Analysis: Nile diplomacy: Cunning arm twists and turns, but whose losing game?


Zecharias Zelalem, Special to Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, Feb. 10/2017 – On January 9, 2017, South Sudanese President, Salva Kiir, arrived in Cairo, Egypt, to meet with his counterpart, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and discuss, according to media reports, bilateral ties.” With most media either unable or unwilling to go beyond the official transcript, details of what exactly has prompted Egypt’s leader to invite the embattled South Sudanese President to the Ettihadeya Palace (just a few weeks after president Al-Sisi met with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in Entebbe), remain sketchy; it left a lot of room for a lot of speculation.

Nearly a day after Kiir’s arrival in Egypt, The South Sudan News Agency (SSNA) published an article making some bold statements claiming, among other things, that it had firsthand information about discussions of a “dirty deal” in the works between South Sudan, Egypt, and to a certain extent, Uganda.

The source, unnamed, but identified by the news agency as someone in the upper echelons of the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement in Opposition (SPLM-IO), was allegedly in Addis Abeba when he told the website that Egypt was seeking to funnel weapons to the South Sudanese government in an attempt to quash that country’s rebel uprising, end the civil war, and solidify Kiir’s leadership in power.

The SPLM-IO, formed by former Vice President Riek Machar, has been fighting to take the capital Juba since falling out with president Kiir in December 2013. If one goes by the assertions made in this news dispatch, the possibility of the Egyptians facilitating a speedy put down of the SPLM-IO armed wing is what has allegedly wetted President Kiir’s appetite and motivated him to turn towards Al-Sisi. Afterwards, Kiir would repay the favor by jointly working with Al-Sisi to either destabilize or coerce neighboring Khartoum to politically side with Egypt over the controversial, lingering and most sensitive matter, the use of the Nile River.

But, a few seconds of skimming through the SSNA website would reveal to a keen observer the clear anti-South Sudanese government stance the media network maintains. There is a possibility that the website may simply blow things out of proportion in an attempt to provoke Ethiopia into hostility towards the governments of South Sudan and Egypt. With the report leaving no room for verification, the story could even be an outright fabrication, a figment of an editor’s imagination.

But then again it isn’t entirely infeasible. Egypt and Ethiopia have always been historical foes. Despite Al-Sisi’s conspicuous warm tone towards Ethiopia as compared to the openly hostile rhetoric by some of his predecessors, Egypt’s national interests, especially on matters of the Nile, are something whose importance cannot be wished away. Therefore, it wouldn’t be something totally out of the blue to suggest that Egypt’s diplomatic foreplay with sub-Saharan states has a rather ominous nature.

Ethiopia, too, has been repeatedly accusing Egypt of stoking tensions by funding domestic elements that exacerbated recent protest movements in its midst which rocked the government to its core throughout 2016.

Could there be a grain of truth to the claims that something sinister was indeed agreed to in Cairo during the meeting between presidents Al-Sisi and Kiir? Besides Egypt’s long-standing resent towards upper riparian states of the Nile Basin, why would President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi see now as a crucial time to make such a move? What effect would such a move and likely renewal of open diplomatic hostilities have on the region?

True, the reality looks a lot less dramatic than what the SSNA website tried to paint, yet a combination of diplomatic blunders, arm twists, misunderstanding, and, yes, a lack of clear communication on the part of all parties involved may have turned an easily solvable dispute into something far more complicated.

One country’s trouble is…

In Ethiopia, 2016 was a year marked by domestic uprisings and the subsequent killings by security forces of yet unknown numbers of protesters in the Amhara and Oromia regions. Activists and right groups estimate that the number of deaths could reach up to a thousand people; tens of thousands are detained.

In October 2016, barely a week after the deaths of yet unknown numbers of festival goers at the annual Oromo Irreecha festival in the city of Bishoftu, 45kms south of Addis Abeba, the government finally divulged what it said was the extent of the loss of life. PM Hailemariam Desalegn admitted that up to 500 Ethiopians “may have lost” their lives during the months preceding the tragedy in Bishotu, but reiterated that his desire to crack down on “extremist” elements, who, according to him, had ‘hijacked’ the protest movements, would not soften. It was around the same time that he placed the blame squarely on Egypt.  

Ethiopia, a country which was regularly enjoying a portrayal as a business hub with one of the world’s fastest growing economies, is now seeing its name become synonymous with bloodshed and political instability. In an attempt to turn the tide against the demonstrators, a six-month state of emergency was declared. Federal security forces have since thrived in managing security-related affairs and quelling the uprisings.  The now legitimatized, extra-constitutional course of action by the military, combined with the blockage of mobile internet services across the country, have indeed resulted in calming down the protests; but it led to the arrest of thousands of citizens and has brought a severe blow to the Ethiopian economy as it rendered a plethora of businesses across the country inoperable.

Clearly, the government in Ethiopia is stagnating from the self-defeating measures it took to regain control of the country. In this process, it has also clearly articulated being unhappy with the likes of Egypt. In response, Egypt denied having anything to do with Ethiopia’s protest movements and insisted they aren’t conspiring against Ethiopia. “I want to assure the brothers in Ethiopia that Egypt has never ever offered any support to the opposition and will not carry out any conspiratorial action against Ethiopia,” Al-Sisi said in a speech to an audience of military officials.

Al-Sisi’s attempt at trying to calm tensions between the two countries is a standard diplomatic procedure. Commenting on whether Egypt’s government is indeed in cahoots with saboteurs in Ethiopia would also be mere speculation. However, unless something was lost in translation, Al-Sisi’s claim that Egypt has never offered any support to Ethiopian opposition is evidently false.

Perhaps the broad context of the quote was misunderstood, and Al-Sisi was referring only to having not engaged in conspiratorial actions against “the brothers in Ethiopia” since he came to power. But if the word for word statement, as was widely reported by the media, is taken at face value, Al-Sisi is either misinformed, has a poor grasp of Egyptian history, or has blatantly lied when he claimed that his country has never conspired against Ethiopia (the third possibility being the most likely).

 It is in the archives      

There is plenty of recorded evidence of Egypt’s ‘fratricidal’ efforts.

The 19th century Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, at the helm of the Ottoman-Egyptian army, attacked Ethiopian troops in what is now the modern-day Eritrea. He was backed by Turkish soldiers and mercenary military experts, such as American Confederate veteran, General William Loring, and Dane military tactician, Colonel Soren Arendrup. In the conflict that lasted from 1874-1876, the Egyptians suffered colossal defeats in two battles at the hands of Emperor Yohannes’ Ethiopian army.

Those days where war was fought with dum-dum bullets and arrows have long passed. But Egypt continued to preside over a monumental military and air force considered by many to be among the best in the world. More often than not, Egyptian leaders have used their army as a bargaining chip (and at times as a threat) against Ethiopian leaders who dared question Egypt’s total dominance of the Nile waters. Luckily, it hasn’t had to directly deploy its forces; but proxy elements have been quite effective in doing the job over the course of the twentieth century.

Egypt’s training of the Somalia national army and funding of the separatist Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) helped the then Somalia President Siad Barre’s expansionist efforts into Ethiopia. In 1977, Somalia invaded Ethiopia and caused considerable death and destruction in the country before an Ethio-Cuban force reversed their gains and forced them to withdraw from Ethiopia’s Ogaden region.

After the failure of Somalia to conquer the Ogaden region, in 1979, Anwar Sadat openly threatened Ethiopia with a war over the Nile saying “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” Afterward, several separatist groups saw success in their efforts to destabilize Ethiopia. The Eritrean Peoples’ Liberation Front (EPLF) and the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), both recipients of arms and funds generously given to them by Egypt, among other states, would later become the backbone of the rebel forces during the nearly two decades of civil war in Ethiopia that eventually brought the end of Mengistu Hailemariam’s communist rule in 1991.

In 2012, a report on the news media, Business Insider, has referred to the Wikileaks release of hacked emails from American intelligence company Stratfor revealed the extent to which Egypt was preparing to go to halt the construction of a dam on the Nile. One email from 2010, just a week after Ethiopia inaugurated the Tana Beles dam, in particular alleged that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir have agreed to establish a secret Egyptian military base in the Sudanese city of Kosti, some 700 kilometers from the Ethiopian border. The base would host Egyptian commando units who could be ordered to storm the construction site of any project in Ethiopia that Egypt feels would compromise its dominance of the Nile waters.

All this was apparently agreed to in 2010, nearly a year before the unveiling of Ethiopia’s Millennium Dam (renamed Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – GERD) project, which was a national secret at the time.

President Al-Sisi was the country’s director of military intelligence when the Egyptian-Sudanese Kosti base agreement was reached. Ethiopia would wait until March 2011, a few months after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, before it made the news of the dam public.

Another Wikileaks document quoted a high-level Egyptian intelligence as saying: “there will not be a war. If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces to block/sabotage the dam. But we aren’t going for the military option now. This is just contingency planning. Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s; I think 1976 when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia.”

Having seen these revelations, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that the jury is still in regarding President Al-Sisi’s statement in October 2016. Anyone with a cursory glance at Egypt’s history of direct and indirect meddling in the affairs of countries contemplating to build dams on the Nile River can come to the conclusion that Al-Sisi’s claim of Egypt’s innocence is at the very least dishonest. There is no doubt that Al-Sisi, a man who spent nearly four decades serving the Egyptian military in various capacities, would know more than others of his country’s traditional hostility towards Ethiopia.

Change of heart, a space agency & spies

But is it possible that Egypt has had a change of heart? Things on the geopolitical front are very different in 2017 than they were in 2010 or even 2013. For all the theories surrounding its delay, the completion of the GERD appears inevitable; Nile basin countries are becoming bolder in their aspirations and the Nile River treaties of 1929 and 1954 have been somewhat rendered null and void. Although it is impossible to rule out suggestions that Egypt has continued flirting with anti-Ethiopian dam activities, it appears to have realized that its best shot at securing its interests would be through diplomacy and negotiations; its keen participation in meetings and seminars organised by upper riparian states and the conspicuous toning down of its aggressive rhetoric is visible for everyone to see.

In April of 2014, The Egyptian Space Agency launched the “EgyptSat 2 satellite into space, from a Russian-operated spaceport in Kazakhstan. Alaa El-din El-Nahry, vice president of Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences, told an Egyptian news website that among mission objectives, carefully monitoring the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), would be an utmost priority for the EgyptSat 2 team. The official reasoning is that capturing high definition photos of the dam’s construction and tracking the dam’s height, storage capacity and water discharge will arm Egypt with crucial information.

In the first week of May 2014, not even a month after the launch of EgyptSat2, three Egyptian citizens were arrested by Ethiopia’s Gambella state police. The trios were said to have entered Ethiopia illegally from South Sudan, and were caught with fraudulent documentations.  Two of them were arrested trying to board a bus that would take them to the city of Asosa, near the GERD construction site. The third was subjected to a citizen’s arrest after being observed taking photographs of the Baro River dam construction site, located in Gambella state. The trios were accused of being Egyptian spies and held for questioning. Days after their arrest, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi was quoted as saying he was monitoring the situation of the three Egyptians accused of espionage. “I knew about the arrest of three Egyptians in Ethiopia and we are following up the issue,” Fahmi told Egyptian newspaper Youm7. “We will announce all the details of the crisis within the next few hours.”

But perhaps unsurprisingly, further details failed to come forth. Authorities both in Ethiopia and Egypt have until now remained silent  on the arrest of the trio, identified by some Ethiopian based media outlets as Youssef al-Haj, Ismail Azeezi and Hassan Garay. The two countries have met on several occasions since then and the topic of the three Egyptians would have surely been brought up by now. But one thing is clear: there is no evidence to suggest that the trios are still in detention in Ethiopia. The fact that subsequent Nile talks have somehow been conducted in a less than hostile atmosphere ever since is most likely down to Ethiopia’s decision not to pursue espionage charges against the trio. Simply put, the trios are most likely released via backdoor negotiations. If so, it would arguably be in the best interests of both countries…

…for various reasons

More often than not, the government in Ethiopia struggles to reassure cautiously optimistic (and some pessimistic) Ethiopians that Egypt has seen the light and is in agreement with the principle of an Ethiopian mega dam on the Nile River. So, claims that the Egyptian government is taking covert actions on the ground dents the credibility of the Ethiopian government’s reassurance.

And on Egypt’s side, its government might suffer a drop in public approval ratings if Egyptians know that their intelligence agency, lauded as one of the most sophisticated in Africa, saw its personnel detained by local police somewhere in deep rural Ethiopia. This is, of course, assuming that the three men were indeed Egyptian spies. There is no way of independently substantiating the claims. But it is known that Egypt publicly lobbies for the release of its citizens detained or mistreated in a third country. (The recent detention by the Yemeni coastguard of Egyptian fishermen just over a month ago for allegedly entering Yemeni waters has seen high-level Egyptian publicly call for their release.) Egypt’s silence regarding the trio detained in Ethiopia, therefore, suggests that the three may have indeed been involved in something its officials would rather keep quiet.

Three more spies?

In November 2016, a month after Ethiopia declared the current state of emergency, three more Egyptians were arrested suspected of participating in covert activities for Egyptian intelligence. Ethiopian media named one of them as Taha Mansour, executive assistant manager at Radisson Blue Hotel in Addis Abeba. The remaining two were later on identified as businessmen Hany Al-Akkad and Hasan Ramadan Sweilam. The three have spent three months in an Ethiopian prison before being released on January 11th and subsequently told to leave Ethiopia. According to reports, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry travelled to Addis and met with Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to negotiate their release. Upon their release, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying their release “reflect that both sides are keen to preserve the gains that have been achieved on bilateral relations and bolster and develop such ties.”

Such infrequent but repeated incidents show that perhaps the accusations by the government in Ethiopia of Egypt’s intent to sponsor destabilizing agents within the country aren’t farfetched claims. Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s assertiveness in blaming Egypt for every incident of chaos and bloodshed that occurred in 2016 is, surely, too much of a stretch. After all, there was no involvement of Egyptian army in the killings of hundreds and the extra-judicial incarceration of thousands of protesters by Ethiopia’s security forces. Ethiopians know that the actions of the country’s security apparatus, not Egypt’s supposed involvement, aggravated the situation tenfold. Egypt cannot be held responsible for the murderous instincts and the disastrous actions of Ethiopia’s police force and the army.

Logic is the victim

But Ethiopia wouldn’t abide by this logic. Clearly irritated, it launched a diplomatic charm offensive that seemed to have, among its core objectives, the antagonization of Egypt.

On the 21st of November, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn traveled to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for a two day state visit. He met with Saudi monarch Salman Bin Abdulaziz. Some media reports claim that PM Hailemariam’s visit had more to do with his concern over Saudi Arabia’s alleged use of the Eritrean naval base in Assab to facilitate its military operations against the Houthis in Yemen.

Eritrea’s attempt to salvage any sort of diplomatic legitimacy is a constant source of dismay in Addis Abeba and Egypt likely wants it to stay that way. But Saudis’ success in gaining a foothold in the region is obviously bad news for Egypt; Saudi Arabia and Egypt maintain rocky diplomatic relations, due in some part to Egypt’s support for the Assad regime in Syria.

So, Ethiopia’s abrupt diplomatic cuddle session with the Saudis may have been a sore point for Egypt. Two weeks later, on December 4th– 6th the Egyptian National Water Research Center held a planned conference in Cairo on ‘Water Resources Management’. Among the topics chosen for discussion was one on “improving” the 2010 Entebbe Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).  Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda and Tanzania (later on joined by Burundi) have signed the agreement expressing their common dissatisfaction with the historical allocation of the Nile water and desire to use more of the waters. (Unsurprisingly, Egypt had always been strongly opposed to the CFA).

The Cairo conference was attended by water and irrigation ministers from Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi and Uganda, who also met with al-Sisi. Ethiopia was the conspicuous absentee. True, the conference was previously planned and participants had booked flights to Cairo in advance. But many are convinced that the decision to disinvite Ethiopia was made in the aftermath of its Prime Minister’s journey to Riyadh.  Egypt may have tried to use this conference as a tool to drive a wedge between Ethiopia and the other upper riparian states signatory to the CFA. If so, Egypt is up for a monumental disappointment. The other states have signed the CFA not worried about Ethiopia’s future diplomatic maneuvering, but out of disdain for Egypt’s hitherto uncontested and unjustified used of the Nile waters.

Add fuel to the fire

If Egyptian authorities were unhappy about a mere visit to the Saudi capital by an Ethiopian Prime Minister, it is probably because they didn’t see what else was on the cards. In a less than subtle show of defiance, Ethiopian government officials gave a high level Saudi delegation a tour of GERD’s construction site on the 18th of December, where by, according to local media reports, members of the Saudi ministries of energy, finance and industry reiterated their government’s desire to invest in the yet to be completed project. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu also said the Saudi government had shown interest in importing energy from Ethiopia once the 6,000 megawatt dam is up and running.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia already suffer from a long standing rocky relation over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir. So it comes as no surprise that in Egypt, Saudis’ incursion into the Ethiopian scene received sharp belittles as a comment from Mohamed Ali Khayr, a renowned political commentator shows: “Egypt is not obliged to continue to contain its reactions towards Saudi Arabia. Any interference in the GERD project implies a direct threat to Egypt’s national security.”

In came the Qatari twist

On December 19th, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al-Thani traveled to Addis Abeba where he met with Ethiopian leaders and discussed joint efforts to enhance bilateral ties. The next day, Sheikh Mohammed and his Ethiopian counterpart Workneh Gebeyehu signed 11 different agreements and treaties in investment, infrastructure and tourism.

Qatar is among several of Egypt’s regional rivals. Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar has had strained relations due to, among other things, Qatari news network Al Jazeera’s constant criticism of Egyptian government policies. The news network is banned in Egypt, and its journalists are a constant in Egypt’s prisons.

But, unlike the Saudi officials’ tour of the GERD site, Ethiopia’s ties with Qatar was not something Egyptians were too worried about. That was until comments by Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Workneh Gebeyehu surfaced just a week after his Qatari counterpart visited Ethiopia.  Speaking at a press conference in Khartoum, Workneh Gebeyehu hinted that agreements between Ethiopia and Qatar may include a Qatari endorsement of Ethiopia’s Nile River position. “We believe in exchanging interests and benefits between the Nile Basin countries and we do not intend to harm any of those countries. Ethiopia has fertile soil and the Gulf countries, especially Qatar and the UAE, have the money and want to invest their money,” Workneh told reporters in the Sudanese capital.

Judging from this turn of event, a layman would understand that Egypt is being diplomatically left in the cold as of late. Despite the official rhetoric between Ethiopia and Egypt on the importance of diplomacy to jointly tackle potential source of anxiety over the GERD, Ethiopia has taken things to a whole new level: coercing countries considered to have turbulent diplomatic relations with Egypt to get involved. This may be a poorly calculated move.

True, it is in Ethiopia’s best interests to keep all concerned parties at the negotiating table. But if it wants to portray the GERD as an inclusive project, Ethiopian officials should encourage healthy cooperation among riparian states, including Egypt. Openly cajoling non African state actors like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to get behind the GERD only serves to feed a paranoid Egypt to turn into an unnecessary self defense approach.  Diplomacy is one thing, parading officials from Egypt’s less friendly countries on state television is plain foolhardy.

A justified “dirty deal”?

Claims of a “dirty deal” between South Sudan and Egypt aren’t as premeditated as the media made it out to be. Clearly, Egypt is feeling it is under a geopolitical attack. To avoid being left in the diplomatic cold, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is counterattacking but he is less likely to succeed in turning South Sudan, a country which owes its birth to Ethiopia, into a hub of anti-Ethiopian proxy ground. Plus, lest we forget, Egypt was one of the most vocal opponents of South Sudanese independence. Nowhere is this more glaring than how officials both from Ethiopia and South Sudan scrambled to rebuke unverified report first dispatched by a pro-Ethiopian government news media, of a diplomatic breakup between the two countries.

Egypt, for obvious reasons, is seeking a much more assertive presence in South Sudan. Its officials have already made clear their intentions to deploy a military force in South Sudan. Its move to sign an agreement with South Sudanese officials to boost military ties in 2014 has raised suspicions among South Sudan rebel groups who accuse Egypt of taking part in the civil war alongside Kiir’s military, something Egypt vehemently denies.

Following the UN Security Council’s resolution to deploy 4,000 odd regional protection forces in Juba, Egypt has increased its efforts to make its presence felt by asking to contribut troops for the planned regional protection force. Strategically, Egypt would have a lot to gain with the deployment of its military personnel to Juba: it would no longer have to maintain a degree of secrecy over its prior military presence and can operate under the auspices of Egyptian intelligence, with the UN badge legitimizing their presence. The “dirty deal” is most likely Egypt’s lobbying for South Sudanese endorsement of its ambition to deploy its troops.

Beyond the cunning arm twists

As the stubborn nature of Nile politics unravels in the latest round of behind-the-scenes wrangling, one cannot help but notice how fragile previous pacts of Nile cooperation, often paid for by donor money, are. It was only a couple of years ago that PM Hailemariam Desalegn, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Omar Al-Bashir held hands in triumph at an event in Khartoum celebrating their newly signed agreement to sort out their differences. Now, that seems a long time ago.

Beyond the cunning arm twists and turns, the leaders of all countries should quickly step out of their self-made bubbles and undo the damages done by their diplomatic flash floods and put what matters the most at the center stage: the well-being of the Nile River itself and the millions of people it affects. Climate change is identified as the most pressing matter threatening the future the Nile River and no one is talking about it. It is crucial that everyone returns to the negotiating table and continues searching for a common solution. Anything less would be potentially disastrous and a losing game for every country.


 Ed’s Note: Zecharias Zelalem tweets @ZekuZelalem


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