Fighting in Sudan is perennial news. Fighting within the ranks of its hardline Islamic regime is a recent phenomenon, by contrast. That infighting exploded with fresh-and public-intensity after one hardliner took a step toward the enemy and was promptly arrested.
On Feb. 18, the architect of Sudan's hardline policy against rebel factions and Christians in southern Sudan signed an agreement with the largest rebel group, which for nearly 18 years has been fighting the Islamic regime he helped create. Hassan Turabi, the country's top Islamic fundamentalist and its former parliamentary speaker, said he made the agreement because he wanted to rid Sudan of dictatorship and restore democracy. His call for the ouster of the current government seemingly gives him something in common with the rebels he once sought to eliminate.
The agreement was officially penned in Geneva by Mr. Turabi's nephew, Omar al-Turabi, and a representative of the Sudan People's Liberation Army. It reads: "The two sides have agreed to work jointly for putting an end to the Sudanese crisis and to establish a democratic system, just peace and federal government in Sudan." They pledged to pursue these objectives through "peaceful means of popular resistance against the government's authoritarian methods."
The agreement falls short of military cooperation, but the elder Mr. Turabi said that he and the rebels had agreed on "scrapping all the laws that cripple freedoms ... and standing together with other political parties in the face of oppression and violation of human rights." Central to the rebels' demands is ending Muslim law, first imposed on southern Sudan in 1983, and later tightened at Mr. Turabi's insistence. Mr. Turabi said: "I would like to underline that there is no gap between us and the (rebel) movement with regard to the question of religion." Rebel spokesman Samson Kwaje said the agreement "is a breakthrough for us because the Turabi group has come to understand the multiplicity of Sudan-cultural, religious, and ethnic."
To outsiders the deal looks like a milestone toward ending one of the longest-running civil wars in the world. The Khartoum-based government has been fighting rebels based in the south for nearly 18 years. Over 2 million people-mostly civilians-have been killed by the fighting or by war-induced famine, and humanitarian workers say 4 million people have been displaced. Rebel groups seek democratic freedoms for the ethnically African and largely Christian south after decades of discrimination, neglect, and persecution.
But in Sudan, Mr. Turabi is not the key political insider he once was. He has been out of favor with the president, Omar el-Bashir, for a year now. Two days after the agreement was signed, security forces broke into Mr. Turabi's home and arrested him. He is being held in a maximum-security prison east of Khartoum, accused of conspiring with the rebel group to topple Mr. Bashir's government. The government also jailed at least 20 Turabi supporters on Feb. 22. At the same time, government forces shut down a newspaper started by Mr. Turabi's recently formed opposition party.
A leading Muslim cleric, Mr. Turabi headed the National Islamic Front, the party that lent civilian credibility to Lt. Gen. Bashir when he seized power in a 1989 coup. The cleric became speaker of parliament. But a power struggle between the two in 1999 ended when President Bashir declared a state of emergency and dissolved parliament, denying Mr. Turabi his power base. Mr. Turabi set up his own political party, the Popular National Congress. It and other parties boycotted elections held last December, giving Mr. Bashir a tilted victory. The president then moved to extend the government's state of emergency one more year, and has used his emergency powers to further consolidate power. Last week he reshuffled his cabinet to eliminate potential Turabi allies, and he has in recent weeks unilaterally replaced governors in 14 of 26 states.
Public splintering in Khartoum, however, only points out the difficulty the new administration in Washington will have in assessing policy toward the war-torn country at a particularly sensitive moment on both sides of the Atlantic. Although Sudan is under U.S. sanctions for its links to terrorism, the Clinton administration allowed some business licenses. Uncomfortable with the Bashir government's brutality, the State Department under Mr. Clinton nonetheless was exploring the renewal of diplomatic relations with Khartoum.
The Bush State Department faces new challenges to moving in that direction. The New York trial of four suspects in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings is providing fresh, daily evidence of Sudan's ties to the alleged mastermind of those bombings, Osama bin Laden. A key government witness and former assistant to Mr. bin Laden, Jamal Ahmed
Al-Fadl, testified in February that Sudanese officials promised to help Mr. bin Laden's terrorist network if he moved it to Sudan. He said Mr. Bashir's government provided intelligence support to Mr. bin Laden after he set up operations there in 1991. Mr. bin Laden was also allowed to establish fronts for his terrorist activities-via investment companies and other enterprises-in Sudan. Mr. bin Laden remains at the top of the FBI's most wanted list, with a $5 million reward for his capture in connection with the 1998 bombings. (Those bombings killed over 227 people, including 12 Americans.) Enough direct links between Khartoum and his organization could undermine U.S.-Sudan relations.
Nor will Mr. Turabi be Washington's overnight hero for standing up to Mr. Bashir. While his agreement with the rebels marked a dramatic new approach, Mr. Turabi has a lot of past to overcome. Analysts widely view him as the ideologue driving Khartoum's punishment of the south, stretching back to the 1980s. His push for new enforcement of Islamic law led to the burning of churches, the closing of Christian schools, and the martyrdom of thousands of south Sudanese. Some argue that the Bashir regime has adopted a less militant stance since Mr. Turabi's fade, brokering limited peace accords with neighboring countries like Uganda, Ethiopia, and Egypt. But peace settlements in Sudan have a way of leading to more war. In 1997 Khartoum signed an agreement with former rebel commanders that ultimately led only to a wider war. The rebels discovered that, rather than a move toward ending hostilities, the pact made them party to the government's divide-and-rule strategy over its southern citizens.