Bare necessities

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 26 Jul 2022

Food and water security are at the top of Egypt’s diplomatic agenda, reports Dina Ezzat

Bare necessities
Al-Sisi with the Somali president


Tension and instability are mounting in Sudan. “The political scene in Sudan is really going through a rough phase. There are splits within the military and the opposition and the rift between the two is growing. There are troubles in and around the capital, and disturbing developments in the eastern and western provinces,” which could prove quite harmful to Egypt’s strategic interests, said an informed source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The officials do not exclude the possibility of a backchannel agreement between Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and monitored Addis Ababa’s many attempts to undermine Egyptian-Sudanese coordination over the dam.

This month, Ethiopia started the third filling of the mega dam on the Blue Nile without any coordination with the two lower stream countries, Sudan and Egypt.

The report, the source said, reveals that in an attempt to lobby Sudan, Addis Ababa has offered Khartoum information about its filling plans. During the first and second filling, Ethiopia declined to provide either of the downstream countries with any details, arguing it was a strictly sovereign matter, leading both Egypt and Sudan to appeal for UN Security Council intervention.

According to a concerned government source, Egypt is “keeping a very close eye on everything Ethiopia is doing.

“We are well aware of their attempts to pursue a bilateral deal with Sudan away from Egypt and we are constantly talking to the Sudanese about it.”

He added that Egypt’s relations with countries in the Horn of Africa are being accorded a great deal of attention. On Monday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi received his Somalian counterpart Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud. In joint press statements after the meeting, the president said he had discussed GERD with his Somali guest, and both presidents underlined the need for a consensual agreement on the matter.

In talks held last week and earlier this week in Berlin and Paris, Al-Sisi also underlined the need for an agreement on GERD.

Sources close to the talks in both European capitals say President Al-Sisi gave a very detailed picture of the consequences, “for Egypt and for European neighbours”, of the loss of any drop in Egypt’s water resources due to unilateral actions over GERD.

“No European country wants to see heavy waves of migrants coming from Sudan and Egypt,” said one source.

Government officials say Cairo is increasingly concerned about the failure of the international community to put any meaningful pressure on Ethiopia to work with Egypt and Sudan to secure an agreement and is now trying to secure the support of the US administration to bring Ethiopia to the negotiating table.

“We know that the filling this year is unlikely to exceed that of the past two years — around three to four billion cubic metres – given ongoing construction work, but our eyes are on next year and we are really hopeful for serious US engagement,” said one official.

On Sunday, the US Envoy for the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials on GERD. Hammer took over as US envoy in April, and the visit is part of a regional tour including Abu Dhabi and Addis Ababa. A Cairo-based European diplomat said Hammer’s priority will be to give a push to UAE-sponsored negotiations between the government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and rebel forces in Tigray. “The Americans and the Emiratis are working closely on matters that relate to Ethiopia, particularly the peace talks but also Emirati ideas on a GERD deal,” he explained.

The US State Department had announced that GERD would be on the agenda of Hammer’s week-long regional tour.

Cairo, say sources, has been looking at UAE ideas based on joint water, energy, and agrarian projects between the three riparian countries rather than the legal agreement that has so far proved elusive, adding that while Egypt is open to consider all possible options, it will continue to insist on a legal agreement that secures its water rights.

Egypt has solid assurances from key international players, including the US, that its water security will be maintained and whatever the differences between Cairo and Washington on matters of governance, sources say that when it comes to Egypt’s water security the Biden administration is not taking any chances.

Cairo-based Western diplomats agree that the US and its European allies see the stability of Egypt as crucial to their interests, especially at a moment of heightened international tension with the ongoing war on Ukraine, and add that commitment to the stability of Egypt extends to both water and food security.

Egyptian government sources say Al-Sisi’s talks with French President Emmanuel Macron were “satisfactory” and that Paris promised to “be there for Egypt to make sure that there is no major drop in wheat supplies.”

Egypt is the world’s top wheat importer, with the majority of its supplies traditionally sourced from Russia and Ukraine. While official statements indicate that Egypt’s needs are covered for the remainder of the year the search is on for alternative suppliers, even at higher prices.

Last week in Belgrade, President Al-Sisi sealed an agreement with Serbia to supply wheat. The agreement was announced by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic following talks with the visiting Egyptian president.

Cairo has also secured a deal with India to supply wheat despite an Indian embargo on wheat exports due to increasing local demand and a reduced harvest.

Meanwhile, Egypt is hoping the deal concluded between Russia and Ukraine to allow for grain exports may yet reduce pressure on the already strained budget for wheat and other grain imports.

On Sunday, in Cairo, President Al-Sisi pressed the issue of Egypt’s wheat security during talks with visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. According to a statement from the president’s press office, wheat and other grain supplies were high on the agenda of the talks Lavrov had with the president.

Sources close to the discussions say GERD was also high on the agenda of the Lavrov talks. Lavrov’s visit to Cairo is the first leg of a five-day African tour that will also take in Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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