Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2011
Issue No. 1041
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Heading for headwaters

Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf headed to the headwaters of the River Nile and to the country's roots and strategic depths, reasons Gamal Nkrumah

Hats off to South Sudanese President Silva Kiir for warmly receiving Prime Minister Essam Sharaf in Juba, the South Sudanese capital. And, praise to Premier Sharaf for his foresight and farsightedness. After a fruitful stopover in Khartoum, where Sharaf signed no less than 19 agreements on investment agriculture and development, he took off to Juba. This was the first visit by the Egyptian premier abroad, designed to put Egypt in the vanguard of Pan- African diplomacy. It is not, however, out to prove that Egypt was a menacing great power in Africa.

This is as it should be. Sharaf presented Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir with a letter from Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi reaffirming the fraternal relations between Khartoum and Cairo, inaugurating two branches of Cairo and Alexandria Universities in Khartoum and Juba. They stressed the strategic importance of a common stance in the face of Ethiopia's intentions to go ahead with the completion of the Chinese-constructed Tekeze Dam on the Blue Nile, modelled on China's controversial Three Gorges Dam. This will inevitably affect Egypt and North Sudan's access to the Blue Nile, which account for 80 per cent Egypt and North Sudan's water.

Egypt is evidently eager to encompass Africa. Egypt has risen seamlessly to the challenge and most segments of the Egyptian political establishment agree that closer collaboration in the economic and political spheres with Sudan and Africa is key to the country's prosperity and would be better served under the new post-revolutionary Egypt. The visit of the Egyptian premier to Sudan comes at a time when Egypt in the aftermath of the 25 January Revolution is keen on cementing bonds with African countries and especially with Nile Basin nations.

Premier Sharaf has showed us the new geopolitical landscape. One of the most serious criticisms levelled against ex-president Hosni Mubarak is that he ignored Egypt's traditional strong ties with African nations, a hallowed heritage hailing back to the days of the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

Topping the agenda was Egypt's attempt to secure deals on water-sharing mechanisms with Nile Basin nations. Optimism is rising strongly in the Nile Basin nations that Egypt will resume its leading role in the region. Egyptians are grappling with an unfamiliar role south of the Sahara. Under Mubarak they were accustomed to haphazardly run things from afar.

Egypt's quota of Nile water has been the subject of fervent -- and mostly futile -- debate. Ultimately politicians from the Nile Basin nations will settle this argument relying on technology gurus and not necessarily half- baked notions about their respective countries' rights to the Nile waters. It is worthy to note that Nile Basin nations are watching closely political developments in North Africa.

Egypt under Mubarak made an elementary mistake in discounting Africa. Predictably, this oversight backfired, pushing African nations and especially the Nile Basin nations to adopt more hawkish positions on the Nile waters. The ramifications are seriously damaging the Egyptian-African relations in general. The lack of close political collaboration made business nervous, and African nations looked to the emerging economies of Turkey, Iran and China to fulfil their economic and development aspirations. Brisk commercial activities ensued between the developing and resource-rich African countries and rising economic stars such as China. Israel, too, jumped on the African bandwagon, garnering rich pickings.

It is of paramount significance that Premier Sharaf chose Sudan -- North and South -- to be the very first stop that he pays an official visit to. This is a signal that Cairo is prepared to focus southwards in its quest for a greater role in the international arena. And, Sudan is a gateway to Africa further south of the Sahara. The potential for increased trade and development assistance in specific sectors such as agriculture and agribusiness is enormous. South Sudan and Egypt are natural and complimentary commercial and economic partners, Sharaf emphasised in the South Sudanese capital of Juba.

Sharaf pledged to improve cultural, educational and economic links with South Sudan. Egypt can play a critical role in educational assistance after the educational infrastructure was devastated during the civil war period. Thousands of southern Sudanese students study in Egyptian universities and institutions of higher learning.

Equally important is the political mission. Sharaf indicated that Egypt was speedily identifying and nurturing the cadres that are to run the new nation of South Sudan. The campaign of South Sudan to rally diplomatic and political support for the nascent nation has won significant support in the West and in Africa. Nevertheless, it has so far gained limited success in the Arab world.

Cairo has come to the rescue in Juba's hour of need. The flow of South Sudanese petrodollars is unlikely to dry up anytime soon. The Egyptian political establishment is eager to highlight Egypt's African credentials. There is much anticipation and talk of the establishment of a ministry for African affairs so that the past mistakes in Africa committed by the Mubarak regime will be remedied. Egypt is expected to adopt a more aggressive strategy to promote Pan-African economic integration.

Cairo's lack of enthusiasm for African economic integration during the Mubarak era has been a serious impediment to economic growth in the Nile Basin region. It is encouraging, therefore, that Egypt is now prepared to look south for economic salvation. The new Africa policy espoused by Cairo promises further merit.

Naturally self-confident as well as charismatic, Kiir himself is not one for showing any doubts. He touts his boldness in promoting South Sudan as an emerging African economic powerhouse buttressed by abundant oil reserves and unlimited water resources. Investors are mostly impressed with Kiir's work in boosting the economic image of South Sudan.

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