If the strategic vision of Egyptian foreign policy gives priority to the African dimension, Egyptian-Ethiopian relations are at the heart of this dimension.
Ethiopia is a significant and influential country in the African continent and among its emerging economies. It is also an essential actor in the Horn of Africa region, which continues to witness political, economic and social dynamics that indirectly influence Egypt's national security.
In addition, Ethiopia is Egypt's leading partner, along with Sudan, in the Nile Basin file, due to its sovereignty over the Nile's sources in the Ethiopian highlands in addition to its direct influence on the Equatorial Lake Plateau.
Given this, it is necessary to develop strong and stable Egyptian-Ethiopian bilateral relations, which had sharply deteriorated since the mid-90s of the last century.
Egypt, hence, adopted a new multidimensional approach to rebuilding these relations based on the principle of partnership in development.
The new approach aims to create a web of political and economic interests between the two countries with the belief that true development, which provides basic needs and improves the quality of life at all levels, is the key to facing crises and the gradual transformation to stability.
Stability is not only for the mutual benefit of Egypt and Ethiopia, but of all African states in general, thus protecting the national interests of Egypt.
One dimension of the approach is concerned with maintaining sustainable political communication with Ethiopia at all levels through reciprocal presidential calls and visits, coordination between the concerned ministries of both countries, activation of civil societies and people-to-people relations, and spreading cultural and media awareness about the importance of Egyptian-African relations in general and Egyptian-Ethiopian relations in particular.
Other means include proposals for cooperation agreements and protocols in the different economic fields such as agriculture, irrigation, food industries, energy, and infrastructure, along with service sectors such as health and education for the mutual benefit of both countries, in addition to the activation and improvement of established cooperation areas.
The approach also allows a common ground to be found for dealing with crises that led to tensions in bilateral relations that have continued for some time between the two countries, such as the Cooperative Framework Agreement and Nahda 'Renaissance' Dam files, which are directly linked to the issue of Egypt's share of Nile water and the means for protecting it.
The Cooperative Framework Agreement crisis exceeds the bilateralism of Egypt and Ethiopia, affecting all the riparian states. The major problem with the agreement lies in the absence of a provision stipulating commitment to the historical shares of Egypt and Sudan and those acquired by virtue of previous agreements.
Despite the legally correct position of Egypt and Sudan, the experience has proven that the final results largely rely on the political relations between countries.
Hence, Egypt finds it necessary to re-launch negotiations and redouble diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement that satisfies all stakeholders through the adoption of the concept of equitable use.
According to this concept, water would be distributed based on the needs of each of the riparian states, rather than its even distribution, taking into account other water sources for each state.
Adopting this concept allows Egypt to merge other modern concepts in negotiations that include all basin resources rather than being limited to its surface water forms, such as green water and virtual water. It also provides opportunities for harvesting rainwater and utilising losses.
This would, in turn, increase chances of reaching a new formulation for the Cooperative Framework Agreement that preserves the interests of Egypt while taking into account the legitimate needs of other countries.
It would also endorse a stable system for the distribution of Nile Basin resources, paving the way for a developmental cooperation model between its countries instead of conflict that wastes all their resources to varying degrees.
With regards to the Ethiopian Nahda dam, the current position – upon which a final report will be issued by the technical committee concerned – raises anxieties over its negative impact on Egypt's share and quality of water.
Actually, the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawy had succeeded in transforming the dam into a national project supported by the Ethiopian people. Egypt’s opposition to the project feeds into a typical negative image of Egypt that had spread among African peoples throughout the past decades – namely, that Egypt was among those behind the absence of development and economic progress in African countries because of its unjust acquisition of the greater portion of water. And this image must be corrected.
Hence, Egypt seeks to be a genuine partner in development in Africa and is aware of and respects the rights and requests of people for development. At the same time, Egypt is committed to the principle of not harming other stakeholders through current or future development projects.
Hence came Egypt's foreign policy attempts to reach ongoing understanding with Ethiopia on the how-to's of managing the dam project through several technical issues, including hydrological specifications of the dam that do not harm the water flow and participation of Egyptian experts in the committee responsible for managing and operating the dam.
Egyptian action is taking place within this framework in full coordination with Sudan through an international tripartite expert committee responsible for issuing dam assessment reports. Egypt continuously reaffirms the necessity of waiting for final official technical reports before funding any dam-related projects.
Additionally, Egyptian diplomacy has urged Nile Basin countries not to embark on water projects without giving prior notice and to try to reach agreement with other countries that would be impacted by these projects.
Egypt seeks to build a system of positive relations that integrates the paths of cooperation in development and water issues so that the latter becomes a part of the former in the context of a multi-dimensional approach to rebuilding Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, in an attempt to turn controversial issues into a greater system of cooperation whose diverse components aid in the preservation of the national interests of both sides.
Essam El-Haddad is Assistant to President Mohamed Morsi on Foreign Relations and External Cooperation