Something was missing when thousands rallied at a Khartoum-area soccer field for the South Sudanese Communist Party’s first outdoor meeting in years: There was no tear gas and there were no beatings.
In a tenuous political opening since the second half of last month, other opposition parties, including Reform Now and Sudanese Congress, have also drawn large crowds without being dispersed by Sudan’s security forces.
“There is an opening,” said Siddig Yousif, 82, a member of the communists’ central committee.
However, he does not think it will last.
Opposition parties are testing the Sudanese government to determine how serious its newly found talk of freedoms really is, University of Khartoum political scientist El Shafie Mohammed El Makki said.
“It is a political game,” Shafie said. “The coming days will show us whether the government is genuine, really for change or not.”
The regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, which took power 25 years ago in an Islamist-backed coup, has faced mounting challenges since the separation of South Sudan three years ago.
After the split, Khartoum clamped down on the press and political activity as inflation soared and the Sudanese currency sank.
Wars and unrest spread to about half of the country’s 18 states, and internal divisions surfaced in al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).
Repression peaked in September last year when thousands called for the regime’s downfall after fuel price increases. Security forces are believed to have killed more than 200 protesters, many with gunshots to the head and chest, Amnesty International said.
Those demonstrations made clear the urgent need for reform, which al-Bashir addressed in January when he appealed for a broad national political dialogue and “renaissance” focused on peace, hinting at greater political liberties.
“Now parties are free to hold their rallies outside their headquarters,” and banned newspapers can resume publishing, al-Bashir’s chief assistant, Ibrahim Ghandour, said in an interview in March.
However, Yousif and other critics say there cannot be genuine freedom while laws restricting liberties remain on the books.
Chief among these is the right for security agents to detain people for more than four months without judicial review.
Shafie says that while the parties try to hold a dialogue among themselves, nothing is being done to address the problems of Sudanese.
Assem Yousif, 35, an economics graduate can only find work as a taxi driver.
“The problem is the ordinary people in Sudan are not on the politicians’ agenda,” Assem Yousif said.
They are people like Hajer Khaled, a mother of five.
“Is this dialogue going to improve our lives?” she asked. “If not, we don’t care about it.”
That is why the pace of the dialogue must quicken, said a senior member of a party which has joined the process that might lead to a coalition government.
Al-Bashir himself is pushing for “a real change” because he realizes the country is collapsing, the politician said, adding that South Sudan’s powerful security apparatus is resisting.
Even if al-Bashir is serious about reform, not everyone in the NCP is, Shafie said.
Yet Siddig Yousif does not believe that al-Bashir is sincere.
The president is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur.
His regime has a debt of more than US$40 billion, much of it in arrears, and has been under US sanctions since 1997.
“I think he wants a solution for the problems they are facing ... a small change which can preserve the government” and its interests while winning foreign acceptance, Siddig Yousif said. “If the international community supports them, that will be against the interests of the Sudanese people.”