Egypt and Ethiopia agreed to boost their mutual relations last week when they issued a joint statement that underlined the basic principles governing their relation: Ethiopia will understand the importance of the Nile River to Egypt and Egypt will appreciate the Ethiopian need for development.
The statement presents an important change in the relation between the two countries, according to Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin countries studies programme at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. However, it remains a step that should be followed by negotiations, which are not expected to be easy and need time and effort.
Helmi Shaarawi, former director of the Arab African Research Centre, views the statement as important and balanced. “But it focused on mutual interests and mutual benefit and refrained from mentioning the historic rights that Egypt adheres to and Addis Ababa refuses to acknowledge,” he said.
In the joint statement issued last week, Egypt and Ethiopia agreed to form a joint committee in the upcoming three months to enhance bilateral relations between the two countries and continue discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The statement was read by Egypt Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri and his Ethiopian counterpart, Tedros Adhanom, last Friday.
The statement, which emphasised the two countries’ commitment to the principles of international law, mutual respect and dialogue, reflected the positive atmosphere in which it was issued.
Shoukri described the statement as a “new chapter” in relations between the two countries that provides new momentum for consultation and cooperation.
However the most important steps are the immediate resumption of the Tripartite Commission, the commitment of the Ethiopian government to avoid any potential damage that could result from the dam currently being built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, and the commitment of the Egyptian government to constructive communication with Ethiopia.
Raslan regarded the greatest achievement of the statement that it put the crisis between the two states onto the track of negotiations.
Negotiations between the two states, he said, reached a deadlock after the failure of the last round of talk in January followed by a failed visit of the Egyptian minister of irrigation to Addis Ababa. After that, Egypt declared that there would not be any negotiation unless there is something new in the Ethiopian stand.
“Now, after the election of the president, Egypt can take the initiative and put the crisis back on the negotiations track,” he added.
The statement came after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo at the African Union summit. That meeting, according to Shoukri, aimed to open a new chapter in relations between the two countries and was conducted in an atmosphere of openness, mutual understanding and cooperation.
Positive developments in Egypt-Ethiopia relations were given a further boost by Al-Sisi’s brief visit to Sudan on his way back from the AU summit.
The visit was very important, according to Shaarawi, because it indicated that Nile Basin problems would be resolved in a collective way. “Sudan has a direct responsibility towards resolving the dam issue and other issues related to the Nile Basin. It has recently adopted a change of stance on the issue of the dam and the Entebbe Agreement. Al-Sisi’s visit pointed to the importance of collective efforts and Egyptian-Sudanese cooperation in dealing with Nile Basin problems,” he said.
Al-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum aimed to strengthen bilateral relations with Sudan. After the meeting, the two countries’ presidents said at a joint press conference that the upcoming period would witness more cooperation between the two states in different fields.
Al-Sisi invited Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir to visit Egypt for more discussion on development plans between the two countries. Al-Bashir welcomed the invitation and expressed his willingness to visit Egypt soon.
Raslan said that the Al-Sisi visit could benefit Egypt-Sudan relations first by easing tensions after the clear support of the Sudanese regime for the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt. After that regime was gone, he said, Sudan tried to improve its relations with Egypt. Sudan’s minister of defence paid Egypt two visits in February, the foreign minister came to Egypt in March, and a high level delegation headed by Al-Bashir’s deputy attended Al-Sisi’s inauguration.
“Al-Sisi visit came to turn a new page in relations,” he added.
An improvement in mutual relations is likely to be reflected in Sudan’s stance on the Ethiopian dam. Given that Sudan is an important party in that issue, Raslan elaborated, its contribution is likely to have a positive effect on that issue.
The Ethiopian dam has been a source of concern for the Egyptian government since May 2013, when images of the dam’s construction stirred public anxiety about its possible effects on Egypt’s share of Nile water. Nearly 35 per cent of the dam has been built.
However, Ethiopian officials insisted the dam would not harm Egypt.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan formed an independent tripartite technical committee to study the possible effects of the dam. The committee issued a report last year asking for more studies to be conducted on the dam to assess the possible effect on Sudan and Egypt.
The Nile is the main source of water for Egypt — meeting some 95 per cent of its water needs. Egypt takes 55 billion cubic metres annually from the Nile, as stipulated in agreements signed in 1929 and 1959. Egypt insists on its historic rights according to these agreements. Ethiopia said that these agreements were signed with colonial powers and called for replacing them.
In 2010, the upstream states of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania signed the Entebbe Agreement in the Ugandan capital, aiming to seek a greater share of Nile water. Burundi signed the agreement one year later.
Both Egypt and Sudan, for their part, rejected the agreement, fearing it would affect their historical share of Nile water. Later, South Sudan signed the agreement.
Tanzania has recently called for a review to the Entebbe Agreement, a step that was regarded as positive in resolving current differences on the Ethiopian dam.
Resuming the work of the tripartite technical committee and respecting international law — as stipulated in last week’s joint statement — could be the first step towards resolution of the dam issue.
In addition, issuing the joint statement could contribute towards “changing the strategic environment that surrounded the crisis and giving Egypt the chance to build a network at regional and international levels that could positively contribute towards resolving the GERD issue,” Raslan said.