A focus on boosting diplomatic ties has improved Egypt’s relations with the Nile Basin countries, reports Doaa El-Bey

The new atmosphere that has existed in Egypt since the 25 January Revolution has helped ease differences over the fair distribution of Nile water between the upper and lower Nile Basin states, with Egypt working on improving ties with these states in the hope of reaching a compromise.

On a recent visit to Ethiopia, one of the Nile Basin states, Prime Minister Essam Sharaf offered to increase trade ties between Egypt and Ethiopia in order to make full use of the resources of both states and underline the idea that all parties to the negotiations should be winners.

“We were in Uganda yesterday, and today we had discussions in Ethiopia. The atmosphere is completely different from what it was,” Sharaf told journalists following talks with members of Ethiopia’s business community and a meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi that concluded on Saturday.

“When you look at trade between Ethiopia and Egypt, it’s still a tiny fraction of total trade. We have to take care of that and to develop means to increase trade between our two countries,” Sharaf said.

Ahmed El-Wakil, president of the Egyptian Chamber of Commerce, said that every effort was being made to create better relations between Egypt and the Nile Basin states, though the actions that followed these efforts would be just as important.

“Egypt has experience and know-how, and the African states have water, fledgling markets and other resources. Thus, we need to cooperate in a way that will lead to better living standards in these countries,” El-Wakil told the Weekly.

Magawri Shehata, president of the Arab Association for Clean Water, agreed on the importance of boosting Egypt’s relations with the Nile Basin states. “Egypt should work on boosting cooperation and creating common interests with the Nile Basin states on political, economic, technical and other levels,” he said.

However, the most important achievement of Sharaf’s visit was the formation of a committee of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian experts to study the effects of the proposed Millennium Dam in Ethiopia on the flow of Nile water to Sudan and Egypt.

Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia had increased when Ethiopia declared that it was building a multi-billion dollar “Millennium Dam” on its share of the Nile, which provides 85 per cent of the Nile’s water.

Officials in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa said the dam was being built to generate electricity and would not affect the flow of water, but Egypt and Sudan have been concerned about the possible effects of the dam on the water levels reaching the two countries.

Sharaf said that Egypt was not against the dam and that Egypt was willing to join a committee of Ethiopian, Egyptian and Sudanese experts to discuss its effects. Zenawi reassured Sharaf of Ethiopia’s readiness to work in partnership with Egypt.

Shehata said that the proposed committee would look into the advantages and disadvantages of the dam in order to help the government take an informed decision. “It should be an unbiased committee that considers the negatives and positives of the project, together with the interests of the states involved,” he told the Weekly.

Sharaf’s visit to Addis Ababa came after Ethiopia agreed to postpone ratification of a treaty on sharing Nile water until a new Egyptian government has taken office and was able to join the negotiations.

The delay eases a long-running dispute between downstream countries, including Egypt and Sudan, which claim historic rights to the Nile water, and various upstream countries.

Shehata described the postponement as an important diplomatic step, since Ethiopia had already started laying the foundations of the dam before the ratification of the agreement and before another African state, Burundi, had signed it.

The postponement was a sign that a new page had been turned in the negotiations following Egypt’s 25 January Revolution.

Zenawi’s decision was first taken during a visit by a 48-member popular delegation to Ethiopia earlier this month, which received a warm welcome in the Ethiopian capital and succeeded in thawing Egyptian-Ethiopian relations.

The delegation called for the preservation of Egypt’s historical water rights and a fresh start to the relationship between the two countries following the 25 January Revolution.

The delegation comprised three Egyptian presidential candidates, representatives from various political parties and movements, independent politicians, previous members of parliament, journalists, public figures and representatives from the youth groups that launched the 25 January Revolution.

Members of the delegation received similar assurances from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during a visit to Uganda last month.

Tensions had erupted between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand and Ethiopia and the other Nile Basin states on the other when they failed to reach an agreement on the fair distribution of Nile waters.

Failure to reach an agreement prompted Ethiopia, along with Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Kenya, to sign a pact in the Ugandan capital Entebbe in May last year giving other Nile Basin countries one year to join the pact before putting it into effect.

Sudan and Egypt dismissed the deal, while the Congo and Burundi initially refused to sign, though Burundi later signed. The agreement cannot be put into effect until at least six states sign it.

The pact was supposed to be a substitute for the 1929 and 1959 agreements, which gave Egypt the right to most of the more than 100 billion cubic metres of water that reach downstream countries annually and the right to veto new projects by other Nile states.

Although Egypt and Ethiopia signed an agreement in 1993, relations deteriorated after a failed assassination attempt on former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak during a visit to Addis Ababa in 1995.

In addition to Egypt and Ethiopia, the Nile Basin group of countries includes Burundi, the Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, with Eritrea having observer status.

Egypt and Ethiopia are among the most influential states, and their improving relations are likely to improve cooperation among all the Nile basin states, which should be an important principle for the future.