Egypt’s diplomacy has noticeably focused on African affairs during the past month, an unprecedented development in the nine months since President Mohammed Morsi came to power. It represents an exceedingly important turn of events as it relates to two main arteries providing Egypt with life. The first is the Nile river, without which Egypt would not exist, and around the basin of which other countries thrive. The second is the Suez Canal, Egypt’s largest source of national income, itself tightly linked to the Bab el-Mandeb strait and Somalia’s coast.
The intense diplomatic activity in this regard saw Prime Minister Hesham Kandil visit South Sudan, while Morsi visited the north and Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr went to Somalia to inaugurate the opening of the Egyptian Embassy in Mogadishu following its move there from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. In parallel, a delegation of Somalia’s Muslim Brotherhood visited the Egyptian Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie in Cairo.
Dr. Hamdi Abdel Rahman, a professor of political science and African studies, analyzed this shift for Al-Monitor, saying that the Egyptian regime’s current moves came late, especially considering the ongoing geo-strategic changes that Western nations are striving to impose in East Africa and the Nile Basin. The reasons for these changes have to do with combating so-called Islamic fundamentalist forces in Africa, as well as other issues relating to petroleum and the fight against the ever-increasing Chinese influence in the region.
Furthermore, the secession of South Sudan and other regional arrangements concerning Somalia have posed risks for Egypt while bolstering the strategic importance of non-Arab regional countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. In this regard, Abdel Rahman cited Ethiopia’s insistence on adopting a dam-building strategy and moving ahead with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as well as becoming a signatory to the Nile Basin Initiative adopted in Entebbe. Ethiopia signed this initiative despite Egyptian objections to such an agreement, which allows countries upstream of the Nile to build water projects and dams without deference to the downstream countries Egypt and Sudan. This threatens these two countries’ historical Nile water quotas as prescribed in the 1959 agreement, which gives Egypt a share estimated to total 55 billion cubic meters of water annually.
Dr. Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Studies program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said that Egypt’s crisis in the Nile Basin was caused by an imbalance of power in the region resulting from Egypt’s waning influence in its traditional areas in the Horn of Africa and Sudan. This is especially true considering that Ethiopia, the major player in the Nile Basin region, has been trying to evolve from an important country to one that dominates the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa.
Raslan considered the latest African moves undertaken by the Egyptian regime to be “doomed to fail,” as can be seen in South Sudan’s desire to sign the Entebbe Convention despite talk about it signing understandings and entering into cooperative endeavors with Egypt. He also characterized Morsi’s visit to Sudan as “meant for mutual political exploitation” between himself and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, while the announced results did not reflect the reality on the ground.
A journalist and researcher specializing in African affairs, Aya Aman, told Al-Monitor that so far, these visits had not led to any positive developments. She considered Morsi’s recent visit to Sudan as having reignited the controversy concerning the disputed Halayeb Triangle border area.
Aman said that none of the committees announced by Bashir have held any meetings until now, and none of the promises made during the visit have been fulfilled. Meanwhile, most commercial endeavors were of a personal and individual nature on the part of certain businessmen.
Aman continued to say that the apparent good relationship with Sudan was not beneficial to Egypt in the Nile Basin affair, and that Egypt’s position grew increasingly worse in that regard, as evidenced by the failure of the joint Nile Water Technical Committee to meet for the past year. This signifies the existence of undeclared differences in opinion between Egypt and Sudan.
Aman also indicated that Kandil’s visit to South Sudan did not yield the results desired by Egypt. For South Sudan — despite signing three recent agreements with Egypt relating to an Egyptian grant valued at $26.6 billion first discussed in 2006 — has clearly shown that it intended to sign the Entebbe Convention. Meanwhile, Juba has hinted that not one Egyptian businessman had taken steps to implement any of the projects prescribed in the agreements signed last month.
Aman ruled out the possibility of Egypt resorting to military action against Ethiopia, despite the grave threats posed by the latter in diverting the Blue Nile’s waters and moving forward in building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. This is because, among other factors, Egypt’s internal situation is weak, and Ethiopia has emerged as an African superpower. In addition, the Ethiopian people had rallied in support of the dam project despite the fact that their prime minister and strongman, Meles Zenawi, had passed away. Furthermore, five African nations have endorsed the agreement which permits the building of the dam, and consider that Egypt’s participation in its building would guarantee that it have a say in its use, thus safeguarding Egyptian interests.
Regarding Somalia and the Horn of Africa, Abdul Rahman opined that Amr’s visit was part of a public-relations campaign, and that Somalia’s fate was drawn not by Egypt, but by Western powers with the participation of regional players such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. He thought that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood playing host to members of the Somali Brotherhood “was aimed at establishing popular relations with some of the influential Islamic factions in Somalia.”
Raslan, on the other hand, considered the visit to be “intended to give the impression that Egypt was returning to play its role in the Horn of Africa,” while pointing out that the Brotherhood in Egypt sees itself as the leader of Islamist movements throughout the world, and as such, communicating with the Somali Brotherhood would give Egypt a certain advantage there.
But he felt that the Brotherhood’s attempt to recover its influence through that avenue was “wrong and dangerous, because Somalia is a failed state that lacks a central government, where different factions, including al-Qaeda, vie for power. It therefore was not prudent to open dialogue with one of those factions while ignoring the remaining components of Somali society.” He warned that “the proper way for Egypt to recover its influence in Somalia is through national and state relations, as opposed to ideological ones.”
For her part, Aman said that Egypt’s recognition of a new government in Somalia was an attempt to restore internal security to that country. She felt that the Brotherhood playing a role in African affairs might be feasible in West Africa, but that it would be detrimental to Egyptian interests in East Africa as a result of the prevalence of Islamophobia in countries of a Christian-majority region. The focus of relations in that region must therefore remain diplomatic.
Aman stressed the fact that Egypt’s efforts could be successful only if it revives its role in the Arab League by adopting common Arab policies meant to restore security and development to Somalia, especially considering that the latter is an Arab state. She explained that such a role would serve as a counterbalance to Ethiopia, the most influential nation in the African Union, which it exploits to further its influence in Somali affairs.
Abdelrahman Youssef is an Egyptian journalist specializing in religious issues and political affairs. He has written for a number of Egyptian publications, including Al-Shorouk, Al-Youm Al-Sabe'a, Al-Watan, Egypt Independent and Egypt Daily News, as well as for news organizations outside of Egypt such as the Lebanese Al-Akhbar and Reuters.
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