Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mission to Africa

Egypt is trying to consolidate its relations with crucial African capitals, writes Dina Ezzat

By the end of this week President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to have completed a four-leg African tour. It started on Monday with a visit to Tanzania, continued on Tuesday in Rwanda — two Nile Basin states — and was then expected to take in Chad and Gabon.

The four-day tour is Al-Sisi’s second Africa visit in less than six weeks. In the first week of July he was in Kampala to take part in a Nile Basin summit, resuming Egypt’s involvement with the 11-member state grouping.

“It is very clear we want to improve our relations with African states, and of course the priority is with Nile Basin countries and others in east Africa,” says an Egyptian diplomat. He added that this has been “the case since President Al-Sisi took office” in June 2014. “He has made a concerted effort to reach out to African countries.”

Four issues top Al-Sisi’s African agenda, says the diplomat: to coordinate development goals with Nile Basin states; improve economic and trade cooperation across the continent; upgrade security cooperation in response to the expansion of Islamism in sub-Saharan Africa; and enhance cultural cooperation, in pursuit of which particular attention is being paid to the roles the Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar could play in providing services to Africa’s Coptic and Muslim communities.

“We are very keen on expanding our economic cooperation to serve the development objectives of our two countries,” said Al-Sisi during a joint press conference with Tanzanian President John Magufuli on Monday.

Sources say during his talks in Tanzania Al-Sisi made a clear offer to his Tanzanian counterpart on how to further this goal, detailing specific projects in the fields of irrigation, agriculture and industrialisation that Egypt is willing to work on with Tanzania with the added “input” of “other Arab states”.

A similar line was expected to be offered in Rwanda where Al-Sisi arrived late Tuesday afternoon, and in Chad and Gabon.

“This is not about paying lip service to the cause of African relations anymore but about doing real business,” says the diplomat. He predicted “much will be agreed upon in the coming months.”

African diplomats in Cairo say the resumption of high-level Egyptian visits to African states and Egypt’s participation in African Union events are a positive sign. Some, though, would like to see more, arguing that Cairo will need to expend greater efforts to win back the confidence of African countries after decades of neglecting the continent.

“President Al-Sisi’s visit this week, like previous visits and the talks he has been conducting with African leaders, is designed to send a single message, that we do care about Africa, we are part of Africa, that whatever happened in the past is in the past and we should focus on the future and the common interests we share,” adds the diplomat.

Arriving in Addis Ababa in the summer of 1995 to head the Egyptian delegation to the African Union Summit former president Hosni Mubarak survived an assassination attempt. From thence forward he avoided African visits altogether.

“The security apparatus thought it better to be safe than sorry,” says a minister who served in Mubarak’s last cabinet before the 2011 January uprising.

Towards the end of his rule Mubarak had begun to realise the costs of ignoring African relations, especially when it came to Egypt’s share of Nile water.  

Concerned Egyptian officials acknowledge Cairo’s positive diplomatic engagement has yet to bear fruit, not least when it comes to the difficult issue of Egypt’s share of Nile water.

Cairo is concerned about the possibility of a drop in the flow of Nile water when Ethiopia begins filling the reservoir of the Grand Renaissance Dam, built on the Blue Nile which provides Egypt with by far the largest portion of its annual quota of 56 million cubic metres of Nile water.

“We don’t know exactly when this will happen. There have already been trials to fill the reservoir but a final decision on when to fill has not yet been taken,” says a concerned government official. “The most likely scenario at this point is that they will begin filling next summer.”

The rate at which the reservoir is filled is a major bone of contention — “the big question now” in the words of the government official.

Addis Ababa originally wanted to fill the reservoir in three years which would have seen Egypt’s share of Nile water fall drastically. Egypt is pushing for a seven-year filling timetable, though the most likely outcome is thought to be five years.

Addressing water security concerns is not just high on Al-Sisi’s agenda in his current Africa tour, it is also a key issue the president brings up in discussions with officials from states that enjoy a close relationship with Ethiopia and other Nile Basin countries.

“Egypt has adopted a firmer tone in recent months,” says the diplomat. “The president is still stressing Egypt’s commitment to cooperate fully to serve the development interests of all African countries but he is now adding very clear lines about the fact Egypt cannot take any risks over its Nile water share.”

How Cairo will react should Addis Ababa refuse to compromise is not clear yet, say concerned diplomats and officials.

“I guess that as the president talks to African and other leaders he will try to lobby support for Egypt’s position in the hope of generating more pressure on Ethiopia to cooperate. He will also be assessing possible responses should the Ethiopians remain intransigent,” says the diplomat.

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