CAIRO — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received on March 26 his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, in a visit that Egyptian officials and observers believe is an important step toward repositioning Cairo in the Nile Basin region and which constitutes another factor of pressure on Ethiopia amid the ongoing crisis over the latter’s controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The two leaders had a private discussion followed by talks between delegations from the two countries. Sisi and Kagame then attended the signing of memoranda of understanding between their countries in the fields of diplomatic training, youth and sports, museums and information technology.
According to a statement by the office of the Egyptian Presidency, Sisi stressed during the meeting with Kagame Egypt's keenness to consolidate strategic cooperation with Rwanda in various fields and form a joint committee between the two countries as soon as possible.
The statement said that the two presidents agreed on the importance of engaging in a constructive and effective dialogue to boost strategic cooperation between the Nile Basin countries and achieve comprehensive development for all the peoples of the region.
They further discussed the GERD issue and agreed to intensify coordination between the two countries during the coming period on this sensitive and vital issue. Sisi also stressed “the necessity of reaching a binding legal agreement on filling and operating the dam within an appropriate time frame, in a way that enhances regional security and stability.”
Speaking at a joint press conference in Cairo on March 26, Kagame described his talks with Sisi as very fruitful, adding that the memoranda of understanding that were signed are based on the long-term relations between Egypt and Rwanda.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor that Egypt has been building economic and development cooperation with the Nile Basin countries after restoring its political and diplomatic presence, noting that Rwanda has witnessed significant economic growth in recent years.
The Egyptian-Rwandan economic ties enjoy the advantages of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), as Rwanda is one of the countries that have implemented a 100% reduction of customs fees. Egypt’s and Rwanda’s trade exchange was worth $23.4 million in 2018 compared to $16.93 million in 2017.
In January 2021, Egypt activated the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement. The volume of trade exchange between Egypt and the COMESA countries recorded $3 billion in 2020, equivalent to about 60% of the total value of Egyptian trade exchange with the African continent during the same year, according to the Egyptian Cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Center.
Kagame added during the joint press conference that taking advantage of the AfCFTA agreement to create opportunities for young entrepreneurs is essential to the sustainable development of the continent. “The (coronavirus) pandemic has reminded us of the importance of interdependence and that no country deals with any crisis alone; we must identify new areas of cooperation,” he noted.
Amani al-Taweel, director of the African program at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that Kagame may play a role in resolving the GERD crisis, as he has great influence in the East African region and is on good terms with Ethiopia, not to mention his significant African statute given his projects to develop the African Union.
“This visit was an important breakthrough for Egyptian relations with African countries and an Egyptian repositioning within the Nile Basin region,” Taweel pointed out.
With the end of late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s rule, Egypt had lost its influence in the Nile Basin region. In 2010, Ethiopia signed with the countries of Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Kenya the Entebbe Agreement (also known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement) to re-share the water, which Egypt and Sudan rejected. Then, in 2011, Addis Ababa started building the GERD, resulting in a crisis with Egypt and Sudan.
However, with Sisi assuming power in 2014, the Egyptian policy toward Africa shifted, as he tried to polish Cairo’s image and work to protect its water interests in the Nile Basin to strengthen its position on the GERD issue.
Taweel believes that the main problem Egypt was facing in its relations with the Nile Basin countries was the incitement practiced by Ethiopia against it against the backdrop of the GERD crisis.
“However, Cairo was partially able to overcome this incitement against it through consolidating its economic and security ties in South Sudan, Uganda, Congo, Djibouti and now Rwanda, and possibly Somalia soon,” she noted. "In 2021 alone, Cairo signed security and military agreements with Uganda, Burundi, Kenya, Sudan and Congo. Egypt is using all economic, developmental and military tools to reposition itself in the Nile Basin region, mainly for economic reasons, and to protect its interests in a sustainable manner, mainly with regard to the GERD and the Entebbe Agreement.”
Taweel explained that Egypt is carrying on with such actions in the region with the aim of exerting pressure on Ethiopia on its direct surroundings, through the AU, which is now sponsoring the GERD negotiations.
Meanwhile, Sharaki noted that Egypt needs support from the Nile Basin countries for its vision. “Such close ties will lead to a review of the Entebbe Agreement to reach a compromise, where Egypt and Sudan would negotiate joining the agreement.”
Rwanda and Burundi are seeking to build the Akanyaru Multipurpose Dam on the Nyabarongo River, which flows into Lake Victoria, with a capacity of 333 million cubic meters.
Sharaki explained that building a dam in that area has a very limited impact, as the flow of the river coming from that area does not exceed 2 billion cubic meters. “Egypt does not oppose the construction of dams as long as there is coordination, and Cairo may offer to help in its construction,” he said.
During a meeting in Cairo March 2 with EU Special Representative for the Horn of Africa Annette Weber, Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Mohamed Abdel Ati said that Egypt does not object to building dams in the Nile Basin countries, as there are more than 15 dams, some of which Egypt helped build. He stressed that reaching an agreement on the GERD would pave the way for regional cooperation and integration.
Meanwhile, the GERD negotiations have been stalled since April 2021, and Ethiopia has begun preparing for the third filling in July.
On March 18, the Sudan Tribune reported that the United Arab Emirates was mediating among Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia in a bid to solve the dam crisis, noting that delegations from the three countries met in Abu Dhabi to discuss outstanding issues, without revealing the results of these meetings.
The head of the Sudanese Sovereign Council, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said during his visit to Cairo on March 30 that his country is now optimistic about the GERD issue, noting that Sudan hopes to reach common understandings between the three countries soon.
William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor that the differences and the deteriorating ties between Ethiopia and Sudan as well as the political situation in both countries do not allow for any progress in terms of negotiations over the GERD.
“Senegal, which currently chairs the AU, ought to try to resume negotiations, perhaps with the presence of observers from the US and the EU, in the hope that the three countries would try once again to reach a kind of consensus on an agreement over operating the dam, especially during drought periods,” Davison noted.