KHARTOUM: Something was missing when thousands rallied at a Khartoum-area football field for the 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 April, 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,” says Siddig Yousif, 82, a member of the communists’ central committee.

But he doesn’t think it will last. “Probably in our next rally they will stop us.”

Opposition parties are testing the government to determine how serious its newly-found talk of freedoms really is, says University of Khartoum political scientist El Shafie Mohammed El Makki.

“It is a political game,” Shafie says. “The coming days will show us whether the government is genuine, really for change or not.”

The regime of 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 Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP).

Repression peaked in September when thousands called for the regime’s downfall after fuel price increases.

Those demonstrations made clear the urgent need for reform, which Bashir addressed in January when he appealed for a broad national political dialogue and “renaissance” focused on peace.

He hinted at greater political liberties.

Laws restrict freedom

“Now parties are free to hold their rallies outside their headquarters”, and banned newspapers can resume publishing, Bashir’s chief assistant Ibrahim Ghandour said in a March interview.

But 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.

Yousif says that by allowing some rallies, the government has only created a perception of new freedoms.

“It is a deception,” he says. “They can arrest us at any time.”

Adding to the uncertainty, Bashir in mid-April decreed that parties need permission for gatherings.

The communists went ahead anyway late last month, holding their first public meeting since elections in 2010.

Authorities didn’t interfere “but according to the law, that is an unlawful gathering,” said Yousif.

He represents the communists in an alliance of 16 parties which refuses dialogue until certain conditions are met.

They seek the abolition of laws restricting liberties, and say peaceful discussions can only occur after a ceasefire with rebels in the Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile regions.

A national dialogue must not only be among political parties, Yousif says.

It has to include non-governmental groups, tribal leaders and others “on equal basis” ahead of a transitional government leading to free elections.

European Union Ambassador Tomas Ulicny told a Europe Day celebration last Wednesday that a successful dialogue must be inclusive.

Another Western diplomat, referring to Sudan’s wars, told AFP: “How can you have a national dialogue when you’re fighting half your people?”

The opposition alliance boycotted an early-April meeting between Bashir and dozens of political parties preparing for the dialogue.

Those joining the talks included the Popular Congress led by veteran Islamist Hassan al-Turabi, the Umma party of Sadiq al-Mahdi who was overthrown by Bashir, and Reform Now founded by NCP dissident Ghazi Salahuddin Atabani in December.

Yousif says they are only talking about sharing power, not how to address the country’s problems.

‘A real change’

Political scientist Shafie says that while the parties try to hold a dialogue among themselves, nothing is being done to address the problems of Sudan’s people.

Those are people like Assem Yousif, 35, an economics graduate who can only find work as a taxi driver.

“The problem is the ordinary people in Sudan are not on the politicians’ agenda,” he says.

They are people like Hajer Khaled, a mother of five.

“Is this dialogue going to improve our lives?” she asks. “If not, we don’t care about it.”

Bashir himself is pushing for “a real change” because he realises the country is collapsing, the politician said, adding that Sudan’s powerful security apparatus is resisting.

Even if Bashir is serious about reform, not everyone in the NCP is, and parties talking with the government are also split about how to approach the dialogue, says Shafie.—AFP

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