Ethiopian Prime Minister Recent Visit to Egypt Receives Mixed Reviews

Some experts see a thawing in Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, strained over Ethiopia’s plan to build a massive dam over the Nile; others remain concerned

At the end of his second trip to Cairo to meet with government and military officials on Saturday, Cairo’s response to Ethiopian Prime minister Meles Zenawi’s visit muddled more issues regarding relationships among the Nile Basin states.

Ethiopia is planning to build a dam on the Nile that would affect the water flow to other countries that use the waters of the Nile, including Egypt.

A partnership agreement, signed a few days ago between Egypt and Ethiopia, used more flexible language in order that security envoys would have fewer diplomatic battles than they had in the past. It eventually resulted in the signing of a framework agreement to construct dams in Ethiopia – the main Nile water source country from which Egypt receives most of its water quota.

“The evaluation of the Foreign Ministry and the government is that Zenawi’s visit was overall positive,” Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman, Ambassador Amr Roshdy, said. “It appears that disputed issues are moving in the right direction. We agreed to create a trilateral committee to manage the Nile water crisis, including Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. This will serve Egypt, since the committee will evaluate reviving the centennial dam project and its effect. This is a critical breakthrough on the issue.”

But experts caution against too much optimism. Akram Hossam, an expert at the National Centre for Middle East Studies, agrees that the visit appears to be a move towards improving bilateral relations on the official level to turning away from the animosity of the past. “There is an obvious positive side to sedate the language of dialogue with Egypt,” Hossam said. “Former President Hosni Mubarak dealt with the issue as a personal vendetta with Ethiopia because of the failed assassination attempt on his life there in the 1990s. Some even suggested that we were on the verge of war.”

Responding to Roshdy’s statements, Hossam said that “certainly everyone is confirming it was a positive visit, but it is important to realise that the actual breakthrough is a halt in Ethiopia’s intense campaign to reduce Egypt’s water share among other source countries, after it spearheaded the battle for the framework agreement.” He argues that “what is needed now is more than a diplomatic truce, protocol measures and calm words. There must be parallel steps with the trilateral committee that go beyond evaluating the centennial dam.”

Hossam suggests that joint bilateral action should be coordinated and implemented through a bilateral Egyptian-Ethiopian committee the follows a clear, well-informed plan in order not to be blindsided by unexpected diplomatic surprises. For Hossam, the post-Mubarak era in Egypt and the Egyptian-Ethiopian rapproachment measures are not sufficient guarantees for Cairo. “We don’t want to be surprised by another coup,” he advised.

Sudan is also apprehensive about developments on this issue and its level of anxiety rose after South Sudan seceded. Sudan, a mainly Muslim country, is on edge also when talk of South Sudan normalising relations with Israel surfaced, followed by reports of Israeli presence in Ethiopia (which many ambassadors say was exaggerated during the Mubarak era).

“Meles Zenawi did not come to Egypt to negotiate,” asserts Abdo Hammad, a Sudanese expert on African issues, “but came to re-introduce himself; not only as a statesman but an international figure. He played a key role in calming tensions between North and South Sudan and deployed his troops in Abyei under the UN banner, not Ethiopia’s. This indicates that work on the Centennial Dam did not – and will not stop.”

Hammad added, however, that “since there is now dialogue on the issue, there is a different posture. We sense he is composed when talking about exporting water to Israel – an issue that had compounded tensions.”