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Arab hands stained by the bloodshed in Sudan

Published August 8, 2004

The Arab world is quick to criticize human rights abuses committed against Arabs. It wouldn't take long to fill a good-sized book with expressions of Arab outrage over U.S. conduct in Iraq or Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.

But when it comes to Arabs brutalizing others, the Arab world can be as quiet as the desert on a moonless night. For an especially egregious example, look at Sudan.

Since early 2003, government-backed Arab militias have terrorized black farmers in the Darfur area of western Sudan. Up to 50,000 have died and countless more face death from disease, starvation or massacre in what the United Nations calls the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

It is an appalling situation, but the Arab League - composed of Sudan and 21 other Arab nations - has been slow, even obstructionist, in trying to resolve the calamity.

"The Arab League - certainly the most powerful Arab international body of opinion, action and policy - is shamefully inadequate in its responses to date," says Eric Reeves, an expert on Sudan at Smith College.

One possible reason is that Arab countries are reluctant to criticize each other. Among a group of nations with such a sorry record on human rights, no one wants to start throwing stones.

But the main reason may be one that has largely escaped notice until now: Egypt.

On the issue of Sudan, the Cairo-based Arab League is heavily influenced by Egypt, the biggest, most powerful Arab nation. And Egypt wants to make sure that Sudan and other countries in the Horn of Africa stay weak so that Egypt remains the region's dominant force.

"Egypt's primary foreign geopolitical policy is not Israel and the Mideast; it's Sudan and the Horn of Africa," Reeves says. "From 1898 to 1956, Sudan was ruled by Egypt and Britain, and Egypt still looks to Sudan as a country in which it has a great degree of proprietary interest."

Egypt's interest - some would call it meddling - in Sudanese affairs was obvious before the crisis in Darfur. For two decades, Sudan also has been wracked by a civil war between the Muslim, Arab-dominated regime in the north and black, non-Muslim rebels in the south. In the past year, the two sides have come close to a peace pact in which they would share power and oil wealth.

The plan has been hailed by much of the world but scorned by the Egyptians.

Egypt has typically taken "a very unhelpful role in peace talks between northern and southern Sudan," Reeves says. "It doesn't want self-determination in the south - Egypt's preferred political arrangement is one where there's a weak, pliable government in charge of a unified Sudan that Egypt controls" through its influence.

Progress toward a peace pact between north and south encouraged blacks in western Sudan to take up arms in hopes of also winning a share of power. To crush the uprising in Darfur, the government armed Arab militias and gave them free rein to brutalize blacks, more than 1-million of whom fled their homes and are now living in refugee camps.

In May, an Arab League commission went to Darfur and found "gross human rights violations." But the team's report was withdrawn after the Sudanese government charged it was full of inaccuracies.

Although it is unclear what, if any, role Egypt played in the report's withdrawal, the Egyptians have supported Sudan's claim that the Darfur crisis is overblown.

On a visit to Sudan last week, Egypt's foreign minister criticized a new Security Council resolution that implicitly threatens to impose sanctions on the country if its government does not stop atrocities in Darfur by Aug. 31.

And after touring a refugee camp, the official said he had seen no "gross violations" or "massacres." He voiced hope that the Sudanese government "would bring the situation under control over the next few weeks."

In fairness, it would be wrong to suggest Arab nations are the only ones who have downplayed the Darfur crisis. "Only since May or so has the international community really woken up to this," says Georgette Gagnon of Human Rights Watch.

On a positive note, some Arab intellectuals are starting to criticize the Arab League for dragging its feet over Darfur. Unlike the case with Iraq or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they note, the main cause of the turmoil in Darfur is an Arab government.

"If playing an effective role in resolving the imbroglios of Palestine and Iraq is clearly beyond the ability of the league, the Darfur crisis in western Sudan should not be," said the Daily Star in Beirut, Lebanon.

"Darfur. The name is becoming synonymous worldwide with shame and outrage, and it is a purely homegrown calamity: There is not an outside hand to conveniently blame."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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