SINCE Omar al-Bashir took power in a coup in 1989, he has tended to grant democratic freedoms only when absolutely forced to. The peace deal of 2005 that ended 21 years of civil war between the Arab north and the black south relaxed sharia law on non-Muslims, one of the southerners’ main complaints, and, at the urging of the West, provided for free and fair elections. Mr Bashir’s regime in Khartoum, the capital, allowed a bit of space for opposition politicians and journalists when the polls finally happened in April. But once the event was over and Mr Bashir had been confirmed as president after a shoddy election, he quickly and sharply tightened the reins once more.
His first and biggest victim since the poll is a veteran Islamist, Hassan al-Turabi, an ally turned staunch critic of the president. Since May 15th he has been held without charge. He has been jailed half a dozen times in the past decade, last year for suggesting that Mr Bashir should hand himself over to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which has charged him with war crimes committed when suppressing rebels in the western region of Darfur. The National Security Service, a controversial body, has yet to explain why it nabbed Mr Turabi this time. An official of Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) said he had published inflammatory articles and abetted the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Darfur rebel group.
This is an old charge that Mr Turabi, who is said to be in solitary confinement, has always denied. A communiqué from the information ministry did not mention Mr Turabi by name, but lambasted a series of articles in his newspaper, Rai al-Shaab, including one that suggested a link between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and a Sudanese factory. The newspaper has been closed and several of its journalists also detained. The family of the acting editor says he has been tortured.
Siddiq al-Turabi, the old man’s son, says Mr Bashir has used a flawed election to justify a return to repression. The ruling NCP won nearly every seat in the north; many of the main opposition parties boycotted the poll. The NCP and its organs, says the younger Turabi, will revert to their old ways, using a security law to detain people arbitrarily. “This is not the promised heaven after elections, this is the opposite.”
Opposition politicians from several groups joined Mr Turabi’s party in criticising his detention. Some opposition leaders had spoken of their pleasure at the relative freedoms accorded them during the electoral campaign, when they were allowed out on the trail and were even given a bit of access to the state media. But several, including Yassir Arman, a senior figure in the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political arm of the main southern rebel group, had given warning that these would disappear once the poll was over. Another opposition figure, Farouk Abu Issa, was also briefly detained.
The media had also been given a freer hand during the election. In September the president had issued a decree that cancelled “pre-censorship”, a device requiring national-security people to visit newspaper offices every evening to remove any article they disliked. So a flurry of articles came out in some of the braver pro-opposition newspapers, criticising Mr Bashir and his NCP. Journalists had hoped they would continue in this way after the election. But a few days after Mr Turabi was detained, the editors of Ajras al-Hurriya and al-Sahafa said that national-security agents had told them not to publish articles on Darfur, Mr Turabi or politics in the wake of the poll. Ajras al-Hurriya, the SPLM’s Arabic-language newspaper, had so many articles censored it decided not to publish the next day. Journalists have complained to official bodies about the closure of Rai al-Shaab and the return of pre-censorship, to no avail.
Some opposition politicians had expected Mr Bashir to announce the release of the journalists and Mr Turabi during his recent inauguration. Instead, Mr Bashir lauded the benefits the elections had brought and declared that Sudan’s people had taught the world a lesson. Foreign governments and monitoring bodies have expressed unease about the polls, while limiting their criticism to “technical irregularities”. The polls, they say cagily, “did not meet international standards”. But Mr Bashir’s people repeatedly hail a “democratic transformation”. The first multi-party contest since 1986 was “a valuable stepping-stone” towards true democracy.
Western diplomats privately admit their top priority was not the cleanliness of the election nor the revival of political freedoms but next January’s referendum, when the southerners, under the 2005 peace deal, are to vote on independence. If that vote is fair, they will probably choose to have a brand-new country.
So the election’s chief upshot is that Mr Bashir has tightened his grip in the north and the SPLM has done the same in the south, where a disaffected general has already taken to the bush with several hundred men, alleging massive electoral fraud. Both the SPLM and Mr Bashir’s NCP seem sure to cite their big majorities as a justification for swatting dissent. And if the south becomes independent, do not expect too much freedom there either.