reports on recent Egyptian attempts to reconcile Khartoum and Darfur's rebels
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IN LINE with annual tradition, President Hosni Mubarak this week attended the graduation of police and military officers. The families and graduates of the police, air force and engineering military academies celebrated with the president. During the graduation ceremonies, the ministers of defence and interior renewed their commitment to serving the nation's security and strategic interests. Minister of Interior Habib El-Adli vowed to keep on working against all "outlawed" groups that work to disrupt national peace and security, a clear allusion to the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak also took time this week to acknowledge the contributions of leading judiciary figures. On Sunday, the president accorded medals of honour to recently retired top judges Maher Abdel-Wahed, Moqbel Shaker, Nabil Mirham, Adel Andrawes and Milad Boutros
It was not very successful. This was the qualification offered by Egyptian diplomats, Sudanese officials, and members of some of the Darfur rebels as they assessed a round of talks that Cairo hosted this week. Nonetheless, as one Egyptian source insisted, it was only the beginning of a diplomatic scheme that Cairo is planning to pursue and "hopefully" garner international and regional support for.
This week, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit and Deputy General Intelligence Chief Omar Qenawi held extensive talks with representatives of some of the Darfur rebel groups. Participants included representatives of the Sudan Liberation Army and the United Resistance Front. The Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) boycotted the Cairo meeting. A source close to JEM said his movement had chosen to turn down the Egyptian invitation to demonstrate frustration at alleged Egyptian bias towards the Khartoum government. An Egyptian source, however, suggested that JEM was actually pressured by Qatar -- which is running its own Darfur diplomatic scheme -- to skip the Cairo talks.
With or without JEM, the Cairo talks showed that it is still very difficult to bring peace to Darfur. The region has been tormented by a civil war between the Khartoum regime and its rebels -- not to mention amongst the rebel groups -- since 2003, at an atrociously expensive humanitarian cost.
The most crucial problem, Egyptian, Sudanese and independent sources concur, is the lack of agreement amongst rebel groups about what they want to get out of the Khartoum regime for them to consider a peace deal in the offing. While some rebel groups insist on clear power and wealth sharing measures, others say they would be satisfied with the government ending the humanitarian and security crisis on the ground and paying damages for the suffering of Darfur's refugees, which they blame on Khartoum.
Quoted by the official news agency MENA, Qenawi reportedly urged rebel leaders present in Cairo this week to find a way to "unite viewpoints and ranks".
The equally tough challenge ahead of the Egyptian diplomatic scheme is to get the rebels and government representatives to agree to sit together -- all in one meeting. This week, sources say, Cairo failed to get the rebels present to have as little as a photo op with Ghazi Salaheddin, political advisor to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir. Rebel group sources said they found it misleading to "the international community" to suggest that there is any middle ground upon which to come together with a representative of the Khartoum regime.
According to Hagag Nayel, secretary-general of the Arab Coalition for Darfur, an NGO with a focus on humanitarian affairs, there is another problem that is bound to confront Egypt's attempt to bring peace to Darfur. "Egypt is taking sides towards the Khartoum regime, most of the time," he argued. "And when Cairo is upset with Khartoum, for one reason or the other, it shows willingness to accommodate the Darfur rebels, but only for a short while," he added.
Egyptian diplomats categorically deny bias. "For us the key issue is one of the territorial unity and security of Sudan. We have issues with the current Sudanese government and we do talk to them about it but we are not prepared to allow a total break of the regime in Sudan and then put up with a divided southern -- and extremely strategic -- neighbour," said an Egyptian diplomat who asked for his name to be withheld.
Meanwhile, Nayel, like other independent observers who monitor the situation in Darfur from a humanitarian perspective, is not thinking well of other regional attempts to bring peace to Darfur. "Neither the Qatari nor the Libyan initiatives are any better," he said. "The Qataris are pursuing cash-based diplomacy that cannot deliver much and the Libyans are pursuing contradicting attitudes that would not lead anywhere either," he added.
Other independent humanitarian observers expressed deep concern over "the competition over Darfur". One -- who asked to remain anonymous -- said this competition makes the situation worse, because it leads both the rebels and the government to try and cash in more gains from each side for fewer concessions.
"These initiatives need to be coordinated and we think it is wrong of the Arab League to keep watching Arab countries squabbling over Darfur. We urge the Arab League to offer a collective umbrella," Nayel said.
Arab League sources say that the pan-Arab organisation is trying to work side by side with the independent initiatives of keen Arab mediators but that it cannot block these initiatives.
Meanwhile, humanitarian sources in Cairo and Geneva report signs of a serious deterioration in the humanitarian situation on the ground. One Cairo- based source, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "We have no way of verifying the accounts we get, but our information suggests that since the main relief agencies were thrown out of Sudan following the warrant arrest issued by the International Criminal Court against Al-Bashir, things got much worse on the ground." She added: "The assessment is that the agencies that were expelled were taking care of some 50 per cent of the relief work, and one can only imagine the situation now."
Nayel said that the top demand that any of the regional -- or for that matter international -- mediator is to get all the expelled agencies back in. "The ICC arrest warrant made things worse for the refugees in Darfur," he stated.
Today, Egyptian officials say they are trying to convince the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to use their legal prerogative to suspend the arrest warrant for a year in return for an agreement by the Khartoum regime to get the agencies back in. They also say that they received the promise of the Sudanese government to allow the return of relief agencies if the Darfur rebels agree to come to all-inclusive talks.
In Egypt to take part in the summit of the Non- Aligned Movement, Al-Bashir met with President Hosni Mubarak and Arab League Secretary- General Amr Moussa. Sources report a new flexibility demonstrated by the Sudanese president. However, the pieces of a Darfur peace initiative remain scattered.