Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Sudan’s former prime minister and leader of the opposition National Umma Party, Sadiq Al-Mahdi, about the political unrest gripping the country, and his party’s plans for a political solution. He warned that demands for change are only just beginning, a consequence of widespread passion for change among youth combined with a collective anger with the current regime’s practices and political mistakes.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Protests and demonstrations have continued for over a week in Sudan, resulting in hundreds dead and thousands arrested. What will happen next in your opinion?
Sadiq Al-Mahdi: The current leadership has committed countless errors that justify their ousting and in this context the Umma Party has presented a plan for a new regime with a ‘Ticket to Liberation’ attached. The sum of these political errors has led to the South’s secession, escalation of the conflict in Darfur, economic decline, distortion of Islam, and international isolation. We believe these facts are sufficient justifications for our position.
The government was not prepared for the South’s secession, and after it happened economic reform plans were based on four main pillars: expense cuts, support for production, imposition of the financial administration’s control of public funds, and removal of fuel subsidies.
Implementation of three of these pillars failed and one is currently being actualized, despite the fact that it is not feasible: it forces the Sudanese people to endure the mistakes of their government, raising prices significantly at a time when poverty is already on the rise. Thus this measure has been swiftly rejected by the people, a refusal demonstrated through the largest protests seen by the current regime to date.
Q: How are the current protests different from others in the past?
This time civilians are dying on a larger scale and elements within the National Congress and other state institutions are affirming the necessity of reform. The Revolutionary Front is a group that works to overthrow the regime by force, and from this fact we see the need to avoid the path we’re currently on and find a political solution to this crisis. The military’s solution is to divide the opposition before they unite around a political solution. The international community has been pressing for bilateral negotiations between the regime and the armed forces. Significantly, the American Council for Peace and the European Union have been united in demanding a holistic solution.
If all of these interlocking parts work together, we will achieve one of the options outlined in our plan: an uprising in Sudan, or a successful round table discussion that brings together all parties – similar to what happened in South Africa—with the goal of creating a roadmap for a new governmental system in the context of mutual cooperation.
Q: Some say that the blood that was shed means there should be no negotiations with the regime. Does the idea of a round-table discussion with the current leadership still exist among the ranks of the Umma Party?
We believe that the departure of the current regime and the establishment of a transitional government are both absolutely vital measures. If there is a way for us to achieve these goals, I do not think any reasonable person will reject that solution. The level of injustice and violence in South Africa was extremely high, yet an agreement was still possible in the end. Thus, if current leaders agree that they must leave and a new regime must be established, no one is going to say no. We do not want to see a conflict similar to what is happening in Syria befall Sudan. Further, in many countries affected by the Arab Spring, the regime at some point or another was finally convinced of its need to step down and establish a new government. Thus all political forces should be open to accepting the roadmap for a new system.
Q: Does sitting down with government leaders mean ignoring some of the injustices that its opponents feel are being committed?
It is very important to adopt the principle of transitional justice, and if we look at the experience of South Africa, some sort of ‘Truth and Fairness’ committee may be helpful. If a final agreement is reached we must address what happened during the conflict in the context of a similar mechanism for transitional justice.
Q: It has been said that your party has collected three million signatures demanding the fall of the regime. Has this steered people toward the protests?
I cannot say for sure what the number is because we have not finished counting. The party has formed a committee headed by deputy Fadlallah to manage this crisis and they will issue directives explaining Umma Party developments very soon. Statements currently in circulation under the title ‘All Nonsense’ form only one part of what the Umma Party has published so far.
Q: Young people believe that your movement is slow to respond to challenges.
The actions of the youth are currently driven more by passion and anger than anything else, but this is not the point. We are progressing in a calculated manner, knowing that the real issue is not what you want, but what you achieve. This requires analyzing both our objectives and the reality of the situation. We understand the zeal of the youth but we believe that our actions must remain thoughtful and systematic.
Q: According to your experience with this regime, one that came into power through violence, do you think it will continue to engage in violence against protestors?
The regime does realize that citizens have the right to peaceful opposition and demonstrations, but it is attempting to justify violence through the rioting that occurred. It is true that the government used excessive force, killing nearly one hundred people and wounding and arresting many more. In Sudan and in the world more generally, the ruler that resorts to spilling blood loses his legitimacy, and in times of war, fabrications of what happened abound, even though the regime is ultimately responsible to the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. What is happening inside and outside of Khartoum, namely the excessive use of force against civilians, has channeled and mobilized popular anger in an unprecedented way.
Q: What’s your personal opinion on the regime’s claim that vandalism was not a result of collective anger but infiltrators?
In circumstances like these, the truth is difficult to locate, but the spirit of the demonstrations was civil and peaceful, and it is not unlikely that at the beginning some of those present were criminals looking to exploit the circumstances or that elements associated with those in power attended as well. The days that followed were largely peaceful in spite of the deaths that occurred earlier on.
Q: Some believe that the opposition’s fears of a security breakdown delay the process of change, arguing that security is already very weak.
That fear is present, but allowing the current regime to remain in power is a policy based on unilateralism and stubbornness that can only lead to a security breakdown, general fragmentation, and internationalization of this conflict; thus, we are moving cautiously. It is true that there is still disagreement about the characteristics of an alternative regime. We have put forward our solution and the people have been waiting for it to be signed for over a year now. We are negotiating and we will achieve our goals, but we are moving at a measured pace for fear of the unsavory after-effects felt by many Arab Spring countries.
Q: Are you being over-cautious?
We are monitoring what is happening in Arab Spring countries and we are aware of the magnitude of the project before us. We do not believe that we are moving at a slower pace than is necessary, and we are confident that moving in a calculated and deliberate way is best.