Egypt’s African outreach may not resolve GERD dispute, yet pay off on other fronts

By Hatem Maher

Posted on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 13:00
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during the opening session of the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt . REUTERS

Egypt's relentless efforts to repair decades of distrust with fellow African countries might not be enough to stave off the effects of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam on its Nile river share, but forging closer ties on the continent remains of paramount importance.

A perceived superiority complex of the administration of former Egypt president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted by a popular uprising in 2011, was widely blamed for leading to on-off Egyptian-African relations.

Matters deteriorated further when Mubarak survived an assassination attempt in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1995, after which the autocratic leader shunned African summits.

Egypt’s 2011 revolution heralded a new era, but the army’s overthrow of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi two years later proved a setback, with the African Union suspending the North African country’s membership for almost a year.

Abdel Fattah al-Sisi set about restoring the damaged ties after he was elected president in 2014. He toured parts of the continent and expanded Egypt’s outreach as the country sought to build fresh and viable African relations.

“At the time, Egypt’s administration was aware of the importance of getting recognition, given that the African Union’s charter includes provisions against undemocratic rule changes,” Mostafa El-Gammal, a researcher at the Cairo-based Arab and African Research Center, tells The African Report.

“The administration also believed it was important to expand Egypt’s African relations, especially with the Nile Basin countries, so that it can make sure no other country would follow in the footsteps of Ethiopia, whose dam poses an existential threat to Egypt.

“Egypt is now trying to repeat the achievements of [ex-president] Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who not only backed liberation movements across Africa, but also forged strong economic ties with many other African countries”, during his 1954-1970 tenure, El-Gammal says.

Earlier this year, Egyptian officials said the country’s investments in Africa rose by $1.2bn to $10.2bn in 2021. Egypt’s exports to African Union countries also amounted to almost $5.5bn last year, marking a 37.7% year-on-year increase, according to the official statistics agency CAPMAS. The third largest Arab economy has outlined an ambitious target to bring that figure to $10bn by 2025, Planning Minister Hala el-Saeed said earlier this year.

Egypt’s overtures to East African states included the building of a hydroelectric dam in Tanzania, the signing of a military intelligence sharing agreement with Uganda, and a military cooperation agreement with Kenya. International Cooperation Minister Rania Al-Mashat said the Egyptian-African relations have witnessed an “unprecedented boom” under Sisi.

COP27 opportunity

Egypt also took the opportunity presented by COP27 to further enhance those relations. It portrayed an image of being a champion of Africa’s demands as its popular Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh hosted the climate change summit earlier this month.

Although the high-level meeting fell short of producing a fresh commitment to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius in accordance with the landmark 2015 agreement in Paris, it still delivered a breakthrough deal. The agreement is to set up a “loss and damage” fund to help vulnerable countries, including those in Africa, cope with the devastating effects of climate change.

Ethiopia is very powerful and, regardless of Egypt’s efforts to strengthen ties with neighbouring countries, it will have the backing of fellow East African nations in the event of any confrontation

“Cairo certainly scored a key diplomatic success in the addition of ‘loss and damage finance’ to the official agenda for COP27 on 7 November – as this was against the preferences of richer countries that are expected to pay for the fund,” says Hamish Kinnear, a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk intelligence company.

“The only commitment made at COP26 was to discuss the issue before 2024, so Cairo including [this] in official discussions at COP27 helped to keep the issue on the agenda.

“Cairo nevertheless had wind in its sails, as loss and damage was thrust up the agenda this year by global natural disasters likely worsened by climate change – including the catastrophic floods in Pakistan for example.”

No progress on GERD

Whether the forum will give it some leverage in its standoff with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) is not entirely clear. This is despite Egypt’s growing efforts in developing stronger ties with African nations, especially those whom they share with Nile river interests.

Egypt has made no progress so far in its primary target of reaching a binding agreement with Ethiopia over the GERD’s operation. Contentious issues, such as how to manage the water’s flow during droughts, remain unresolved.

Talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have stalled for over a year, with the latter country completing a controversial third filling of the dam’s reservoir last August to further dent hopes of a breakthrough.

“If no agreement is reached to end this impasse and reach a solution that fits all parties, Egypt could be dragged into a direct military confrontation with Ethiopia. In this case, the majority of African nations will stand against Egypt,” said El-Gammal of the Arab and African Research Center.

Terrorism threats resulting from security deterioration in some African countries made Egyptian-African cooperation a necessity.

“Ethiopia is very powerful and, regardless of Egypt’s efforts to strengthen ties with neighbouring countries, it will have the backing of fellow East African nations in the event of any confrontation.”

Egypt is likely to stick to its strategy of forging closer ties with African countries even as it counts the benefits of its new-found approach, critics argue.

“Egypt’s policy under Sisi with regards to Egyptian-African relations takes into great consideration other dimensions,” says Amany El-Taweel, director of the African program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“Terrorism threats resulting from security deterioration in some African countries made Egyptian-African cooperation a necessity. That’s why Egypt built a military base in the [Red Sea peninsula of] Ras Banas near the Sudanese borders for instance.

“Egypt also struck military agreements with several East Africa and Nile Basin countries […] to control and secure its borders. Egyptian-African relations are strategic and eternal; they are not solely related to the Ethiopian dam crisis.”

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