The prime minister of Egypt and the vice president of South Sudan are scheduled to chair the High Level Egypt-South Sudan Committee at its meeting in Cairo later this month, coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the independence of South Sudan in July 2011.
The committee is set to examine a range of cooperation projects between the two countries, mostly in irrigation, agriculture, healthcare, and education. The committee meeting is only one event in a steady flow of exchanges between officials in Cairo and Juba.
Earlier this month, Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Ati visited South Sudan for talks on bilateral cooperation that included the digging of wells and the construction of dams for irrigation and electricity generation purposes.
Egypt has also been helping South Sudan to build and operate water points. Abdel-Ati’s visit came a few weeks after a visit by counterpart Manawa Peter Gatkuoth to Cairo.
Minister of Health Hala Zayed is scheduling a meeting in Juba in the coming days. Security and military officials have also been engaged in an expanding process of consultation and cooperation.
“I think it is safe to say that the exchanges of visits by officials reflect the commitment of both countries to take their bilateral relations, traditionally good, onto wider avenues,” said Mohamed Kadah, Egypt’s ambassador to South Sudan.
“The visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Juba in November last year was very telling of the new page of close cooperation between our two countries,” he said.
On 29 November, Al-Sisi made a groundbreaking one-day visit to Juba where he agreed with South Sudanese President Salva Kiir on the pursuit of strategic cooperation between the two countries.
It was the first visit by an Egyptian head of state to Juba since the independence of South Sudan on 9 July 2011 after a referendum on the separation of South Sudan and Sudan conducted in the second week of January the same year.
In June 2008, former president Hosni Mubarak visited Juba in another rare visit after former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser visited the city in 1962.
According to a retired Egyptian diplomat who managed Sudanese-Egyptian relations in the 1990s, Egypt tried hard to encourage the unity of Sudan under ousted former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.
But “Al-Bashir had it in his mind that he would force his political Islamist agenda on the entire population, which to start with did not all subscribe to the Muslim faith. Even those who did were not in favour of Al-Bashir’s political manipulations,” he said.
In the 1960s, he said, and after the separation of Sudan and Egypt in the 1950s, Egypt “was very keen to reach out to all the Sudanese people, particularly given the strategic significance of all of Sudan for Egypt,” he added.
For Egypt, Sudan and South Sudan are the closest of the Nile Basin countries. “Obviously, irrigation and water cooperation are key. South Sudan is a country with many water resources, but it is still working on building up its expertise in water management. We are there to share and pass on our expertise and to help South Sudan with a wide range of water projects,” Kadah stated.
In June, Abdel-Ati said that Egypt had signed a technical cooperation protocol with South Sudan to prepare a draft for feasibility studies for the construction of the multi-purpose Wau Dam in South Sudan.
The dam, which will be built on the Siwi River, aims to generate 10.40 Megawatts (MW) of electricity, in addition to providing drinking water for about 500,000 people and allowing for the supplementary irrigation of up to 40,000 feddans of land.
Egypt is also undertaking low-profile discussions with South Sudan on the potential revival of the Jongli Canal project designed to divert otherwise wasted water from the vast Sudd Wetlands into the White Nile, adding some eight billion cubic metres of water that could be shared by South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt.
The project, under consideration since the early decades of the 20th century, was initiated in the late 1970s under former president Anwar Al-Sadat but was put on hold and eventually suspended in the mid-1980s due to the civil war in Sudan.
A source at the Ministry of Irrigation said that no agreement had been reached on the resumption of the project.
“This is not just a technical matter. There are other sides to the story, including political issues for example,” he said. While the Project is “certainly worth the effort and the money, especially as it is more than half done, it has not been easy to find the necessary budget,” he added.
According to officials at the Egyptian ministry of irrigation the proposed Jongli Canal would serve the interests of South Sudan, as well as those of Sudan and Egypt, given that it is not just about the possible increase of Egypt’s share of the White Nilebut also about the large-scale agricultural expansion that South Sudan could see as a result of the project.
However, the same sources say, Egypt and South Sudan are going through a step-by-step approach given the many details that require careful and thorough examination.
According to Kadah, “for now”, Egypt is “hard at work with South Sudan on maximising the use of its water resources, cleaning up waterweed, and building small dams and modern water stations,” he said.
“We have an agreement to work on four dams and to pass on modern irrigation expertise, and we are moving ahead with these plans,” he added.
Kadah stressed that what brings Egypt and South Sudan together is not confined to the “crucial bond of Nile water”.
“I think our bilateral relations have many aspects, including economic and trade cooperation, and also of course agriculture and water and irrigation,” he said. South Sudan has been “the country that has received the highest number of Egyptian scholarships for students in all of Africa” over recent years, he added. “This is significant in itself.”
“We are very keen on the promotion of peace in South Sudan and on promoting friendly cooperation between South Sudan and Sudan,” Kadah said. “Obviously, our security cooperation is also very important there.”
According to Ayman Abdel-Wahab, a senior African affairs and water resources expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, security cooperation between the two countries has been very important for state-building in South Sudan.
“Right from the eve of the country’s independence in 2011, Egypt has been committed to building solid relations with South Sudan, and it has been doing so systematically,” he said.
According to Abdel-Wahab, the Egyptian strategy of working on several small and diverse projects at the same time has been particularly helpful in consolidating bilateral relations.
“Egypt is aware that its priorities may not always be the priorities of South Sudan, and it is willing to work on what brings us together,” he said.
“For Egypt, water issues might be the top priority; for South Sudan, stability and security might be the top priority. There is a mix of priorities, and this is why a regular flow of official meetings is so helpful,” Abdel-Wahab said.
“In general, Egypt-South Sudan relations have been developing very well, and they are set to move forward on many fronts at the same time,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly