Airstrike turns foes of regime into allies

U.S. becomes focus of anger that critics leveled at Khartoum

August 25, 1998|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KHARTOUM, Sudan -- For perhaps the first time in his life, Ghazi Suleiman is defending the same cause as the Sudanese government he detests.

A lawyer and human rights activist, Suleiman represents the pharmaceutical company that the United States bombed Thursday in retaliation for terrorist attacks at two U.S. embassies in East Africa.

The Clinton administration claims the El Shifa factory was producing a chemical weapons component and was tied to the exiled Saudi businessman it holds responsible for the embassy bombings.

Suleiman is an outspoken critic of the Islamic fundamentalist regime of Sudanese President Omar Hassan el-Bashir. But both he and the government have argued repeatedly -- and in some respects convincingly -- that the privately owned factory produced only medicines and veterinary products and has no links to Saudi Osama bin Laden.

What disturbs Suleiman is that the U.S. action has become a public relations coup for Sudan's dictators.

"The government is capitalizing on this situation," said Suleiman, 53, who has been jailed for his harsh comments against the Bashir government.

Sudan, the largest country in Africa and one of the poorest, has long been considered a pariah state.

Its human rights record is abysmal. Critics at home charge that the Bashir regime has enriched itself on the backs of the poor. The United States has imposed economic sanctions against Sudan for its alleged support of international terrorism.

"The regime is beset, surrounded, by almost every conceivable problem," said Abdul Rahman Abu Zayd, an Islamic scholar and retired professor. "They have a civil war going on. The economy is in shambles. We have a famine in the south of Sudan. We have military skirmishes on our eastern border" and tribal disputes in the west.

But in the streets of Khartoum, the anger often directed against the government and its repressive policies is now focused on the United States.

"Clinton, if he comes here, we will attack him," said Rasha Ibrahim Adam, a 24-year-old student at Khartoum University. "The factory, its medicines for children; it is very important for us."

The Shifa company, whose products can be found in most Sudanese homes, made more than 50 percent of the medicines sold in Sudan. And many Sudanese worry that their health needs won't be met.

"What about the people in the hospital? Who will bring the medicine?" asked Paul Oyaz, a Shifa employee now out of work. "The Americans? No."

"This is a big loss for the American interests in Sudan," said Ali Kimbal, a spokesman for the Sudan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

After the Thursday night attack, thousands of Sudanese demonstrated in Khartoum's Martyrs Square and burned the American flag. Others stormed the closed U.S. Embassy and stoned it. And yesterday, hundreds of Sudanese women marched outside the presidential palace, holding banners that read, "Away away USA" and "We're ready to protect the faith" -- a reference to the Islamic government in power since a 1989 coup.

Yesterday, Bashir pointed to the demonstrations as evidence of the people's support for his "salvation government."

He said the U.S. attack would not "impede our political process such events will only strengthen us."

Suleiman and other critics of the government charge that the demonstrations -- broadcast worldwide -- were staged by the regime.

That's not to say the Sudanese aren't upset about the military strike and the political fallout. Some view the factory bombing as another attempt by the United States to interfere with the Bashir government.

"A lot of people were genuinely expressing their anger," said Abu Zayd, the Islamic academic. "A lot of Sudanese, patriots and nationalists, were upset by this. We feel that if we have a problem with the government we should settle it ourselves. It should be a Sudanese matter."

"Any gains the Bashir regime has made because of the American action won't last," Abu Zayd said. "People are so disgusted with the regime. I think this rallying behind the regime will be short-lived. In two to three days, the people will look on the miserable conditions of their life."

Najib Babikan, a student at Khartoum University, isn't waiting that long.

"A person here lacks many things," said Babikan as he sat in an outdoor university coffee shop. "Democracy, knowledge, freedom. We have no opportunity to say this to anyone in Sudan because no one will listen to us and do anything."

Pub Date: 8/25/98

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