Nile dam row: Sisi switches to soft power to bring East Africa to Egypt’s side

Saturday November 13 2021
President Samia Suluhu Hassan

Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan inspects a guard of honour in Cairo alongside her Egyptian counterpart, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. FILE PHOTO | THE CITIZEN


Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan this week visited Egypt for three days at the invitation of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, where she sought further co-operation with Cairo on various sectors, including infrastructure, energy, health and agriculture.

Although the visit seemed largely business-driven, it signalled the growing influence of the Egyptian strongman in the region as he seeks more allies in the battle with Ethiopia for the Nile waters.

According to Horn of Africa experts, Egypt’s aggressive outreach in eastern Africa mainly relates to efforts to recover lost diplomatic ground and to ensure that it has good relations with the upstream riparian states.

During the reign of Meles Zenawi in Addis from 1991 to 1995, the Egyptians were largely isolated and outmanoeuvred in the region after Mr Meles built up a large coalition in favour of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (Gerd): For the Sisi administration, reversing the isolation has been a principal goal.

Egypt is now keen on having the East African Community members, who also form the Nile Basin states and are signatories to the 2010 Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA), also known as the Entebbe Agreement, in its corner. The CFA was signed by six of the 10 Nile Basin Initiative states, Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi. Cairo did not recognise it.

Dam on the agenda


The Egyptian leader seems to have chosen soft power, fostering more trade, military and infrastructure co-operation with the target countries, to achieve his goal.

This week, the Gerd was top on the agenda of talks between presidents Sisi and Samia, who agreed to “increase coordination” between Egypt and Tanzania on the issue, according to a communique from the Egyptian presidency.

At a joint press conference, President Sisi said Egypt is looking to secure its water rights through a fair and legally binding agreement with Ethiopia. He said he is seeking a deal in accordance with international law and the UN Security Council’s directive in September, for resumption of talks between the protagonists, Ethiopia on the one hand, and Egypt and Sudan on the other.

President Sisi said that an agreement on the GERD would “boost security and stability for all countries in the region and open new horizons for co-operation between Nile Basin countries”.

President Samia welcomed the participation of Egypt in Tanzania's ambitious development plan, including the $2.9 billion Julius Nyerere dam on River Rufiji being constructed by two Egyptian companies in partnership with the Tanzania Electric Supply Company (Tanesco).

While Egyptian diplomats would not be drawn into a discussion on Cairo’s plan for East Africa (questions to them went unanswered), President Sisi was explicit that the Tanzania project “is an example of Egypt’s support for the rights of Nile Basin countries to make the best use of their water resources in a way that does not impact other countries".

In January 2018, Egypt and Tanzania signed a contract to establish the $2.9 billion project expected to generate 2,115MW of power. Egyptian companies, Arab Contractors and El-Sewedy Electric, started construction mid-2019, and the project is scheduled to be complete by 2022.

The project includes construction of the concrete part of the main dam, in addition to four complementary dams that form the water reservoir with a capacity of 33 billion cubic metres, and a hydroelectric power generation station.

Experts say that President Sisi’s soft power approach in the Gerd question is informed by the realisation that the project can no longer be stopped by sabre-rattling. Ethiopia has continued developing the dam and is determined to complete it, and Cairo may not count on its allies, America and the Gulf states, on this matter.

For the US and Europe, Ethiopia is the central partner in East Africa on the war on terror. Kenya is another.

In spite of its criticism over a poor human-rights record, the US has been an ally of President Sisi, with former president Donald Trump once referring to him as his "favourite dictator". Last February, the US State Department approved the sale of about $200-million worth of missiles to the Egyptian military, according to the Washington Post.

Every year, for almost a decade, the US Secretary of State has waived provisions of a law that conditions the release of $300 million in Egyptian military aid on significant human rights progress there — part of the total $1.3 billion of foreign military financing Washington gives Cairo each year.

According to the Post, officials said $170 million will be given to Egypt under an exception in the law for items related to counterterrorism, border security and non-proliferation items. Activists want the Biden administration to shelve the plan. The Gulf allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have economic interests in the Ethiopian agricultural sector and import food from the region. So, political pressure on Addis Ababa to abandon its water infrastructure expansion cannot be expected from those quarters, say Tobias von Lossow and Stephan Roll of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in their paper Egypt’s Nile Water Policy under Sisi: Security Interests Promote Rapprochement with Ethiopia.

There is therefore little mileage for Egypt in internationalisation of the conflict, they say. That leaves the negotiating table.

“By taking a moderate line on the Nile issue, Sisi hopes to open bilateral relations [with Addis] in other policy areas. In recent months, Egypt has repeatedly pointed to the potential for intensifying economic co-operation. And at least since 2010, an increase in trade and investment flows has been observed. Politically influential Egyptian corporations like Qalaa Holdings and El-Sewedy Electric have made significant investments in Ethiopia and are therefore likely to be lobbying in Cairo for an easing of political relations,” the two experts say.

Strong ties

Egypt and Tanzania have had strong ties since 1964, according to Egypt's State Information Service. On the political level, Tanzania under Jakaya Kikwete expressed its support for the June 30, 2013 revolution that opposed the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule. Tanzania, represented by then-Foreign Minister Bernard Membe, also participated in President Sisi’s inauguration ceremony in June 2014, and President Sisi’s visit to Tanzania in August 2017 constituted a turning point in their relations as it was the first visit of an Egyptian official since 1967. He had visited Kenya earlier the same year.

President Sisi has instructed Arab Contractors and El-Sewedy to complete the Julius Nyerere dam and hydropower station and deliver quality work. His interest in the project is not lost on observers amid the stalled Gerd negotiations. Ethiopia considers the dam a crucial project for achieving economic development. Egypt fears the GERD will affect its share of the Nile River, which supplies it with more than 90 percent of its potable water and irrigation needs.

The dispute earlier this year went to the UN Security Council, as the two countries sought to secure international support to pressure Addis to resolve the issue that has been stoking regional security concerns, but negotiations remain stalled. This month, Ethiopia is expected to start the third-stage filling of the Gerd, but the ongoing political crisis could affect the preparations, giving Sudan and Egypt relief — for now.

Egypt has been cited as a shadow in the crises in the Horn of Africa, especially in Ethiopia — and even Sudan. Magdi el-Gizouli, a Sudanese analyst at the Rift Valley Institute, says Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have backed the coup makers in Sudan led by Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. In 2013, the two Gulf monarchies played a pivotal role in shoring up the regime of President Sisi. Experts say that any hope for restoring Sudan's democratic prospects may require exerting pressure on the Arab powers.

"The Gulf monarchies and Egypt, which of all outside powers have forged the tightest links with Burhan and the military, should urge authorities to exercise restraint rather than resort to indiscriminate force," the International Crisis Group recently said in a policy note.

The two Arab nations have since joined the US in condemning the military takeover of power on October 25, which interrupted a fragile transition to democracy in which power was shared with a civilian arm led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was deposed, detained and then placed under house arrest.

Tigray crisis

But Cairo is also fighting off allegations of having a hand in the Tigray crisis in northern Ethiopia, which is threatening to dislodge reformist Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed from power. In 2016 and this year, Addis pointed an accusing finger at Egypt for backing rebels, allegations that Cairo denies.

In October, Ethiopia’s ambassador to Egypt Markos Tekle announced the closure of the embassy in Cairo for “the next three to six months to reduce costs".

He said the decision had nothing to do with the longstanding dispute Ethiopia has had with Egypt and Sudan over the dam. In July, Ethiopia filled the dam for the second time, amid warnings by Cairo and Khartoum.

The Gerd has been at the centre of a regional dispute ever since Ethiopia broke ground in 2011. Egypt and Sudan view the project as a threat because of their dependence on the Nile waters, while Ethiopia deems it essential for its electrification and development. The $4.2 billion dam is expected to produce more than 5,000MW of power, making it Africa's biggest hydroelectric dam and more than doubling Ethiopia's electricity output.

Ethiopia had initially planned output of around 6,500MW, but later reduced its target.

Addisu Lashitew of the Brookings Institution in Washington said the dam is a unifying symbol.

“It's one of the very few things that bring together people from all walks of life in Ethiopia," he told the Washington Post. "Definitely the government will try to extract some political value from the second filling."

Talks held under the auspices of the AU have failed to yield a three-way agreement on the dam, and Cairo and Khartoum have demanded that Addis Ababa cease filling the massive reservoir until such a deal is reached.

But Ethiopian officials have argued that filling it is a part of the construction process and cannot be stopped.

The UN Security Council met earlier in July to discuss the project, but Ethiopia dismissed the session as an "unhelpful" distraction from the AU-led process.

The two German scholars, Mr Lossow and Mr Roll, say in no way does President Sisi’s change of strategy mean an end to the conflict over distribution and use of the Nile water resources.

“Any impression that Egypt under President Sisi might be more constructive in this question than under Hosni Mubarak or Mohamed Morsi is misleading. The current Egyptian rapprochement with Ethiopia is occurring within the arena of Gerd, while the broader conflict over the fundamental distribution of the Nile waters remains,” they say.

Egypt claims a historic right to the Nile dating from a 1929 treaty that gave it veto power over construction projects along the river. A 1959 treaty boosted Egypt's allocation to around 66 percent of the river's flow, with 22 percent for Sudan. Ethiopia was not party to those treaties and does not see them as valid.

In 2010, Nile basin countries, excluding Egypt and Sudan, signed another deal, the Co-operative Framework Agreement, which allows projects on the river without Cairo's agreement.

Earlier this year, President Sisi extended his charm offensive to Uganda, where the Nile begins. The two states signed a military intelligence sharing agreement on April 8, against the backdrop of rising tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia.

“The fact that Uganda and Egypt share the Nile, co-operation between the two countries is inevitable because what affects Ugandans will in one way or other affect Egypt,” Maj-Gen Sameh Saber El-Degwi, a top Egyptian intelligence official who headed Cairo’s delegation to Kampala, was quoted in a statement by the Ugandan military as saying.

Support from Kenya

Later the same month, Egypt sought Kenya’s support for its stance on the Gerd, as Kenya is Africa’s representative at the UN Security Council.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on April 19 met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and told him that Egypt hoped an agreement on the dam could be reached "that preserves the security and stability of the region”.

An Egyptian government statement indicated “Egypt's readiness to support development projects in Kenya in areas that constitute a priority for Kenya”.

Egypt has influence and presence in Kenya commercially. There is also joint military co-operation between the two countries. Exports between Kenya and Egypt have been rising in recent years. Egypt’s exports to Kenya were $348 million in 2019, according to a report by the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics released in November 2020. In January 2017, Egypt granted Kenya $5.5 million within the framework of a co-operation agreement ratified by Egyptian Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Ati during a visit to Nairobi.

In February 2017, President Sisi visited Nairobi and met with President Kenyatta. In March 2020, during a phone call with President Sisi, President Kenyatta announced Kenya’s support for Egypt’s stance in the dam negotiations, according to the Egyptian presidency.

In October 2020, President Kenyatta visited Cairo and President Sisi was quoted as saying that Egypt “trusts Kenya’s ability to fully represent the African continent at the Security Council as it is a voice that defends African issues”.

But it’s not just East Africa where Sisi is seeking clout on the continent. The Egyptian leader is in Paris this weekend to attend a conference on Libya and to hold talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, according to a statement released on Thursday by the Egyptian presidency.

The conference is being organised with the UN, Germany and Italy, and comes head of elections planned in Libya on December 24.

Egypt is eyeing economic opportunities in Libya, and has re-established a presence in Tripoli. It has called for the elections to go ahead despite disputes among Libyan factions. Egypt supported eastern Libya-based forces under military commander Khalifa Haftar after a previous vote in 2014 escalated a conflict and effectively split the country between rival eastern and western camps.


Field-marshal who became president

Born in 1954, al-Sisi was raised in al-Gamaliya, in an alleyway that lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter of Cairo’s old city. “I was born and raised in an area with immense cultural diversity… and I used to see the synagogue in the Jewish quarter,” al-Sisi later recalled in a TV interview. Although he was never in active combat, three wars between Egypt and Israel broke out during his lifetime. Egypt fought three wars with Israel in his early years, the last of which was in 1973, when he was 19. Upon graduating from the military academy in 1977, al-Sisi married his maternal cousin Entissar Amer. They have three sons and a daughter. al-Sisi continued his military training at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College in 1992 and received a master’s degree from the US Army War College in Pennsylvania in 2006. After serving as security chief at the military attache office in Saudi Arabia, el-Sisi returned to Egypt in 2008 as chief of staff of the northern military zone. In February 2011, shortly after the Egyptian revolution, a military council assumed control of the country and appointed al-Sisi as the head of military intelligence. In 2012, elected President Mohamed Morsi appointed al-Sisi minister of defence and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. One year later, he toppled the president. al-Sisi’s ascent to power came about in 2013, during massive anti-Morsi protests planned for June 30.

Amid calls for President Morsi to step down, al-Sisi issued a 48-hour ultimatum for the president to “meet the demands owf the people,” or call for early elections. Citing electoral legitimacy, Morsi proposed to form a new consensus government, but the military nonetheless went ahead and deposed him once the deadline expired on July 3. On July 3, in a pivotal statement in Egyptian politics, al-Sisi announced the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, the temporary suspension of the constitution, and the appointment of a judge as temporary president until new elections were held. Although al-Sisi promised to guarantee freedom of expression, the military-backed interim government went on to outlaw all activities and organisations related to the former president’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and embarked on a campaign of arresting and silencing its supporters.