KHARTOUM, Sudan — Abdel Rahman, the tea vendor, is a shrewd businessman. Months ago he staked out a spot for himself under the shade of an old sycamore tree across the street from the Libyan Embassy.
Now he arrives at 6 a.m. to fire his charcoal brazier and heat his water kettle. He kicks off his sandals, squats on his straw mat and arranges the tea glasses on a dirty piece of oilcloth. He pulls a tangle of change and wadded bills from the pocket of his djellaba and waits for the first surge of business.
It comes even before the Libyans open the gates to their embassy, or People's Bureau, as the earliest of the day's visa applicants arrive to take up their vigil. Throughout the working day, the crowd seldom falls below 200--all men waiting for a stamp in their passports and a chance for a job in distant Tripoli. In the waiting, much tea is consumed.
Abdel Rahman, having driven off potential competitors with arm-waving indignation and threats of vague but certain retribution, quietly radiates the good cheer of the monopolist. He has the crowd to himself.
"Praise God," he says. "Business is good."
The scene of Abdel Rahman's good fortune is the most conspicuous manifestation of the new Libyan presence in Sudan. Abdel Rahman may be pleased, but others are not so certain.
Until last April, when Sudanese President Jaafar Numeiri was toppled in a military coup, the Libyans were persona non grata in Sudan, and Numeiri and the Libyan leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, were sworn enemies who traded frequent insults and predictions of each other's imminent demise.
Now the Libyans are in Sudan in a big way, and are working hard to increase their influence and to win as many Sudanese friends as possible.
And it is estimated that at least 3,000--possibly as many as 7,000--Sudanese have gone to work in Libya in recent months. Many have gone to replace the thousands of Tunisian workers expelled by the Kadafi regime in the last year. The Sudanese have taken over jobs as cooks, house servants, hotel workers, truck drivers and laborers.
In addition, the Libyans are reported to have given jobs to scores of retired military officers and members of Sudan's state security organization, disbanded in the aftermath of the coup that brought down Numeiri.
Western governments, particularly the United States, find the Libyan activities in Sudan worrying, and the Sudanese themselves appear to be wary of Libyan intentions in their country.
The Libyans, however, have agreed to a Sudanese government appeal for arms to fight off the insurgent Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the south of Sudan. There is some irony in the agreement, reached early this month by the Sudanese defense minister on a visit to Tripoli.
The Americans, who have been Sudan's military hardware supplier for the past decade, are likely to find the Libyan arms deal particularly irritating. U.S. military assistance to Sudan was $46.5 million in 1984, by far the largest American military assistance effort in black Africa. Most of that assistance was designed as a defense against Libya.
The United States has long regarded Sudan as an important element in its Middle East policies, and a line of defense against perceived Kadafi mischief in Egypt and Africa. U.S. officials were particularly dismayed that the first official visitor to Khartoum, within days of the coup, was Kadafi himself. The Libyan leader arrived, in full military regalia, with a jetliner full of aides, about 100 of whom stayed behind when he departed.
Some observers here say the Libyans, beginning with Kadafi, have been arrogant and heavy-handed in Sudan, an operating style that may have been a serious mistake with the generally courtly and low-key Sudanese.
Stream of Visitors
Since then, the Libyans have sent a steady stream of visitors to Sudan, some of whom, diplomatic sources say, have been connected by various Western intelligence agencies to European and Mideastern terrorist activities. The United States was so alarmed that it placed Khartoum on the list of cities where Americans are warned against traveling. The official travel advisory remains in effect.
The Sudanese transitional government of Gen. Abdul-Rahman Suwar Dahab has since made an effort to keep track of Libyans entering the country and has reportedly asked several to leave. It is uncertain, however, whether the "undesirable" Libyan travelers have left or if they have slipped back into the country with different identity papers.
In addition to offering jobs to thousands of Sudanese who have had a hard time finding employment at home, the Libyans have taken hundreds of influential Sudanese on VIP tours to Libya, putting them up in luxury hotels and guest houses, to demonstrate the advantages of the Libyan "revolution."