When Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir called for a national dialogue with the opposition some four months ago, he hoped the move would quell years of unrest and “solve the political crisis in Sudan”. The process, however, appears to have further divided the Sudanese opposition, with some forces viewing it as yet another government attempt to cling to power.
Two weeks after the arrest of Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, a key opposition figure and a proponent of the national dialogue, the whole process appears to be teetering on the brink, as talks about the resumption of the dialogue have been delayed.
Al-Mahdi, 78, was detained for speaking out against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a government-sponsored force formed in August 2013, which he accused of allegedly committing atrocities in Darfur and Kordofan states. The Umma Party, led by al-Mahdi, was one of the largest opposition parties to sign up to the national dialogue process, as it holds a substantial membership in the two states.
Following al-Mahdi’s criticism, battalions of the RSF were deployed around the Sudanese capital while the Sudanese Armed Forces remained silent. On the same day, the leader of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, held a press conference on Al-Sharooq TV in which he stated, “We [the RSF] have the power now – others have to obey us. If the government has an army, let them show us the army.”
Speaking from the Sudanese capital, Magdi El Gizouli, a fellow at the Rift Valley Institute, a research organisation based in Kenya, told Al Jazeera: “In Khartoum there is an atmosphere of coup, people are afraid that if the government leaves, the RSF will take over and reap chaos across the country”.
The situation in Khartoum is very confused. No one knows why al-Mahdi has been arrested; the Umma Party has now decided to pull out of the national dialogue.
A government official later denied on local TV that there had been a coup, however the display of force is thought to be a reaction to al-Mahdi’s comments.
Sudanese journalist Faisal Mohamed Salih, speaking from Khartoum, told Al Jazeera that “the situation in Khartoum is very confused. No one knows why al-Mahdi has been arrested; the Umma Party has now decided to pull out of the national dialogue,” while other opposition parties are calling for al-Mahdi’s release.
A statement issued by the opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) and Reform Now Party (RNP) said the “abusive move” against al-Mahdi showed that the government had backtracked on its commitment to allow more freedom. They called for his immediate release and dismissed the charges but remain committed to talks.
The national dialogue has divided the opposition into two forces; namely, those wanting to work with the government, and others that continue to oppose it. The National Consensus Forces, a coalition of opposition parties, suspended the Umma Party, PCP and the Justice Party in April for continuing to unconditionally engage with the government.
“The opposition is split into two structures, the reactionary parties, those of the old regime – al-Turabi, al-Mahdi, [President] Bashir – and the modern forces, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, comprised of rebel groups from Darfur, South Kordofan, Blue Nile and the Beja Congress from the east, as well as students [university opposition groups],” Gizouli added.
The activist group Girifna (“We are fed up”), which has been instrumental in anti-government protests and is a leading group among Sudan’s youth movements, refuses to participate in the national dialogue. In a statement to Al Jazeera, when asked about their position on al-Mahdi’s arrest, the group said: “We have no comment on this matter. We will fight, not compromise. We are against any dialogue with a regime that kills its people.”
A statement released by RNP, according to the Sudan Tribune, said: “The government’s approach to the current political crisis is at least surprising and can be described as short-sighted and narrow-minded.” The party, which split from the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) last year over the idea of reforming governmental powers, said that the government lacked a clear vision that could end the dialogue, but refused to boycott the process.
Officially, the government claims it is still committed to the process, but it is hard to say whether any such dialogue would exceed an arrangement between the PCP and the NCP, and possibly Ghazi Salahuddin’s [a former adviser to President Bashir] Reform Now Movement, an alliance of all parties of the Islamic Movement, according to El Gizouli.
The Sudanese government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
Meanwhile, al-Mahdi’s arrest appears to have also divided the Umma party: On May 17, the party pulled out of the national dialogue, and encouraged members to protest until he is freed. Hundreds of Umma Party supporters held a demonstration May 30 in Khartoum to call for al-Mahdi’s release.
Abdel Rahman Ali, a party member, told Al Jazeera from Khartoum that the arrest showed that the NCP was not serious about the national dialogue. He said the protesters on May 30 were chanting slogans such as, “The people of Sudan want the government to go”. He did not think the Umma Party should continue to engage with the process.
However, in a statement, the Sudanese Lawyer’s Union, told Al Jazeera that after a visit to see him in prison, al-Mahdi said he had renewed the commitment of his party to the national dialogue, and said his position to support it was “strategic”.
Others have alleged that al-Mahdi’s motivations are politically-inspired.
Dr Abu Amna, a Beja human rights activist from the east of Sudan, told Al Jazeera: “In September 2013, during the largest protests ever seen under Bashir’s rule, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front gained more support, and al-Mahdi came out on the side of the government, calling for dialogue. He is seen often, like [leader of opposition Popular Congress Party, Hassan] al-Turabi, to be propping up the regime, maneuvering when it suits him to sabotage viable change.”
In light of recent events, the political parties that are against the NCP’s national dialogue have begun to revise the ‘New Dawn Charter’.
According to Abu Amna, the basic conditions of this new charter, which the government in Khartoum has so far rejected, will remain the same: “The charter calls for a ceasefire in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. They want full human rights and the release of all political detainees, and when this is accounted for they will form a transitional government, and create a new constitution,” he said.
Abu Amna added that he believed the only way forward for many opposition groups is popular protests. “What does scare the government is peaceful demonstrations. People should organise more demos, strikes, sit-ins in towns across the country, rather than continue to fight in the peripheries.”