Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East is one from which few concrete results are expected. If news reports are to be believed, his speech in Cairo will largely be symbolic. In practical terms, Obama is unlikely to make much progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran's nuclear program, or even human rights in Egypt. Yet there is one major issue on which Obama could make serious, substantive strides if he devotes attention to it while he is in Cairo: Darfur. Ironically, this is also the one issue that Obama may not mention at all.
Obama's first years in office are coming at a turning point for Sudan. The hot genocide that occurred from 2003-2005 is no longer in progress, but the government that committed it is still in place, having herded Darfur's two million survivors into refugee camps where they continue to live at the mercy of Sudan's military junta. That junta, however, has recently lost its footing. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted its leader, Omar Al Bashir, for crimes against humanity; and the current government may lose much of its power in the upcoming elections, scheduled for 2010 under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
Sudan's recent actions--especially the cross-border guerrilla attacks into Chad and the expulsion of humanitarian aid groups in the south, which threatens mass death among the Darfurian refugees in retaliation for the ICC ruling--have dampened the enthusiasm of Sudan's close allies in Egypt and China, who believe that Khartoum has gone too far. (Egypt and China are also unhappy paying the diplomatic price for supporting an indicted war criminal, despite their public expressions of support.) These regional powers, who have long backed Sudan's government because it promised stability--meaning a stable flow of oil to China and stable control over the waters of the Nile, which originates in southern Sudan--are beginning to wonder whether Khartoum's divide-and-conquer approach to governance ultimately entails variability and risk.
So now, in Cairo, Obama has a chance to offer them an alternative. In his speech and in private meetings with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, he ought to make the case that Sudan would become more stable if Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Arab world backed a negotiated solution to resolve all of Sudan's outstanding issues, including violence with Chad and the status of Darfurians. He could argue that the Arab world benefits more from upholding the ICC indictment and supporting the re-admittance of aid groups to Southern Sudan, so long as there is a plan in place to protect Arab countries' own interests in the region, than they do aligning themselves with Bashir, in opposition to the international community. And Obama could explain that all of the regional parties have an interest in stepping up to ensure that Sudan's 2010 elections are free and fair, so that they engender a stable, legitimate, broad-based government that shares power between representatives of Khartoum and the south. That way, regional powers would no longer be accused of propping up a pariah state, and they could stop worrying about a civil war that might claim more lives than the genocide; transforming southern Sudan into a hostile, independent country camped on the Nile's headwaters.
All indications are that Arab governments, along with regional powers such as China, would be relieved to see American leadership in this direction. Broad outlines do exist for a consensus solution to all of these problems that still protect the interests of Egypt, China, and other powers in Sudan. But if Obama does not raise Sudan in his speech, or with Egypt's leaders in private, it will be a concrete sign to the Arab world that Obama truly does not consider Darfur a priority--in contradiction of his, his vice president's, and his cabinet's statements on the campaign trail. If that happens, then the regional powers will likely continue backing Khartoum. And the violence will continue.