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In addition to squaring up to the Islamic threat, Cairo has been forced to tackle a range of regional demons.

Recent reports out of Cairo suggest the Egyptian president has started to play a forceful role in the affairs of his southern neighbour. He is alarmed by the worsening conditions there, including widespread famine, the growing scale and complexity of the civil war, and, above all, the danger of Sudan's territorial disintegration along Somali lines. In short, the view in Cairo is that if the Nile has problems, so has Egypt.

Several wars have erupted during the past year, often for no other reason than that old scores needed to be settled.

The conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, for instance, is one. Another is Addis Ababa's skirmishes with a succession of Mogadishu warlords. But what sets these brush-fire wars apart from other clashes is that some of the people fighting them are foreigners with a passionate Islamic dogma.

Some combatants that have been involved came from the Yemen, others from Djibouti, Eritrea and Somalia. One source maintained that disaffected mujahadeen from Central Asia were sometimes involved, as is said to be the case with the Sudanese army against the SPLA in the south.

Still more are under the command of the Somali warlord Hussein Muhammad Aideed. He has maintained close historical ties with Osama bin Laden. These date back to before the presence of US forces in the Horn of Africa became a reality nine years ago.

Regionally, as a political power, Egypt has always commanded respect. Even with the encounter between religious militancy and the state, which has dominated public life for more than two decades, Cairo has remained pre-eminent.

Typifying this trend was its role during last year's dispute between Turkey and Syria. It was Mubarak's efforts, largely, that prevented words becoming blows. While issues have not been finally resolved, his shuttle diplomacy around a succession of Middle East capitals put a cap on the crisis.

Syria's President Assad, in turn, ended up visiting the Egyptian leader three times in 1998.

Egypt's role in its region has been the subject of debate through much of this century. Underlying the sometimes violent struggle, is the concurrent debate over rival cultural orientations, as Egypt continues to stand with one foot in the Islamic world and the other linked to long-term Western economic and strategic interests.

Significantly, Mubarak has wrestled with this supposed paradox since he came to power.

There are two schools involved: first there are the modernists who comprise Western oriented or educated intellectuals (originally led by the 1930s writer Taha Hussein) and who have always advocated Egypt's Mediterranean character. Second are traditionalists (like the late President Nasser) who swear to defend Egypt's Arab and Islamic identity. Thanks to Mubarak, right now an uneasy dichotomy of sorts between the two prevails.

What is changing, constantly, is the focus and that debate takes place in what is termed the Mediterranean (or Med) Forum.

At the same time, Cairo is also acutely aware of being sidelined by more important international issues such as an expanding European Union, Russia's drastic priorities, NATO and, not least, the more immediate strategic issues surrounding the major oil producers because of prevailing threats. To many observers in Cairo this rankles; the Red Sea -- which follows a 1,000 kilometre track along the Egyptian coastline -- hosts the world's busiest oil routes.

Mubarak's options in trying to establish the basics of clear foreign policy guidelines are dictated by five variables. These include: a) the policies of the EU and north African states towards European cooperation; b) the US view of the Med Forum; c) the ability to reconcile Med institutions with Middle Eastern ones; d) Egypt's strategic commitments in the Arab World and c) the Middle East and the level of consensus within Egypt itself.

Like South Africa yesterday (which preferred a European connection to the African one), Egypt's ties to its own continent are inviolate. To Cairo's consternation there are several major wars right now being fought along the length of the Nile. Suddenly, this is a threat that has become pressing, especially since Egypt has been sucked into Khartoum's mire.

Irrespective of foreign pressures, Egypt's first consideration is how anything extraneous affects the Nile. Take one example: Egypt appears set to divert more of its precious Nile waters to areas to the west of the Suez Canal. It is going ahead with what has become a contentious project despite strong objections from several riparian upstream states including the Sudan and Ethiopia. Both countries maintain that there is simply not enough water to go around. They also insist that Cairo simply has no right to make unilateral decisions regarding out-of-basin usage of the river, especially since these waters might be going to Israel.

For 20 years Egypt has diverted billions of cubic metres of Nile waters into land reclamation projects in the Sinai Desert. A recent report in the Wall Street Journal stated that ultimately, six million acres would be irrigated in an area just south of El-Arish. More Nile water has been going to another agricultural development scheme to the west of the Canal and some of these irrigation projects are among the biggest anywhere. Critics of this programme (which would involve building another tunnel under the Suez Canal) say that this water might be used to satisfy Israeli needs.

Subhi Katihalen, a Cairo journalist wrote: `The Egyptians consider the Nile a sacred river, the source of all life and prosperity ... These people will not submit to their rulers if it becomes clear that [Nile waters] are being brought to the enemy of the Arabs and of Islam, the occupiers of Arab lands and the dispersers of the people of Palestine ...'

The project has a history. A contract for the sub-Suez siphon (which is almost complete) was signed with an Italian company in 1993. It was financed by loans from Kuwait. An Israeli-Palestinian research paper states that the original idea m which dates from the 1970s -- was to divert one percent of Nile waters to Israel, largely for Palestinian use. That amounts to about 600 billion cubic metres (cu/m) in a good year or roughly a quarter of Israel's annual consumption. The drain on the Nile is clearly enormous.

A concurrent World Bank study, echoing suggestions of regional water shortages, warned that there wasn't enough Nile water to go around and that Egypt and Ethiopia were `set on a collision course that both might have difficulty changing'.

A view has also been expressed that diverting water to Sinai along the El-Salaam Canal, will deprive Egyptian farmers not only of vital water supplies, but also of additional funding and more infrastructural development to counter increased salinity levels in the delta region.

The Aswan Dam is partly responsible for this. Before it was completed, annual floods brought silt downstream and kept soil salts to a minimum.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Egypt -- under pressure from the World Bank and donor countries -- agreed in 1991 to abandon this Nile diversion scheme, which by then had cost more than $1 billion. To the consternation of all, the project was reactivated in 1992. The report stated that both the Egyptian government and the World Bank had ignored environmental issues and, curiously, that it was kept secret.

Considering the political overtones, one must question the logic of proceeding with a project that might be to the economic advantage of a potential enemy.

One answer could stem from the same reason Syria's President Assad gave when he rejected Turkey's offer to involve his country in the multi-billion dollar Anatolian water project: Assad told the Turks that "he who turns the taps on can also turn them off". He wanted none of their largesse, he declared.

Similarly, critics argue, should the diversion of Nile waters result in a large proportion of Israel's Palestinian community becoming dependent on Egyptian goodwill, President Mubarak might end up with powerful political leverage.

He would then, as an Israeli strategist at the Moshe Dayan Institute phrased it, "have pushed us into a corner from which we might not be able to extricate ourselves because the all important taps would be on the other side of the canal".
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Author:Venter, Al J.
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Dec 1, 1999

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