AFRICANGLOBE – For the second time in six months Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is travelling to the Ethiopian capital to lead the Egyptian delegation at the African Union summit
Enthusiastic presidential participation at the African Summit is only a part of a larger Egyptian attempt to re-engage with Africa.
The presence of the head of state at the top of the Egyptian delegation to the twice yearly summit is a clear and keen message, according to the narrative of Egyptian diplomacy, about the commitment of Egypt to re-engage with Africa.
African countries had for over a decade complained about the ‘decided absence’ of former president Hosni Mubarak from summits and other meetings of the continent where Egypt was once a leading and inspiring state.
Following an attempt on his life in Ethiopia in the mid-1990s, Mubarak decided to skip Africa his schedule – with a very late attempt at re-engagement with the rise of concerns over the Renaissance Dam that is currently being constructed by Ethiopia – against all objections made by Cairo.
In Addis Ababa, El-Sisi is set to hold an extended meeting with the prime minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn to discuss the “disagreements” there.
And there seems to be tough talks ahead of the Egyptian president who had been, along with his media and diplomatic machinery, toning down the Egyptian anger over what officials in Cairo openly qualify as “a unilateral Ethiopian decision to build a dam that would effectively impose full Ethiopian control over the Blue Nile” the source of over 80 percent of Egypt’s share of Nile waters.
According to one informed high-level source “what the president would be trying to do in these talks is to ease the firm and almost stubborn rejection of Addis over Egyptian proposals for a damage-control policy to the considerable loss of a no small part of Egypt’s share of water, at least during seven consecutive years that would probably start in 2016, while the Ethiopians fill their dam.”
The Egyptian proposal revolves around three points: reconsider the structure of the dam reserve to space out the filling; to include Egypt as a partner in the project and thus make Cairo eligible to relatively easy access to the imports of electricity to be generated by the new dam – which could help Egypt with an acute electricity shortage; and an agreement on the right of Egypt to ‘make up’ for the shortage it is set to suffer in subsequent years.
Egypt is not so certain that any of these demands will be met but it is trying very hard, according to all diplomatic sources that have spoken since the beginning of this crisis surfaced in 2009, to secure sufficient international support for its case based on two points: the first is that Egypt is officially a country that suffers water poverty and the second is that international law does not allow any of the member states to any river basin to pursue unilateral projects that could cause substantial harm to other member states.
In Addis this week, El-Sisi will particularly try to lobby for the support of as many African countries as possible. He will also aim to encourage the other Nile Basin states to show more flexibility about what otherwise seems to be a united position to cut down on Egypt’s share.
In press statement that he made upon his participation in the summit preparatory foreign ministers meeting, top Egyptian diplomat Sameh Shoukry spoke of a realisation on the side of some Nile Basin countries of the legitimate concerns that Egypt has over water resources.
El-Sisi is scheduled to meet with the head of the delegations of the Nile Basin countries.
However, concerned Egyptian officials, in the ministries of foreign affairs and irrigation, argue that there is no such thing as good intentions and sympathy. They argue that short of structuring a new set of joint interests whereby the Nile Basin states would secure developmental benefits they would have no reason to be forthcoming about accommodating the Egyptian demands.
“Let us face it, we are not living in a world today where the ‘historic leadership’ of any country counts much and to be honest we have over-stretched the history of the 1950s and 1960s Egyptian support for the liberation movements in Africa,” said a concerned Egyptian diplomat.
He added that there is a serious financial deficit that handicaps the development schemes that Egypt would like to take to Africa. He also said that Arab Gulf countries have “basically declined” an Egyptian proposal to establish a three way, GCC-Egypt-Africa, cooperation that could have helped the Egyptian interests and demands.
Egypt was counting considerably on the influence of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait in East Africa to help the Nile Basin countries to accommodate the concerns over the Renaissance Dam.
“It is not only that this influence has not been sufficiently used but also Qatar is using its strong economic influence in East Africa in general and in Ethiopia in particular to antagonise the Egyptian interests,” the same diplomat said.
GCC affairs researchers for Political and Strategic Studies, Eman Ragab, argues that the GCC are not even coordinating their policies in Africa. “It really varies considerably from one country to the other – with some very keen on supporting Muslim communities and building mosques while others are keen on establishing strategic influence around the Red Sea or in the case of a third group creating a zone for food security by buying large farms where they grow wheat.”
How far any of the GCC countries, which are clearly have a weight to bare in Africa, would go depends in the view of Ragab on the strength of the bilateral relations that Egypt has with each of the six GCC members.
Other influences, argued Hani Raslan, a Sudan/Africa senior researcher at the same center, are those of the US and the EU whose strategic presence in East Africa is considerable.
Western diplomats in Cairo argue that their respective capitals are keen to lend support to Egypt – both political and technical. This support they say is also to be considerate with the developmental needs of the populations of east Africa.
Egypt, Raslan added, would also need to invigorate its political relations with all the countries of the Nile Basin especially those of the down-stream states – Sudan and South Sudan.
“Egypt is on good terms generally with South Sudan but this is a country that is living on a very fragile truce between conflicting armed political factions and that could easily slip into a devastating civil war,” he argued.
Raslan added that meanwhile “Egypt has a very serious problem in its relations with Sudan that had aligned with the position of Ethiopia upon the Islamist political orientations of the regime in Khartoum which was more sensitive to the Egyptian concerns during the [one-year] rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”
A Cairo-based Sudanese diplomat categorically denies any deliberate attempt on the side of Khartoum to harm Egyptian interests. He argued that Sudan’s position on the Renaissance Dam has to do with the Sudanese interests “as this Dam could actually improve the kind of irrigation water for Sudanese farmers.” He added that Ethiopia had promised Sudan relatively low-price electricity exports.