It was an emotional homecoming. Egypt was finally again in the embrace of her mother continent, Africa. The 11-month freeze of her membership in the 54-State, Addis Ababa-based African Union came to an end, and Egypt was once more an active member. The happiness this brought to all the parties involved was unmistakable, almost euphoric.
Chairperson of the 54-State African Union (AU) commission, the Mauritanian Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, warmly welcomed Egypt “back home”, saying Egypt had always been an inspiration to Africa, and that now they would go back to working together. “We missed you,” the Sudanese representative gushed.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry stressed “Egypt’s pride at being among the founding fathers of the African Union”. He said that despite the suspension, Egypt’s concern for African issues never diminished, and Africa had always been and will remain a top priority for Egypt.
Arab Spring detriment
The Arab Spring which took off in Egypt in January 2011 and brought in an Islamist Muslim Brotherhood (MB) regime had effectively worked to sour relations between the country and the continent. The MB regime did nothing to foster good relations with Africa; it actually ruined them through botched diplomacy. A sharp downturn occurred when Ethiopia insisted on building a dam that threatened Egypt’s annual quota of its single water source, the Nile.
Two-and-a-half years later, on 3 July 2013, the Islamist president Muhammad Mursi was overthrown by the joint effort of the military and the people who, in staggering numbers that amounted to more than 33 million, had taken to the streets a few days earlier to demand the downfall of Mursi. The AU pronounced the action unconstitutional, and suspended Egypt’s membership. Egyptians felt bitter at the African move. They felt Africa had only looked at the role of the military in Mursi’s overthrow, but not that of the people; as though their numbers, sacrifice, and effort counted for nothing.
Last week saw Egypt back to the heart of Africa. Now the country boasts a Constitution Egyptians are proud of, and a president they are equally happy with. Both were installed through landslide votes that were declared free and fair by the international community. And Africa responded by unfreezing Egypt’s AU membership. Egyptians were elated; they felt the quandary of their African relations was on its way to be smoothly sorted out.
On his first visit outside the country as president, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi addressed the recent AU summit in Malabo in Equatorial Guinea. The Nairobi-based digital publication Mail & Guardian Africa, www.m.mgafrica.com, flashed the headline “Egypt’s Sisi steals the show at Malabo African Union summit”. It wrote: “Egypt President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was a main draw at an African Union’s heads of State meeting despite coming into the summit on the back of a major international controversy following the jailing of al-Jazeera journalists the week before.
“The retired field marshal was quick to address the terrorism threat,” the English-language digital publication reported. “Africa is threatened by cross-border terrorism, said Sisi, who took the podium to thunderous applause as he marked his country’s comeback to continental politics.”
Islamist terrorism is a real threat in Africa. Apart from the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in the north, the continent is plagued with Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia and Kenya.
The growing terror wave in Africa almost overshadowed other issues at the summit, major among which was the AU flagship Agenda 2063 development blueprint, which identifies several areas that would bring wide-reaching pan-African change over the next years. “Unless we work with the governments to stem this [terrorist] tide, we are all vulnerable because terrorism, extremism and intolerance endanger Africa’s march towards prosperity, peace and integration,” Dlamini-Zuma said.
Sisi had earlier made a stop in Algeria on his way to Malabo, where he met President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, and said he had gone to “coordinate efforts regarding the fight against terrorism…and the situation in Libya.” Algeria and Egypt both share long borders with Libya which has been gripped by deadly violence since the NATO-backed ouster of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Awash with weapons and militias, Libya became a major source of smuggled weapons and jihadis to neighbouring countries. Algeria, like Egypt, has suffered from a spillover of the turmoil. During his presidential campaign, Sisi stressed that Egypt must take action regarding Libya while beefing up security along its western borders.
On his way home from the AU summit, Sisi visited Egypt’s southern neighbour, Sudan. Sudan is an Islamist State but, as a number of analysts see the matter, Sisi’s visit was an attempt to shore up a regional alliance against Islamic terrorism.
With Libya to the west, Sudan to the south, and Gaza and ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) to the west—all strongholds of Islamist terrorism—Egypt needs all the support it could get on that head.
The Ethiopian dam
But Egypt also needs support on another key issue, its fight to retain—or even augment—its annual quota of Nile water, the Nile being almost the only water source it possesses. Whereas other countries on the Nile Basin enjoy copious rainfall, Egypt is technically a desert that gets next to none. No Nile water spells a death sentence for the land and people.
Egypt sees the USD4.2 billion Grand Renaissance Dam (GRD) Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, a major tributary to the Nile, as a major threat to its water quota. Ethiopia, on the other hand, insists the dam is only for generating some 6000 megawatts of electricity annually, and will not affect Egypt’s share of water. But this, according to the experts, is an oversimplification which disregards that the amount of water required to fill the huge reservoir will inevitably cut into Egypt’s water share.
Egyptian officials have for years stressed that they recognise the Ethiopian need for hydropower, and do not stand against it. But they demand that the reservoir should be filled over a number of years, to ease the pain of the water cut every year, and that they should be allowed to share with the Ethiopians the management of the dam. This is something Egypt has successfully done before; Egyptians built the Owen Falls dam in Uganda in 1954 and have ever since collaborated with the Ugandans in managing it. But Ethiopia adamantly rejected this option regarding the GRD. All negotiation on the dam since 2011 stalled because of what the Egyptian side said was Ethiopian intransigence. Once Sisi was elected last May, however, Ethiopia invited Egypt to negotiate the issue.
Political forces at play
Why the sudden change in attitude, many Egyptians asked. Before they could figure out an answer, and as high-ranking representatives from the Nile Basin countries participated in Sisi’s inauguration event, the Israeli foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman rushed to visit Ethiopia, accompanied by figures from some 50 Israeli firms. Liberman said there was a need to strengthen security, diplomatic, economic, and political relations with Africa.
During Sisi’s inauguration, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom extended an invitation for him to visit Addis Ababa. Sisi accepted, but no date was set just then. Before the week was over, a MB delegation was said to head to Ethiopia to protest the defreezing of Egypt’s membership in the AU, and to offer Ethiopia economic cooperation.
It doesn’t take much to figure out that different political forces are at play. Hany Raslan of the Sudan unit at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies says that, ever since the downfall of Mursi, Egyptian diplomacy has been working hard to remedy the damage worked on Egyptian Ethiopian relations by the Islamist regime. Egypt has moved on several international fronts: the US and EU in the West, Russia and China in the East, and Sudan which is a partner in the crisis and is set to suffer water shortage on account of the dam.
Egyptian rapprochement with Africa bore fruit, Dr Raslan says, with Tanzania calling for a revision of the Entebbe Cooperative Framework Agreement which was signed by 10 Nile Basin countries in 2010 and 2011, and which overturns the secure water rights granted by previous agreements to the downstream countries—Egypt and Sudan. It was Ethiopia who rallied for the Entebbe agreement, Dr Raslan reminds, and exploited it to build the GRD despite threats to Egypt’s water security.
Negotiation to save the day
The GRD crisis, according to former deputy to the Foreign Minister Muhammad al-Meneissi, is nothing new. Ethiopia attempted to build it in the 1970s when Anwar al-Sadat was president of Egypt, and again during the Mubarak times in the 1990s. In both cases the Egyptian presidents took firm stances against the project and Ethiopia never went along with it. It took a weak president like Mursi for Ethiopia to go ahead. “Now Egypt has a strong president,” Mr Meneissi says, “and he has declared that the impasse over the GRD may be solved through negotiation. He acknowledged Ethiopia’s development needs, but also Egypt’s pressing need for water security. And Ethiopia has responded positively.” Mr Meneissi says that Egypt should insist that Ethiopia adheres to the original dam design, reach an agreement with Egypt on the number of years for the reservoir to be filled, and allow Egyptian participation in managing the dam.
Mr Meneissi was referring to the fact that Ethiopia had changed the original dam design to one considerably higher and with a water reservoir capacity more than three times the original. This gave way to suspicions over the dam’s safety and fears of dreadful threats to the downstream lands should the dam collapse—a very plausible probability. Compounding the matter was the fact that Ethiopia refused to allow international experts to investigate the matter.
Professor of Political Science at the Institute of African Studies in Cairo, Ayman Shabana, believes that Israel has a stake in the Nile waters, and that it is only through Egypt that this can be possibly attained. “Israel hopes that it can coerce Egypt to do so through pressure from Nile Basin countries with whom it nurtures strong ties,” Dr Shabana says.
The hypothesis that pressure may be applied on Egypt through antagonising the Nile Basin countries against her appears to carry credibility. Given the recent history of external efforts to get Egypt to conform to the wider US plan for the Middle East, can it be assumed that the Ethiopian move to rally for the Cooperative Framework Agreement came within efforts to get the tide to rise against Egypt, locally and internationally? The timing of the events would appear to support that, with the pressure mounting throughout the Arab Spring years to weaken the nation. But Egypt worked up the courage and strength to overthrow the Islamists and, with a strong leader at the helm, it was obvious that the US-MB plan for Egypt was defeated. No point then in any further antagonism; Africa opened its arms to Egypt and Egypt came home.
2 July 2014