Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 January 2012
Issue No. 1081
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Basin bonding

The foreign minister's visit to Africa could improve relations with the continent's states but is unlikely to resolve the water issue, reports Doaa El-Bey

In an attempt to improve Egypt's ties with the Nile Basin states, Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr recently visited Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Congo, South Sudan and Sudan.

Amr met senior officials to seek consensus among the Basin countries sharing the Nile, as Egypt hopes to improve relations following the ousting of Hosni Mubarak last year as president.

Helmi Shaarawi, director of the Arab-African Research Centre, said the visit was a continuation of previous tours to strengthen bonds with Nile Basin countries and increase cooperation in various fields.

However, Shaarawi noted that these visits had taken the form of exploratory tours not guided by a roadmap. "Analysts say these visits are not followed up by genuine achievements. There are talks about cultivating millions of fertile land in Sudan and cultivating more land in South Sudan but no measures were taken," Shaarawi told Al-Ahram Weekly.

While the tour also sought to promote mutual interests and cooperation its biggest aim was improving relations with the six countries that signed the Entebbe agreement in the Ugandan city in 2010. The treaty calls for a more equitable distribution of Nile water rights among the 11 riparian countries -- though at the time of signing it was 10, before the secession of South Sudan.

The treaty was initially signed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. Burundi signed a year later. The Democratic Republic of Congo has promised to sign, but has yet to do so. Egypt and Sudan did not sign the treaty and declared it non-binding because it lacked Egypt's consent. Both countries decided to stick to the 1959 treaty which gives Egypt the lion's share of over 80 per cent of the Nile water, second to Sudan.

The Entebbe treaty was to come into effect in May last year, however, African states agreed to postpone the implementation of the treaty until Egypt elects its new parliament and president. The move came after the visit of a popular diplomacy delegation to Ethiopia and Burundi followed by a historic visit by the then Egypt prime minister Essam Sharaf.

Analysts argue that a solution to the problem is not in exchanging visits, but in concessions on behalf of Egypt and Sudan.

Cairo must begin to realise that the other Nile Basin countries deserve to benefit from the River Nile water, said a diplomat who talked on condition of anonymity. "Visits and tours are not enough to resolve the water issue. Unless Egypt comes up with genuine measures to bridge the gap between itself and Sudan on the one hand and the other Nile Basin countries on the other, the problem will last and possibly aggravate," he told the Weekly.

Amr's visit acquired extra importance, coming as it did shortly after Egypt declared its readiness to mediate between Sudan and South Sudan. Both states welcomed the offer but relations are currently extremely tense between the two neighbours over a wide range of issues, particularly borders and the oil-rich region of Abyei.

The declaration followed a series of official visits to both Sudan and South Sudan to boost relations and promote mutual economic interests particularly in agriculture and investments.

In addition, the Egyptian diplomacy has paved the way for strong economic ties with South Sudan ever since its secession last year. Direct flights were being operated between Cairo and South Sudan capital Juba and a branch of the National Bank of Egypt has been opened in Juba.

During the visit Amr highlighted Cairo's hopes that Juba would reciprocate in the water issue. "We realise that our brothers in South Sudan are aware of Egypt's interests and the importance of the Nile water for Egypt," he said.

South Sudan is widely expected to join its neighbours in attempting to alter the share of the river's water.

In another development likely to improve relations, five medical convoys were set up to offer health services in Nile Basin states starting from this month until June. The initiative aimed at strengthening the bonds between Nile Basin countries by exchanging expertise in medical care and training.

Egypt realises the need for integrated development projects with Nile Basin states, Shaarawi said. However, it is in a wait-and-see stage. "Unless there are serious studies on joint or integrated projects in fields like electricity and agriculture followed by implementation of these projects, the water file will be a cause of conflict among Nile Basin states," he said.

He added that the projects should not be confined to Nile Basin states but should include all southern African countries.

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