THE young government security agent sat in the hotel lobby, trying not to be too obvious as he watched people come and go and eavesdropped on conversations. Such agents have been assigned to many hotels and other public places around this decaying capital city. Nearly 16 months after a predawn coup in June l989, Sudan's military regime has seen initial public enthusiasm turn to disillusionment and opposition.
``People thought this regime would be much better'' than the previous democratic government led by Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, says one Sudanese here. Many had grown disillusioned with Mr. Mahdi's failure to end the civil war in the south and to mend the deteriorating economy.
But critics of the regime say that peace seems more distant today and the economy has slipped even further. And many Sudanese are upset by the regime's use of torture and execution against suspected opponents.
``This is the worst government we've had,'' says another Sudanese, who also asked not to be named. A Western diplomat here says, ``I don't think it [Sudan's military government] is stable.''
In an effort to turn the tide in the civil war, the regime bombed rebel-held southern towns again in August and September. In the past, the government has denied bombing towns in the south. Asked if the government had carried out the bombings, Col. Mohammed el-Amain Khalifa, a member of the military junta, said ``Yes; anyhow, we are asking for a cease-fire now.''
Most analysts say the war is at a stalemate. Western and Middle Eastern diplomats and Sudanese sources say that Sudan's military regime faces increasing threats on a number of fronts.
Exiled leaders of political parties banned by the military, many formerly in the government, have met several times with the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and reaffirmed their commitment to ending the civil war. They have agreed on the need for a constitutional conference involving all segments of Sudanese society to set up a unified government.
Egypt, Sudan's powerful neighbor to the north, accuses the military of aiming missiles obtained from Iraq at Egypt's strategic Aswan Dam. Sudan strongly denies the allegation. Sudan and Egypt split over the Gulf crisis, with Egypt sending troops to Saudi Arabia and Sudan condemning the presence of outside troops.
There were unconfirmed reports that Egypt had been supporting a coup to overthrow former Prime Minister Mahdi. And Egypt has long been close to some of the factions that now oppose Sudan's military government.
On April 24, the government executed 28 Army officers one day after the government announced it had foiled an attempted coup. (The military may have used the pretext of a coup attempt to eliminate suspected opponents, SPLA officials say.) The government said it put down another attempted military coup in September.
UP to 9 million Sudanese face starvation next year. If they start food riots, the regime could be threatened.
``If the crisis becomes more severe, they will be faced with an explosion: Starving people could come to the street. People could revolt,'' says a Middle Eastern diplomat here.
Sudan's intellectuals ``are desperately embarrassed by the torture and execution'' this regime uses against its suspected opponents, says an international official working in Sudan. Another international official working in northern Sudan says villagers were upset by the executions of the Army officers in April. Such reactions drain potential support from the regime.
The government has consistently denied human rights abuses, admitting only the possibility of some instances of excessive force by individual officers. But Amnesty International and Africa Watch, human rights monitoring groups, have compiled long lists of alleged torture, detention, executions, and harsh prison conditions for prisoners and detainees in Sudan.
According to Amnesty, a letter smuggled this year from Shalla Prison in western Sudan said: ``A whole day would pass without detainees receiving a single drop of water. With the steaming desert heat, dirty clothes and bodies, swarms of flies, and stench from open sewers in the prison, the place became truly hazardous to health and to life.'' Detainees thought to be in Shalla include human rights activist Ushari Ahmed Mahmud.
Sudanese sources told the Monitor that treatment of prisoners appears to have improved somewhat since the strong Sudanese revulsion over the death earlier this year, allegedly under torture, of Ali Fadul, a medical doctor accused of helping organize a doctors' strike last year. The government says he died of malaria, but refused to show the body to the family.
Amnesty estimates that there are at least 250 political detainees in Sudan. A Sudanese source estimates 400. Amnesty has received reports of the rebel SPLA killing hundreds of prisoners, including soldiers, suspected informers, and militia. In western Sudan, thousands of people have also died in tribal conflicts between militias armed by the government to fight the rebels, Amnesty says.