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S. Shinkichi & R. Saleh: Peacebuilding in the Middle East and Africa

Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Spring/Summer 2010 issue

It has been said for a long time that the Middle East is a ‘gunpowder warehouse.’ If a third world war happens in the future, it would likely start from the Middle East area.

Let us navigate back into history to try to understand better the conflict in the Middle East in order to reach peace. In the age of the Old Testament, Abraham, who is said to be the ancestor of faith, had two wives, Sara and Hagar, and two sons, Ismail from Hagar (grandfather of the Arabs) and Isaac from Sara. Isaac had two sons, Jacob (grandfather of the Israel people) and Esau. During the era of Moses, the Israeli people whose ancestor was Isaac and the Pharaohs of Egypt (later, Arabs) fought each other, and the Israelites escaped from Egypt.

However, the most serious conflict between Israel and the Arabs in the modern age was when the Judea people, who were mistreated by Romans and became refugees, wandered around the entire world for about 2000 years, came back and with the support of the British (Balfour declaration) established the country of Israel on the Palestine land in 1948.

Arab countries attacked Israel on May 15, 1948, after Israel declared independence, and began the first Middle East war. Israel won the war.

In 1956, the second Middle East war happened when Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and was attacked by the British, the French, and the Israeli forces; it ended with the withdrawal of the offensive forces, thanks to the support of the Soviet Union.

The third Middle East war began when Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran in the Gulf of Aqaba in May 1967. Israel stormed and destroyed the Egyptian air force, and the war was ended within six days. Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, east Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan heights from Syria. Israel annexed east Jerusalem immediately.

In October 1973, Egypt and Syria attacked Israel and started the fourth Middle East war. It ended in 1974. Owing to this war, Israel returned the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt, and both countries concluded a peace treaty in May1979 with the mediation of the USA.

Jordan concluded a peace treaty with Israel in October 1994 because Jordan approved the Oslo Accords in 1993, and self-government started in the West Bank and Gaza area in 1994.

Presently, two Arab countries have normalized their relations with Israel. However, other countries in Arab League have not yet agreed to have any official diplomatic relations with Israel.

Israel, the former ally of Iran, is no longer recognized by the Islamic Republic of Iran, which was established after the Iranian revolution in 1979. Ahmadinejad’s regime strongly supports the reincarnation of the Palestinian state and banishing the Zionist regime from Israel.

The Hamas organization, which is supported from Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria, has never recognized Israel. Hamas has been in control of Gaza, using armed force since June 2007. It is the biggest Islamic resistance organization in Palestine. It is also in conflict with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Abbas authority.

The motivation of traditional groups in Israel starts from Judaism. They think their God gave them not only the present land of Israel but also a wider land extending from the Nile in Egypt to the Euphrates in Syria. So they insist on expanding their land more and demanding that the Israel government expand their aggression against neighboring countries.

Even though Prime Minister Netanyahu represents right-wing groups, he cannot control the groups. The expulsion by force of Palestinians from East Jerusalem and the building of new Israeli settlements are not helping the peace process. Consequently, the essence of the Middle East problem is the conflict between Zionism and Arabs about the possession of land. The social and cultural problems are not fundamental.

In May 2010, there was intensive Egyptian action to break the stalemate of the peace process. President Hosni Mubarak received the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ‘Abu Mazen,’ Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US special envoy for peace in the Middle East George Mitchell, each alone. The talks focused on the latest developments in the Palestinian arena and efforts to create the conditions necessary to advance the peace process and achieve a two-state solution.

Also, during Saudi monarch King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz’s July 28-31 tour of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, he and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak held a bilateral meeting at the International Conference Center in Sharm el-Sheikh. They addressed developments in the Arab arena, especially the Palestinian cause and the faltering in the peace process, including the suffering of the Palestinian people caused by the embargo and the destruction of homes and property, land confiscation, and the need to reach a comprehensive and just solution guaranteeing the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people, in accordance with the resolutions of international legitimacy and the Arab peace initiative in this regard.

Egypt’s diplomacy has also been put to the test in its relations with its neighbors to the south. Egypt and the other Nile Basin countries launched, in 1999, an initiative to discuss the distribution of Nile waters among the upstream and downstream countries, in light of the claims of countries in east Africa, especially Uganda and Kenya, that there is a need to cancel the agreement entered into by Britain in 1929 to divide the waters of the river because the needs of the upstream States were not taken into account.

In good faith, Egypt hosted a meeting of the Council of Ministers of the Nile Basin countries in the city of Sharm el-Sheikh April 13-15, 2010; it was attended by ministers of water resources and irrigation for the ten Nile-basin countries. The meeting discussed progress in projects of common vision between the Mediterranean sub-basins, including 24 projects in various areas of development. Also during the meeting there was a review of the report of the functional commissions on the points of disagreement between the Nile-basin countries about the Convention on the legal and institutional framework for the Nile-basin countries, in particular regarding water security and the historic rights of Egypt and Sudan to the waters of the Nile.

Egypt is keen to provide material support for the optimum utilization of the waters of the Nile River, estimated at about 1600 billion cubic meters, as well as assistance in building small dams to generate electricity and digging wells for drinking water, as is happening now in Kenya, Tanzania, Congo, and Burundi. A further example is the project to clean up weeds in Lake Victoria, Uganda.

After a round of negotiations that lasted three days, Egypt announced a failure to reach agreement. Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia distanced themselves from Egypt and Sudan and signed a separate legal framework for the Nile Basin Initiative.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir sent letters to the heads of Nile Basin countries to urge them to “avoid differences” and establish the Commission immediately, with the presidents signing their agreement “to continue negotiations to solve the sticking points.”

Wary of losing what it sees as ‘historical rights’ to the waters of the Nile, Egypt has been trying to break its growing isolation from the river basin countries that have signed a new agreement on the use of water, which Egyptians see as a ‘death sentence’ on them. Egypt has been confident for many years that the Conventions of 1929 and 1959, which established terms under which countries share the Nile waters, ensure their rights. However, five African countries signed a new agreement giving them the greatest advantages: Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Rwanda. Cairo emphasizes that even if it retains its share of Nile waters guaranteed by existing agreements, it will be unable to meet the water needs of its population by 2017.

Egypt indicated in the statement that its position was “firm and consistent and based on a solid legal basis deriving its authority from the existing agreements.” The Egyptian minister of foreign affairs held a series of intensive meetings on the sidelines during his participation in the meetings of the Executive Council of the African Union. He also presented the Egyptian viewpoint regarding the differences about the Nile Basin Initiative, saying:

I explained our point of view in this regard and that there is a need to continue in further consultations and negotiations to reach a settlement of the points of disagreement and that donors should recognize these points so as not to put themselves in a position between the African brothers who had yet to agree on a specific vision.

He pointed out that he had asked donors to help the parties overcome these differences. He pointed out that he assured them that a lot of things can be resolved through consultation and the openness typical of relations among Africans. He stressed that the Egyptian move will continue in the framework of good relations with the countries of the basin.

The European Union’s ambassador in Cairo called on the Nile Basin countries to resume negotiations to reach a collective agreement on the division of the river, emphasizing its understanding of Egypt’s position on the issue. He said that, “the European Union supports the call for the resumption of negotiations between the countries bordering on the Nile.”

He explained that the European Union “understands the position of Egypt in this regard, because the waters of the Nile are for Egypt a national security issue since 95 percent of its needs depend on the waters of the river.” He pointed out that, “The European Union intervened before the process of signing the Framework Convention on the Nile countries to persuade them not to sign without a consensus.”

The dispute between source countries and the downstream Nile states (Egypt and Sudan) escalated after five upstream nations signed the Convention last April in Entebbe, Uganda. Its provisions for the redistribution of water are rejected in Cairo and Khartoum. The European Union considered that the signing by the Nile Basin States of a new agreement on sharing the Nile waters without the consent of Egypt and the Sudan was not a ‘correct idea.’

While the distribution of the Nile River waters relates to sustaining life, there are urgent humanitarian concerns south of Egypt’s border. Since 2003 a civil war in Darfur, Sudan, led to the deaths of 300,000 people, according to the United Nations, and forced more than two million people from their villages.

The United Nations Security Council decided to dispatch the United Nations Peace Keeping Organization (PKO) to Darfur. After discussions with the government of Sudan, a PKO composed of UN and African Union forces was dispatched to Darfur in 2007. China opposed the dispatch of UN forces to Darfur. The Western world and USA should put strong pressure on China not to support the Sudan government and Arab militia called Janjaweed.

The representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations in Darfur, Ibrahim Gambari, expressed his deep thanks to the strong Egyptian contributions to try to stabilize the Sudanese region. He noted in this regard that Egyptian hospitals and medical convoys offered humanitarian aid for people in Darfur. Egypt supports reconciliation between the Khartoum government and anti-government forces.

The organization Global Witness said that the discovery of oil fields in Darfur could push the peace process in the region. It is estimated that oil reserves in Sudan are about six billion barrels, mostly in areas near the border between North and South, while the current production is about 500,000 barrels per day.

Further to the south, the conflict in Somalia and the African role in the suppression of the rebel movement, and human rights issues, were high on the agenda of the Fifth African Union summit in Uganda in July, with the participation of 30 heads of state. This took place less than two weeks after Somali insurgents launched their first attack out of the country in a double bombing in the Ugandan capital of Kampala on July 11. A rebellion erupted in Somalia three years ago killing 21,000 civilians and forcing at least 1.5 million to flee their homes. The Mujahideen Youth Movement, which controls most of the capital, Mogadishu, took credit for the attack, which killed 76 people, to press for the withdrawal of UN troops from Somalia.

The Summit of Heads of States and leaders of the African Union approved an increase in the Union forces in Somalia. They approved the request of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development, which includes six countries in East Africa, to send 2,000 additional troops, adding to the 6,000 Ugandan and Burundi troops based in Mogadishu as part of a UN mission, AMISOM. The first priority should be given to strengthening the security forces, police, civil institutions, and the government’s financial transition.

Egypt’s western neighbor, Muammar Gaddafi, leader of Libya, said that his dream of a United States of Africa is still alive and that the African Union summit is another step towards this end. Gaddafi has been calling for an African unity government for years, calling it the only way for Africa to achieve progress and development without interference from the West. But many African countries say the idea is impractical and would violate their sovereignty. The Libyan leader said, “Every time we solve the problems of Africa we are also moving in the direction of peace and unity. We are addressing the problems step by step and will continue to do so.”

Military, diplomatic, and humanitarian efforts have not brought peace in the region. Now more than ever, we need the force of faith of all religions in order to reach a solution to conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. If we know the true relation of the three religions and find again that our ancestor Abraham is the father of all these religions, and if we can digest past grudges held against each other and gather as ‘one family under God,’ all should be solved.

Religious leaders should uphold common ideas and persuade those who want to fight each other not to fight. Let us gather together and forgive and love each other. Let us stand in unity for peace.

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Q. Can you give more historical background on the relationship between Egypt and her neighbors to the South? - Editor

A. The oldest known expedition from Egypt to Africa, the Land of Punt or God's Land, near present-day Somalia/Ethiopia was organized by Pharaoh Sahure of the 5th dynasty (2458-2446 BCE). Also around 1950 BCE, in the time of King Mentuhotep III, 11th dynasty, an officer named Hennu sailed with 3,000 men to Punt and brought back to Egypt a number of exotic products including incense, perfume, and gum.

In the summer of 1493 BCE, Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt sent a fleet of five ships on the Red Sea to the Land of Punt. Inscriptions on the walls of her terraced temple at Deir el-Bahri, in the Valley of the Kings, state that “the ships were laden with the costly products of the Land of Punt including many valuable woods, sweet-smelling resin and frankincense, and quantities of ebony and ivory. . . .” On the walls of the temple, which depict potted myrrh saplings and sacks of frankincense, there are also images of typical African fish, birds, monkeys, leopards, hippopotamuses, and giraffes, as well as other fauna and flora collected during the expedition.

Later Egyptian monarchs reached the south of Africa and beyond. Herodotus reported that Necho II, King of Egypt (ca. 600 BCE) sent Phoenician sailors down the east coast of Africa. They returned through the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), and reached Egypt via the Mediterranean Sea.

- Rouchdy Saleh


Q. The essay offers a perspective of being descendants of Abraham as a framework for Egypt to get along with its neighbor to the east. It concludes by calling on religious leaders to help serve in the forefront of peacebuilding. What insights from Islam and African traditional values might provide a helpful framework for equitable sharing of the waters of the Nile? - Editor

A. River and lake basins make up about 47 percent of the world's continental land area. In Africa, Asia, and South America shared river and lake basins make up at least 60 percent of the total land area.

The Nile is the longest river in the world, extending 4,130 miles. For millennia, the Nile River has sustained life in Egypt and Sudan. The Nile’s tributaries, lakes, and rivers collect and disperse water in nine African countries before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea.

Water is often not confined within territorial boundaries, so conflicts may arise about sharing water resources. When such boundaries lie within a federal state, conflicts may be peacefully and efficiently resolved under law. However, international conflicts over water are more difficult to resolve because no third party has the authority to enforce an agreement among nation states, let alone impose one. International law may emphasize the doctrine of ‘equitable utilization’ of water resources, but there is no clear definition of what this implies.

A number of common bases exist between international water law and Islamic principles. Reasonable shares, equity, consultation, and preserving the public interest and the ecosystem are the main elements that overlap (Iyad Hussein and Odeh Al-Jayyousi, IDRC/UNU Press 2001).

In Islam, the beneficial use of water is best viewed from the perspective of the broad provisions against misuse of rights. Rights to water are governed by moral and legal regulations. The former require good conduct and consideration for others as well as conformity to accepted norms.

A Muslim cannot hoard excess water; rather, he is obliged to allow others to benefit from it. This is emphasized in the following hadith about the three people Allah will ignore on the day of resurrection; one is “a man [who] possessed superfluous water on a way and he withheld it from the travelers” (Al-Bukhari 3.838). In Islam, water is a community resource to which all, rich or poor, have a right: “Muslims have common share in three things: grass (pasture), water and fire (fuel)” (Abu-Dawood 3470).

The traditions and cultures of Africa attach similar symbolic meanings to water. For example, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, the great African sage, said:

In my native language, the saying goes that there is more in water than crocodiles. What is meant is that reality is complex, not just because thousands of beasts less spectacular than the crocodile are present in water, but also because it touches upon what is not visible, life for example. In the origin myths, in Africa and elsewhere, water is always present. Remember the 'God of Water' of the Dogon: “The vital force of the earth is water. God molded the earth with water; he made blood with water. Even the stones contain that force.” (Report n°5: “Water: symbolism and culture.” Institut Veolia Environnement)

These insights are examples how an advisory body such as an interreligious council might help intergovernmental agencies find common ground for mediating intractable issues.

Rouchdy Saleh