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Date: Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Regime talks with the opposition and divided world reactions are increasing the ambiguity of the Sudan impasse, writes Haitham Nouri

Sudan in a tight spot
 Sudan in a tight spot

Wednesday,20 March, 2019

Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir is taking steps unprecedented in his 30-year rule — the longest in Sudan’s modern history — as world reactions vary between support for and opposition to the Khartoum regime.

On 8 March, as the world celebrated International Women’s Day, Al-Bashir ordered “the release of all women” arrested in demonstrations that have swept the country since 19 December 2018. Thirty-eight women were released, while opposition activists say the number of detained women amounts to 150, according to Waddah Taber Al-Amin, the secretary-general of the Arab Coalition for Sudan.

Among those released are leaders in the ranks of the Sudanese Communist Party, No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, as well as political activists and rights advocates from various groups.

The presidential statement announcing the release of women activists was released  8 March, yet made no mention of the international occasion.

Sudanese writer Azaz Shami said, “Under Al-Bashir we had 30 International Women’s Days and on the occasion of none had he ever released Sudanese women from his jails. Throughout his reign, thousands of women and girls under 18 years of age were sentenced to lashes and jail for breaking the dress code enforced by the Islamist government” led by Al-Bashir.

The Sudan government applies a strict version of Islamic Sharia, targeting scores of women in the process.

The following day, on 9 March, nine women activists were sentenced to 20 lashes and a month in jail for participating in the “unauthorised” protests against Al-Bashir, said the Democratic Alliance of Lawyers, part of the Sudanese Professionals’ Association, the main organiser of the protests.

The alliance added that more than 800 demonstrators were tried in emergency courts.

“Before the secession of the south, the regime’s jails had 8,000 women and girls from South Sudan between their walls. They were accused of wearing short clothes and making alcoholic drinks, which are not religiously forbidden to them,” said Shami.

The application of Islamic Sharia is one of the prime reasons for the secession of South Sudan in July 2011, besides the maldistribution of revenues from oil, produced mainly in the south.

Meanwhile, a number of Sudanese women activists announced the “White March” initiative, inviting Sudanese women to wear traditional garments in white during the month of March, especially at protests. The initiative didn’t receive the approval of many female activists who saw in the initiative “a reproduction of the centrality of Arab identity and an exclusion of the other components of Sudan”.

Sudan is one of the Arab and African worlds’ most diverse nations, and Sudanese women wear an amalgam of brightly coloured dresses.

The toub, or Sudanese traditional dress, is an Arabic icon that originated in the middle of the country. In time, the toub became the dress of educated women, even those residing in the far corners of the country.

On the same day the 38 women activists were released, Al-Bashir ordered the government to revise the agreement of transferring the operation and management of the Port Sudan Container Terminal on the Red Sea to a company from the Philippines after port workers organised strikes in rejection of the deal.

In July 2018, the state-owned Maritime Ports Authority declared the Philippine company International Container Terminal Services Inc as the preferred bidder to operate, manage and develop the South Port Container Terminal in Port Sudan under a 20-year concession.

The strikers demanded the cancellation of the contract for fear of losing their jobs. They continued to strike despite Prime Minister Mohamed Tahir Eila’s visit to the port to discuss the issue with the workers.

“This is not the first time in Al-Bashir’s rule that workers strike. The majority of sectors organised protests and strikes to which the authorities didn’t respond,” said Shami. “This is how dictators act when their regimes are about to collapse. They try to trick the people into believing they will comply to their demands.”

The Wall Street Journal published a report late last week on the position of Arab and Western countries regarding Al-Bashir’s regime. European countries are not seeking to topple Al-Bashir, hoping he will help them with issues of illegal immigration and fighting terrorism, a high-ranking Western diplomat in Khartoum told the paper.

Al-Bashir’s government had been on the US list of countries sponsoring terrorism since the mid-1990s during the tenure of former US president Bill Clinton. Sanctions were lifted a year ago by President Donald Trump.

Khartoum had high hopes the lifting of US sanctions would attract Arab and Western investment to help it out of its economic crunch, which was exacerbated after the independence of oil-rich South Sudan.

Sudan lost 60 per cent of its foreign currency revenues since 2011, resulting in Khartoum’s inability to import fuel, medicine and 60 per cent of the country’s needs of wheat.

The country has been witnessing near-daily protests against Al-Bashir and his regime for three months as a result of price hikes and shortage in cash liquidity. The demonstrations soon turned into Al-Bashir’s most challenging test since his ascent to power following a military coup supported by Islamists led by Hassan Al-Turabi in 1989.

The unnamed Western diplomat told the Wall Street Journal that Arab countries refuse to continue to support Al-Bashir because they didn’t make political gains in return for their investments. Consequently, they were not ready to spend more money in that direction, he said.

The newspaper cited the incident where Saudi Arabia rushed to the aid of Jordan that was in a tight economic situation a few months ago. Other Gulf countries, said the Wall Street Journal, followed in the kingdom’s footsteps. The same didn’t happen with Sudan.

“It may be that Arab countries are not certain how far Al-Bashir’s regime will hold. They don’t want to support a government that will fall by popular rage,” said Shami. Meanwhile, “Sudan’s African and Arab neighbours are worried about the exacerbation of violence in the country,” particularly with the spread of weaponry in conflicts such as the civil war in Darfur in the west and the Nuba Mountains and the Blue Nile in the south.

“With the semi-daily protests and doubts circulating around Al-Bashir’s ability to stand his ground, the Sudan regime is conducting talks with opposition leaders, such as Al-Sadek Al-Mahdi, with the aim of extracting the government out of this impasse,” added Shami.

Head of the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Service Salah Qosh is engaged in dialogue with Al-Mahdi, leader of the National Umma Party, and Omar Al-Dagir, head of the National Congress Party. Other party leaders are willing to meet Al-Bashir to discuss the crisis.

Despite a lack of clarity in opposition leaders’ demands, many observers believe the regime is only manoeuvring to surmount the current impasse.

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