“EGYPT AND DARFUR: Cruel Intentions”
From The New Republic (on-line)
April 4, 2006
by Eric Reeves
Last week, the Arab League held its annual summit in Khartoum. The choice of venue alone was a symbolic victory for Sudan’s genocidal government. More to the point, while the Arab League may not be a generally effective organization, its members have played an unfortunate role in the Darfur genocide: Along with China, they have been among the only governments consistently to defend Khartoum. That happened again last week, when the Arab League announced it would support Sudan’s opposition to the deployment of U.N. troops to Darfur.
The most important–and most pernicious–role has been played by the Arab League’s most powerful country. Egypt, which governed Sudan along with Great Britain under “condominium rule” from 1898 through 1956, has long had an essentially colonial view of its neighbor to the south. Today, Sudan continues to loom large in Egyptian foreign policy: partly because the Nile’s waters–Egypt’s most essential natural asset–run north from Sudan, but also because Egypt aspires to exert hegemonic power in the Horn of Africa. By consistently defending Sudan’s genocidal leaders on the international stage, Egypt has earned considerable goodwill from Khartoum, and therefore leverage over the regime. That is exactly what Cairo wants.
At independence, Cairo sought (unsuccessfully) to convince Sudanese leaders to form a union with their previous colonial rulers. In the late 1970s, Egypt was the primary backer of the Jonglei Canal in southern Sudan. This project would have straightened the course of the White Nile, with the goal of increasing water flow to Egypt. It would have also produced an environmental disaster of the first order, destroying the ecosystem that defines the lives and livelihoods of many indigenous southern Sudanese populations, particularly the Nuer tribal group. Only the outbreak of renewed civil war in 1983 halted the project, which was never completed.
In July 2001, Egypt, along with Libya, tried to undermine the north-south Sudanese peace talks being weakly promoted under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a group of seven East African nations. The IGAD negotiations were based on a “declaration of principles” that included the critical right of southern self-determination. But Egypt’s leaders–fearful that an independent southern Sudan would not be party to the riparian treaties governing use of the Nile waters, and loath to see their allies in Khartoum weakened–sought to undermine the process: The so-called “Joint Libyan-Egyptian Initiative” proposed to remove the right of self-determination and create an alternative negotiating venue. In short, Egypt was willing to sabotage peace prospects for Sudan because it objected to the possibility of southern self-determination, including possible secession. Fortunately, Egypt’s efforts failed, and the IGAD talks eventually led to a peace agreement in January 2005.
Most recently, Cairo has backed the National Islamic Front in its genocidal policies in Darfur. Few countries have provided more diplomatic or political cover for the NIF regime, particularly in its efforts to forestall humanitarian intervention. Cairo has offered an unqualified defense of Sudan’s claim to national sovereignty (Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit insisted last month that Khartoum would have to approve the dispatch of U.N. troops to Darfur). And so long as Khartoum can count on Egyptian support, it can count on support from the Arab League as a whole. The group has served mainly as an extension of Egyptian foreign policy (it was no surprise last week when former Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa was named to a second five-year term as secretary general). To be sure, the Arab League is a largely discredited group. Still, any conferral of legitimacy from an international organization gives Khartoum’s genocidaires backing they don’t deserve.
Cairo also shares Khartoum’s intense distaste for meaningful human rights monitoring. The New York Times recently reported that a cabal of the world’s worst human rights abusers, including Egypt, was seeking to block reform of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, an inept international body that, all too predictably, includes among its members the government of Sudan. Egypt’s own appalling human rights record includes the government’s murderous assault on Sudanese refugees in Cairo this past December. The victims were overwhelmingly non-Arab or African, including refugees from Darfur. The racial contempt for these populations is patent in the attitudes of Cairo’s leaders.
In January 2005, a U.N. Commission of Inquiry referred 51 names to the International Criminal Court for investigation for “crimes against humanity,” war crimes, and possible genocide in Darfur. The names of senior officials in the NIF regime are certainly on this list, so it’s not hard to see why Khartoum would resist an ICC investigation. But Egyptian support has likely encouraged recalcitrance. Last year, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said that Sudan should be allowed to investigate war crimes in Darfur on its own. He went on to warn that “adopting tough measures”–in other words, proceeding with ICC investigations and prosecution–would “produce contrary results, not serve ongoing efforts to resolve the issue in the Sudanese region of Darfur, and give a chance to the parties to deepen the crisis.” In other words, Egypt joined Khartoum in warning off ICC investigator Luis Moreno-Ocampo, and the ICC has still not been given access to witnesses in Darfur. How much did Egyptian backing encourage Khartoum to resist the ICC? Hard to say. But Cairo’s stance certainly has not helped the situation.
Meanwhile, Egypt has strenuously warned against the imposition of sanctions on Sudan. At the end of February, Qatar, the only Arab country currently on the Security Council, sided with China and Russia in obstructing moves towards sanctions against Khartoum. This stance almost certainly reflected Arab League–and thus Egyptian–thinking on the issue. The upshot is that though the Security Council voted over a year ago to impose sanctions on those working against peace and security in Darfur, not a single member of the National Islamic Front has been sanctioned.
Egypt also played an unfortunate role in the African Union’s decision last month to reject an immediate transfer of its mission in Darfur to the United Nations. Cairo had made clear that it opposed such a transfer–despite the fact that the A.U. force has proven unable to provide the security necessary for humanitarian operations to reach hundreds of thousands of desperate civilians.
In the deadly realpolitik that is Egyptian foreign policy, Sudan plays an essential role in regional strategy. Cairo wants the National Islamic Front to retain full control of Sudan and thereby forestall a referendum on southern self-determination. Cairo also wishes Khartoum to accept Egyptian preeminence within the Horn of Africa. All this is made easier if Khartoum feels indebted Cairo. Now it does. To Egypt, the cost of buying this support has been cheap, since it is being paid mainly by the people of Darfur.
Eric Reeves is a professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College and has written extensively on Sudan.