Sisi ending Egypt's passive approach to sub-Saharan Africa, turns clock to days of Nasser

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If he can match the regard Nasser had further south, the former general will have pulled off a feat close to that of building the Pyramid of Giza.

THE leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia promised Tuesday to boost cooperation on the Nile river and turn a page on a long-running row over Addis Ababa’s controversial dam project.

The meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn came the day after the two, along with Sudan, signed an agreement of principles on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project.

“The agreement… represents a positive step on the right path. We’re not going to waste any more time,” Sisi, making his first visit to Ethiopia, told reporters.

The comments marked a radical change of tone compared to Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who in June 2013 warned that “all options are open” in dealing with Ethiopia’s alleged theft of Nile water.

Egypt, heavily reliant for millennia on the Nile for agriculture and drinking water, feared that the Grand Renaissance Dam would decrease its water supply.

However Sisi said in Khartoum that Egypt has “chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development”.

Officials said the accord in Khartoum covered the “fair use of waters”, with the signatories promising “not to damage the interests of other states”.

They also agreed to establish a mechanism to resolve future disputes.

Ethiopia began diverting the Blue Nile in May 2013 to build the 6,000 MW dam, which will be Africa’s largest when completed in 2017. The project to construct the 1,780-metre-long and 145-metre high dam will cost an estimated $4 billion.

Ethiopia had said that the project would not adversely affect Egypt’s share of the precious waters, but Egypt had maintained its “historic rights” to the Nile which it said were guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959 which grant it 87 percent of the river’s flow, as well as the power to veto upstream projects.

A new course

Beyond the Nile, Sisi’s approach to sub-Saharan Africa is markedly different from that of his predecessors and looks set to be a return to Cairo’s active engagement with the rest of the continent last seen during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser was president of Egypt between 1956 and 1970.

Nasser, like Sisi, was a soldier, and became very much part of the pan-African movement, and a key member in the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the precursor to the African Union, in 1963.

A close ally of other pan-Africanist and radicals on the continent, the links were cemented further when Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah married an Egyptian, Fathia.

Nkrumah’s marriage to Fathia in 1957 was viewed more of a political union than a romantic one, and was meant to link North Africa and the rest of the continent.

However, with the Middle East becoming more turbulent,  Nasser’s deputy and successor, Anwar Sadat, became consumed with Israel, fighting and subsequently signing the historic peace agreement with it in 1979.

His successor Hosni Mubarak, was too was fully occupied with the Middle East, keeping the peace with Israel that Sadat had made; with Palestine; the Lebanon and Iraq-Iran wars; and terrorism.

In several respects, these problems have got worse, all of which makes Sisi’s focus south all the more notable.

Return in Malabo

After its 2013 suspension following the coup against Morsi, he oversaw Egypt’s return to the AU fold last July in a summit in Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo. He received  a rapturous welcome from African leaders.

He took time to meet the president of Mauritania Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, South Sudan’s Salva Kiir, and Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh.

He has had more time for Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir than Mubarak did.

At the much-hyped Egypt Economic Development Conference in the  Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh,  held in the second week of March, at which Cairo raked in billions of dollars for the array of projects that Sisi is pushing, the former general ensured he had strong sub-Saharan Africa representation.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Comoros president Ikililou, Mali’s president Ibrahim Keita, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, Sudan’s Bashir, and Tanzania vice president Mohamed Bilal all put in a show of solidarity.

Rwanda’s President Kagame (second left) at Sharm El-Sheikh.

Sisi has cast himself as a modernising developmental autocrat, cracking down hard on dissent, but touting Egypt as a renewed economic power.

His government is planning to build a new business capital, which will be home to 5 million people.

But the jewel of the crown is  the New Suez Canal digging project, and the related Suez Canal Area Development undertaking, that are being pitched as an industrial Mecca.

With a troubled Middle East, and neighbour Libya in convulsion, Sisi is probably calculating that Egypt needs better access to the markets of the sub-Saharan Africa rising economies to shore up his own, battered by political unrest and extremist violence since the Arab Spring.

If he can match the regard that Nasser had further south, Sisi will have pulled off a feat close to that of building the Pyramid of Giza.


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