Egypt: Standing by Sudan

Category: Commentary
Published on Friday, 13 March 2009 18:54
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gamal-nkrumah
Gamal Nkrumah is a contributing editor to Al-Ahram Weekly, where he writes regularly on Sudan
As unfavorable ideas go, this one is a corker, as far as Egypt is concerned. The choices that confront Sudan preoccupy Egypt. One danger, for both Egypt and Sudan, lies in failing to think clearly about short term and long term. In the short term, peace in Darfur is a priority for both Egypt and Sudan. In the long term, Sudan's territorial integrity and national sovereignty are at stake. "Egypt seeks peace and we don't have a hidden agenda," President Hosni Mubarak declared. Egypt proposed a United Nations conference to discuss the ICC indictment of Bashir, even though the Sudanese government declined Cairo's bid on the pretext that it might lead to the internationalisation of the issue.

"We are only concerned about Sudan's interests and the welfare of its people," Mubarak stated categorically. He dispatched Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul- Gheit and General Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman to the Sudanese capital Khartoum to discuss the latest crisis concerning the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrant for President Omar Al-Bashir. Egyptian officials concur that the primary purpose of Egypt's solidarity with Sudan is to advance the interests of the "two fraternal neighbouring states," as Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the People's Assembly Mustafa El-Feki told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Southern Sudan is rich in economic resources, which attracts Western and Asian, especially Chinese, interests out to make a quick kill. With this in mind, Egypt understands the gravity of the threat that faces Sudan. Peacekeepers have a deplorable record in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their failure to protect civilians from ill-disciplined government troops and pro-government militias is proverbial. In Sudan the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) has so far kept a relatively low profile. Some 1,500 Egyptian troops are currently stationed in Darfur, even though certain Darfur armed opposition groups objected to the Egyptian participation in UNAMID, most notably the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Army. Egypt was one of the first countries to send its UNAMID contingency to Darfur.

In the turbulent aftermath of the ICC indictment of Sudanese President Al-Bashir the future of the hitherto buoyant Sudanese economy may be in jeopardy. "This is the last thing Egypt wants. Egypt would like to see a prosperous, politically stable and peaceful Sudan," El-Feki explained. "Egypt is poised for participating positively in Sudan's economic uplift."

"As far as Egypt is concerned, the indictment of President Al-Bashir by the ICC would have a detrimental impact on the Sudanese economy. That is neither in the interest of Sudan nor Egypt," El-Feki added.

Sudan, together with Egypt, would like to see the international community assist the Sudanese economy. Western donors have dramatically reduced humanitarian assistance to Sudan. "Egypt is at the forefront of supporting nation building in Sudan," El-Feki told the Weekly. "Sudan constitutes the strategic depth of Egypt and is key to its water security and potentially for its food security too. Sudan's agricultural potential is tremendous and yet untapped. Egypt is prepared to step up its agricultural investment in Sudan. And, we are prepared to work with representatives of all the various Sudanese groups and regions. If the southern Sudanese people decide to secede, we are ready to accept and respect their choice. If they decide to stay within a federal Sudan, we will back them. Among numerous joint ventures, we have established a branch of the University of Alexandria in the southern Sudanese capital of Darfur."

The cost to Sudan of withholding aid might be high at a time of global penny- pinching. But the consequences of inaction will be far higher. It is against this backdrop that Egypt is prepared to help Sudan in any fashion the Sudanese people require.

Sudan is bracing itself for a big bang and a perfect storm. The country stands at the crossroads. This is a testing time for the current and future administrations of Sudan, and Egyptian officials are acutely conscious of the Sudanese conundrum and are at pains to explain that they would back whatever decisions the Sudanese people adopt.

If push comes to shove, managing a potentially tricky Sudanese transition will not be easy. Moreover, it would be a protracted affair and may prove awkward for both Egypt and Sudan. For all these reasons, Egypt assumes its responsibilities to drive forward this necessary new Sudan. Tacit agreement to do nothing would be dangerous for both neighbours.

There are other reasons for caution. The need for dialogue between all the rival Sudanese factions is pivotal. "It is for this reason that Egypt attempts to maintain close contacts with all the various political groups, both government and opposition," El-Feki stressed. "At the same time we should work on initiatives to drive forward a more productive, more democratic Sudan," he concluded.

Egypt may not have much leverage over Sudan, but a rift in bilateral relations between Egypt and its neighbour to its immediate south will be detrimental to both countries.

The balkanisation of Sudan will come at a time when Egypt can least afford it. "But this is a question for the Sudanese people to determine."