Egypt must act on Sudan

Abdel-Moneim Said , Sunday 19 Dec 2010

Intolerance of diversity has brought Sudan to the verge of splintering which could pull the region south of Egypt — and Egypt itself — into an unpredictable morass

It is not easy for me to turn my attention away from Egypt at this juncture following the parliamentary elections. The results of this poll need to be handled judiciously and prudently if wisdom is to prevail and our modern civil government is to rest on a foundation of concord. There are no secret riddles or magic charms involved in this. It is politics pure and simple. Particularly, it is acting quickly enough to pre-empt those who are rallying their ranks again preparatory to surrendering their emblems and banners to a group bent on plunging Egypt into the darkness of strife, backwardness and antagonism towards the outside world. It is political astuteness that succeeded in creating a civil coalition that swept the general elections, ousting the representatives of a prohibited group and retaining the legitimate. The question now is how shall that civil coalition regain its vitality, not only in order to contend with the forces of chaos and despair and the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but also in order to press ahead with the project of building the Egypt of the future. This process will require more than a single political force and certainly more than the National Democratic Party (NDP), regardless of the parliamentary majority it won.

This should have been our subject today, especially in view of the urgent need to mend the rifts in the civil coalition. However, events around us are moving with astounding speed. The clock is ticking very fast in Sudan, but we can hear it right next to our ears. Sudan is hardly remote and events there touch upon us closely. It is also important to bear in mind that it experienced a long period of rule by the Muslim Brothers who were not banned there and who have brought Sudan to the brink of a new future that will not only affect that country but the rest of this region, Egypt above all.

It requires little background knowledge to realise that the histories of Egypt and Sudan were organically intertwined for millennia. Historians could speak at length on this bond since the ancient Kingdom of Kush, which ruled the whole of Egypt and Nubia from the 8th to the 6thcentury BC, to the unification of Egypt and Sudan from 1821 to 1885 and again from 1899 to 1956. Moreover, for much of their history they were incorporated into the same empires, notably the Arab-Islamic Empire.

But it is not so much history that is the subject here as it is the effect of history on the major choices that Egypt and Sudan will need to face together upon the birth of a new era. As is well known, a crucial event is only weeks away. On 9 January 2011, the people of South Sudan will hold a referendum on whether or not to remain in a unified Sudan. The referendum was one of the fundamental points of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between the government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Naivasha, Kenya, in 2005 and its intent is to offer the people of the South the opportunity to exercise their right to self-determination. If they opt for secession, they will form an independent sovereign state with its own flag and national anthem, its own army and its own currency, and its own embassies abroad and its own seat in the UN and other international and regional organisations.

All signs so far point to secession. They simultaneously inform us that the government of the north failed to do what was necessary in order to preserve national unity. The SPLM has made great strides toward creating the groundwork for statehood in the south. It has established a network of interests, international relations and power arrangements at home and abroad that would be difficult, if not impossible, for it to give up. But in the north there has been a strong trend in favour of jettisoning the south. The trend has been there from the outset and was spearheaded by the Muslim Brothers who increasingly saw the south as an obstacle to their radical fundamentalist Islamist vision for the Sudanese state. In their pursuit of this dream, they are no different from a host of other fascist groups that have sought ethnically, religiously or ideologically pure political entities. They hate nothing more than diversity and plurality in everything from opinion and creed to ethnic origin, not only between Muslims and non-Muslims but also among Muslims themselves.

Sudan, as it currently stands, is rare in the Arab world not only for its size —with 2.5 million square kilometres it is the tenth largest country in the world —but also for its demographic diversity. It has 57 ethnic groups, 570 tribes and about 100 different spoken languages. Ethnically, it consists primarily of native Africans (52 per cent) and Arabs (39 per cent), though there are around six per cent Beja, two per cent foreigners and one per cent other ethnicities. Because of its two dominant ethnic groups, the Sudanese demographic composition is sometimes referred to as Afro-Arab. Arabic is the official language of the country, but Beja and other Nilotic languages, as well as English are widely spoken, especially in the south. As for religion, 70 per cent of the population is Sunni Muslim (primarily in the north), five per cent is Christian (in the south and in Khartoum) and 25 per cent subscribe to various animist and polytheist beliefs.

The north had no patience for such strong diversity and the south is clearly unprepared to remain attached to a system in which it has no share. With ideological and political intentions thus set, the area immediately to the south of Egypt is on the verge of a momentous change, the tempestuous winds of which were overshadowed, here, by the electoral campaigns that betrayed a surprising ignorance of or disinterest in what is happening in Sudan.

To bring the situation closer to home, our brothers to the south are headed for a huge strategic vacuum that will trigger whirlwinds capable of wreaking havoc throughout an entire strategic zone. A strategic vacuum occurs in the absence of political power and gravitational pull, or a force that acts as a regional keel, shapes relationships and regulates alliances and antagonisms. The collapse of the Somali state in the Horn of Africa not only precipitated a free-for-all between the local tribes and even foreign powers, that shattered land became a hotbed of international terrorism, piracy and organised crime, and a trigger for regional wars and various forms of international intervention. When the Iraqi state fell, the vacuum was so large that it not only sucked in the American occupation but, directly or indirectly, dozens of other nations. All the while, Iran played the field between the Shia and Sunna and between the forces of stability and the forces of terror in order to ensure that Iraq could not stand on its feet again. Soon Turkey chipped in, and in its own way. The upshot is that no part of that country can withstand the ill winds, leaving its people caught between the frying pan and the fire.

Developments in Sudan will set off no less powerful reverberations, through a different region this time. It is difficult to predict what will happen in the north after the referendum and the inevitable secession of the South. Certainly some political party or group will be called to account, for what governmental function could be more crucial than safeguarding the regional integrity of the state? Is this not the very essence of a strong national security for any country? Sadly this concept weighs very lightly in the essential political thinking of the Muslim Brothers in Sudan, regardless of whether or not they are still in the government, or their brethren everywhere else, for that matter. It is also difficult to predict what will happen in the south among the many and diverse tribes who will enjoy power and a state of their own for the first time. But that state will initially be ruled by a political movement for which tolerance does not figure high among its list of virtues and it will have only a single source of wealth —oil, which will provide 98 per cent of its income. Beyond that, it has nothing.

Naturally, it is impossible to foretell precisely what will happen beneath the north and the new state in the south. There are dozens of pending issues between them and each side is prepared to blame the other for the adverse consequences of partition. The north, which will suffer politically and economically from the amputation, will encounter pressures revolving around the border zones, especially the area of Abyei, under dispute for its oil, pastureland and allegiance of its people. Khartoum will obviously cast the blame for its pains on southerners and their foreign alliances that helped them gain what was not rightfully theirs. In like manner, the south will not shirk from holding the north responsible for all the problems of country that lacks all the components of a modern state and never had the components of any state, it being made up in large part from displaced persons from every direction. The southerners will be constantly asking themselves whether the joys of independence will suffice to stave off the hunger and assuage the misery in refugee camps.

Further complicating the question of the north and south is the fact that Sudan is an extremely poor country. It ranked 154th out of the 169 nations measured in the UNDP Human Development Report of 2010. Sudan is thus one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world, and is surpassed in this regard only by Afghanistan, Guinea, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Mozambique, Burundi, Niger, the Democratic Congo and Zimbabwe. Sudanese GDP stood at $55.9 billion in 2009, of which oil accounted for 45 per cent, its per capita GDP at $1,293.

This destitute country is simultaneously reeling from the pains of strife and civil war. There are 4.9 million displaced persons inside the country (2.7 million in Darfur, 1.7 million in Greater Khartoum, 390,000 in South Sudan and 60,000 in South Kordofan). The prevalence of undernourishment is 20 per cent of the population and severe food deprivation (the lack of access to minimum levels of nutrients) 14 per cent. There are three doctors for every 10,000 persons. Average life expectancy is 58.9 years, infant mortality is 70 out of every 1,000 newborns; under-five mortality is 109 per 1,000; the premature mortality rate for adults is 304 females and 335 males out of 1,000; the maternal mortality rate is 450 out of every 100,000 live births. The rate of deaths by non-communicable diseases is 986 out of every 100,000. The World Health Organisation has warned that the rate of AIDS infection is on the rise in South Sudan and noted that in the last seven years South Sudan and Djibouti remained in the “red zone” in this illness, indicating that the HIV virus infects at least three per cent of the population.

The birth of a new state and the rebirth of the old state will not just take place against a backdrop of severe poverty and destitution, but also in a climate of violence and the spread of arms as the consequence of civil wars in the south, the west and the east of the country, not to mention flare-ups with Chad and various regional tensions that are certain to be exacerbated by secession. Certainly the delicate state of Sudan’s neighbours, such as Chad, Uganda and Eritrea, will not tolerate the after shocks from the Sudanese quake. Nor is it possible to explain Ethiopia’s incomprehensible edginess towards Egypt recently, despite the improvement in Cairo’s relationship with Addis Ababa, outside of the context of anxieties stemming from the immanent collapse of a state that had once been a pillar of the strategic system of the Nile River Basin region.

A huge tremor is unfolding, some of whose reverberations will echo in Egypt. Initially at least, we will hear an inchoate rumble rather than distinct and identifiable sounds or words.

Of course, we can always let matters take their own course and pray that reason and wisdom will prevail and that the south and the north of Sudan will succeed in making a peaceful transition to a framework in which two states living side by side will work together towards the promotion of their mutual interests. Perhaps the authorities on both sides will be inspired by the experiences of other countries that divided peacefully after a long period of unity. They might, for example, look to the former Czechoslovakia where partition occurred smoothly, or even to the Soviet Union, where the breakup with the countries of Eastern Europe may not have been as smooth as velvet but at least occurred in an acceptable way. We cannot rule out this possibility, but it is difficult to put great stock in it. The backdrop of poverty, domestic and external pressures, and the impending settling of scores now that bill-paying has come make such hopes more in the nature of wishful thinking.

Another scenario is heavy international intervention to engrave the new boundaries, patrol the borders in disputed areas, and to settle pending questions of the partition of resources and the problems of refugees. In short, there would be a kind of international mandate —although no one would call it that —charged with performing the difficult delivery of a newborn and ensuring viable conditions for both the infant and its parents. While this scenario is not unlikely, who in the world would volunteer to foot the exorbitant costs entailed, especially given the state of the global economy? The US is still reeling from recession. China, Japan and Russia might talk about their international roles but are unlikely to pitch in a dollar or sacrifice a soldier. Also, after the experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and Europe will not be greatly inclined to take another plunge into foreign political jungles and swamps.

Should we throw the whole business onto the shoulders of the Arab League? Should it steer the transition process, in spite of the paucity of the resources available to Secretary General Amr Moussa? Then, too, there is the problem of the lack of available time, which has mostly been taken up by the Palestinian question ever since the birth of the Arab League, leaving barely enough time for the purposes of Lebanese reconciliations, inter-Palestinian rapprochement and assorted other inter-Arab reconciliations. But even more significant than the question of time is the question of the Arab League members themselves and whether they would be willing to add the burden of Sudan to their own woes or whether they would feel safer leaving the future of Sudan to the designs of inexorable fate.

In my opinion, only Egypt can and should steer the course to the solution to the Sudanese question. Of course this could touch various sensitivities, but these pale next to the very crucial and (literally) fateful decisions that need to be made. It should be stressed that Egypt, here, refers not only to the government but also to all responsible political forces, which should step forward with ideas and proposals commensurate with a complex situation. Perhaps the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood should re-examine the Sudanese experience, which offered so many tangible illustrations of why its formula, “Islam is the solution,” fails in the management of the affairs of states, after which they might offer some intelligent advice to others who blend religion with politics. This said; all Egyptian political forces have Sudanese tributaries that have overflowed their banks more than the Nile. The inevitable moment has come to tackle the impending flood, because the cost of avoidance and negligence is too great.

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