By David L. Phillips and Ahmed Hussein Adam
Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir announced the release of all political prisoners and called for a national dialogue on reconciliation in a major speech to Sudan's Parliament on April 1, 2013. His amnesty announcement garnered headlines and international praise. Does Bashir's announcement truly represent a more conciliatory approach, or is it simply a ploy by Bashir to undermine his opposition? Bashir should be judged by what he does -- not what he says.
Sudanese want to give Bashir the benefit of the doubt. After years of war and isolation, they are desperate for leadership to resolve Sudan's political and economic crisis. So far, Bashir's performance is disappointing. His call for a dialogue on national reconciliation looks like an attempt to divide the opposition using a bogus, manipulated political process. Rather than genuine reform, Bashir's real goals are to legitimize the regime and preserve the status quo.
Here are the facts:
Only eleven political prisoners have been released while hundreds are languishing in detention across the country. These include 32 female political prisoners on a hunger strike in El-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan State. Detainees are subjected to torture, forced starvation, and have been unable to communicate with lawyers or their families.
The National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) are continuing to crackdown on press freedoms. Just days after Bashir's announcement, it arrested and interrogated El Mussallami El-Kabbshi, the Head of Al Jazeera TV in Khartoum. It also ordered the dismissal of Al-Nour Ahmed al-Nour, Editor-In-Chief of the Al-Sahafa daily newspaper. Other journalists are under threat. Their harassment results in self-censorship.
The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) dismissed Bashir's announcement about the release of political prisoners as tactical and deceptive. SRF fighters have intensified their operations. Marginalized groups in Darfur, East Sudan, Blue Nile, Middle and the far North are deeply skeptical about the regime's intentions. While Bashir talks about reconciliation, his military forces are attacking using cluster bombs.
A broad cross-section of civil society leaders have lost confidence in Bashir and are clamoring for change. Armed and civil opposition traveled to Kampala on Jan. 5. In a remarkable display of unity, they established the "New Dawn Charter." The charter articulates an inclusive governance plan for Sudan after Bashir.
In response, Bashir has called for a constitutional review process. The opposition rejected his proposal as a false promise. They believe it is nothing more than a ruse to legitimize his regime in the short term, and buy time for Bashir to consolidate his authority during the run-up to general elections in 2015. After a series of rigged elections, Sudanese do not believe that the next ballot will be free and fair.
Even core supporters of the regime in the army and paramilitary forces are growing disillusioned. Some regime loyalists recently attempted to stage a military coup against Bashir. The government announced the coup on Nov. 22, arresting the alleged conspirators. Power struggles and palace intrigue are widespread.
In addition, Bashir and his inner circle are increasingly isolated from the international community. Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) is viewed by many Sudanese as a stain on the country's honor. After being forced to cancel recent visits to Chad and Kenya, Bashir just visited South Sudan in a desperate bid to salvage economic ties and restore his image in the region.
Sudan's merchant and middle class is hard hit by the economic and financial crisis, exacerbated by the separation of South Sudan. Absent oil and energy transport resources, the regime's coffers are becoming bare. The business community in Khartoum and other urban areas is recalculating its interests, and reevaluating its ties to the regime.
Some Sudanese are opting for evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. A few opposition figures in Khartoum have welcomed Bashir's announcement of April 1. Sadiq al-Mahdi, Leader of the Umma Party, whose current political calculations have tied him to Bashir, has called for implementation. El Mahdi's son, General Abdurrahman, is Bashir's assistant. They are champions of stability, concerned about chaos and reprisals when the regime falls.
Sudanese across the political spectrum believe that conditions are worsening day-by-day. Armed conflict is taking its toll on the society, resulting in an urgent humanitarian emergency effecting millions of Sudanese. The country simply cannot wait for elections in 2015 to address its serious problems.
Now is the time for the international community, especially African leaders, to declare support for Sudan's opposition. The New Dawn Charter represents a way forward, enshrining political pluralism, individual and group rights. It embraces diversity and separates state and religion. Not only does the Charter provide a framework for political dialogue engaging Sudanese, it also serves as a road-map for political dialogue, which can assist democratic transitions across Africa.