THE EGYPTIAN-Sudanese military exercise, the Guardians of the Nile, kicked off in Sudan at the end of last week marking a qualitative leap in bilateral military cooperation as the two sides face a number of common threats. In the past two weeks Egypt participated in four multi- and bi-lateral military manoeuvres. (photo: AFP)
The next visit to the region by Jeffrey Feltman, US envoy to the Horn of Africa, scheduled almost one month after his last trip to Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, is being carefully followed in Cairo.
While Feltman’s announced mandate is to address the growing humanitarian/political crisis in the north of Ethiopia, it is understood, in Cairo and Khartoum, that the US envoy will also discuss possible solutions to the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
“When he was here a month ago we were clear about what we expected Washington to do to encourage a peaceful and diplomatic resolution to this conflict,” said a Sudanese source.
He added that while Khartoum does not anticipate a major US initiative, it does expect the US to press on Ethiopia, in no uncertain terms, the importance of working with Sudan and Egypt in good faith.
Egyptian officials echoed the same expectations: Washington, they say, is now expected to be “involved somehow” in helping push the so-far inconclusive African Union (AU)-sponsored talks forward, either before the July wet season or immediately afterwards.
During a phone call with US President Joe Biden late last week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that Egypt is still hoping for a negotiated agreement that allows Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to secure their water and energy interests.
On Monday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, made an explosive announcement. Addis Ababa, he said, is planning to build 100 small- and medium-sized dams over the next year.
Ahmed Hafez, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, promptly issued a reply saying Egypt will not turn a blind eye to any attempt to undermine its water rights.
Egyptian officials say that in the absence of any international or regional intervention Cairo has decided to adopt an “on the ground” approach, sending Addis Ababa clear messages about “how far we will go to protect Egypt’s livelihood”.
Last Thursday President Al-Sisi arrived in Djibouti, the first ever visit of an Egyptian head of state to the Horn of Africa country, and held talks with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh.
“Djibouti is a very strategic country, not only because of its proximity and significance to landlocked Ethiopia, but also because of its position on the Red Sea, an obvious zone of interest for Egypt,” said an Egyptian official.
The visit came within the framework of a much wider reach-out that Cairo is making across East Africa.
This intensive diplomatic campaign has so far included military, security, development, and cultural cooperation agreements with a majority of countries in the region.
Only this week Egypt and Sudan ended the Guardians of the Nile joint military exercise.
Chief of Staff Mohamed Farid visited Kenya and Rwanda where he discussed military cooperation, and the presidents of Cairo University and the John Garang Memorial University signed a joint cooperation agreement.
“We are not plotting against Ethiopia’s development plans despite what Addis Ababa claims. We have, after all, been part of COMESA since the 1990s. What we are doing, however, is showing that we are not without resources should Ethiopia insist on sticking to its intransigence,” said the official.
He added that Cairo is hopeful the message will get through to officials in Addis Ababa and lead to serious talks, under the auspices of the AU and with the help of the US, to “draw a roadmap for the future” ahead of the arrival of the wet season in mid-July.
A roadmap for the future is also what Egypt is aiming for in the next few weeks to manage the situation in Gaza after securing a ceasefire to Israel’s 11-day assault on the besieged and densely populated Strip.
Egyptian officials say any progress depends on first stabilising the frail ceasefire, then beginning the reconstruction of Gaza, and finally launching negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. It is a roadmap for which Cairo secured the support of the Biden administration following the ceasefire two weeks ago.
Egypt has been engaged in some high-profile diplomacy to facilitate this progress.
For the first time in over a decade, and on the eve of the possible end to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule, Israel’s foreign minister visited Cairo.
Gabi Askenazi, who is tipped to remain in post, arrived in Egypt on Sunday.
Simultaneously, Egypt’s head of General Intelligence Abbas Kamel was engaged in shuttle diplomacy, meeting Netanyahu and his top brass in Israel, then travelling to Ramallah for talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Monday, Kamel had moved to Gaza for talks with Hamas leaders. Later this week Hamas chief Ismail Hanniyeh is expected for talks in Cairo.
Egypt is also set to relaunch the Palestinian factions talks next week to help bridge the gaps that had created a de facto split between Gaza, under Hamas, and the West Bank under the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority.
Further Egyptian-Palestinian and Egyptian-Israeli talks are being considered, and Cairo is stepping up communications with concerned capitals, particularly Washington, which have indicated support for Egypt’s efforts to consolidate the ceasefire and launch peace talks.
Egyptian officials say that containing the situation in Gaza and preventing another round of hostilities, big or small, is not just about gaining points with the Biden administration or courting Washington’s support in the negotiations on GERD.
“A tired and frustrated Gaza could explode right on our borders. It could also offer terrain for foreign influence, especially that of Iran which is not something we can accept,” said one official.
He argued that Egypt needs to get things “started somehow” and push for peace talks before it is too late for a two-state solution to see the light of day.
“It is a very difficult situation given internal Israeli political squabbles and deep and widening rifts between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas, and also within the PA. We really have no choice but to try and to be very hands-on.”
Before the extraordinary foreign ministers meeting scheduled in Doha on 8 June, the official added, Egypt hopes to have formulated a basic working plan to share with members of the Arab League.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly