JUBA, Sudan—Despite the historic independence referendum process recently concluded in Southern Sudan, many people here in the Southern Sudanese capital have Cairo on the brain. In hotel bars and restaurants across Juba, near-constant coverage of the fast-moving events in Egypt over the past two weeks has inspired conversation among southerners about the possible ripple effect of the impassioned uprisings.
Sudan will soon break in two, but politicians and everyday southerners and northerners alike are well aware that the fate of the two Sudans will remain intertwined. So although the immediate and more obvious impact of the Egypt and Tunisia revolts is already apparent in the Arab, Muslim northern half of Sudan, Southern Sudanese are also watching Tahrir Square closely.
The take among some southerners seems contrary to the views expressed by northern Sudanese students and activists who rallied in the streets of Khartoum, reportedly inspired by the Egypt and Tunisia revolts. Many of the students who protested a week ago in Khartoum called for a peaceful overthrow of the Islamist National Congress Party that has ruled with an iron fist for more than two decades.
While I watched Al Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square from a Lebanese restaurant in Juba, an employee in the southern government’s Ministry of Finance told me he was worried that “post-Mubarak” Egypt could be worse than the current situation, explaining he was fearful the Muslim Brotherhood could gain a stronger foothold. This southerner’s view on Egypt may be shaped by his fears of the situation in northern Sudan, where a more radical version of Islam could take root in the aftermath of the southern secession.
While this Egypt analysis may not hold water, it is reflective of a sentiment held by some southerners, and – very quietly—by Western diplomats including top officials in the Obama administration. President Bashir is quickly turning into a “man we can work with,” which is a sea change from his previous persona as indicted war criminal. Somehow Bashir is now a moderate, even a bulwark against a more radical Islamist ideology among other members of his party and opposition members.
Anyone who has read a lick of Sudanese history can’t help but see the irony in this noticeable policy change. As northern Sudan faces up to a a toxic combination of new problems—outlined by Bec Hamilton this week –the Obama administration and diplomats may back Bashir to promote stability in an increasingly fragile region.
I hope I’m not the only one who feels that this scenario is frighteningly reminiscent of various moments during the United States’ long and intimate relationship with Mubarak.