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Beyond the dam: Egypt looks for a foothold in Africa

For the second time in six months President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is travelling to the Ethiopian capital to lead the Egyptian delegation at the African Union summit

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 29 Jan 2015
Renaissance Dam
Construction work of the Renaissance Dam in Guba woreda, Ethiopia, June 28, 2013 (photo: Reuters)
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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 to Ahram Online 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 at Al-Ahram Center 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.

In Addis, El-Sisi is scheduled to meet with Sudanese President Omar Bashir. Egyptian diplomatic sources say that Egypt has been turning a blind eye to some of the “things that Sudan do to upset Egyptian security interests either in Egypt or Libya” by “providing Qatar and Iran generated support to militant Islamists” in order to encourage a more positive stance from Khartoum on the file of the Renaissance Dam.

“El-Sisi tried to send positive signals to the regime of Bashir when he deliberately stopped by Khartoum upon his return from Addis during his last participation in the African Union summit and I think that he will continue to do so this time,” Raslan argued.

This said, Egyptian diplomats and other officials insist that the Egyptian interest in Africa goes way beyond the issue of the Renaissance Dam, no matter how crucial, and is not at all constrained to the East Africa zone.

Egypt is looking at Africa as the most prominent of all economic venues it could have. It is, according to the consensus official line, ‘an opportunity that has for long been missed’ – with ample opportunities for joint industrial investments, agricultural cooperation and political support.

Egypt is therefore trying to be more involved in the management of African conflicts, to encourage more of the generally reluctant business community to go to Africa to build factories and plant farms and to pursue cooperation with African countries on the international scene.

“It is actually frustrating to see non-African countries like Qatar and Turkey having a wide economic presence in and close political cooperation with Africa when the Egyptian presence there is still highly challenged,” said a high-ranking official.

Cairo is particularly apprehensive about the influence of two ‘hostile’ capitals, Ankara and Doha, in its immediate backyard and is considering its option to break even.

National Security Advisor to President El-Sisi, Fayza Aboul-Naga, one of the most prominent Africa experts in the Egyptian regime whose presence is always welcomed in almost every African capital, is currently, according to informed sources, working on a comprehensive strategy on Africa.

The basic line of this strategy is to make sure that Egypt has a strong presence in almost every African country one way or the other. “It does not have to be economic, although economy is essential, but it could also be at any of the cultural or educational fronts for example.”

The Africa Support Fund, a foreign ministry function, is expected to expand its activities of providing technical and medical training and assistance in the coming months.

Egypt is also considering the chances to start a stable economic cooperation mechanism with all of the African countries, alongside with the sub-regional groupings to which Egypt belongs.

The beginning might be with a form of Egypt-Africa economic cooperation conference that Cairo is trying to explore. Cairo has been getting some good feedback that could allow for the conference to convene this year.

Egyptian officials are fully aware that the road to regain Africa is neither short nor easy. There are so many challenges that include the by now an accumulated sense in many African countries that Egypt is not really interested in Africa and is only trying to exploit it as a venue of resources – “just like any other colonial country,” in the words of one Cairo-based African diplomat.

Building cultural bridges, with a great share of the responsibility going to both Al-Azhar and the Orthodox Church, is considered as one of the top tools to ease this sentimental unease in Africa. Expanding the volume of Egyptian visits, especially at the top level, to African capitals is also considered in Cairo as essential.

A presidential source told Ahram Online that African capitals will have a good share of President El-Sisi throughout 2015. Egyptian Ambassador to Ethiopia, Mohamed Edrees, who has been quite successful in the span of the last three plus years to diversify the profile of Egypt-Ethiopia relations to go well beyond the controversial Nile waters, is currently preparing for a presidential bilateral visit to Addis in the early Spring – maybe even as early as March or in April at the latest.

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