July 9, 2008 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 453

New Arab Coalition Calls on Muslim World to End Silence on Darfur

July 9, 2008 | By R. Green*
Sudan | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 453


On May 10, 2008, members of the Darfur rebel organization called The Justice and Equality Movement, headed by Khalil Ibrahim, invaded the city of Omdurman, adjoining the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. The militants reached the heart of Sudan in off-road vehicles, after driving hundreds of kilometers through the desert. They attacked an air force base near Omdurman and attempted to strike other military targets and government buildings. According to their spokesmen, the rebels succeeded in taking over Omdurman and intended to overthrow the regime. Within a short time, street fighting broke out between the invaders and the Sudanese government forces – the police, the military, and the Popular Defense Forces.[1] The Sudanese media reported that the attackers numbered between 1,000 and 1,500 – about 10 fighters per field vehicle.[2]

The police declared an emergency and imposed a curfew in Khartoum. The city streets reverberated with explosions. According to residents, tanks and military vehicles were moving through the city as helicopters hovered above it. Several hours after the attack began, Sudanese television broadcast footage of the fighting, showing vehicles on fire and wounded rebels being apprehended. The following day, Sudanese President 'Omar Al-Bashir announced, on television, that the Sudanese government had severed relations with Chad, which it held responsible for the attack.

The Sudanese authorities were embarrassed by the events, because two days before the attack, security forces had officially announced that they had information about plans by the Justice and Equality Movement to attack Khartoum, and had stated that adequate measures were being taken to protect the population and government institutions.[3] They were especially embarrassed by the fact that the Khartoum attack had actually taken place – when no such event had ever occurred in the history of Sudan – thus dealing a heavy blow to the reputation of security forces, which are perceived as the backbone of the regime.

While the attention of the Arab media was completely monopolized by the Lebanon crisis, the Omdurman attack has been in the Sudanese headlines to this day.

Following are excerpts from articles in the Sudanese press relating to the invasion of Omdurman by the Darfur rebels:

Reactions in the Government Press: "If Not for the Precepts of Our Faith, We Would Have Left Their Carcasses in the Streets for Stray Dogs to Tear Apart"

In the days following the attack, journalists who supported the regime described the events as a victory by security forces over the rebels who had invaded the capital. Columnist 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Zuma, an Islamist and strident government supporter, extolled the government forces' courage, praising them for warding off the attack:[4]

"We can now confidently claim that we have achieved a glorious victory over the Chadian mercenaries, over the movement that calls itself 'Justice and Equality,' over Khalil Ibrahim, and over Chad. We can [also] say that we took them captive, confiscated their weapons, and] imprisoned and eradicated them. We strew the streets with their carcasses, and were it not for the precepts of our faith, we would have left them there, naked, for stray dogs to tear apart. It goes without saying that our brave fighters in the army, the police, the security forces, and from among the mujahideen[5] displayed courage in battle. They staunchly stood up to the attackers, and made them drink the poison [of defeat] – and by so doing, formed a new force of righteous martyrs. Equally self-evident is the courage of the Sudanese people, who went out into the streets, the mercenaries' heavy weapons notwithstanding. In fact, many of these mercenaries were apprehended by unarmed civilians. Such have been the ways of this people for years and years..."

Journalists in the government press portrayed the attack as a crushing defeat for the Justice and Equality movement. They took pains to use a variety of derogatory terms to refer to its members, e.g. "mercenaries," "foreigners," "Zionists," "puppets," etc.[6] Thus, Dhiya Al-Din Bilal, an editor at the pro-government paper Al-Rai Al-'Am, wrote in his column:[7]

"It seems that the message Khalil Ibrahim sought to convey to the Sudanese government with his recurring escapades has backfired. He wanted to prove his existence with a thunderous military operation that would compel all Darfur movements, as well as 'Abd Al-Wahid [Al-Nur],[8] to respect him as a politician and a negotiator. In the end, however, instead of dealing a blow to the enemy, Ibrahim gave himself a slap in the face. Since the inception of his movement, Khalil Ibrahim has openly announced to the media that he intended to move the arena of his military activities from Darfur to Khartoum. However, he failed to assess the ultimate [consequences] of his plans. Evidence suggests that Khalil's eagerness to shift the warfare to Khartoum was motivated not by political reasons or strategic considerations but only by an impulse that overwhelmed him, overriding not only all rational thinking but even his instinct for self-preservation...

"Because Khalil was driven by adventurousness and by a wish to settle scores with his former friends in the Islamic movement;[9] because he is deficient in logical reasoning, and because the opportunity for attacking Khartoum – in broad daylight, childishly, and without any backing – had presented itself, [he ended up making] a deranged choice, for which he will now pay dearly. The government that Khalil had intended to overthrow hastened to capitalize on his [blunder], by winning over [public] opinion in order to become stronger. [As a result,] instead of blaming the current situation on the government, the media are now portraying the government as the victim of the attack. This state of affairs is helping the government to deal with numerous problems, and it has also helped to lift up the military and the political pressures to which it has been subjected from the time the Darfur crisis broke out until last Saturday [May 10, 2008]..."

In celebrating the military victory over the rebels, the pro-government journalists echoed statements by senior government officials, who claimed that the attack had been backed by foreign elements such as Chad, Libya, 'the fifth column,'[10] Western countries, and the U.N. Thus, the editor in chief of the pro-government paper Al-Rai Al-'Am 'Ali, Isma'il Al-'Atbani,[11] wrote in his column: "...The invasion of Khartoum – this attempt at sabotage – was by no means insignificant or limited, either in terms of the number of forces involved in it or in terms of the preparations leading to it. The way Khalil Ibrahim spoke about [the raid] on the BBC and several other channels indicated that he was confident of his ability to take over Khartoum. One might wonder where such confidence could have come from.

"The 200 vehicles that entered [Khartoum] had every kind of military and logistic equipment – from weapons and ammunition to food and professional drivers. According to several reports, each vehicle was carrying between 10 and 15 rebel fighters. However, we believe that, in addition to these forces, a 'fifth column' was waiting for them in Khartoum. This is evident from the fact that, in Khartoum, some nefarious individuals who were sufficiently familiar with the map of Omdurman pointed out unpopulated areas, unguarded and freely accessible, and instructed [the rebels] to enter [the city] through them – [a strategy] that enabled many [rebel fighters] to enter the Omdurman region where defeat awaited them. We also believe that the fifth column was backed by an influential and scheming political force, with professional and skilled apparatuses at its disposal as well as information and an understanding of the political, military, and security map of Khartoum...

"The liberal climate in Khartoum played into the hands [of this fifth column], and perhaps also [into the hands of] some of [Khalil Ibrahim's] associates and connections from the past. The U.N. troops, as well as the French and European troops on the Sudanese-Chadian border, also lent a hand. It is difficult to imagine how a force comprising 200 vehicles could have gotten through [the border] unnoticed by the French and European forces deployed in Eastern Chad.[12] These [forces] claim that in this region they are able to detect even an ant. Moreover, these forces had been deployed to defend Chad and the refugee camps from any attack from without. So if these forces are in a position to defend the refugee camps, why aren't they guarding the Sudanese borders against infiltration from Chad?

"Furthermore, Khalil Ibrahim would not have traversed this entire region and infiltrated deep into Sudanese territory en route to Khartoum had he not been certain of the operation's success. There is more evidence that U.N. forces were involved in this conspiracy. As soon as it became known that the [rebels'] vehicles had penetrated Darfur, our brave forces set out to confront them in the Hura region of Darfur, and to bombard them from the air. That very night, however, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon appeared publicly and condemned the shelling of civilians by Sudanese airplanes. This was [obviously] done for a special purpose. Everybody in Sudan knows that the air force targeted the invaders' vehicles only in unpopulated areas..."

"But even the pro-government journalists could not ignore the gravity of the events, and they asked serious questions regarding the circumstances that had led up to them. Some were brave enough to point an accusing finger at senior officials – i.e. the defense minister and the security services head – who, the journalists said, should be brought to account for what the journalists considered to be their personal failure. The editor of Al-Intibaha, Al-Tayeb Mustafa, who was formerly a senior official in the ruling party, called on the defense minister to take personal responsibility for the incident:

"In many other countries, the government would resign over a failure 10 times less [grave] than the events [in Omdurman], that is, a breach of the security of the capital city. Military regimes like the one in Sudan settle scores with every soldier for any mistake committed on the battlefield, by court martialing him, which often leads to execution. The responsibility is greater in the case of senior officers and individuals in authority. I expect [Sudanese Defense Minister] General 'Abd Al-Rahim Muhammad Hussein [to resign]..."[13]

The Media Sows Hysteria to Inflate the Military's Success

Some commentators exaggerated the danger that the attack had posed to Khartoum and to its residents, so as to inflate the security forces' accomplishments. To this end, in one of his columns 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Zoma gave a vivid description of the attackers' weapons. His column reflects the hysteria gripping the city's population:

"The Sudanese citizens are still oscillating between being blinded by [the military's] achievement... and amazement at the sheer horror of the events, now that the scope of the conspiracy has gradually come to light. The people are now shocked not only at what actually happened but at what could have happened but for divine mercy... The extent of the conspiracy must be revealed to the people. It is imperative to inform the people of the number of attackers, of the number and kinds of weapons, and of each weapon's destructive potential. The citizens must hone their sense of weaponry, as it were. Hence, there is a need to hold an exhibition of the frightening weapons that were taken as booty, and to explain to the citizens what they actually are, so that they will grasp the repugnance and horror of what could have happened to them if, God forbid, these weapons had been put to use. A military expert told me that if the invaders had had the opportunity to use these weapons, nothing would now remain of the Sudanese capital Khartoum...

"When our brave officers exhibited the captured weapons, what caught the eye was the enormous 'tube' [i.e. the barrel of the SPG-9 recoilless gun], over 10 meters long – or at least so it seemed[14]... This tube, which to me resembles an irrigation pipe, is part of the frightening rocket launchers transported by these murderous wolves to our [country] in order to destroy our culture and wipe all life off the face of our wonderful homeland.

"[We must also] answer the important question: Could these weapons have been the property of the Chadian government? In other words, if the Chadian government has such terrifying weapons at its disposal, how come it allowed a few pickup trucks to penetrate N'Djamena and, for three days, to lay siege to the presidential palace, with the president imprisoned inside?[15] I contend that Chad is nothing but a mediator, or a pimp... just like Khalil Ibrahim and his mercenaries. Look at these weapons and judge [for yourselves]. All these weapons are French or American.[16] It requires little acumen to see that."

Independent and Liberal Press Accuse the Government, Express Concern Over Darfur's Future

Several academics and liberals saw the incident in the wider context of the conflict between the rebels and the government in Darfur, that has been ongoing since 2003. They believe that the Sudanese government had brought this attack on itself with its maltreatment of the Sudanese periphery. Thus, in an interview for the liberal website Elaph, Dr. Al-Baqer Al-'Afif, director of the Al-Khatm Adlan Center for Consultation and Human Development, blamed the government for the growing violence in Sudan:[17]

Q: "What is the reason for the Khartoum conflict between the government and the Justice and Equality movement, and for moving the violence to the capital?"

A: "The clashes in Sudan were triggered by the rulers' policy, which has led to polarization and tensions, while the government has become increasingly cruel and has been showing increasingly less common sense. There is a prevailing belief in Sudan that if you are entitled to a right, you must obtain it by force of arms. Peaceful means have come to be regarded as dishonorable, and as a result, the extreme polarization that Sudan is undergoing has come to be perceived as normal. The movement that carried out the operation – the Justice and Equality movement – is an armed organization; however, it operates in Darfur, which is far from the capital. They must have thought that as long as the war is being fought far from Khartoum, it has no impact on the rulers; therefore, they decided to shift it to where the rulers live.

"The main reason for what has happened is the government's inability to administer justice, to implement the principle of partnership, and to bring about national peace and conciliation. The regime's helplessness is evident to all. If this be the case, what option is there but to shake it, to frighten it, and to obtain rights by force of arms? The Justice and Equality movement's operation failed, because it did not bring about the takeover of the city; however, if the resistance continues, it will shake the regime and cause people to entertain the idea of getting rid of it. Indeed, since the regime has become a real problem, it cannot be part of the solution... The people have lost hope that the regime will ever change its policy."

In light of the deteriorating situation, in the independent press, too, there have been appeals to Sudanese citizens to engage in some serious soul-searching. A columnist for the daily Al-Sudani, 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Amin, intimated that the Sudanese center's desire to monopolize power had brougt about outbreaks of violence in the periphery. He also appealed to both the government and the public to refrain from taking advantage of events: "The painful and tragic events that struck Sudan and Omdurman must not make us lose our discernment, nor prevent us from moving forward in search of a just and fair solution to the Darfur problem. On the contrary: They must motivate and prompt [the central government] to move towards solidarity with the people of Darfur. [We must] recognize their hurt and conduct a dialogue with them, for the Darfurians are at the heart of the issue.

"In order to keep our moral compass from going haywire, we must gain the attention of the public, and we must warn it not to judge the righteous and the wicked equally, and not to make sweeping generalizations. Indeed, each criminal must be treated according to his share of responsibility [for the events], and the quagmire of stigmatization based on ethnic or national affiliation must be avoided at all costs. For if we let ourselves be drawn into this direction, we will descend to the level of those who sought... to spark civil war... Since we perceive Darfur as a political issue which calls for political solutions, we must seek these solutions on a national level. We must break free of the vicious circle of manipulation and accusations, raise ourselves above the concerns of the present moment, realize that the homeland is more valuable than all else, and refrain from entering negotiations out of considerations of gain or loss for a [single] group – rather, we must be guided by considerations of national interest.

"None can deny that we have distanced ourselves from a solution on the national level by letting the problem be handled by strangers and by asking others for solutions. Instead of choosing national unity and mutual support, we have cast national solidarity aside, swayed as we were by jealousy and deviousness. We believed – and part of this belief was sinful – that if we shut the door in the face of some of our compatriots, we could keep the [entire] cake [of the leadership] to ourselves – that is, until the problem boomeranged on us and dealt us a mighty blow. Today, we are reaping the fruit of our neglect and rift. We believe that the Justice and Equality movement miscalculated in rejecting positive dialogue, when the time and circumstances are ripe for negotiations. There is concern that the recent events will be exploited for negative purposes, precipitating extreme sanctions and security measures as well as a decline in press freedom.

"These recent events must propel us even more forcefully in the direction of open-mindedness and freedom, and away from polarization. Who knows, maybe they will make it clear to every sensible person that harmonious political discourse leads to positive dialogue and creates more room for freedoms..."

Scant Interest in the Arab World

It would be expected that an attack on any Arab capital city would make headlines in the Middle Eastern media. However, while the Khartoum events did gain some coverage in the Arab press outside Sudan, they were eclipsed by the Lebanon crisis, which reached its peak at the same time. As a result, the Khartoum affair triggered practically no response among journalists or commentators. An exception to this was 'Abdullah Al-Qafari, columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, who sought to spark interest in the Khartoum events among the Arab public with an article titled "Sudan, Too, Is An Arab Affair."[18] He wrote:

"It is impossible to explain the Justice and Equality movement's invasion of [Khartoum]... except as an attempt to wreak havoc in the Arab regime, which is surrounded on all sides by powerful conspiracies – from the crisis in the Southern [Sudan], which despite the signing of a peace treaty, is still open to any eventuality, especially in the oil-rich region of Abyei, to the Darfur crisis, which has become a wound kept open [artificially] by [conspirators] in order to besiege and overthrow the regime...

"There is only one plausible explanation for the [invasion]: [It is an attempt] to weaken the Sudanese regime and to distort the assessment of its ability to provide security and to uphold the basic development that has recently begun with the help of revenues from oil production and [foreign] investments. Despite its mistakes, the Sudanese regime is still an Arab regime – in a region where no regime is immune to error. In other words, the weakening of [the Sudanese regime] is, at this point, tantamount to jeopardizing the Arab national security.

"This region is extremely sensitive, but it is also a potential granary [for the rest of the Arab world]. Arab investments had just started to flow into Sudan, when a group of rebels appeared and drove the shy capitalists away from the bread basket. It is impossible to account for the existence of any rebel group which has enough equipment and manpower to take control of the suburbs of a national capital other than by [assuming that] it is being assisted from without.

"Chad is nothing but a corridor for such organizations. The Chadian regime cannot defend [even] its presidential palace without help from the French. Chad is nothing but a corridor. There is a greater and stronger force subsidizing and making plans on behalf of [this organization,] which has the funds, weapons, and capability to utilize these means to apply force. There is no reason that the Lebanon issue – which undeniably merits attention – should lessen concern for the security of a neighboring Arab country [Sudan], whose regime – which is not the worst in the Arab world – is under the greatest threat...

"Letting Sudan deal with one conspiracy after another on its own means [exposing] the large neighboring Arab countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia to perpetual danger."

*R. Green is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[1] The Popular Defense Forces is the popular government militia, established in the 1990s to fight the rebels in south Sudan.

[2] The invasion was therefore dubbed or "The Land Cruiser War" or "The Toyota War," in an allusion to the rebels' Toyota vehicles.

[3] Al-Rai Al-'Am (Sudan), May 9, 2008.

[4] Al-Sudani (Sudan), May 13, 2008.

[5] The term " mujahideen" here refers to the Popular Defense Forces.

[6], May 26, 2008.

[7] Al-Rai Al-'Am (Sudan), May 13, 2008.

[8] 'Abd Al-Wahid Al-Nur is the leader of a rival Darfurian rebel organization, the Sudanese Liberation Army.

[9] Khalil Ibrahim, leader of the Justice and Equality movement, was a member of the National Islamic Front, a Sudanese Islamic party. In the early 1990s he became disillusioned with the movement because of its disregard for the miserable conditions of the residents on the Sudanese periphery. In 1999 the party split, following a dispute between Sudanese President 'Omar Al-Bashir and the Sudanese Islamists' ideologue Hassan Al-Turabi; Ibrahim sympathized with the Al-Turabi faction.

[10] "The fifth column" presumably refers to Turabi and his followers in the Popular Congress Party.

[11] Al-Rai Al-'Am (Sudan), May 12, 2008.

[12] i.e. EUFOR Chad.

[13] Al-Intibaha (Sudan), May 14, 2008.

[14] The actual length of the SPG-9 launcher is 2.11m.

[15] The reference here is to the attempted coup carried out by Chadian rebels in February this year.

[16] In fact, the SPG-9 launcher is of Soviet manufacture.

[17], May 15, 2008.

[18] Al-Riyadh (Sudan), August 19, 2005.

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