What Path Next for the Sudanese Regime?

On a recent pre-election trip to Sudan, a knowledgeable analyst told me that President Omar Al Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is not a monolith but a broad church. Like other aging autocratic regimes, the NCP has largely exhausted its ideological fervor. Rather than incessantly extolling the virtues of an Islamic state as in the first years of the 1989 coup, most energy is now focused on devising the best ways to remain in power. The multiplicity of spokespeople – some moderates and some hardliners – within the party actually serves it quite well, as it is able to project different and oftentimes conflicting narratives to serve its core overriding objectives.

Statements on the closing days of Sudan's first multiparty elections in 24 years offer an insight into differences within the NCP on the best ways to handle public messaging. They also forecast that the “good cop, bad cop routine” specialized by the regime over the last two decades is likely to continue.

On Wednesday, headlines trumpeted that Dr. Ghazi Salahuddin, a presidential advisor and chief interlocutor with the West, issued an invitation to opposition parties to join the NCP in a unity government after the elections: “If we are declared winners in the election…we would extend the invitation to all parties even those who have not participated in the elections because we believe this is a critical moment in our history.” He also pledged that the new government would immediately tackle the critical issues of Darfur and border demarcation between the North and the South in advance of the referendum for South Sudan scheduled for January 2011.

Ghazi's invitation also carried with it a threat that, if the parties did not accept the invitation, they would only isolate themselves further in Sudanese politics. Nevertheless, his words were nothing like the warnings yesterday from Nafie Ali Nafie, another presidential advisor:

“(The opposition groups) are not going to recognize the outcome of the elections and they are going to go to the streets and try to change the regime . . . through conflict, riots...If you have any explanation for this other than chaos and trying to change the regime through popular revolution . . . I don't have any other explanation.”

Nafie apparently cannot conceive of any other explanations for why opposition parties might challenge the results of the elections (such as the unfair political environment before and during the elections, and mass electoral irregularitiesduring the polling period this week). It is therefore likely that he might advise the Bashir government to use once again the strong arm of the state to silence dissent in the coming days with violence and intimidation. As in the past, such brutal behavior would override the more diplomatic dialogue of those within the regime like Ghazi.

If this is the chosen path, what will be the reaction of the international community and specifically the Obama administration? In a poignant letter yesterday to former President Jimmy Carter, who is leading the Carter Center’s monitoring mission, a number of Sudanese activists pleaded with him and the international community to not “once again abandon…the civic and political rights of the citizen and the future of democracy to the ascendency of the NCP.”

Meanwhile yesterday, Nafie also gave his advice on the matter. He argued that a Bashir victory will prove that the allegations against him are false and that the Sudanese, especially the people of Darfur, reject the International Criminal Court’s case against him (article in Arabic). Furthermore, he predicted that China, India and African countries would now push for the cancellation of the ICC’s arrest warrant for Bashir. There is no question that millions of Darfuris would be horrified with such an outcome, as they continue to hope for both peace and justice.

In the coming days and weeks following the elections, it will be critical for the Obama administration and the international community to listen to all voices in Sudan. Sweet words from the NCP should not overshadow its threats and, more importantly, ongoing repressive policies and human rights violations. As the Sudan Democracy First Group wrote, “internationals need to learn that peace and democracy are also inter-related and interdependent: there is no room for further failure that costs more Sudanese lives.”

Cross posted on the Save Darfurs Coalition's blog.