Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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Rough weather for Sudan moves

By Dina Ezzat

A new stumbling block is facing Sudan peace moves. Sources close to the Egyptian-Libyan initiative to arrange a national reconciliation in Sudan are upset, to say the least, by the Declaration of Principles signed in Djibouti by Al-Bashir and Al-Mahdi. These efforts also include the initiative of the Inter-Governmental Agency for Development (IGAD) which has the US backing. The sources described the declaration as a separate deal and an unfortunate detour from efforts to promote peace in Sudan.

In fact, any talk of a comprehensive opposition-government meeting has now been put on hold -- and this might continue for a very long time.

While Cairo and Tripoli say that the deal has condemned to the sidelines the various opposition factions that the two capitals were trying to bring to a consensus over a package to be offered to the government, the IGAD brokers suggest that the declaration did not take into consideration the fact that the southern opposition should have been consulted.

"This deal raises very many question marks. Answers have to be offered by the opposition and the Sudanese government," said Foreign Minister Amr Moussa. He added: "An explanation has to be offered. This cannot be accepted without scrutiny."

Moussa spoke to reporters after telephone contacts with the Libyan government in Tripoli. According to diplomatic sources, these contacts showed that Tripoli considered the Djibouti Declaration a miscalculated move.

One good reason that Moussa gives for Cairo's unease with the deal is that it is not exactly consistent with the principle of giving priority to the territorial unity of Sudan, as stipulated by the terms of the joint Egyptian-Libyan initiative. Indeed, the document that was signed in Djibouti implied a potential secession of southern Sudan.

Another reason for Cairo's discomfort was the unwanted split that the document brought to opposition ranks and the added hostility that it fuelled between the government and other opposition bodies.

"This was a crack in the wall of the opposition. There was never that much trust between the different opposition figures. The bulk of the National Democratic Alliance [NDA] was not very impressed when Al-Mahdi sought a separate meeting with Hassan Al-Torabi [Speaker of the Sudanese Parliament] in Geneva earlier this year. Now with this deal, the rest of the NDA feels that they have every reason to question the intentions of Al-Mahdi," said one informed source.

In fact, Al-Mahdi no longer seems to have friends in the opposition. Every faction appeared to be issuing statements denouncing the Djibouti deal.

According to informed sources, even John Garang, leader of the southern opposition, is against Al-Mahdi. The latter thought he would win Garang over by talking about a potential self-determination deal for the south, but Garang was not impressed by the fact that Al-Mahdi had sought a separate deal away from other opposition figures.

Additionally, Al-Mahdi seems to have no friends among most peace brokers. On Monday in Cairo, Moussa met with Al-Mahdi "to listen to his explanation". The meeting was said by informed sources to have been very tense. Al-Mahdi seemed to think that Cairo would be on his side and was disappointed to find out that this was not the case. He was even more disappointed to find out that Cairo was not at all convinced of his argument that the document he signed in Djibouti was only meant to pave the way for a more comprehensive peace deal.

"This (Al-Mahdi's move) does not make much sense," one insider said. "Al-Mahdi knows very well that over the past year both Egypt and Libya have been trying to bridge the gap between the different Sudanese opposition factions. He also knows that by going to the Sudanese government behind everybody's back, he will only antagonise all parties, particularly the chair of the NDA, Othman Al-Merghani. This simply means that he is taking the opposition back to square one." When the opposition starts to disagree among themselves, they will have nothing to offer to the government. So, more time will be wasted, "when time is so precious for Sudan," commented an Egyptian diplomat.

Moreover, sources say that both Cairo and Tripoli feel that they should have been consulted in advance.

It is not only Al-Mahdi they are displeased with, but also the Sudanese government. This week, Moussa was in touch with both his Sudanese and Libyan counterparts to discuss the deal and future moves.

A number of meetings are expected, bringing together the Sudanese, Libyans and Egyptians to discuss how to address the problem created by the separate deal.

One potential scenario is for Al-Mahdi to issue a statement affirming commitment to the NDA line. Another possible scenario, which worries both Cairo and Tripoli, is for Al-Mahdi to decide to quit the NDA and accept a seat on the Sudanese government.

"The coming few days will be conclusive," a source said.

Meanwhile, Egypt is worried about the increasing opposition to its joint initiative with Libya, partly because of the US position.

This week in Cairo, Moussa met with Hilda Johnson, the co-chair of the Sudan committee of the IGAD Partners Forum. Johnson, who spoke against the separate deal of Al-Mahdi and Al-Bashir, was also critical of the Egyptian-Libyan initiative.

"In my view, there are only real negotiations through only one process that could lead to ultimate peace which is sustainable in the Sudan," said Johnson. Asked about her definition of this process, she replied: "I am part of the IGAD Partners Forum, so it should be clear what I am talking about."

Johnson said that the Egyptian-Libyan initiative would be "unfortunate" if it was to run as a parallel initiative to that of IGAD. What she was offering Cairo was a way in which both Egypt and Tripoli could be accommodated in the IGAD process.

"This is not what we are talking about. Egypt and Libya are not planning to be members of IGAD. What we can offer at this stage is closer coordination with IGAD," commented an Egyptian diplomat.

Next week, Cairo will have a tougher time defending the prospects of its joint initiative with Libya when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright arrives on 9 December. Albright is expected to reiterate US dissatisfaction with the initiative.

According to one senior diplomatic source: "It is not a very good moment. There can be some difficult times ahead. There has been some damage. But it is not something that cannot be mended". (see p.9)

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