point would only tip the scales against the possibility of democratic reform in Khartoum. Egypt has long, historical ties with the Sudan, and General Swaraddahab is from a strongly pro-Egypt background. No relationship with Libya could ever approach the historical intimacy of Sudanese-Egyptian ties, and the Egyptians know that. President Mu barak may not like his Libyan enemies' new links with the Sudan, but he surely understands the urgent necessity of ending the Sudanese civil war by cutting off Libyan and Ethiopian aid to southern rebels.
How should the US react? That depends on what the US wants to happen in the Sudan. If Washington wants the new regime to survive and be able to implant the promised democratic system, if American policymakers do not want to push the Sudanese closer to Libya (or the Soviet Union) than the generals want it to be, then there needs to be greater insight in Washington than there is at present into the Sudanese priority of ending the war in the south and cutting off Libyan and Ethiopian aid to the rebels. If the civil war does not come to an end within a year, the present government in Khartoum almost certainly will. No economic progress will be made, strikes and unrest will rise, and the generals will be unable to meet the economic and political demands of the strikes and will either have to clamp down oppressively or give in to political and economic changes that the Sudan simply cannot handle at this critical phase. Democracy has not had a promising history in the Sudan, having failed twice (1958 and 1969) b ecause of the parties' inability to stop petty bickering and work on national priorities instead of personal ones. A democratic government established before the economy begins a turnaround would not last more than a few months, and the officers who toppled it this time might not be the relatively conservative generals who are now running the country. The US may not like what is happening between the Sudan and Libya these days, but for the sake of its own long-term interests in the region, if not those of its Egyptian allies and the Sudanese themselves, the Reagan administration should stand by Sudanese efforts to end the civil war and understand that the Sudanese-Libyan agreement is neither a slap in the face of the West nor a move toward alignment with the Soviet Union.
Sally Ann Baynard is an associate research scientist at Foreign Area Studies, American University.