Home | News    Wednesday 4 August 2004

Arab fears of another western intervention in Sudan


By William Wallis

The crisis in Sudan’s remote Darfur province is drivinga fresh wedge between the Arab world and the US and its allies.

LONDON, Aug 03, 2004 (Financial Times) — While western media and politicians rail against inaction in the face of a human rights catastrophe in the region, Arab media and intellectuals express a very different view, based on ingrained suspicion of western motives. Many Arabs believe that talk of United Nations sanctions and military deployment to protect Sudanese civilians masks a new offensive against yet another Arab regime: "Sudan Next" in the words of an editorial in Egypt’s state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

Hassan Abu Taleb, deputy director at the Al-Ahram centre for political and strategic studies in Cairo, said US failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had fuelled doubts about the west’s credibility and broader motives in the Middle East. "The tendency is to see anything that comes from the US as a big lie. Some even doubt the [veracity of] catastrophic images of Darfur because they come from the western media," he said.

Arab governments are taking a more conservative position on Darfur than their western counterparts, urging restraint. The Arab League has been attempting to win a more prominent mediating role over Darfur, where more than 1m people have been displaced, and thousands killed since the Sudan government made common cause with nomadic Arab militias to counter a rebellion last year by black African groups.

Hossan Zaki, the league’s spokesman, last week criticised the tough approach of the US and the European Union to the crisis, and threats of military deployment by Britain and Australia, saying they were "antagonising" Khartoum while "achieving little on the ground".

The league has been upstaged by Friday’s UN Security Council resolution threatening the Sudan government with diplomatic and economic "measures" amounting to sanctions if they fail to disarm the militias, known as Janjaweed.

On his return from a visit to Darfur, Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s foreign minister, appeared on Sunday to refute the UN’s evidence of widespread atrocities. "To talk about grave violations of human rights or massacres or other such accusations, I don’t think it is that way," he said.

Washington, which put forward the UN resolution, believes the government will only act to disarm the Janjaweed and engage in genuine negotiations with the rebels, if forced. But the Arab League and Egypt, which has strategic interests in its southern neighbour, fear a heavy-handed approach could precipitate chaos at a time when the government has already been weakened on several fronts.

They want more time for diplomacy and for the African Union to develop its own peacekeeping response. By insisting that Khartoum act to disarm militia within a month in a territory larger than Iraq, the UN resolution is demanding the impossible, they argue. At the same time it risks strengthening the rebels and opening up another front: between government forces and the Janjaweed.

"What we want to see is encouragement and support from the international community to a political process that will resolve this crisis and deal with its root causes," says Mr Zaki. "The Sudanese government in this whole process is extremely important. Yes, it should be held accountable to the promises it has given to the UN secretary-general but it should not be cornered."

Arab governments may also fear popular anger at a time when further foreign interference in the region’s affairs is virulently opposed.

Sentiment has partly been inflamed by controversy over whether a "genocide" has taken place in Darfur, as the US Congress asserted in a vote last month. The suspicion in parts of the Arab media is that the term was used as a device to justify intervention and seize control of Sudan’s oil or to sully the reputation of fellow Arabs.

Ironically, however, Arab organisations have done more than their western counterparts to publicise the conflict in Darfur. Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel, broke the story when it brought back footage of the devastation in the region last year, inspiring the wrath of Khartoum which later closed its office.

It was the Arab League too, that produced one of the first official reports on abuses in Darfur after a fact-finding mission in April recommended a raft of measures including the disarming of the Janjaweed and the rebels they oppose. That report also prompted angry reactions from Khartoum.

But if there was mounting concern within the Arab world about events on the ground in Darfur, where Muslims have fought, killed and raped fellow Muslims, it now appears subsumed by even greater popular alarm that the west might intervene.

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