New Internationalist

Egypt steps in

March 2008

Arab state becomes peacemaker as conflict worsens

In early January, the United Nations and African Union finally began deploying a joint international force to Darfur. Almost immediately, the Sudanese Government attacked a UN peacekeeping convoy, leaving one man in a critical condition. With attacks like this continuing, many wonder who can take up the challenge of brokering a real and lasting peace for this troubled region in western Sudan.

‘It is a very difficult task,’ Jan Eliasson, the UN envoy to Dafur, said after high-level talks in the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh last December. ‘The military escalation on the ground in Darfur, outside Darfur, and outside Sudan continues. We have clashes. We have a very fragile humanitarian situation.’

Egypt, the largest Muslim and Arabic-speaking nation in the world, seems intent on helping to bring compromise to its war-torn southern neighbour. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has begun pushing the international community to do more. In early January he sent a message to the UN Security Council appealing to the five permanent members actively to help defuse the tension between Sudan and Chad over Darfur, which he argued was a major impediment to peace.

One problem stalling peace initiatives is disagreement among the Darfur rebel groups and their many factions. Tawer Ali, a key leader and negotiator in Egypt’s Sudanese refugee community, says there is much tension and squabbling among the rebel leaders. Often portrayed as a unified group fighting a just cause against the imperialism of Khartoum, the rebel leaders are in fact ‘a bunch of individuals fighting for their own power. They [rebel leaders] are fractured, and argue instead of coming together to develop a single platform to bring to the table,’ Ali said in Cairo.

Ali believes Egypt is in a unique position to bridge the growing divide among the rebels, Khartoum and the international community, who have thus far failed to agree on much.

‘Egypt has offered to bring together the different groups. As it is a Muslim and Arabic-speaking nation, people in Sudan – rebels and the Government – will perhaps give it more of a chance than its unpopular European and American counterparts,’ Ali muses, although he adds with scepticism, ‘I doubt the Sudanese Government is really going to be moving forward with peace. They haven’t in five years so why should we expect them to do so now?’

Some in Cairo believe the Egyptian Government’s spearheading of peace talks with Khartoum stems from the international criticism it has faced regarding government and citizens’ racism against Sudanese refugees residing in the country. ‘There is a huge problem of racism in Egypt, which is generally denied,’ confirms Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond, a Cairo-based expert on forced migration and refugees.

With Egypt deploying over 1,000 soldiers to the troubled region, Cairo is signifying its intention to remain a major player in the efforts to end the five years of violence, hosting key meetings between the Government and rebels. However, while war rages on and more Darfurians are killed or displaced, Egypt’s involvement may represent the last glimmer of hope for the devastated region.

Joseph Mayton

This column was published in the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 409

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