Southern Sudanese wait in line to cast their votes at a polling station in Juba, Sudan, on January 9, 2011. (Photo: Tyler Hicks / The New York Times)
Cairo - Egypt, now itself torn by strife, has worked since 2005 to promote the unity of Sudan, Africa's largest country that is its neighbour to the south. But after overwhelming support for independence for southern Sudan, Egyptians are now preparing to accept partition.
"Egypt is keen to establish solid relations with the new state of southern Sudan in the likely event of partition," Mohamed Morsi, director of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry's Sudan affairs department, told parliament Jan 22, days before the "Day of Anger" Jan. 25 unfolded into protests that have shaken the foundations of the government.
An estimated 99 percent in southern Sudan have voted for independence. Official results will be released next month.
"This is the outcome we expected," Chan Reek Madut, deputy chairman of the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission was quoted as saying.
The weeklong referendum held from Jan. 9 to Jan. 15 comes as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), a peace deal between Sudan's ruling National Congress Party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in the Kenyan town of Naivasha in 2005. The agreement – backed by the U.S. and the African Union – was aimed at halting a 22-year civil war between north and south Sudan .
Along with the poll on southern Sudan, the deal also called for a referendum in central Sudan's oil-rich Abyei region to decide whether the region would join the north or the south in the event of partition.
Since the CPA, Egypt – hardly relishing the idea of a brand new country with whom it would have to share coveted Nile water – has consistently worked towards maintaining Sudan's political unity.
In early November, Egypt suggested that southern Sudan form a "confederation" with its northern counterpart where the two would share a common currency and a single foreign policy. Washington quickly rejected the proposal.
"Egypt had proposed a confederation in an effort to promote north-south cooperation, which it sees as vital to ensuring stability in the horn of Africa," Hani Raslan from the semi-official Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. "But since that proposal was rejected, Egypt is now mulling other means of fostering cooperation."
Until the upheaval in Cairo, the Egyptian government showed signs it was resigned to the emergence of a fully sovereign state of southern Sudan, and was shoring up its relations both with Khartoum and the southern capital Juba.
"There are several ways of tackling the Sudan file after the de facto secession of the south," Morsi said before parliament. "The best of these is to solidify our relations with both sides in a way that is in keeping with Egypt's national security."
On Jan. 15, then Egyptian foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit stressed "the necessity of continuing international support for efforts exerted by both partners so as to maintain peace and stability and continuing dialogue to settle pending issues within the coming six months’ transitional period."
Egypt appears especially keen to start out on the right foot with the new southern state.
"In the months leading up to the referendum, Egypt stepped up diplomatic activity with the south, including several high-level trips to Juba, in order to bolster ties and promote north-south cooperation," said Raslan.
Egypt already has a consulate in Juba that will eventually be upgraded into a full-fledged embassy, according to official sources. In addition, several Egyptian companies and banks have opened offices in southern Sudan, and Alexandria University now boasts a branch in Juba.
Over the last five years Egypt has pumped aid into infrastructure projects in southern Sudan, for hospitals, schools and power stations.
"Egypt will continue to support and nurture its budding relationship with southern Sudan, which will require considerable assistance post- independence," said Raslan.
While preparing to establish official relations with Juba, Egypt is also assiduously trying to foster north-south cooperation in an effort to avert renewed conflict in Sudan.
"Partition will inevitably lead to disputes over several longstanding issues," warned Morsi. "Not the least of which will be the dispute over Abyei."
The 2005 CPA called for a second referendum on Abyei, but the poll has been delayed indefinitely due to disagreements over voter eligibility. Ominously, the first three days of the southern referendum saw many killed in clashes between rival tribes in the disputed region.
"The situation is now under control in Abyei, thanks to a temporary agreement," said Raslan. "But the conflict is far from over and will likely continue for a long time."
Along with Abyei, outstanding issues between north and south – all of which Egypt fears could lead to conflict in the absence of a negotiated solution – are border demarcation; distribution of petroleum and water resources; the national debt; tribal migration issues; and nationality issues.
"All of these must be satisfactorily resolved before July 9, when southern Sudan is expected to formally declare its independence," said Raslan. "Otherwise, we'll have to face the likelihood of armed conflict."
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