US olive branch to Sudan could backfire
By Opheera McDoom
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Washington risks repeating an old mistake in Sudan by supporting a repressive government for the sake of regional stability, a policy which has imploded with mass protests throughout the Middle East, government critics say.
Many in Sudan say the United States is turning a blind eye to Khartoum's crackdown on freedoms in the north and in Darfur -- violence Washington was the first to call genocide -- using as justification the prevention of a return to a civil war between the north and south of the country which began in 1955.
Given popular uprisings in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia against U.S.-supported governments that have crushed opposition for decades, opposition figures in Sudan question the wisdom of rewarding Khartoum for allowing the south to secede unless it relaxes its security policies in the north.
So far Khartoum has used force to suppress small anti-government protests, but as food price rises bite and it cracks down more, demonstrations could gain more support.
"They are making the same mistake as elsewhere and it's absolutely unacceptable how they can be silent on the fighting in Darfur and the violence in the capital," said Mariam al-Mahdi, an opposition leader and the daughter of the last democratically elected leader of Sudan.
Leading the U.S. charge to befriend Khartoum is presidential envoy Scott Gration.
At a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Ali Karti this week, Gration praised government cooperation with U.N. peacekeepers (UNAMID) in Darfur and defended the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission's restrictions on aid agencies.
"The Government of Sudan has taken great steps to lift restrictions on UNAMID," he said. "We've seen great improvement of access for UNAMID and for the international NGOs."
This may surprise those working in Darfur. U.N. reports in January alone recorded 11 patrols stopped by the government and four threats of attack in the past two months. Aid agencies are still barred from much of rebel-controlled Jabel Marra.
Aly Verjee, a researcher at the Rift Valley Institute, a regional think tank, said Washington had gone too far in rewarding Khartoum.
"There's a loss of balance," he said. "In Sudan they're making the same trade off (as elsewhere in the region) that stability is important and if that comes at the cost of democracy then so be it."
The U.S. embassy declined to comment directly, instead sending a brief by Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, who said cooperation between the two countries on counter-terrorism had improved "in recent years".
"We are certainly not ignoring the situation with respect to Darfur," Crowley said. "That is ... of critical importance in terms of our ability to make the decision down the road to normalise relations with Sudan."
Gration, along with much of the West, has also kept largely silent on a crackdown on three opposition parties, dozens of arrests of youths demonstrating against price rises and government policies, and the beating and tear gassing of a series of peaceful student protests throughout the north.
Despite these transgressions, Sudan seems confident it has opened a new page with Washington, sparking a conciliatory attitude towards the south's split in sharp contrast to the aggressive rhetoric ahead of the January secession referendum.
"There is agreement that Darfur will not be a hindrance to the normalisation of relations between the two countries," Karti said in the joint news conference.
What Washington has offered -- help with relief of Sudan's $40 billion external debt, removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism or easing of a trade embargo -- seems to have been sufficient for Khartoum to change its tone and stop it beating the drums of north-south war.
Some analysts say removing Khartoum from the terror list should not be a political issue.
"If you're listed as a state sponsor of terror you should be delisted because you're not supporting terrorism not as a reward for something ... political -- it politicises that classification," said Gill Lusk, a Sudan specialist at the Africa Confidential publication.
Others question if those incentives were even necessary.
Khartoum is in deep economic crisis after years of over reliance on oil and decay in domestic industries and cannot afford a return to war with the oil-producing south. It is also in desperate need of large concessional loans which can only come with the normalisation of its international status.
Washington may have given rewards for nothing.
"They could never go back to war. They can't fund it," said former finance ministry official Hassan Satti.
As President Omar Hassan al-Bashir is the only sitting head of state to be indicted by the International Criminal Court -- for war crimes and genocide in Darfur -- a rapprochement with Washington will anger U.S. activist groups.
"If things continue to deteriorate in Darfur and the north, the (United) States will be forced to take a stand," said one Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Back in Sudan some analysts say Khartoum's alignment with Washington may be unwise given the current trend of uprisings against U.S.-supported governments throughout the region.
Watching the turmoil in Washington's Middle East strongman Egypt, leading members of Bashir's ruling party have said it needs to change track, open its doors to the opposition once the south secedes and widen the basis of government.
Leading Islamists have publicly criticised Bashir and even called for him to step down. Some say American support will only last for as long as Washington's interests remain aligned with Khartoum.
"Bashir just wants American support so he does not fall. But when the people revolt -- and they will -- the Americans will run away from him," said Ibrahim el-Senoussi, a senior member of the opposition Islamist Popular Congress Party.