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First bluff now blood

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In an unprecedented development, a Darfur armed opposition group storms Sudan’s cultural capital, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Is it really over? Maybe the Battle of Om Durman is over, but the fight ahead looks bloody. For the fighters of Darfur, turning towards the Sudanese capital was a change of tact. And losses are now emerging in areas other than a loss of face or prestige. Maybe Armageddon has been avoided, but a boost to Sudanese confidence this most certainly has not been.

The Sudanese government beat back an attack by one of the most influential armed Darfur opposition groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) headed by Khalil Ibrahim. The unprecedented attack sparked a diplomatic furore and reignited the traditional enmity between Sudan and Chad. Would Chad really consider foisting an unelected Darfur-based regime on Sudan? Whatever the answer, the momentum of JEM is scaring many Sudanese.

The Sudanese capital Khartoum is a city on high alert. Om Durman is part of Greater Khartoum — composed of three cities; Khartoum North, Khartoum proper and Om Durman. The curfew imposed on Saturday was lifted Sunday but it is still enforce in Om Durman, the cultural capital of Sudan and twin city of Khartoum, on the western bank of the River Nile. JEM forces captured Om Durman on Saturday, but were quickly overcome by government forces. Scores of JEM fighters were killed and their bodies are strewn in the streets of the city. There is much speculation that Khalil Ibrahim and his henchmen are hiding in the city, but these rumours are not verified.

What is confirmed, according to Sudanese government forces, is that Mohamed Saleh Gharbo, a leading JEM commander who allegedly led the attack on Om Durman, was killed in battle.

The Sudanese government accused neighbouring Chad’s government of masterminding the attack on Greater Khartoum. The Chadians vehemently deny the charge, but Khartoum claims that the Chadian government is backing JEM. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir in a widely-publicised nationwide television interview vowed retribution and promptly announced the severing of diplomatic relations between Sudan and Chad.

Chadian President Idriss Deby, like the JEM leader, is an ethnic Zaghawa. This particular ethnic group is spread over a vast stretch of the Sahara Desert — in Chad, Darfur and Libya. The Sudanese government suspects that the close tribal ties between the Zaghawa of Darfur and Chad played a critical role in the surprise attack staged by JEM on Om Durman. However, tribal affiliation does not always ensure political loyalties. Another Zaghawa leader from Darfur, Minni Arko Minnawi, signed a peace agreement with the Sudanese government a couple of years ago. He led a breakaway faction of the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), another powerful Darfur-based armed opposition group.

It is not so much the historic flushing out of JEM fighters from Greater Khartoum that is eye- catching, but rather the fact that JEM did venture so close to Khartoum. Other factors are at play. The leader of the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) Sheikh Hassan Al-Turabi is the spiritual mentor of the JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim and his movement. Indeed, many in the Sudanese government suspect that Al-Turabi is the main instigator of the latest round of fighting and hence he was promptly arrested and detained on Sunday after his return from a tour of the central Sennar province to garner support for his PCP. After interrogations he was released without charge. Al-Turabi has long been seen as in cahoots with JEM; indeed, many Sudan observers view JEM as the military wing of the PCP. Both organisations are Islamist in orientation and Al-Turabi is widely viewed as Sudan’s chief Islamist ideologue.

Al-Turabi, however, has in recent years demonstrated a predilection for democracy and political liberalisation. He contends that there is no fundamental contradiction between Islam and democracy. It is an opinion shared by his disciples in JEM. Four other PCP leaders were arrested alongside Al-Turabi. “This is a national crisis and reveals serious security lapses. The Darfur crisis is a national crisis. It is now clear for all the world to realise this fact. This is the result of the beggar-thy-neighbour policy espoused by the Sudanese government. They are now paying a terrible price for their regional policies and machinations. They have only themselves to blame,” Al-Turabi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“I sympathise with the broader cause of JEM, but they have chosen the path of the armed struggle. I prefer political activism, that is the way forward.”

There are those in Sudan who believe that Al-Turabi is responsible for most of what has gone wrong in Sudan. If an irrefutable link between JEM’s latest military adventure and Al-Turabi, a former speaker of the Sudanese parliament and a one-time close associate of President Al-Bashir, is established, then we can expect another long prison sentence for Al-Turabi. He was incarcerated for seven years when he fell out with Al-Bashir. Al-Turabi wants power with all the trimmings.

Al-Turabi can scarcely complain about treachery and political back-stabbing, for he helped to inculcate a taste for plots, political intrigue and sedition during his years as speaker when he behaved as the real ruler of the country. Al-Turabi’s character and public persona do not help either. His outspokenness and malleable charisma have charmed millions across Africa and the Muslim world, and not just in Sudan.

Today, Al-Turabi is the icon of the wave of democratic resurgence in Sudan. His brand of Islamist democracy is leavened with egalitarianism and that includes a strong belief in the devolution of power to Sudan’s disadvantaged outlying regions. Others warn that the current turmoil in Sudan cannot be blamed entirely on Al-Turabi. Other factors come into play. It isn’t all his fault that the outlying and historically marginalised regions of Sudan, Africa’s largest country, are now demanding a greater say in the decision-making process in Sudan. Western Sudan, the east and south have all long been neglected. These are extremely poor and underdeveloped regions. Their impoverished peoples have long yearned for change, but their aspirations were systematically thwarted. Many are angry, hungry and malnourished.

It is difficult to gauge how many sympathisers JEM has inside Om Durman. There are many, and not only Zaghawa people or Darfuris who are fed up with political repression in Sudan. Few Sudanese are benefiting from the newfound oil wealth of the country. And, they are prepared to take up arms.

The war is no longer restricted to Khartoum. It also confirms that the Darfur armed opposition groups are not secessionist movements, but political groups aiming to reform and revolutionise the entire Sudanese political system.

Khartoum International Airport was closed on Sunday, but reopened on Tuesday. A tense calm prevails, but some believe it is the calm before yet another storm.

The Sudanese government, however, is putting on a brave face. “We were able to overcome them and repulse the attack in less than one hour,” Al-Fateh Ezzeddin, the governor of Om Durman, told the Qatar-based pan-Arab television satellite channel Al-Jazeera. He explained that the Sudanese government forces are pursuing the JEM fighters, many of whom are suspected of taking shelter in Om Durman. The city is multi-ethnic and there are hundreds of thousands of Darfuris resident in the city. Many are suspected of sympathising with the Darfur armed opposition groups. There are fears of a government clampdown and that many Darfuris in the sprawling squatter settlements and shantytowns will be forcibly evicted or persecuted in retaliation by government forces.

For the Sudanese political establishment and in particular the crucial few who monopolise power, this latest episode in Sudan’s wars could matter significantly. Sudan’s disadvantaged are in a state of truculence and they know it. It is no good pretending that Chad and Al-Turabi are the culprits.

Inexorably the Sudanese state is imploding. Can Sudan recover from the surprise JEM attack on Om Durman? Posters of JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim are plastered all over Om Durman. It is ironic that while the US has a $25 million reward for anyone providing information leading to the capture of Osama bin Laden, the Sudanese government has set a $122 million bounty on Ibrahim. “This is just the start of a process and the end is the termination of this regime,” Ibrahim, purportedly speaking from his hideout in the heart of Om Durman, retorted. Sudanese lower ranking troops defected to JEM during the storming of Om Durman. Small wonder: 60 per cent of Sudan’s army conscripts are from Darfur. The bottom line is that the angry youngsters of Sudan’s slums will not watch political bigwigs trundle off along the country’s torturously slow progression to democracy. Ibrahim understands their frustrations and despair.