What should Ethiopians expect from Meles’s two-day visit to Cairo? 15 SEP By Keffyalew Gebremedhin

September 16th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Whether the official visit by the Ethiopian prime minister that takes place within a day or two would become successful, i.e., beneficial for Ethiopia, should not be a matter of judgment call. Nor should its outcome be seen as something that easily yields to embellishment by spin-doctors, adept at either sanitizing bad outcomes or fabricating non-existent successes, and citizens get distracted from its real contents.

When it comes to Ethio-Egyptian relations, however, there is proven approach that does not require any of that or sophistry without foundation. It only takes a simple recourse to history and seek inspiration to set criteria to determine the security interests of Egypt and the economic benefits it plans to derive from the prime minister’s visit. Once that is understood, Ethiopia only needs to define what it wants from its relations with Egypt. In the light of that, I would prefer to measure the successes of this latest round of engagement between Ethiopia and Egypt by the quality of the agreement(s) they sign in the next days. Those agreement(s) should reveal:

• First, see that the signed trade and investment accords serve the interests of both sides; and
• Secondly, on the political front, their agreements, public or private, should show that there is nothing therein that helps predicate Egypt’s security interests on the Nile River on continued Ethiopia’s insecurity that we have witnessed in the course of our long histories.

Of course, achieving this calls for a confident state that relies on the support of its people. That would enable it to show its counterpart across the table that its security and continuity depends on the confidence citizens have in their government. This demands that the conditions obtaining in the country reflect continuing betterment in the lives of the people and the sense of security they enjoy. If not, people cannot be confident to plan for the next day with their sense of safety and dignity strong. That is where the Mubarak regime made the mistake of taking the people for granted only to be swept away by the 25 January Revolution.

As it happens, at this very moment both Ethiopia and Egypt have their respective serious difficulties. In Egypt, where the government is transitional, the population is still angry by the failure/refusal of the state to meet their demands for full freedom, justice and equality, the very premises of the 25 January Revolution. This anger has now escalated, manifesting itself with the launching of second phase of the revolution that now impinges on the political and security situation of the country. This has exerted huge demands on the state to deliver the goods and services it does not have. This is the situation in which agreement is being entered into.

In Ethiopia, the political, security and economic situations are increasingly posing serious challenges to the stability of the state. As its response to this situation, the state has responded with a wave of mass arrests and other repressive measures that are less likely to offer any solutions going forward. If the past is to offer any lessons, the measures now being implemented on the contrary are weakening the state, a situation that would make the Meles regime more nervous and its actions unpredictable.

Not least, the economic condition has been worsening for some time, although Ethiopia’s image is slowly being associated with economic growth. Nonetheless, at 40.6 percent by the end of August, inflation has robbed the gains. Because of that, since 2005 the lives of broad segments of Ethiopian society have been severely affected. Telling evidences of this situation came from market conditions around the New Year a few days ago. On such an important occasion as the New Year, prices of basic foods citizens depend on have gone beyond the reach of ordinary people. Together with other political and security impediments, this situation in the country has become symptomatic of severe national distresses that make Ethiopia vulnerable.

In the face of this, it is appropriate that Ethiopians should have concerns whether this is a propitious time for Ethiopia to engage in negotiations with a key neighbor, with which the country for centuries has had issues. The fear is that this difficult situation may weigh heavily on the prime minister compelling him to focus on his present predicaments and ignore the country’s long-term interests.

Certainly, it feels good when one sees assertive Ethiopia daringly rolls one dam and factory after the other, the question for citizens has been how do we pay for all that? Where does the money come that they don’t have. At the same time, Mr Sharaf, unlike Mubarak’s regime or its predecessors, has sought to address the situation through face-to-face meetings to find solutions. This should not be seen as a favor to Ethiopia; it should not feel compelled to respond in kind to this. If for some reason the Meles regime chooses to do that, without tangible benefits for its people, it would mean that it is deliberately committing another grave historical mistake, the correction of which would be extremely costly, if not impossible.

For benefit of the future, if there is any lesson to be drawn from the difficult or failed historical relations between our two nations it is the imperative need for identifying early on the commonality of interests. Once these are known, defining the parameters of cooperation or collaboration and any joint undertakings to be assigned for pursuance of national interests or common objectives become clearer. These minimize not only suspicions but also misunderstandings, thereby enabling Ethiopia and Egypt to inject confidence in their relations. In this regard, given the history of their relations, it is important, indeed beneficial, that Ethiopia and Egypt start from the scratch.

Above all, these are two countries that have missed numerous opportunities especially since the end of World War II. This has denied them possibilities to improve their relations to use the resources available to them for betterment of the lives of their peoples and beyond. Instead, they ended up dissipating their resources because of a wrong sense of security each tried to achieve for itself.

With that in mind, irrespective of what areas are covered in the coming agreement(s) Prime Ministers Meles Zenawi and Essam Sharaf would sign in a few days time in Cairo, as a citizen of Ethiopia I hold the view that the success of their endeavors can only be measured by how far the two sides go into redefining their relations and anchoring them on the principles of sovereign equality, mutual respect and promotion of mutual benefits, the underpinnings of which should be openness and transparency.

Egypt’s stands to gain, again on Ethiopia’s vulnerability

This September 17-18 visit comes at a time when Egypt’s economic activities have significantly declined, primarily because of the instability arising from the 25 January revolution. Business confidence in Egypt is low and prospects for new investments and expansion of existing enterprises seem to be crippled. For most of the past several months, the stock market has been signaling downturns. In addition, of Egypt’s two major export destinations, Libya has for months been reduced to rubbles because of the ongoing struggle against Gadhafi’s dictatorial regime and NATO’s bombings. Yemen is caught in the pangs of a revolution unwilling to go off; it is thus in no condition for development, to trade or absorb previous volume of Egypt’s exports.

Prime Minister Sharaf has a good grasp of the situation. For Egyptian investors, these developments have made Ethiopia and other Nile Basin states more attractive, a view Egypt’s government and businesses share. Therefore, the Sharaf government has set its eyes on three areas of investments in the Nile Basin countries. These are: agriculture, industry and construction, and were approved as a national strategy by his cabinet in March 2011, with a must attend invitation specifically directed to all members of the cabinet’s Nile council. Following extensive discussions, the government has set up adequate facilities to support privately owned Egyptian companies that commit to invest in Nile Basin countries in these three sectors.

Therefore, all the groundwork done Egyptian diplomats, politicians and strategists are welcoming Prime Minister Meles Zenawi with huge expectations not only to make up for the slack the economy has suffered from. But also as policy measures, they seek economic expansion and increased financial ties with Ethiopia—an instrument that enables Egypt to kill two birds with one stone. That is, through penetration of capital and economic expansion, Egypt aims at strengthening its influence in Ethiopia, 86 percent of its water source country. The truth of this is not lost on Dr Samir Radwan, member of the Egyptian board of trustees at the General Authority for Investment, who says, “Regardless of pessimism or optimism, investing in the Nile Basin is at the base of Egypt’s water security” (www.businesstodayegypt.com, April 2010).

Without being anti-trade and anti-foreign investment, I say that capital invested in Ethiopian agriculture would produce food for Egypt, and/or export to other markets with little return for Ethiopia. In industry, the capital would set up factories, or Egyptian engineers would operate on Ethiopian infrastructures or buildings, with no chance for domestic industries. In the import and export trade, Egypt would dominate the market with its goods, while Ethiopia has been more interested in exporting meat and live animals to Egypt, without any value added. For that matter, in 2009 after the agreement was signed, Egypt dragged its feet under various pretexts and in the end signed a separate agreement to import meat from Argentina and Kenya.

That is not the fault of Egypt. Ethiopia failed to protect and strengthen its private sector, which now is at a loss to understand its role in the national economy. The blame for that went to the incipient private sector that lacked guidance. It is in this situation that the state is edging to be in everything, without certainty that things would turn out right, and when it has failed even in its main task—management of the nation’s macroeconomic policies.

At this moment, Egypt is excited. After a meeting with the prime minister on 27 August in Addis Abeba, Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said he expected the visit and the ongoing negotiations to “turn a new page in the relations between the two countries.” He was not alone in that. Although it is not clear whether he was echoing his boss or sincere about it, Egypt new envoy to Ethiopia Ambassador Mohamed Edris similarly opined, “Meles’s visit would mark a new phase in Egyptian-Ethiopian ties,” according to The Egyptian Gazette (2 Sept).

As for his tasks, he carefully hinted his “main mission is to build confidence and understanding between Egypt and Ethiopia.” From the outset, this represents a sharp departure from the past, especially from his cynical and hawkish predecessor who created undesirable hostility in a November 2010 interview when he dared to arrogate the entire Nile River to Egypt, alleging that Ethiopia has many rivers and abundant rainfall. In that, he only invited sharp rebuke of Ethiopian officials.

Incidentally, palace car Meles had sent was waiting for Mr Edris on arrival at the Bole International Airport to drive him to his embassy, courtesy of Meles Zenawi. This is not necessarily a requirement on the host country, especially when the country has long established embassy. However, it is a symbolic gesture usually reserved for countries with special relations, its signal and the message behind it have not escaped hawkeyed journalists in the Egyptian media. The key here is that, during his visit to Ethiopia last May Prime Minister Essam Sharaf has committed Egypt to a new beginning, based on give and take. The question then is, all its attention hinged on the Renaissance Dam (RD), would in Cairo Ethiopia end up giving more than it needs to because it has become aficionado for trade and investments, whose values are not often properly vetted?

Hailemariam Dessalegn in Cairo to finalize arrangements for the visit

Deputy PM and FM Hailemariam Dessalegn has already been in Cairo since Wednesday, 14 September, at the head of an Ethiopian delegation (working level), according to Egyptian news sources. Surprisingly, the news was not even reported by the national media, such as the national news agency that was established in 1942, or on the national radio and television ERTA; nor on the Ethiopian press agency (EPA). It was only Walta Information Centre, the ruling party outlet that devoted a few paragraphs without substance. Could this be deliberate attempt at deinstitutionalizing government agencies, while institutionalizing the ruling party’s outfits? Or is it because they were conserving energy for coverage of Ethio-Egyptian relations during the prime minister’s visit in Cairo?

Therefore, the Egyptian media is not only the first to report arrival in Cairo of DPM/FM last Wednesday. But also its reporting was well informed about purposes of the prime minister’s visit, as could be seen from the reporting covering the most crucial elements. Key in that report is they also highlighted Egypt’s focus: “to examine various areas of cooperation between the [two] countries as well as ways to increase Egyptian investments in Ethiopia”, according to http://www.almasryalyoum.com/en/node/495535. Furthermore, it is reported that the two sides would discuss regional issues of relevance to both sides such as the situations in Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, as they put it very distinctly [pay attention here] also the famine in Somalia and drought in the Horn of Africa.

There has been general reticence on the Ethiopian side about purposes of the visit, much less prognosticating what they plan to achieve. Most striking, however, was the remark by Foreign Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn on 29 August who after his discussion with his Egyptian counterpart in Addis Abeba in bland language told the media, “Ethiopia has keen interest to work closely with Egypt”, according to the webpage of Ethiopia’s foreign ministry. The only annex to that remark was his request to Egypt to share its rich experience in the tourism sector.

As to the tasks before the DPM/FM and the ‘pre-summit’ sort delegation he leads, I understand from the Egyptian foreign ministry briefing of 25 August that two-day meetings of a committee comprising delegations of the two countries would work on “setting a vision for exchanged projects and investments, and ways and means of activating the contractual framework between the two sides.” In simple terms, the committee would in these two days build on works undertaken through various channels, including contacts between the two prime ministers—in person and via other means, such as through their embassies. These second-tier officials would eventually come up with a communiqué to be signed by the prime ministers. Nevertheless, there is strong hunch that most of the core positions have already been sorted out at the highest level.

For instance, Meles and Sharaf met on 4 July in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on the sidelines of the 17 African Union (AU) summit. There is word that the two leaders have already clarified their positions. Accordingly:

a. The Nile Question would not be discussed in Cairo during Meles’s visit, since it was agreed already in June 2010, at the 18th session of the Nile council of ministers with Ethiopia as its chairperson, in line with Sudan’s proposal supported by Egypt, to discuss first the ramifications of the comprehensive framework agreement (CFA), renamed the Entebbe Accord, on downstream countries. Consequently, in line with that decision discussion on the Nile Question would only take place in Kigali, Rwanda, from 27-28 October 2011.
b. There is no doubt that Egypt’s main concern now is the rush of dams Ethiopia is rolling, especially fear of public backlash. However, already during Prime minister Sharaf’s visit last May, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have agreed to the setting up of a tripartite mechanism to examine how the RD affects the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan. The initial understanding was that the committee’s conclusions would be considered before this visit. It is now clear that the committee has not even met. Egypt reported recently that it has not even selected experts to work on it.

c. Clearly, this implies that there is common understanding between the two prime ministers that the RD or other dams Ethiopia is proposing would not be raised as problem at this point. With all its intelligence in the largest embassy Egypt has in Addis Abeba, it should by now have all information it requires to decide its position. This is indication that Egypt is ready to live with the RD, not because of this visit, but because there is a change of policy in that country. Otherwise, it could have taken protest, even if it has no means of stopping it.

d. After all, unlike in Ethiopia, Egyptian society has stronger say on the Nile Question. In fact, that had been the only issue on which Egyptians and the Mubarak regime saw eye-to-eye, having fed them the mistaken belief that the Nile was Egyptian. The people believed that the Mubarak regime had provided adequate security and protection of Egypt’s control over the Nile. This stronger role and sense of popular participation has been strengthened because of the middle class in that country, especially the elites that run the bureaucracy.

e. In my opinion, therefore, this should not be seen as Egypt’s concession to Ethiopia. Awareness is needed in that regard not to make the mistake of considering reciprocity. When Egypt makes minor concession in one area, it would ask for huge returns in areas of vital importance to it.

f. The focus of the visit, to the extent possible would be trade and investments, not the Nile Question as the Egyptian foreign ministry tried to hint repeatedly.

Finally, the essential point here is that any understanding with Egypt has to be weighed in carefully, since it is capable of affecting Ethiopia’s vital interests for generations to come. Leaders in Egypt may have changed, but Egypt’s policy on the Nile could only undergo superficial changes. For that matter, the new government has not even mapped out its Nile policy. At this point, some pronouncements of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf we know nothing about official Egypt’s policy on the Nile River.

On Ethiopia’s side, the most serious problem could arise from the excessive politicization of the harnessing the Nile to rally support for the government. The push by everyone from local village leader to the federal government is accelerating its diminishing utility for propaganda purposes. There is no doubt the RD is a grand undertaking, our country’s symbol of its new assertiveness— if only eventually some may choose its utility more coolant for the anger brewing within the populace or souring sentiments overall.

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