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Coronavirus hits regional diplomacy

The battle against Covid-19 has forced a slow-down on crucial regional political issues

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 24 Mar 2020
A member of disinfection units sprays billboards in Qamishli in Syria (photo: AFP)

Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri this week completed a six-state African tour designed to lobby support for Egypt’s proposals for a way out of the impasse over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Shoukri’s tour took place against a backdrop of tightening travel restrictions as the world battles with the aggressive surge in Covid-19 infections.

As Shoukri was touring, his aides visited five other African states to explain Cairo’s position in the diplomatic fallout with Ethiopia over GERD.

“It is a tough moment to try to schedule trips for the foreign minister to meet with his counterparts or with world leaders, given the world is fully consumed with the coronavirus outbreak,” said an Egyptian diplomat.

“The focus of most world capitals is on the battle against the pandemic. It is not just a question of getting the foreign minister to see officials, but about getting these officials to give attention to anything other than coronavirus,” the diplomat said.

It is not a situation that serves Egypt in its uphill battle to lobby regional and international support to pressure Addis Ababa to work constructively with Egypt and Sudan over the filling and operation of GERD.

Last month in Washington, before the extent of Covid-19 pandemic hit home, Egypt signalled its willingness to accept the agreement negotiated with Ethiopia and Sudan and facilitated by the US and the World Bank.

Sudan withheld its acceptance while Ethiopia opted to miss the meeting that came at the end of a 12-week negotiation process sponsored by the White House.

Ethiopian officials have threatened to start the filling and operation process during this summer’s rainy season in the absence of any agreement with Egypt to manage the filling and operation of GERD in a way that minimises significant harm to the water needs and rights of downstream states.

“It is unfortunate that we now face this coronavirus outbreak and the US is so hard hit by it,” the diplomat said. He added that Shoukri was due to visit Washington for talks but now cannot make the trip.

With over 35,000 cases of Covid-19, the US is bogged down in the fight against the virus. American diplomacy is not closed, said the diplomat, but it is rejigging its priorities.

He said that a visit of the Egyptian foreign minister to the US capital, to follow up on the US promise to talk Ethiopia into signing up to the agreement, is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

The same applies to other capitals Shoukri was hoping to visit and underline the need for Ethiopia and Sudan to approve the text that was negotiated in the US capital.

GERD is not the only issue sidelined by the pandemic. A series of meetings that Egypt has been hosting in the wake of the Berlin Conference on Libya has also been suspended.

Consultations between Cairo and various Libyan groups have not been suspended fully and Egypt is following up on Libyan developments with concerned capitals. But the agenda for meetings is up in the air, for now.

The conflict in Libya has not subsided despite growing concerns over the possible unrecorded spread of Covid-19.

This week Khalifa Haftar, who controls the east of Libya, and Fayez Al-Sarraj, who controls the capital and the west of the country, exchanged accusations over responsibility for the ongoing conflict. A separate battle is also ongoing between the militias of Al-Sarraj and Fathi Bashaghah, his interior minister.

The military and political meetings, agreed at the Berlin Conference in January, have for the most part been suspended. Some of the meetings had been scheduled to convene in Geneva and Rome.

Italy is suffering traumatic consequences from the coronavirus outbreak with cases nearing 65,000 and a death toll of over 6,000. Switzerland, too, is battling with infections, though the figures are less devastating than in Italy.

Meanwhile, moves sponsored by Egypt and the UAE to give Haftar, the commander of the Libyan National Army, a final chance to lobby international support for his plans for Libya over those of Al-Sarraj, who heads a government that still has the UN recognition, have been interrupted.

Haftar had already visited some European capitals and was planning a wider campaign before it was interrupted by the pandemic.

A Cairo-based European diplomat said capitals were “of course” still working on Libya.

“It is not like everything has been put on hold but Libya is not exactly a priority for the coming weeks,” he said.

Haftar had launched a military operation to take over Tripoli almost a year ago yet he remains on the outskirts of the Libyan capital with no clear pathway to completing the takeover.

A series of ministerial level meetings on Syria involving Russia, Turkey and Iran have also been put on hold.

While Russia and Turkey are trying to contain the spread of Covid-19, Iran already has 22,000 infections recorded and 2,000 deaths.

The suspension of diplomatic meetings came against the backdrop of ongoing conflict in north Syria between the Turkish army which invaded its neighbour with the intention of quelling any support for Kurdish militant groups and the Russian-supported Syrian army which is trying to regain control over the entire country.

The recent wave of hostilities in north Syria has created a new wave of refugees with nowhere to go given that Turkey is now refusing to host them and Greece is denying them entry.

A New York-based diplomat said that the situation of Syrian refugees is “disturbing”.

With Covid-19 cases already recorded in Turkey and Greece refugees are increasingly at risk of infection. Thousands of Syrian refugees are packed in camps with questionable nutrition and hygiene standards and limited access to running water and sanitary services.

“This is a recipe for a nightmare,” the international diplomat said.

Negotiations between Turkey and the EU over the fate of Syrian refugees who have been trying to cross from Turkish territories into Europe have also lost momentum with the world scare over the pandemic.

According to the New York-based diplomat, talks will continue at some level or other but it is unlikely major decisions will be made any time soon.

On yet another front, war in Yemen continues on the ground in a country that, according to an informed UN source, “has no way of knowing” the extent of the coronavirus spread.

The regional archenemies — Iran, Saudi Arabia and UAE — battling in Yemen are all busy with their battles against Covid-19 and the chances for Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy for Yemen, to hold necessary meetings to try and reassemble the very short-lived peace talks are extremely slim.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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