Egypt's evolving relationship with Nile Basin states

Amira Abdel-Halim , Saturday 10 Mar 2018

After years of neglecting its neighbours in Africa, Egypt’s new outlook on foreign policy after the 2013 revolution has been especially welcome in regard to the Nile Basin states

Sisi, Bashir, Desalegn
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn after signing an agreement on sharing water from the Nile River, Khartoum, Sudan, March 23, 2015 (Photo: AP)

In the months following the 25 January Revolution in 2011, major shifts were happening in Egyptian foreign policy.

The main reason behind these changes was the fact that popular movements, in their attempt to reform the previous government’s mismanagement of foreign affairs, became the main influencers of Egypt’s foreign policy.

This attempt at change caused government stagnation and confusion, however, as Egyptian diplomacy seemed to lack a clear strategic vision.

Fortunately, in the aftermath of the 30 June Revolution in 2013 the government started pursuing tangible changes to the country’s foreign policy.

This started with its laying out some basic principles regarding that policy, including the maintenance of international cooperation and the promotion of regional peace and diplomatic solutions to political conflicts.

At the same time, Egypt rejected involvement in other states’ internal affairs.

After years of neglecting its neighbours in Africa, Egypt’s new outlook on foreign policy was particularly welcome, especially in relation to the Nile Basin states.

Egypt’s diplomatic activities had previously come to a standstill in 1995 after a failed assassination attempt on former president Hosni Mubarak in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.

After this, the former Mubarak regime never made a real effort to reopen diplomatic talks with the continent. This stands in contrast to the present government, which has worked hard to strengthen Egypt’s rapprochement with the Nile Basin states.

Egypt’s institutions have adopted various principles to help the state achieve effective cooperation with the Nile Basin states in order to help Egypt reposition itself as a regional leader.

Many of these institutions, especially the foreign ministry, have adopted flexible policies when engaging with these states, especially Sudan and Ethiopia.

Major changes also took place when two new diplomatic positions were developed in April 2011, namely deputy foreign minister for African affairs and Sudan affairs consultant to the foreign minister.

In 2013, the government merged its Fund for Technical Cooperation with the Commonwealth, Islamic and newly Independent States with the Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa in order to create a new Egyptian Partnership Agency.

This began operating in June 2014, its main objective being to send development specialists to the African and Islamic countries and to help organise development programmes in these states.

Broadly speaking, the Egyptian government has taken two approaches towards its relations with the Nile Basin states, and these are outlined below.


The months following the 25 January Revolution were not easy for Egyptian diplomacy towards the Nile Basin states because Ethiopia took advantage of the confusion in Egypt to start developing its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Ethiopia created a Framework Convention regarding the building of this dam in 2010, and it has been doing its best to persuade all the Nile Basin states, with the exception of Egypt and Sudan, to sign it and approve it through their respective parliaments.

Egyptian-Ethiopian relations at this time can be described as switching between convergence and escalation.

Between April 2011 and May 2013, Egypt used diplomacy to try to foster greater cooperation with Ethiopia.

In September 2011, both states agreed to set up an impartial international panel of experts to study the proposed Ethiopian dam and how this could affect the Nile Basin states.

However, Ethiopia’s decision in May 2013 to attempt to reverse the flow of the Blue Nile escalated tensions, and these persisted until June 2014.

This did not discourage Egyptian diplomatic efforts, however, as former foreign minister Nabil Fahmi offered Egyptian funding towards the GERD in exchange for the joint management of its operations.

The Ethiopian government did not accept this offer, as it felt that joint management would impinge on its sovereignty.

With the coming of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to power, a new era of Egyptian diplomacy started in relation to this issue.

There were renewed talks and negotiations, reflected in the deal that Al-Sisi and his Ethiopian counterpart signed in June 2014.

Both parties also agreed to continue negotiations with the help of international advisors as an impartial third party.

In 2015, Al-Sisi, along with Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir and Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, signed the GERD Declaration of Principles in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

This outlined 10 basic principles for the construction of the dam, these being aligned with international law on shared river systems. 


Under Al-Sisi’s presidency, Egypt had the gargantuan task of rebalancing African alliances in its favour, and it attempted to consolidate its relations with the other Nile Basin states. 

President Al-Sisi visited various Nile Basin States as a result, including Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and he also welcomed representatives from these states to Egypt and participated, along with other government officials, in various African forums. In 2015, Egypt hosted a forum bringing together the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) in Sharm El-Sheikh.

Many Egyptian institutions worked to develop cooperation with the Nile Basin states in a number of vital fields, the most important of which have been trade, investment, irrigation, agriculture, health and education.

Egypt introduced measures to maximise the benefits of the COMESA Agreement, especially with the Nile Basin States, as well as the African Free Trade Zone (AFTZ) Agreement.

Kenya became Egypt’s number one trading partner in COMESA, as it (along with Sudan) benefited from most Egyptian exports to the Organisation, and Egypt received most Kenyan exports. In 2017, Egypt greatly increased its trade with Kenya by exporting goods worth $170 million, or 30 per cent more than in the previous year.

The Egyptian Ministry of Water and Irrigation helped fund 90 per cent of a Ugandan project to help protect the western region of the country from excessive flooding.

The Egyptian government also provided the Ugandan government with $1.5 million of development aid. It helped the South Sudanese government develop its sewage and irrigation systems and drilled 180 wells in Kenya.

In February, the Agriculture Ministry announced the beginning of a joint farming initiative with the Eritrean government, in which the former would develop farms in the latter.

This will be the seventh farm project that Egypt has developed after it previously started farms in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Tanzania, Zambia, Niger and Togo.

With the help of Egyptian businessmen, the Egyptian government has also been able to implement five agricultural and industrial projects in African states including Kenya and Uganda.

With regard to the health sector, the Egyptian Partnership Agency and the Magdi Yacoub Foundation signed a Memorandum of Understanding in May 2015 stating the need for monetary aid and training for African healthcare professionals especially in the field of cardiology.


Over the last few decades, Egypt neglected its role on the African continent, especially in the Nile Basin states. 

It is this that rendered these states, many of them undergoing democratisation and/or regime change, susceptible to both regional and global powers.

The latter often pursued their own interests at the expense of these states because of their resources and strategic geographical positions.

They may have orchestrated internal conflicts in individual states, or they may have encouraged regional conflicts between them.

Drought, disease, illiteracy, and man-made and natural disasters also made these weaker.

Without a regional leader, the Nile Basin states could not find the means to voice their interests to the international community.

As a result, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda took advantage of Egypt’s absence and started to compete for regional leadership of the Nile Basin, and the power vacuum caused these three states to exert their own interests at the expense of Egypt and Sudan.

The Nile Basin states all have energy and development needs, and they all have the intention of using the Nile to satisfy their demands.

However, each country’s individual exploitation of the Nile combined with the lack of willingness to cooperate with each other has threatened Egypt’s water security.

Many of the Nile Basin states have also been included in the “traditional” regional competition between Egypt and Ethiopia over the leadership of the East African Region.

Despite the efforts exerted by Egyptian institutions to protect the country’s vital interests in Africa, the restoration of the Egyptian role in Africa, especially in the Nile Basin states, requires more effort at several levels.

Since Egypt has expertise in a variety of fields, and many of these states have extensive development needs, it is paramount that Egypt uses its expertise to influence the region.

Egypt must use its know-how in agriculture, irrigation, education and technology to help these states develop in terms of infrastructure and transportation.

In addition to economic and development aid, Egypt should form a security partnership with these states to help them fight against any terrorist threats in them and in the region as a whole.

Such a policy would be a strategic one, and it has some similar historical precedents since Egypt previously helped many of these states free themselves from colonial control during the rule of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

It should also be noted that the support many of these states have for Ethiopia comes as a result of security issues, regional conflicts and Western (especially US) support for Ethiopia.

Egypt must work hard to help these states resolve the conflicts they may suffer from, since this would align them with its sphere of influence.

It is in the interest of the Nile Basin states to make use of Egyptian expertise in conflict resolution, as many of them have had problems with ensuring peaceful transitions of power.

For instance, in recent years Kenya and Burundi have suffered from bloody conflicts, while Ethiopia sometimes faces popular unrest.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is still suffering from instability, and 1.7 million Congolese have been displaced in 2017.

The Nile Basin states often do not have strong military and security capabilities, so Egypt can also help them to train their militaries and security apparatuses.

This could help turn Egypt into a regional leader that can steer them away from international and regional conflicts.

The writer is a consultant on African affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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