Why Egypt won't press Sudan: the Nile

Key power broker Egypt refuses to pressure Khartoum to accept UN troops in Darfur.

To the US and much of Europe, sending a United Nations peacekeeping force to Sudan's troubled Darfur region is a matter of simple humanitarian necessity. The three-year-old conflict has left more than 200,000 civilians dead and driven 2.5 million more from their homes.

But Egypt, perhaps the country with the greatest influence on Khartoum, remains opposed to punishing sanctions or any efforts to force Sudan to accept UN peacekeepers. The reason? The Nile.

The world's longest river is literally Egypt's lifeline, with most of its 80 million people huddled along its banks. Without it, the ancient Egyptian civilization that built the pyramids would have never emerged, nor would modern Egypt have become a major Arab cultural center. The Greek historian Herodotus, who wrote that "Egypt is the gift of the Nile" 2,400 years ago, is as right today as he was then.

The river's role gives Egypt a clear focus when it comes to what it wants from its southern neighbor: A stable and friendly regime that can be counted on to avoid damming or diverting the Nile's waters.

"Egypt wants Sudan to stay unified. Egypt couldn't bear economically or politically that Sudan could be divided,'' says Helmy Sharawi, head of the African Arab Studies Center in Cairo. "I don't think there is any real threat of secession, but a UN presence could pose major problems for the regime. And if there's a very weak government in Khartoum ... then the whole position of Egypt in the Nile basin community would be weakened."

Analysts say that as long as Egypt supports Khartoum, the governments led by the United States who passed a UN Security Council resolution demanding a 20,000-strong UN force in Darfur will remain frustrated. On a swing through the Middle East, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the current surge of violence against civilians in Darfur "cannot be tolerated" and blamed Khartoum for refusing to allow the UN presence.

While Egypt receives about $2 billion in US aid per year, and can generally be counted on to not openly confront the US on its policy priorities, recent statements from Egyptian leaders indicate that Sudan is a different case. In a statement this week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Abdul Aboul Gheit said the "main responsibility" for the current bloodshed in Darfur lies with rebel groups who took up arms against the government in 2003 to press for autonomy and more of the country's resources.

Of course, this is not to say that Egypt is opposed to a UN presence under any circumstances. Rather, Egypt wants to make sure that Khartoum retains a veto on any possible deployment, both for the sake of the Sudanese government's stability and to avoid a precedent being set for unilateral UN action. That second concern is also why countries like China and Russia oppose America's publicly stated position that Sudanese consent is not required.

Also, many analysts fear that forcing UN troops into the country could be a recipe for more violence and instability in the long run. "Why should anyone expect that unilateral action won't make the situation worse? Look at the example of Iraq,'' says Mr. Sharawi.

"It seems the US is insisting on a UN deployment no matter what, and is ignoring the African Union and the Arab league, even the European Union. How can you succeed without respecting the regional organizations? Yes, the African Union hasn't succeeded, but that's because they haven't been financially supported."

Other analysts doubt the US is truly sincere in its tough rhetoric, saying that it appears the Bush administration is responding to US popular anger over the violence in Darfur, while ultimately avoiding creating the sorts of pressures that would force Sudan to yield.

John Prendergast, the head of the International Crisis Group's Africa program, says that America's concern over genocide is tempered by its goals in the war on terror. He says the Sudanese government has been helping US agencies to penetrate some of the country's Islamic militant networks.

"When the two objectives go head to head, counterterror wins every time,'' says Mr. Prendergast. "Not only has [the US] not imposed one punitive measure in the last 3-1/2 years, but it has also blocked measures in the Security Council that Britain proposed, such as expanding the list of those targeted by sanctions."

Over the weekend, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, traveled to Khartoum to try to convince Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to accept a compromise that would allow for some troops under direct UN control as long as the African Union, which has been leading a peacekeeping mission that Ms. Rice has called "ineffective," makes up the bulk of the force.

Within the Arab League, Egypt calls the shots on Sudan. The sprawling African country was jointly ruled by Egypt and Britain until 1956, and Sudan is seen by the other Arab nations as a rightful part of Egypt's sphere of influence.

President Bashir has continued to insist that the US is less concerned about peace in Darfur than on weakening his government, and has promised to turn Darfur into a "graveyard" for foreign troops if they're deployed.

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