Middle East

For Bashir, now the Sudan battle begins

Supporters of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir celebrate his reelection for another five years in office, on April 27, 2015, in Khartoum. AFP PHOTO / ASHRAF SHAZLY

KHARTOUM: He may have easily secured another five years in power Monday, but President Omar al-Bashir still faces major challenges in solving Sudan’s economic woes and ending its international isolation.

Bashir, who won more than 94 percent of the vote, is also wanted by the International Criminal Court over war crimes in the western region of Darfur, curtailing his ability to travel abroad freely.

Since seizing power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989, his rule has seen Sudan slapped with a U.S. trade embargo for hosting late Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in the 1990s and for rights abuses.

Bashir has tried to distance himself from radical Islamism, but he is under international pressure over conflicts in Sudan’s border regions and over repression of his political opponents.

The government will now have to win over the international community with a long-promised national dialogue with the opposition and with new foreign alliances, analysts say.

Domestically, Bashir can work to end Sudan’s isolation by “stopping the war and achieving internal reconciliation,” said Adel al-Baz, an economic columnist with the independent Al-Youm al-Tali newspaper.

He “cannot ignore the dialogue after the elections because it has become a regional and international demand, as well as one from all internal parties, and it is an urgent matter to resolve,” Baz said.

The European Union had said the vote would not produce a “credible” result because of Bashir’s failure to hold the talks aimed at resolving conflicts in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur, as well as tackling economic woes.

The negotiations are a major concern for Khartoum because many Western countries see reconciliation as a prerequisite to improving ties with Sudan’s government.

While Bashir is in a position of strength – recent constitutional amendments granted him greater powers – his government must now choose between carrying on down this path or bringing opposition parties into government to build foreign support.

“The new government will have choices to make between a status quo with an increasing concentration of power around the president and the security, and a transition that could involve a new government of national unity,” said Jerome Tubiana, an independent analyst specializing in Sudanese affairs.

Holding talks on ending conflicts in border areas would ingratiate Khartoum with Washington, which placed Sudan on the state sponsors of terrorism list in 1993.

Reconciliation is also key to international support to mend the battered economy.

When South Sudan seceded in 2011 under a peace deal that ended a bloody civil war, it took with it three quarters of the country’s revenues, harming Khartoum’s finances badly.

“Sudan’s foreign debts have passed $40 billion (37 billion euros) and it is unable to pay them off, and so the current government wants to have its foreign debts forgiven,” said Hasan Makki, a professor at Khartoum’s African University. “This will not happen so long as it does not change its policies toward the outside world and inside Sudan.”

Before the elections, Khartoum launched a diplomatic offensive, taking advantage of turmoil in Yemen to shift its regional allegiances, joining the Saudi-led coalition against Shiite Houthi rebels there.

Sudan’s military is already tackling insurgencies in Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan, but it has sent jets to join the campaign and offered ground troops if needed.

Makki said Bashir “found the Gulf military alliance in Yemen offered it an opportunity to open up new avenues,” having previously been close to Sunni Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival, Shiite Iran.

Sudan’s press has been abuzz with reports about investments from the Gulf after the elections, although top presidential aide Ibrahim Ghandour said such investment was nothing new.

However, Bashir’s government “needs to look abroad for finances to cope with the economic crisis,” Tubiana said.

Khartoum in March also helped to broker a deal between Egypt and Ethiopia over sharing the waters of the river Nile, bringing it closer to Cairo which has long been wary of Sudan’s Islamist ties.

The country’s new relations could give it critical leverage with Washington, which sees both Egypt and Saudi Arabia as key regional partners.

Bashir will try to bring Sudan in from the cold by “using its alliances both in the African region or the Gulf military coalition to have its debts forgiven and to have its name lifted from the list of state sponsors of terror,” Baz said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 28, 2015, on page 9.

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