CAIRO — Sudanese army units took up positions around the nation's capital Monday as citizens of Africa's largest country anxiously waited to see if forces loyal to parliament Speaker Hassan Turabi would dare to fight an emergency decree imposed by his rival for power, President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir.
But the only fighting so far was a war of words that raged between the two partners-turned-enemies, who together have headed Africa's only avowedly Islamic regime for more than a decade since seizing power from an elected government.
Their long-simmering political feud came into the open Sunday night when Bashir--without warning--ordered a three-month state of emergency and dissolved the one-party parliament, headed by Turabi, which had become almost a parallel government.
Bashir, at a news conference Monday, said he had no intention of taking further action against Turabi and portrayed the state of emergency as a constitutionally permitted measure in times of crisis. He alleges that the country is under renewed assault from outside forces, primarily the United States.
"Two captains leading one ship will cause it to sink," Bashir said. "This country needed one leader to steer it out of this situation."
An army lieutenant general, Bashir claimed that he had secured the backing of the country's military for his decree.
Turabi, at a separate news conference at his house, ridiculed the president's pretext that the parliament posed any danger to the state. "This was a plain and clear coup d'etat," he said. He accused Bashir of "treason to Islamic values."
In Cairo, a spokesman for the chief Sudanese opposition coalition in exile, the National Democratic Alliance, saw the rift between Bashir and Turabi as a boost for democracy in Sudan. "It is the beginning of the end of the Islamic fundamentalist agenda," said Farouk Abou Eissa.
Eissa saw Bashir as being in the stronger position but expressed fear that Turabi backers in the army or in the "international fundamentalist movement" would still attempt to rescue the parliament speaker from political defeat. Over the past decade, the Sudanese army has been purged repeatedly, and officers adhering to Turabi's strict Islamist doctrine hold most strategic posts, he said.
Apparently wary of possible retaliation, Bashir put extra troops outside the parliament, government offices and military installations in Khartoum.
From the outside, the emergency decree looked like a case of the fox turning on the hounds. Turabi, the secretary-general of the ruling National Congress party, had been maneuvering for months to whittle away Bashir's powers. Within days, for example, parliament was due to enact new constitutional amendments that would have taken away the president's say in the appointment of provincial governors.
Turabi also repeatedly had insulted the president and undermined his foreign policy initiatives, including attempts to reconcile Sudan and Egypt, according to Sudanese political analyst Abdelwahhab Effendi. "The question became: Is Turabi part of the government or is he in opposition? And if he represents the opposition, how come he controls parliament?" Effendi said, according to the Mideast Mirror monitoring service.
In any case, the emergency decree added a further layer of confusion to the sprawling and largely uneducated country of 30 million, one of Africa's poorest, that is already rent by civil war.
The Muslim- and Arab-dominated north is fighting to maintain its sovereignty over the mainly black south, whose people tend to practice an amalgam of traditional and Christian religions. Fighting and famine attributable to the conflict have killed an estimated 2 million people since the latest civil war broke out in 1983.
Sudan is treated by the United States as a pariah state for its alleged support of terrorist groups. And Christian activists in the United States and Europe have accused the government of condoning slavery, with northerners allegedly raiding southern tribes and then enslaving captives. Khartoum rejects both charges.
In the past two years, Sudan has been trying to present a more moderate image to the world. A new constitution passed last year was supposed to usher in a multi-party system. And various banned opposition members have been invited back home from exile.
If Bashir's action against Turabi is allowed to stand--a big if in Sudan's constantly shifting political sands--it could lead to a more moderate Sudan more likely to seek reconciliation with its neighbors and the West, some analysts believe, because Turabi was considered the more militant of the two leaders.
A brilliant, honey-tongued intellectual educated at the Sorbonne in Paris, Turabi has been one of the Middle East's most outspoken proponents of the philosophy of political Islam, arguing that countries with Muslim majorities should be governed by Sharia, or Islamic law, and that the state can be used to further the aims of religion.