By: Dina Ezzet
In two weeks’ time President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to hand the rotating presidency of the African Union to his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa. In the bilateral meeting that traditionally precedes the official hand-over Ramaphosa is expected to quiz Al-Sisi about Egypt’s position on Ethiopia’s request that Cape Town mediate between Cairo and Addis Ababa in an attempt to resolve their persistent disagreements over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Last week, in the wake of another inconclusive round of talks in Addis Ababa and ahead of the meetings that took place in Washington on Monday and Tuesday (13 and 14 January) Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced he would seek the mediation of South Africa in its capacity as the next chair of the AU.
Ahmed’s appeal for a new mediator was construed as a tacit admission the Washington talks would not see a breakthrough on the most significant sticking points — the volume of water that Egypt will lose during years of drought, and linkage between the operation of GERD and Egypt’s 50-year-old High Dam.
An Egyptian diplomat who previously served in Addis Ababa characterised the Ethiopian request for South African mediation as “manipulative” given that South Africa is hardly a close ally of Egypt.
“It is no secret that Egypt and South Africa have competing positions on the continent. It is also no secret that Egypt might wish for another African mediator even though South Africa is the next chair of the AU,” said the diplomat.
Egypt has issued no official statement on Ahmed’s proposition. It has, however, criticised Ethiopia for failing to meet its promises to work with Egypt and Sudan and agree arrangements that allow Addis Ababa to pursue its development goals without inflicting harm on Egypt, the one Nile Basin country facing a severe water shortage.
Ethiopia, the same diplomat says, has not been acting in good faith despite the “sincere wish on the part of Egypt to reach a fair arrangement”.
Ethiopia has been trying to “put pressure on Egypt in East Africa, on the assumption that this would get the Egyptian authorities compromise on the water file”.
According to the diplomat, Ethiopia has “been lobbying East African countries, including Sudan, against Egypt”.
Officials in Cairo have repeatedly complained about an unsympathetic Sudanese position, which seems to align more with Ethiopia than with Egypt.
Throughout the 12 months, during which it chaired the African Union, Egypt has tried to counterbalance this Ethiopian campaign. However, according to officials familiar with the African file, Egypt still has a lot of work to do.
Part of the problem that Egypt is facing with Ethiopia and the rest of East Africa, officials argue, is the support that Addis Ababa has received for over 10 years from two of Egypt’s closest Arab allies, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
“They are true allies of Egypt and we work together on many fronts but they too have interests in East Africa,” said one official.
Relations with East Africa and Nile Basin states have topped Egypt’s agenda during the past year, in its capacity as AU chair, and will continue to do so in 2020.
“We have plans to work with these countries on so many fronts: development, trade, health and more,” said a government official.
Cairo is not sure, however, how far this consolidation of relations will serve its position when it comes to GERD.
In parallel with its continued focus on East Africa, Cairo will also have to continue working to preserve its strategic interests in North Africa.
In cooperation with the UAE, Egypt has given a considerable push to Khalifa Haftar, the military leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army who is in an extended battle with militias supporting Fayez Al-Sarraj, the chair of the internationally recognised government of Libya. However, this push had not forced Al-Sarraj and his militias to back down. Nor has it prompted more international support for or recognition of Haftar.
“Actually, despite the advances that Haftar has managed to make on the ground, with considerable Egyptian and Emirati help, he is still not being considered as the potential next leader of Libya,” commented a Cairo-based European diplomat.
The same diplomat added that more countries than ever are conversing with Al-Sarraj.
“Traditionally, the Russians have been closer to Haftar but this week we saw [Russian President Vladimir] Putin invite Al-Sarraj and Haftar to Moscow as part of a joint initiative with Turkey which is a direct ally of Al-Sarraj.”
Putin offered the initiative with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week following the Russian president’s visit to Turkey. And unlike Egypt, Turkey was very active in the indirect talks between Haftar and Al-Sarraj that took place in Moscow earlier this week.
According to the European diplomat, Al-Sarraj curried favour with Putin by agreeing to an initial ceasefire agreement that Haftar declined.
The prolonged conflict in Libya is a source of deep concern to Tunisia and Algeria as well as to Egypt though the three states differ on how the situation should be managed.
Last week Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri was in Algeria for talks. Egypt is planning further consultations with both Algeria and Tunisia ahead of the Berlin Conference on Libya that has finally been scheduled to convene on 19 January. Algeria’s newly sworn in President Abdelmadjid Tebboune will attend the conference.
This week Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte stressed the importance of the Berlin Conference to attempts to ensure stability in Libya. “If we fail to keep up the truce in Libya we cannot talk,” Conte said.
He was speaking ahead of a visit to Egypt on Tuesday where he met with President Al-Sisi for talks on Libya.
Senior Egyptian officials have been in talks with their counterparts in Russia, the US, Italy, France and Germany over Libya.
The talks have covered far more than developments along Egypt’s border with Libya, encompassing the southern and southwestern portions of the country.
The southern part of Libya, which is controlled by neither Al-Sarraj nor Haftar, is packed with militias that move back and forth from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Senegal. The area represents a serious challenge for the war on violent Islamist militant groups.
Egypt has been working particularly closely with both Germany and France on this front.
Senior Egyptian officials have been repeatedly telling their European counterparts that without a strong Libyan army the south of Libya will continue to be a transit zone for militias moving around the Sahara.
For Egypt, this is a serious security concern that it has been working to resolve.
In a report issued earlier this month the International Crisis Group included the conflicts in Libya and Burkina Faso as likely to be two of the most problematic in 2020.
According to the report, despite the promising role of its Nobel Laureate Prime Minister Ahmed, Ethiopia too could face an upsurge of ethnic violence and socio-economic riots.