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Egypt Wary of Foreign Intervention in Sudan - 2004-07-29

Secretary of State Colin Powell during a visit this week asked Egypt to support U.N. sanctions against Sudan, for failing to move quickly enough to end militia attacks against civilians in the western region of Darfur. Egypt says Khartoum should not be pressured to move too hastily. Egypt is caught between its allegiance to the United States and mistrust in the region of Washington's motives in the Arab world, where there is concern that a humanitarian mission could lead to some form of military intervention.

Egypt is strongly opposed to foreign intervention in Sudan, including any attempt to impose sanctions on the Khartoum government. But Egypt is also one of the United States' key strategic allies in the region, and receives some $1.3 billion in military aid and $815 million in economic assistance each year.

The money is critically important for the Egyptian economy, and the Cairo government has traditionally been careful not to offend Washington. The U.S. desire for Egypt to lend its support to efforts to get Sudan to solve the humanitarian crisis in Darfur is complicated by Arab opposition to the idea of a Western presence in another Arab country.

Helmy Shaarawi, is the director of the Arab Research Center and a specialist on Sudan. He says that Egypt wants Sudan to receive humanitarian assistance, but after the occupation of Iraq, public opinion in Egypt is skeptical of U.S. motives in Sudan.

"There is [a] feeling that this type of resolution, even of sanctions, is just a step [towards] direct intervention by the Americans and the British, and I think the feeling is against this in Egypt and in the Arab world," he said. "There is a feeling that the Sudanese government could manage the problem. Why the Americans are [in such a] hurry for things, which is clearly [the] responsibility of governments and of regional peoples and organizations?"

The relationship between Egypt and Sudan is a long and convoluted one. Sudan was invaded by the Egyptian ruler Muhammad Ali in 1821, and was jointly ruled by the Egyptians and the British from 1899 to 1956.

Today, Egypt is home to five million Sudanese refugees. It depends on Sudan for a growing amount of its wheat and sugar imports, and for access to its only significant source of water, the River Nile.

Asmaa El-Husseiny, a specialist on Sudan at the Cairo-based Al Ahram newspaper, said Egypt cannot remain unaffected by events in Sudan.

She said that, since the two countries once were considered to be one state, there is what she described as an organic link between Egypt and Sudan.

Ms. El-Husseiny also argues that the Western media have made a mistake in describing the conflict in Darfur as ethnic cleansing. She said the reasons for the conflict are more political and economic than ethnic.

After its independence in 1956, Sudan was wracked by two decades-long civil wars, which generally pitted the African, Christian and animist South against the Arab, Muslim North.

The Khartoum government's introduction of a new penal code in 1983 based on Islamic law, as well as perceived inequalities in the distribution of resources and services, led to the second outbreak of civil war.

After decades of war, peaceful agreements between the government and rebels in the South of the country were finally signed in May of this year.

But rebel groups have been attacking government forces and facilities in Sudan's Western Darfur region since mid-2003, and militias known as the Janjaweed have been raiding, killing and raping villagers, forcing them to abandon their lands and means of sustenance, and sparking fears of imminent widespread famine. Khartoum denies allegations that is backing the Janjaweed militias.

Gamal Nkrumah, the foreign editor of Egypt's Al Ahram weekly newspaper, says the Egyptians are looking for solutions of their own to the current crisis. Mr. Nkrumah points to meetings currently taking place between Sudanese opposition groups and Egyptian officials in Cairo.

"It's a question of whether to use the policy, you know, [of] the carrot or the stick," he explained. "The U.S. believes that using the stick would produce results, and Egypt believes that using the carrot would produce the same results."

So far, about a 1.5 million civilians have been displaced and 40,000 killed in Darfur.