This year ended with two important meetings being held in Cairo, testimony to the work Cairo has put in to broadening its network of foreign relations.
The first meeting saw the launch of an initiative to establish a cooperative framework between Arab and African countries bordering the Red Sea.
Addressing the conference - entitled Peace, Security and Prosperity in the Red Sea: Towards an Arab-African Regional Cooperation Framework – held on 11and 12 December – Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Cairo was launching the initiative in order to strengthen the sovereignty of Red Sea states and to allow them to coordinate in the face of the challenges posed by the war in Yemen, terrorism and illegal immigration.
The conference brought together senior officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti.
The second meeting was the Joint Retreat of Permanent Representatives Committee and the African Union Commission. During the closing session Shoukri stressed Cairo’s eagerness to reinforce the working methods of the AU’s Permanent Representatives Committee in a manner that would help bridge the gap in member states’ positions and allow them to endorse decrees and follow up on the implementation of pan-African policies.
Joint Retreat meetings aim to review and evaluate working methods and strategic partnerships within the AU with the goal of improving the AU’s performance in fulfilling the interests of member states.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said hosting the Joint Retreat meeting reflected Egypt’s determination to boost relations. Among the subjects discussed were ways to strengthen the AU’s partnerships with the European Union, Arab countries, China, India and South Korea.
File Photo: Russia's President Vladimir Putin (L) meets with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) in Cairo (Reuters)
RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA: NEW OPPORTUNITIES: Among the most important developments of the last 12 months is the strengthening of relations with Russia.
Under a $30 billion deal signed earlier this month by Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom and Egypt’s Ministry of Electricity and Renewable Energy (MERE) a nuclear power plant will be built at Al-Dabaa, on the coast of Marsa Matrouh governorate, 295 kilometres from Cairo. The plant will comprise four nuclear reactors with a total capacity of 4,800 megawatts.
A protocol to resume Moscow-Cairo flights starting February 2018 has also been signed, with both sides agreeing to hold further meetings in April to discuss the resumption of flights from Russia to Egyptian Red Sea tourist resorts, said Minister of Aviation Sherif Fathi. Russia had been a major market for Egyptian tourism before direct flights were cancelled in the wake of the downing of a Russian airliner over Sinai. The 2015 disaster killed all 224 people on board.
Russian Minister of Aviation Maxim Sokolov said Cairo International Airport had implemented all of Moscow’s requests for enhanced security.
The decision to resume flights to Cairo followed December’s visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Cairo during which the agreement to construct the Dabaa nuclear power plant was signed.
File Photo: Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (L) shakes hands with Chinese President Xi (AP)
EGYPT AND THE US: DRAMATIC END TO THE YEAR: US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel left the Arab world reeling.
The Foreign Ministry issued a statement pointing to the negative impacts the decision will have on the future of the peace process, “especially efforts exerted to resume negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis to establish an independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital”.
The year had begun with a thaw in Egyptian-American relations. President Al-Sisi was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on an election win which officials in Cairo confidently expected to breathe a new warmth into bilateral ties.
Al-Sisi visited the US in May and held what Trump described as “very, very important talks”. The two leaders met again on the sidelines of the 72nd UN General Assembly in September. “I appreciate everything that you’ve done,” Trump told Al-Sisi.
Trump praised Egypt’s efforts to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and asked if he would resume military aid to Egypt, told reporters, “we’re going to certainly consider it.”
A portion of the $1.3 billion annual military aid Washington provides Cairo was withheld in August over human rights concerns. At the time the Foreign Ministry described Washington’s decision as a “misjudgement of the nature of strategic relations” between the two allies which reflected “a lack of understanding of the importance of supporting the stability and success of Egypt”.
EGYPT AND ITALY: A RESUMPTION OF DIPLOMACY: In a meeting on the periphery of the Mediterranean Dialogue in Rome at end of November Shoukri told his Italian counterpart that Cairo was looking forward to boosting mutual relations.
The Mediterranean Dialogue, which began in 2015, seeks to establish a positive agenda for the Mediterranean region by stimulating debate, rethinking traditional approaches and addressing common challenges at a regional and international level.
Relations between Egypt and Italy suffered a blow when the body of Giulio Regeni, an Italian researcher and student in Cairo, was found in February 2016 in Cairo, bearing marks of sustained torture. In the wake of the discovery Rome withdrew its ambassador.
Shoukri underlined the importance of cooperation between the two states in the ongoing investigation into Regeni’s brutal murder and warned of the dangers of politicising that issue in a way that negatively affects mutual relations.
Diplomatic representation between Italy and Cairo was renewed in September 2017.
Italy is among the most important tourism markets for Egypt, it’s the second largest partner in terms of trade volume and the fifth largest foreign investor in Egypt. The two countries cooperate closely on regional issues, including the conflict in Libya and combating illegal migration from north Africa to Europe.
EGYPT AND THE EU: The end of 2017 saw the initiation of the first round of dialogue between Egypt and the EU on migration.
It is the first forum for dialogue, constructive interaction and exchange of visions and experiences on how to stop the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, said Abu Zeid.
The most important development in relations with the EU over the past year was July’s endorsing of the EU-Egypt partnership priorities for 2017-2020.
The partnership priorities establish the basis for further cooperation, covering areas such as economic reform, good governance, the rule of law and human rights, migration and security/counterterrorism. The endorsing was followed by a visit to Egypt by EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn to discuss ways the priorities might be implemented.
During that visit the EU granted €60 million to help Egypt deal with the pressures of hosting immigrants and refugees.
The EU is Egypt’s biggest donor. Ongoing grant commitments are more than €1.3 billion. When member states’ funding and European financial institutions’ grants, loans and debt swaps are taken into account the figure rises to €11 billion.
EGYPT-GREECE-CYPRUS: STRATEGIC COOPERATION: In December Defence Minister Sedki Sobhi and his Cypriot and Greek counterparts agreed to initiate tripartite military training to counterterrorism. During his visit to Cyprus Sobhi also discussed joint search and rescue exercises and strategies to secure maritime trade routes and energy and navigation lines.
Sobhi’s visit came a month after President Al-Sisi attended the Fifth Tripartite Summit with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts. The summit focused on enhancing political, economic, trade and security cooperation. The three leaders also agreed to work more closely with the EU to tackle illegal migration.
Al-Sisi described the tripartite cooperation as a model for successful cooperation between countries.
The Fourth Tripartite summit, held in Cairo in October, had focused on reinforcing joint cooperation in the energy and military fields as well as combating extremism and terrorism.
On the sidelines of the US General Assembly in September, Shoukri held a trilateral meeting with his Cypriot and Greek counterparts during which they agreed to bolster ties and facilitate dialogue between young people from the three countries. Shoukri also extended an invitation to representatives of young people in Cyprus and Greece to attend November’s World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh.
EGYPT AND THE UN: In his address to the 72nd UN General Assembly Al-Sisi urged the Palestinians to overcome their differences and be ready to co-exist with each other and with Israelis in safety and security.
Addressing Israel he pointed to “an excellent experience in Egypt in peace with you for longer than 40 years”.
NILE BASIN STATES: SEEKING A WIN-WIN SITUATION: At the end of the last tripartite meeting in Cairo, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati expressed concern over the future of tripartite technical meetings between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the Renaissance Dam.
“Constant delays have raised concerns in Cairo about the ability of the three states to agree to work together to ensure Egypt’s water security,” he said.
The technical meetings –17 of which have been held in the last two years –are supposed to discuss the preliminary report submitted by the French consultancy firms Artelia and BRL and reach agreement on methodology to assess the environmental and economic impacts of the dam on Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia announced in October that 62 per cent of the dam was now complete and filling its reservoir would start by the middle of 2018.
Egypt has long been worried over the tripartite technical committee’s lack of progress. Shoukri expressed Cairo’s concerns to his Ethiopian counterpart Workineh Gebeyehu on the sidelines of the African Union’s preparatory meetings in June and at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Addis Ababa has said repeatedly it is committed to the 2015 declaration of principles signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia which states that Ethiopia will not begin filling the reservoir until all studies are completed yet the year ended with no agreement on when the studies will begin.
Cairo has hinted it might request the mediation of other Nile Basin countries to resolve the current deadlock over the proper management of Nile water. In May, Shoukri visited Uganda for talks with President Yoweri Museveni and discussed the possibility of holding a summit between Nile Basin states in a bid to bridge the differences between them.
Shoukri’s visit to Uganda came within the framework of ongoing coordination between the two countries. Uganda currently holds the chair of the Nile Council of Ministers (Nile-Com), the policy arm of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).
During a three-day state visit by Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to Uganda earlier this year, Museveni proposed a summit between the heads of NBI states to address Nile water issue.
In March, Irrigation Minister Abdel-Ati attended the extraordinary Nile-Com meeting in Entebbe. The meeting was convened to facilitate the resumption of Egypt’s full participation in NBI activities which had been frozen in 2010.
The year ends without a breakthrough on the technical tripartite talks and no agreement on convening an NBI summit or on Egypt’s full participation in NBI activities.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly