Sudan may divert from Islamic path after coup

President Omar el-Bashir dissolved parliament on Dec. 12, declaring a

People know one thing about Hassan al-Turabi, perhaps the only thing that matters: that the aging Islamic cleric labored for a decade to turn Sudan into a fundamentalist state - and succeeded.

Today Islamic law prevails over much of the Muslim north. With the possible exception of Libya, the government in Khartoum enjoys closer relations with Iraq than with any of its nine African neighbors. For the past 10 years, observers say, more effort has gone into spreading radical Islamic fundamentalism throughout Eastern Africa and the Middle East than into containing Sudan's raging civil war.

But a change may be in the works.

In the latest chapter of an ongoing power struggle between Turabi and President Omar el-Bashir, on Dec. 12 the president dissolved parliament and declared a three-month state of emergency.

"Two captains leading one ship will cause it to sink," President Bashir told reporters in the capital, Khartoum, the next day. "This country needed one leader to steer it.... It did not need political quarrels."

The streets were reported mainly deserted, with troops loyal to Mr. Bashir reportedly guarding entrances to the parliament building and key positions in the city.

Bashir, a former lieutenant general in the Sudanese armed forces, became president following a 1989 military coup sponsored by Turabi, who for a long time was the power behind the throne - one too shrewd and calculating to trade unaccountability for visibility. For the past year, the two have been at odds as many of the president's powers were transferred to Turabi, the speaker of parliament. The president's latest move preempted a political maneuver to reduce his powers further. It strips Turabi of institutional authority, but does little to check his clout as secretary-general of the ruling National Congress Party, until recently known as the National Islamic Front.

Still, analysts say it opens a window of opportunity that might soften Sudan's aggressive brand of Islam, and lend new vigor to a decade-old effort by African nations in the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to broker a peace deal between Khartoum and rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. The 16-year old conflict, which broadly pits the Muslim north against the Christian and animist south, has claimed an estimated 2 million lives through war, displacement, and deliberate starvation of civilian populations in the south.

"A new Bashir government would probably be more inclined to negotiate," says Salih Booker, senior fellow for Africa at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "It would be a positive step for the peace process, a more committed return on the part of the government to the IGAD negotiations."

In recent months, Bashir has given proof of his willingness to put an end to Sudan's isolation. He has signed reconciliatory agreements with Ethiopia and Eritrea, both of which long regarded Khartoum as a sponsor of their dissidents. Last week, Bashir met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni under the auspices of the Jimmy Carter Foundation. Bashir essentially acknowledged the threat posed to Uganda by rebels operating on Sudanese soil and pledged to deny them further support.

Bashir was to travel to Cairo this month for a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who narrowly escaped an assassination attempt by Sudanese fundamentalists in 1995.

The first endorsement Bashir received after imposing the state of emergency came from Mr. Mubarak. Other African countries have been more cautious in expressing support for what effectively amounts to a coup d'tat - the only peculiarity being that it was carried out by a sitting president.

The United States, which lists Sudan as a sponsor of international terrorism and has worked hard to isolate its government, was also guarded. "It's unclear what the implications will be, if any, for Sudan's own policy and its relationship with the United States," says a US government official. "We are just watching the situation." According to a Nairobi-based diplomat, if Bashir succeeds in marginalizing Turabi and emerges as a genuinely moderate force within the ruling party, the US will have "gained a point of entry into Sudanese politics" that neither its embargo nor its campaign of isolation managed to secure.

THE question, analysts say, is whether Bashir has the means to wrest power away from Turabi. Although he professes to have the full support of the Army, Bashir knows from experience that the Sudanese armed forces cannot always be relied upon. After the bloodless 1989 coup that brought him to power, Bashir faced four coup attempts in the following six months alone.

Turabi, meanwhile, can rely on the loyalty of several key officers he maneuvered to the top ranks and has built up a paramilitary structure of disparate militias. Their size and strength have yet to be accurately assessed.

"Both of them have supporters who are under arms," says Africa expert Mr. Booker. "But regardless of Turabi's own capacity to challenge Bashir militarily, Bashir needs a period of time to reassert his authority within the National Congress party." Theoretically, Bashir has only the three-month state of emergency, after which he will be under pressure to call parliamentary elections. For the moment, the only criticism from ordinary citizens has been that the state of emergency was long overdue.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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