Military confrontations in any place in the world leading to the deterioration of living standards and the deaths of civilians are a major concern for any country, Mona Omar, former assistant foreign minister for African affairs and African Union affairs and former presidential envoy to the African Union (AU) told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview this week.
During her visit to Sudan less than a year ago, she saw that much of the country’s infrastructure was in a bad state. After the recent fighting, she added, it is now dilapidated. Main services are not available, and there is no water and no electricity, and there is a shortage of food.
Omar was referring to the conflict that started in April between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) loyal to Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), who follow Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti.
Local people have been forced to leave to neighbouring countries including Egypt, she said. Over one million people have been displaced within Sudan and to neighbouring countries according to UNHCR. Some Sudanese have been forced to leave for Chad, a country that is already suffering from pressing economic problems as well as previous border disputes with Sudan and fighting among tribes from both states.
“Hemedti was at some point accused of attempting a coup against the present Chadian president. Thus, there are also vendetta feelings between the two countries,” Omar said.
Chad has sent the refugees to a remote area out of fears that they may interfere in the domestic affairs of the country. Thus, Omar added, Sudanese refugees in Chad are not only suffering from leaving their own country, but also from going to a place where they are not welcome.
As for South Sudan, another neighbouring country forced to receive Sudanese refugees, Omar said it is also suffering from pressing economic problems and in no need of further burdens.
In Ethiopia, she elaborated, the fighting has provided an opportunity for the country to consider claiming part of the border areas that were the subject of disputes with Sudan less than three years ago.
In Egypt, there are between four and five million Sudanese refugees, a sizeable number considering that Egypt is already densely populated. “Any more refugees are likely to present further burdens on Egypt, either on food supplies, services, education or job opportunities,” Omar said. Almost 110,000 Sudanese refugees entered Egypt, said UNHCR spokesperson on May 19.
Sudan has long been suffering from divisions and the presence of militias in various areas in the country including Darfur and Kordofan, Omar said. If the present conflict is extended to involve other militia, this could ignite a war across the country, she added.
Omar said that there are signs that the Wagner Group of Kremlin-backed mercenary forces that are already in control in the Central African Republic are involved behind the scenes in the latest fighting in Sudan.
She warned that the presence of external parties is very likely to widen the circle of the internal conflict, a fact that poses a real danger for Sudan.
The situation in Sudan will also impact on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is not only a complicated but also a suspended issue. “There are no negotiations and no developments on the ground to give us a glimmer of hope of a breakthrough on this matter,” Omar said.
The statements issued now and then by Egyptian and Sudanese officials on rejecting Ethiopia’s unilateral acts in building the GERD have not stopped Ethiopia and will not stop it, she added.
Omar said that the issue started in January 2011 when the Egyptian government was only able to focus on internal problems. Addis Ababa then took the opportunity to initiate the GERD project.
The post-Omar Al-Bashir regime in Sudan has showed some understanding of the dangers that building the GERD presents to Khartoum. Sudan’s stand has undergone some changes, but at least it has been mostly unbiased if not supportive of Egypt, she said.
“If Sudan’s stand remains neutral, Egypt will be capable of dealing with the issue,” she said, pointing to Cairo’s efforts in the last three years to raise the issue on the bilateral, regional, and international levels and referring it more than once to the UN Security Council.
However, after the latest fighting in Sudan, Omar expressed her expectation that there will be indifference in Sudan to the issue as the priority now is internal affairs. This will have an impact on Egypt’s stand on the GERD, she added.
When Egypt senses that its water security is jeopardised or the Egyptian citizens are facing danger from the GERD, it will not hesitate to act, she said.
Omar is also taking part in Egypt’s National Dialogue, launched by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in 2022. The aim is to bring together stakeholders to discuss the priorities of national action, and the sessions of the dialogue began this month.
Omar said she was happy that the dialogue is underway because it gives room for discussing issues that had been taboo in the past, like governance and how to activate the role of political parties. It provides room for various parties to express themselves, she said.
However, she said that for the National Dialogue to achieve its promise, there must be proper skills among those who run it. “It could be hollow talk that achieves nothing, or it could be run in a systematic way through which every issue is highlighted, discussed, conclusions reached and submitted to the government,” she said.
Omar regarded the fact that issues like Egypt’s foreign policy and national security will not be included in the dialogue as a negative point. “The government needs to listen to the viewpoints of the participants in the dialogue, who are influential figures in their fields,” she said.
During her career as a diplomat, Omar focused on Africa because she is convinced that the most important continent to Egypt are the African countries.
President Al-Sisi is interested in improving Egypt’s relations with Africa, she said, and he has paid special attention to the African countries, especially during Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU in 2019.
Under former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt played a historical role in supporting the African liberation movements in their struggle against colonisation. Late president Hosni Mubarak was interested in the African continent at the beginning of his rule, until the assassination attempt against him in 1995, she said.
During the 1980s, Egypt managed through the Egyptian Fund for Technical Support in Africa (EFTCA), established in 1980, to dispatch some 7,000 to 8,000 Egyptian experts in various disciplines to different place throughout the continent. Their mission was to transfer their expertise to the African countries,
However, Egyptians “should know more and belong more to the continent”, Omar said.
Various African countries have taken sizeable leaps in various fields including education, economy and democracy, she elaborated. Rwanda is one of the best examples, she added, saying that she had worked there after the massacres in the 1990s.
Today, thanks to the vision of the country’s people and rulers, Rwanda is the first state in representing women in parliament in the world, with participation reaching 66 per cent.
Egyptians should also know that Africa is part of Egypt’s national security and food security and that Egypt relies on the support of the African states whenever it applies for an international post or membership in an international organisation, she said.
Omar pointed to the importance of Egypt’s cultural presence in Africa. “There should be continuous communication on the cultural and popular level, among political parties, young people, women, civil society organisations and the like,” she said.
She remembers the incident when Egypt’s membership of the AU was suspended in 2013 and she was dispatched to correct the misinterpretations in Africa about Egypt’s 30 June Revolution.
“Had we had an active media that was present in the African states, we would not have had to explain to the AU and African presidents the truth about what happened,” she said.
“We are exerting great efforts on the political and diplomatic levels, but unless these are accompanied by similar efforts on the other levels they will not be useful.”
As a member of the board of the National Council of Women (NCW), Omar said that this has taken huge leaps to advance the status of women over the last few years, starting from the number of articles in the constitution that support women’s rights to dedicating a year for women in 2017 to the strategies prepared to empower women and the capacity-building programmes that are present in all the governorates.
The NCW has issued laws further punishing female genital mutilation (FGM) and sexual harassment. “However, more important is the appreciation that the President has given to women whose role is acknowledged on every occasion,” she said.
Egypt is the first Arab country to have prepared a strategy to combat violence against women, she noted.
Omar’s mission to empower women is not only through the NCW, but also through her role in various NGOs, including Women of the Nile, an NGO that she established in Egypt and that aims to include women from the different Nile Basin countries to establish cultural links and act as a pressure group on decision-makers.
The January 2011 Revolution hampered the project, but there are plans to revive it with Minister of Planning Hala Al-Said, Omar said. She is also a member of Salema, another NGO that aims to combat violence against women.
Omar is also a member of organisations that work to improve the conditions of African citizens, including the UN Permanent Forum of People of African Descent.
She heads to New York late this month where she will attend a second meeting. “Traditionally, they used to focus on black people who live in the Caribbean and Latin America. However, I believe that that the issue of discrimination should be extended to our continent,” she said.
“As an Egyptian of African descent, I may be subjected to discrimination because of my nationality, colour, or beliefs,” Omar said, arguing strongly for the issuing of a declaration protesting against this.
Finally, Omar is also a member of the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), a group of experts that follows the development of policies in African countries in terms of democracy, human rights, and good governance, and produces a report to be discussed with the leader of each state.
The group casts light on best practices in each country and urges others to follow suit.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 25 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly