The decline of Egypt’s power in the realm of foreign policy has never been as clear as in recent days. Battered by terrorist attacks against civilians and attacks on its armed forces by jihadists, in trouble because of the weakness of its economy, and largely dependent on financial assistance from abroad, especially from Saudi Arabia, Egypt has lost much of the authority it had built up over the years of Nasser’s rule, which it had retained even after signing the peace treaty with Israel that isolated it within the Arab world.
The country’s adversaries are now realizing this. No amount of invectives, protests or even threats of aerial bombardment have succeeded in imposing Egypt’s position regarding the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile with the help of the Italian company Salini Impregilo—a truly Pharaonic project, worth €3.4 billion, and which will become the largest in Africa. Addis Ababa has not shown much interest in the idea of jointly administering the precious water of the Nile so that no country would go without. They are negotiating and holding discussions, while at the same time continuing with the construction of the dam.
“Addis Ababa is applying the same policy of fait accompli that Israel is using regarding Jerusalem,” said Mustafa al Faqi, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a few days ago, interviewed by al Masry al Youm. “It is clear that Ethiopia, with the help of Sudan, wants to put Egypt before a fait accompli,” al Faqi explained, warning that “Cairo will not sit idly by and will not allow our people to go thirsty.” Egypt, he concluded, “has endured so much from Ethiopia already. Its government is acting like Israel, on the one hand it is negotiating, and on the other hand it goes ahead with the works.”
The recent trip to Addis Ababa of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has not changed the situation on the ground, and he is now preparing to propose to the World Bank that they should participate as a neutral party in the negotiations of the Tripartite National Technical Committee. That will not accomplish much, taking into account that Addis Ababa has already made it clear they will only accept limited compromises regarding its plans for the construction of the Renaissance Dam and other dams. The 90 million Ethiopians today, according to U.N. estimates, will become 187 million by 2050, and much of the population has no access to electricity. Dams are the only solution the Ethiopian government has planned for energy production.
“Egypt’s political and diplomatic clout in the region had already diminished in the last years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule, marked by the secession of South Sudan from Sudan, in which Cairo had no role one way or the other,” political analyst Mouin Rabbani told il manifesto. “Now, the issue of the Nile has resurfaced. The various countries through which the river runs have rebelled against the decades-old agreement that assigns the greatest portion of its water to Egypt. It might be because those countries have understood that Cairo is weaker.”
The use of the waters of the Nile is regulated by a 1959 agreement, according to which Egypt gets 55.5 billion cubic meters of water per year, while Sudan gets only 18.5 billion. Since 2014, Egypt has taken part in negotiations with Sudan and Ethiopia, but last November Addis Ababa dismissed the technical studies conducted by French companies which warned of the negative impact of the Renaissance Dam on the flow of the Nile in Egypt and the productivity of the Aswan dam.
“Egypt’s instability and its economic and financial crisis are undermining it in the eyes of the other countries in the region,” Rabbani adds, “and are making it more and more dependent on others, with immediate effects on its ability to carry out an independent foreign policy.” Of course, the analyst added, “one cannot say that Egypt has become nothing more than a handmaiden to the Saudis or a tool in the hands of Israel, but it is more vulnerable and much less influential.”
This has not escaped the notice of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an adversary of Egypt and a sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has described as terrorists. In one fell swoop, the Turkish president managed to make the Egyptians nervous and spook the Saudis, announcing at the end of the year an agreement with Sudan to put the island of Suakin in the Red Sea back into use, which the Ottoman Sultan Salim I had chosen in 1517 as his base in the area, and which was later destroyed by the British in 1899 after the construction of Port Said. This island is supposed to be used as a transit point for Turkish pilgrims going to Mecca, but in all likelihood will also become a military garrison in support of Erdogan’s ambitions.
Beside having to stomach the presence of its rival, Turkey, Egypt is also paying the price for ceding the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, leading to the diminishing of its strategic presence in the Red Sea.
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