While Sudanese peace negotiations are underway in Kenya several African and Arab countries are expressing deep concern over the possible secession of southern Sudan from the north. Egyptian officials are particularly concerned and are consulting with a top U.S. official who's visiting the Egyptian capital.
U.S. envoy to Sudan John Danforth is in Cairo for discussions with top Egyptian officials regarding efforts to end Sudan's 19-year civil war. Egyptian officials are extremely upset over an agreement reached July 20 between the Sudanese government and one of the southern Sudanese factions, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. Among other things, the agreement would allow mostly Christian southern Sudan the right to secede from the Muslim north in six years. Egypt is vehemently opposed to Sudan splitting in two.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said it would destabilize the region. Mr. Maher said Egypt supports Sudan's unity because it is in their interest and in the interest of the African continent as a whole. And, he said, the separation of Sudan would have serious consequences for the country.
Among the issues is water from the Nile. Egypt wants to avoid the creation of a new country that could demand a share of the Nile's water. There is also the question in the north of dependable, uninterrupted oil supplies. Sudan's oil riches are mostly in the south.
In addition, Egypt has concerns that secession might have other consequences. Abdullah el Ashaal, an expert on Arab affairs who has served as an Egyptian ambassador in several African countries, says that dividing Sudan would diminish democracy and possibly lead to instability throughout the region.
"If we let the south secede this would encourage other regions to secede as well so we would have more than one Sudan, we would have about four Sudans. The division would be on the basis of religion, of race, of language, culture and everything. This will make trouble with Egypt, with Libya, with African states. And it's going to also make many economic and social disturbances and turbulence in the area. So we're going to create a new element for discord and for war and more refugees, more suffering [for] these people," he said.
Mr. el Ashaal said division could also lead to tribal wars in southern Sudan.
The conflict began in 1983 when the government, dominated by northern Arabs, announced that Sudan would become an Islamic state and adopt Islamic sharia law. Soon after, armed battles began when rebels in the south organized the Sudan People's Liberation Army and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement.
Sadiq Al-Mahdi, the chairman of the Sudanese Opposition Party, said that the only way Sudan can become unified is if the government respects the rights of everyone. Mr. Al-Mahdi said Sudan is now divided and if this war continues it will divide more. But, he said, if the southern Sudanese can be convinced of just treatment by the government in Khartoum then unity is possible.
Egypt and Sudan have close ties politically and culturally. There are five million Sudanese living in Egypt. Inter-marriage among Sudanese and Egyptians is common. There are also economic and historical ties.
Ahmed Abdel Halim, who is the Sudanese ambassador to Egypt, believes that if Sudan can stop the fighting that has resulted in the deaths of as many as two million people, then all parties will finally be able to focus on meaningful solutions.
"I think if everybody is satisfied and we get consent on the basis that all citizens can enjoy their rights and perform their duties on the basis of equal citizenship, respect of fundamental freedoms and human rights, a full-fledged multi-party system, there will be a great degree of ease, a great opportunity for participation and I think that will make Sudan, which is now war-torn, a better place, a promising place and a land of opportunity," Mr. Halim said.
For Mostafa el-Tekki, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee at the Sudanese People's Assembly, there's only one solution. He said there must be a new constitution for Sudan that said Sudan is a democratic country with multiple races and religions in which both Islamic law and southern culture play a role. He stressed the constitution must give everyone equal rights.
Peace negotiations in Kenya, that are scheduled to last five weeks, are focusing on power and revenue sharing and a cease-fire.
Mr. Danforth, appointed by President Bush as a special envoy to Sudan last year, is widely credited with playing a critical role in bringing the two sides together. In a report on Sudan released early this year, Mr. Danforth indicated the most favorable solution to ending the civil war is one unified Sudan.
On his current trip to the region the former U.S. senator said the issue is what will happen in the next six years, saying unity is desirable but it would hinge on whether the government recognizes the rights of the southerners.