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Sudan's `Islamic Renaissance'

The West sees a haven for Muslim extremists, but the image of a harsh Islamic dictatorship doesn't quite fit - a letter from Khartoum

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ESPECIALLY during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim fast that ended last week, a lot of people in Khartoum spend a lot of time sitting on the dusty sidewalks or by the banks of the Nile doing not very much. Among them, though, are a class of petty entrepreneurs who are more purposeful than they look.

They are known as shamaze in Arabic, "sunners," because they sit in the sun all day. But if you know how to recognize them, they can lay their hands on goods for you that the average citizen cannot acquire.

Gasoline, for example. Critically short of foreign exchange, the Sudanese government is having trouble buying oil, and car owners are rationed to two gallons a week. Up the street from most gas stations, however, or around the back, you can usually find someone who will take your money - four times the official price - walk off with your jerrycan to his friend at the pump, and come back with as much gas as you need.

The government knows about this, of course, and every so often a truckload of plainclothes security men will drive up to haul away anyone filling illegal jerrycans. But with inflation and economic hardships fueling popular discontent, the authorities seem to have concluded that the black market serves as a useful safety valve.

The nature of the Sudanese authorities is not easy to discern. Lt. Gen. Omar Hassan al-Bashir came to power in a military coup almost four years ago, in June 1989, and many key government officials are also Army officers. Others are earnest young revolutionaries with strong Islamic strains who appear genuinely to believe that their vision of a popular direct democracy, unencumbered by political parties, independent of the West, and strictly based on the edicts of the Koran, can serve as a model for the A rab world.

It is not a model that the Christian and animist people of the south have any faith in, however, after suffering bitterly at the hands of Khartoum's Army over the last 10 years of civil war, and opposition figures who have fallen afoul of the ever-watchful secret police have their doubts, too.

But Sudan's image as a harsh Islamic dictatorship, imposed by fanatical mullahs in consort with Iran, does not exactly fit either. The regime's "eminence grise," Hassan al-Turabi, is no Ayatollah Khomeini. Urbane, charming, and immensely well-read, he presents the kinder, gentler face of Islamic fundamentalism - which he prefers to call the Islamic renaissance - and enjoys debating American and European academics.

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