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Egypt looks to Congo for breakthrough on Nile Dam talks

Egypt is hoping the Democratic Republic of Congo, as chair of the African Union, will contribute to solving the long-standing dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
A man sits next to an old picture of the Inga hydroelectric dam displayed on the wall of the Societe Nationale d'Electricite (SNEL, National Electricity Company) offices in Lubumbashi on May 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FEDERICO SCOPPA        (Photo credit should read FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discussed with his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi the faltering negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) during Tshisekedi’s first visit to Cairo on Feb. 2, as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) prepares to take over the presidency of the African Union for 2021.

According to a statement by the Egyptian presidency following the meeting, the two officials “agreed to promote coordination and joint deliberations to follow up on the developments in the GERD file.”

In a joint press conference with Sisi, Tshisekedi said following their meeting on Feb. 2 that he would work toward reaching a solution for the GERD crisis during his country’s chairmanship of the AU. He expressed optimism that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan would reach a solution to entrench peaceful coexistence between them.

Tshisekedi said he informed Sisi that he recently welcomed Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde and the Sudanese ministers of irrigation and foreign affairs in Kinshasa on separate occasions. He discussed water and the GERD with them and reiterated his full commitment to avoiding an escalation of tensions between the countries during his chairmanship of the AU.

The tripartite negotiations on the GERD are still faltering and the last round of AU-sponsored talks took place on Jan. 10 without achieving any progress toward reaching a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.

Egyptian analysts and experts who spoke to Al-Monitor believe the AU under the DRC’s chairmanship will coordinate between the three parties to solve the crisis. Despite the DRC’s statements in support of Egypt, it cannot side with Egypt alone in the GERD negotiations, and it is ultimately up to the three countries to engage in serious negotiations and show flexibility, they said.

Former Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohammad Nasreddin Allam told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The DRC’s contribution to the GERD crisis depends on Ethiopia’s behavior. If Ethiopia cooperates, the task will be easier. The AU is coordinating between the different parties to reach a solution. If there is stalling, nothing will change, just like no significant accomplishments were made during the year of South Africa’s mandate.”

Allam added, “It isn’t an easy task and Ethiopia must realize that the ongoing negotiations under the AU’s wing are the last chance to negotiate under African auspices." If the AU-sponsored talks fail again, he said, "there will be other options to resort to international [parties].”

In September,  Sisi received a letter from Tshisekedi, who voiced “the DRC’s support for the Egyptian terms for dealing with the GERD crisis.” Although the DRC previously voiced its support for Egypt in the GERD issue, Allam said it “cannot support one country in the conflict at the expense of the others. The Congolese president asserted this by noting the need to work toward a solution that would achieve the interests of all parties.”

Abbas Sharaqi, director of the Natural Resources Department at the Institute of African Studies and Research at the University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor that relations between Egypt and the DRC are “among Egypt’s best relations with the Nile Basin countries.”

He added, “These relations are not limited to the GERD issue. There is extensive cooperation in other fields between the two countries, most recently reflected in the visit of an Egyptian military convoy to the DRC on Sept. 30 as part of the project to make the Congo River navigable.”

Sharaqi added, “There are other agreements between Egypt [and the DRC] to implement projects in the areas of electricity and infrastructure” and talks of still other projects.

Meanwhile, Egypt is considering taking part in the construction and setup of the Inga Dam on the Congo River. A source in the Egyptian Ministry of Electricity told Al-Monitor, “An agreement on the participation [of Egypt] in the Inga Dam project is underway. Several private Egyptian companies would implement [the project] on the ground under the supervision of the ministry to ensure high quality implementation, as per the agreement being discussed.”

During his press conference with Sisi on Feb. 2, Tshisekedi said he was looking forward to establishing a new administrative capital in his country, similar to the new administrative capital in Egypt, because of the large population growth in Kinshasa, one of the most populated cities in the region.

Hiba al-Bashbishi, a researcher at the Institute for African Research and Studies at the University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “The DRC can hold separate negotiation sessions with the three countries, then give the conclusion to the AU Commission with its final perception of the solution to the crisis. The Congolese president has taken serious steps in that regard.”

She added, “South Africa’s role in the GERD file did not live up to expectations and we did not reach an agreement despite months of negotiations under its auspices. All eyes are on the strong role that the DRC will play to resolve this crisis after it takes the helm of the AU.”

Khaled Akasha, director of the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies, said in statements to Sada al-Balad Feb. 2, “The DRC’s chairmanship of the AU gives a positive [push] on the GERD issue, because it is totally informed of the details of the dossier and points out the risks and threats about which Egypt and Sudan have reservations. It can untie some knots in this file and move it forward or announce clear stances.”

Sharaqi, however, said, “I am not betting much on the role of the AU because it does not have leverage mechanisms in Africa. But Egypt has taken this recent path suggested by the AU under South African auspices to prove its good intentions. Ultimately, Egypt wants to reach a binding agreement in the GERD in any way possible.”

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