SUDAN NEWS & VIEWS

Issue No 20 July 1996
'Sudan News & Views' is an independent electronic Newsletter working to advocate peace, human rights and humanitarian aid for the Sudan.
Editor: Dr. Yasin Miheisi
  • Distribution is free of charge.
  • Reposting and reproduction are allowed (with acknowledgement).
  • Comments and Subscription Requests To: yasin@dircon.co.uk

In this issue:

EDITOR'S NOTE

Our guest writer for this issue is Dr. Muhammad Mahmoud, a former lecturer in the Faculty of Arts, University of Khartoum and is currently on the teaching staff of the Oriental Institute, University of Oxford. He is a founding member of Sudan Human Rights Organization and is currently on its Council. In Sudan, he was involved in the rehabilitation work of sharia victims (a sad legacy of the implementation of the Islamic penal code that about two hundred citizens were physically maimed and psychologically devastated when they had their limbs amputated). He is a secular humanist and believes deeply in political and cultural pluralism and economic and social justice. He is the author of numerous articles on political Islam. Please note that articles by guest writers express the writer's views which do not necessarily coincide with the editor's.

TOWARDS A SECULAR CONSENSUS
By Dr. Muhammad Mahmoud

The harrowing and tragic experience through which the Sudanese have been going during the last seven years has made it patently obvious that Islam cannot function as a credible basis for change in Muslim societies. Whether these societies are dealing with their colonial legacy, their economic marginalization, the problems of political, social or legal reform or the challenge of catching up in the spheres of science and technology, they cannot conceivably address these problems or live up to the ever-growing challenges facing them by falling back on Islam or on formulas inspired by Islam. The appeal of Islam as a "final solution" is rooted in an "escapist fantasy" that recoils from the painful task of grappling with the realities of our world and the pressures of our changing times.
But Islam offers more than a mere "escapist fantasy" - it can provide those intent on basing their governance on it with a legitimizing basis for exclusion, repression and liquidation. It is hence no wonder that the four regimes that are avowedly Islamic (namely those of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan) are dictatorial and repressive.
Owing to the claims of "Islamic comprehensiveness", repression under an Islamist regime pervades and seeps into every aspect of life, whether private or public. Women are the favourite target of the Islamists' program of "social engineering". Underclasses are other victims of the Islamists' economic and legal programs. The brunt of sharia's harsh, inhuman and degrading punishments is borne by the socially oppressed and the economically underprivileged. Non-Muslims are reduced to second-class citizens.
I believe that secularists throughout the Islamic world are partly responsible for the rise of Islamism and the sorry state of affairs in which present-day Muslim societies find themselves. Secularists have not been vigorous enough in exposing the obscurantist nature of the Islamist program and they have been quite complacent as far as a thorough critique of the intellectual props of the Islamist position is concerned.
Why is it possible for a clerical caste (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran) or a tiny political organization (as in Sudan) or armed guerrilla groups (as in Afghanistan) to impose their oppression and manage to cling to power? I believe this is partly due to the fact that the majority of Muslims do not actively oppose the belief that Islam is both religion and "state". This belief can partly be attractive because it meshes up with some level of a Muslim's sense of identity - so, a Muslim can say to himself/herself, "My religion is the only religion that combines religion and state, it is unique, hence I am unique by virtue of being Muslim".
Secularists in Muslim societies have to convince people that religion does not offer political or economic or social or legal solutions in our present-day complex societies that aspire to be modern societies integrated into a "global village". Solutions to our problems arise out of an active rational grappling with these problems. Problems cannot be addressed by appealing to traditions inherited from the past. Our modern times have radically changed the nature of religions - religions are no longer a source of knowledge (as they used to be in the past), they are only a source of faith. Islam, alongside Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions, can only be a personal faith. And as such, a personal faith is a personal choice to which one is fully entitled without imposing it on others. By being Islamo-centric, Muslim societies can only deepen their global isolation and aggravate their plights.
Though the majority of Sudanese are Muslim (particularly in the North), I believe that their experience under the National Islamic Front's Islamist rule has made them now more amenable to the secular case. The secular case is in fact a remarkably powerful case that appeals to the sense of justice of the vast majority of Muslims and their repugnance of violence. With an intensive and sustained debating of the issue of religion and (hopefully) with a reformed educational system that teaches Sudanese children in the future about other religions without restricting their intellectual horizon to one religion, it is hoped that the Sudanese will reach a "secular consensus" - a consensus confirming that religion is a matter of personal conscience and that society's public sphere should be organized according to rational choices reached in the context of a democratic process.

FOREIGN RELATIONS OFFENSIVE

Faced with the possibility of tougher sanctions by the UN Security Council on July 10 and a mounting internal opposition, the Sudanese government had embarked on a vigorous campaign to mend its poor international relations. Egypt was seen as a key to improving Sudan's international image. Sudan rulers believe that improving relations with Egypt would automatically open the door for better relations with other countries, namely the US and Saudi Arabia.
The tense relations between Sudan and Egypt, following the assassination attempt on the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa last year, has made a turn towards improvement and probably normalization. Following the meeting between the two presidents on the sidelines of the Arab Summit, held in Cairo 21-23 June, it emerged that the two countries are on their way to resolve their differences and mend relations. The main issue in focus, it appears, is Sudan's support for the Egyptian Islamic militant groups. Sudan, under pressure both internally and externally, showed willingness to trade Islamic militants for better relations with Egypt.
Mubarak and Bashir held one-hour talks, hailed by officials from both sides as 'frank, friendly and positive'. Egyptian Foreign Minister, Amr Mousa, said that Egyptian-Sudanese ties could be mended if Khartoum changed its policy on militant groups, while his Sudanese counterpart, Ali Osman Taha, said upon arrival in Cairo, that they come with 'an open heart and ready to forget the past and cement relations with Egypt'.
Practical steps were immediately taken. A committee of the security personnel of the two countries was formed to tackle the issue of terrorism and the Egyptian properties that had been confiscated by the Sudanese authorities. Egypt handed over to Sudan a list of Islamic militants wanted by Egyptian security. A security official had returned to Cairo, a week later, to convey Sudan's response to Egypt's demand. Although the content of the agreement was not disclosed, it is widely believed that Sudan had handed over to Egypt some of the wanted terrorists, while others are believed to have either left the country or were hiding inside Sudan.
Another important factor that had driven Sudan and Egypt closer together, is the threat to the Nile waters posed by both Ethiopia and Uganda. Uganda announced that it is studying a proposal to make Egypt and Sudan pay for using the Nile waters, while Ethiopia announced its plans to build two dams on the Blue Nile and its tributary, Atbara river. Both Egypt and Sudan protested against these plans. Sudanese media warned against the extreme dangers of the Ethiopian plans on the welfare of Sudan and Egypt. It said that Israel is behind the project which aims at strangling both Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia stressed its right to harness rivers in its territory, and its parliament had endorsed the plan, which is funded by the World Bank.
Relations with the US had also been on the mend. The state-controlled Sudanese radio reported that the US administration is willing to support the efforts to realize peace in Sudan through negotiations. The radio quoted the American ambassador in Khartoum as saying that the coming period will witness a genuine move towards normal relations between Sudan and the US.
Some analysts believe that the US, Europe and Egypt prefer dealing with the current regime in Khartoum while exerting pressure on it to modify its policies with regard to the civil war in southern Sudan and its support of terrorist groups, rather than working to topple the regime with unpredictable results.

GOVERNMENT FACES MOUNTING INTERNAL OPPOSITION

Representatives of political parties and trade unions under the umbrella of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had delivered a memorandum to President Omer al-Bashir demanding the resignation of the government or face the consequences from the people.
The memorandum, addressed to Omer al-Bashir in his capacity as Chief Commander of the army, and not as president, started by saying: 'On the 30th of June 1989 you and a handful of officers and soldiers of the Armed Forces and some members of the National Islamic Front (NIF) flouted constitutional legitimacy in the country and took over power by force from the democratically-elected government. Consequent to this criminal act, power was handed over to the NIF, a minority political party which has since monopolized political power, expropriated the country's resources, used force to impose on the people of Sudan its version of government which is known to be religiously fanatical and politically backward and naive, and thereby subjecting the Sudanese people to unprecedented forms of oppression, degradation, impoverishment and extortion'.
The 3-page statement then went on to give an account of the many failures of the government's policies and its so-called 'civilized project', which resulted in total economic collapse and brought the country to the verge of moral and social calamity. It outlined the loss in terms of human lives and resources due to the escalation of the civil war, the dismantling of the civil service and the army, the ruining of the education and healthcare systems, the spread of corruption and the indulgence in fostering and harboring international terrorism.
The signatories, who include former vice-president Abel Alier, Salah Abdel Salam for the Umma Party and Mudawi Mohamed Ahmed for the DUP, proposed that the only way out of this alarming situation which is endangering the entity and the very existence of the country, is the realization of a true democracy based on a multi-party system that respects the principles of human rights. They called for an interim national government and a Constitutional conference to prepare for free elections.
'In the context of the present critical situation, it becomes imperative on the ruling authority to resign in response to the wishes of the Sudanese people and to relinquish power immediately so that our people can undertake the necessary steps to form their interim administration,' they said.
'If you do not agree to this request, the Sudanese people have other legitimate alternatives for realizing their historic rights,' the statement concluded. The other signatories include representatives of the Sudanese Communist Party, the Sudan National Party, the Union of Sudan African Parties and three trade unionists.
Information Minister Brig. al-Tayeb Ibrahim Mohamed Kair, dismissed the opposition threats and said 'calling for the return of a multi-party system is a dream that will not be achieved by the enemies of Sudan'. President al-Bashir described the memorandum as 'meaningless'.
Ex-Prime Minister and leader of the Umma Party, Sadig al-Mahdi said the opposition petition is the last chance for a political settlement without bloodshed.
Similar petitions were delivered to governors in several states around the country. This was soon followed by political statements issued by the banned labor, doctors and student unions calling for a general strike, which were widely circulated in Khartoum and other towns.
Fearing a popular uprising, the security forces immediately embarked in a fierce campaign of arrests and detentions of suspected politicians and trade unionists. It is believed that hundreds of people have been rounded up in Khartoum, Wad Medani, Kassala, Atbara and El-Obied, and are being interrogated about their political activities.

OUTRAGE OVER PETROL PRICE INCREASE

Price increase on fuel announced by the new Minister of Finance, Abdel Wahab Osman, had sparked widespread outrage and protests. The price of a gallon of petrol shot up to 2,500 Sudanese Pounds from 1,700 and Diesel prices went up 60 percent to 1,200 S.P. from 750 pounds. Petrol has risen six-fold since April 1994, when it was just 400 pounds per gallon.
The new fuel prices were condemned by the pro-government Workers Federation which demanded their immediate cancellation or a comparable rise in worker's wages. The leader of the Farmers Union also denounced the increases and said farmers would strike unless it was rescinded. Even the members of the newly-elected National Assembly expressed their protest and called for the reversal of the decision.
The Finance Minister told the assembly that the increases are a result of a budget deficit. He said the deficit had reached 9 billion Sudanese pounds and would rocket to 200 billion Sudanese pounds at the end of this year if fuel prices were not increased. He also said his government had subsidized fuel by 14 billion S.P./month over the last four months by borrowing from the Bank of Sudan and thereby pushing inflation up to 102 per cent. He said fuel prices had to be increased to raise funds to pay the salaries of government employees and to finance the costs of the civil war in the south.
When some members asked to question the Minister, the speaker of the assembly, refused their request. Some 65 members then signed a statement, which was delivered to the speaker, demanding the opportunity to question the Minister and that his decision of the price increases be repealed. Failing that, they will resign as members of the assembly. The speaker, Hassan al-Turabi, told the members that the assembly has no authority to cancel the government decisions and his role is to advice the government only. Its recommendations are also not binding to the government. Heated discussions developed in the corridors of the assembly and at least one incident of fist fighting was reported.
Turabi sent assembly members on a long summer break for ten weeks starting from the first of July, apparently to avert the imminent confrontation.

SUDAN DENIES REPORTS OF CHOLERA EPIDEMIC

The authorities in Sudan had denied the existence of cholera in Sudan. Several sources had reported many incidents of the disease in many parts of the country. The international medical aid agency (Medecins Sans Frontieres) reported that a cholera epidemic is sweeping southern Sudan and has killed at least 700 people in the last seven weeks. In the first week of June, 25 cases were recorded in Khartoum Hospital and 40 in the Eastern Province.
The first undersecretary at the Ministry of Health told a press conference that the disease was acute diarrhea, caused by Malaria, contaminated water or stomach infection, but not cholera. He said there were 446 cases, of which only 15 died. He described the MSF report as 'totally misleading and false' and aimed at 'tarnishing the image of Sudan abroad'.
Reacting to this report, the government ordered that all medical aid organisations be under the direct supervision of the MOH. Aid organisation are not permitted to report or comment on any health issue, inside or outside Sudan, and only the MOH has the right to report on the health situation in Sudan. All aid organisation were also asked to provide a list of their staff and details of their programs and budgets.

THE SAGA OF BIN LADEN

There was wide speculation over Sudan's claim that Osama Bin Laden, an Arab billionaire who allegedly financed Islamic extremist groups, had left the country.
His alleged departure was accompanied by a high-profile publicity. President al-Bashir said, in a number of occasions, that Sudan deported Bin Laden while Hassan al-Turabi, NIF leader and parliament speaker, said Bin Laden had left voluntarily for Afghanistan by way of Pakistan.
In an apparent attempt to repair its image, Sudan's UN ambassador, Ali Osman Yassin, wrote to the Security Council that Bin Laden is no longer in the country.
A senior Sudanese official told reporters in Jedda, during a stopover, that 'the main reason for bin Laden's exit is the improving of relations between Saudi Arabia and Sudan'.
Arab press reports have said Bin Laden had left Sudan after being involved in a shooting incident, in which he shot, and severely wounded, one of his aides in the presence of top NIF leaders, one of whom had fainted as a result.
Officials in both Afghanistan and Pakistan denied that Bin Laden had entered either country. Sudanese opposition sources claimed that Bin Laden flew out of Khartoum airport only to land in Wadi Saydna airport, a few kilometers away. He was then moved to a secret location in western Sudan. His family is still in Khartoum.
The Egyptian state-owned magazine Rose al-Yousef said it had tracked Bin Laden down, and interviewed him, in a house in Wembley in London. He was traveling with a Sudanese diplomatic passport under a false name. According to the magazine, Bin Laden said he was on a mission with the US embassy in London. 'Sudan needs me more than I need Sudan and I say that my leaving Sudan will lead to the collapse of what's left of the economy in Sudan,' he added. He described the political situation in Sudan as 'a mixture of religion and organised crime'.

ECONOMIC POINTERS

[] In an effort to reduce the demand on hard currency, the Finance Ministry has directed the Duty Free Corporation, the sugar and cement companies to stop selling or buying their commodities in foreign currency. Using foreign currency to pay for services, real estate or rent is declared illegal. The bank froze the assets of five companies and declared their cheques void for violating its hard currency regulations.
In the past few days, the currency markets have seen a rebound in the price of the dollar against the Sudanese pound. One dollar now exchanges for 1,500 pounds on the free markets.

[] Sudanese new members of parliament demanded a huge increase in their monthly salaries. The parliamentarians, who now earn about $30 a month, want to be paid 300,000 Sudanese pounds (about $200). Sudanese civil servants earn as little as 10,000 pounds ($7) per month, private sector workers 17,000 pounds ($12) and a university lecturer about 45,000 pounds ($30).
One MP justified the need for the increase by saying that he uses public buses because they have no transport allowances. 'We fear assassination attempts on our lives in the public transport. Although Sudan is a peaceful country, but it has strong opposition both at home and abroad. Something should be done to protect our lives and persons as MPs', he said.

[] An economic and technical agreement between China and Sudan was signed in Khartoum. The agreement stipulates that the Chinese government will extend a grant of 30 million Chinese Yuan (about 3.6 million US dollars) to Khartoum for economic and technical cooperation projects to be financed jointly by the Chinese and Sudanese governments

SHORT NEWS ITEMS