A paradigm Shift in Ethio- Egyptian Relations


Ethiopia and Egypt have no common borders but they enjoy one of the oldest bilateral relations both by African and global standards. Formal diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Egypt dates back to 1927 with the establishment of legations in both countries. Nonetheless, both countries are the founding members of the AU (former OAU).

The  earliest contact between the Egyptians and Ethiopians ( also known in ancient  history as habesha)  dates back nearly seven thousand years ago when the ancient Egyptians launched their earliest recorded expedition to the Land of Punt under Sahure of the Fifth Dynasty. Ancient Egyptians called this place Ta-neter (The Gods’ Land) and viewed it as a mysterious and unknown land of great fortune. They frequently engaged in trade expeditions with their partners in Punt where they acquired gold, incense, ebony, ivory, slaves, exotic animals and skins. (Munro-Hay, Stuart (2002). Ethiopia, the Unknown Land: A Cultural and Historical Guide page 18).

The Bible devoted 80 verses to Egypt while Ethiopia is mentioned 40 times. The Koran refers to Egypt 4 times while Ethiopia is mentioned in the Koran 30 times showing the religious significance of both countries.

Religion plays and may continue to play a crucial role in bringing the two countries closer as the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church was under the administration of the Coptic Orthodox Church until 1959, when it was appointed its own Patriarch by the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa, Cyril VI. Ethiopian Muslims are also closely attached to Al-Azhar in Cairo, where they have their own column to study under, named Al-Jabarta Column, under which numerous scholars studied such as Shaykh Abdurahman al-Jabarti.  Brief History of Egyptian-Ethiopian relations – Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Egypt).  & “African Christianity, Part One: A Short History (Egypt and Ethiopia)”. Think About It, Know About It.)

In terms of  modern economic relations , in1905, the National Bank of Egypt helped establish Ethiopia’s first ever bank, “The Bank of Abyssinia” which operated as an affiliate of the NBE, it received a 50-year monopoly and was the Ethiopian government’s fiscal agent as well as the sole issuer of notes and was responsible for collecting deposits and granting loans as well as trading in gold and silver, stockpiling staple commodities and investments.  In a sense, it operated as both a central and a commercial bank until 1930 when it was handed over to the Ethiopian government after Emperor Haile Selassie’s ascension to the throne who could not accept that the country’s issuing bank was foreign-owned.

A new government-controlled bank, the Bank of Ethiopia, was installed in 1931 and kept management and almost all staff, premises and clients of the old bank until the Italian invasion in 1936 when it was liquidated. Dr. Richard Pankhurst. (“Early Ethiopian Banking History, 1 – The Bank of Abyssinia, and its Bank Notes”.)

All told, in terms of the comprehensive relations between the two nations, the Nile River has played and might continue to play a major role in shaping and reshaping the diplomatic and economic relations between the two countries. The recent history of the relations of the two countries dating back to the 19th century is marked by total mistrust, suspicion, misunderstanding and political and military confrontations. Suffice it to mention the intervention of Khedive Ismail Pasha into the Ethiopia territory in 1875 and the Battles of Gundet and Gura.

Explorers have documented about the wonders of the Nile that bisects 11 countries. With a length of 6695 kilometers, the Nile snakes out to the Mediterranean Sea combining the White and Blue Niles in Khartoum. The Nile occupies a basin area of 3.18 million square kilometers, and is home to 437 million people of whom 54 percent (238 million) live in the basin.

Over the last century and even up to the recent past, the foreign policies of Egypt have centered on the objective of securing the continuous consumption of the Nile waters. This reality has made the issue of sharing the waters of Nile intolerable phenomenon and compelled Egypt to secure its hegemony over Nile.

The colonial agreements have been the main legal basis for Egypt in an attempt to perpetuate its hegemony over the Nile waters. The 1929 agreement was made between Egypt and Great Britain (which had colonized most of upper riparian countries) and it prohibited any kind of activities on the Nile River and its branches that may affect the interest of Egypt. This agreement offered Egypt the upper hand on the Nile waters.

Another agreement was also concluded between Egypt and Sudan in 1959 for the full utilization of the Nile waters. Accordingly, the agreement allocated 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Egypt and Sudan respectively. This agreement neither involved upstream countries during the negotiation nor allowed them to use water in any amount. Generally, these segregating colonial agreements put upstream countries out of the game of Nile waters’ utilization,
The Nile River with 86% coming out of Ethiopia’s belly has remained alien to its principal source – Ethiopia.  The dichotomy between the need to maintain the status quo by Egypt and the quest for cooperation on the river by upstream countries surfaced up.

In 1999, Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established by 10 riparian countries (including Eritrea as an observer) with the aim to bring sustainable development of riparian countries using Nile equitably by signing an agreement which includes upstream countries.

In 2009, the riparian countries came up with the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) and majority of upstream countries signed it, namely Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi while Egypt and Sudan strongly opposed the agreement.  Following the disagreement of downstream countries and the failure of other upstream countries to sign it, Ethiopia resorted to take its own initiatives in the framework of the agreement and in 2011 initiated the GERD program.

As the result of a  proposal forwarded by the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in April 2011, a tripartite commission composed of 10 members, including six experts from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan and four international experts in the field of water engineering formed. The commission was given the mandate to study the effects of Renaissance Dam on the downstream countries.

Ethiopian government showed great commitment to meet the overriding energy demand of the country as well as neighboring countries by commencing to aggressively harness its hydropower potential. GERD was commenced in 2011 and planned to be completed in 2017. After the completion, the dam is expected to generate 6000MW hydroelectric power.

Over the past years, Egyptians considered the dam as a serious threat to their national interest as they believe that it will reduce the amount of water flow. This was flowed by a propaganda barrage on the part of the Egyptian media, particularly the private media outlets. A lot of war rhetoric was on the air. Former president Mohammad Morsi went to express the possibilities on the table including bombing the dam.

In response, Ethiopia reiterated that the dam has a lot to contribute to the downstream countries such as providing regular flow of water, resolving problem of siltation, significantly reducing evaporation and providing cheaper electricity export (Tedros, 2014). Above all, it is attested that there exists neither irrigation plan nor irrigable land on the area thereby imposing no significant harm on the downstream countries. Despite such argument, Egyptians have not been convinced.

After the overthrow of the government of Mohammad Morsi, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi became president. The president introduced a new policy approach regarding Ethio -Egyptian relations pertaining to GERD and other issues of diplomatic significance. Subsequently he pronounced that “Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia must be informed by cooperation and love, not hatred and belligerence”

The 23rd March Declaration also known as Khartoum Declaration of principles comprising of 10 paragraphs, signed between Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Ethiopia’s Prime Minster Hailemariam Desalegn and Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir provided for joint cooperation on issues related to the River Nile. It helped to usher a shift from a collusion-coalition syndrome to cooperation based on mutual trust, confidence building and people to people relations.

Commissioning of Tripartite Technical Committee on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam paved the way for the selection of  companies undertaking the study on GERD were expected to come up with a guideline that enables them to work in collaboration. Thirty percent of the study on the GERD was given to the Dutch Deltares company, which withdrew from the contract in addition to the selected French BRL in order to create further trust among the three countries.

The investigation of the two companies is going on and with exchange of public diplomacy missions of the two countries; voluntary service by Egyptian medical professionals has helped to increase a spirit of understanding and cooperation which is already prevailing between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

Relations between Ethiopia and Egypt are not restricted only to the issues of the GERD.  It is also being fostered through trade and investment relations which is growing over time.

Today, there are over 72 Egyptian investment projects in Ethiopia in the fields of agriculture, livestock production, industry, tourism and real estate. Another project under implementation is an Egyptian industrial zone in the city of Adama, about 90 km from the capital Addis Ababa. Also, the Arab Contractors company opened an office in the country.( Economic Relations between Egypt and Ethiopia –  Ministry of Foreign Affairs”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs Egypt.)

MoFA Spokesperson Tewolde Mulugeta, recently told ENA that “Trade and investment volume of the two countries has reached to 137 million USD during 2013.” The Spokesperson said pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and health, are among the key areas Egyptian investors are engaging in.

Furthermore, the two countries have signed investment promotion, avoidance of double taxation and Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in agriculture to enhance trade and investment ties.

This fiscal year alone, some 13 business persons from Egypt carried out investment feasibility studies in Ethiopia, Tewolde added.

In the same vein, Commercial Office Counselor of the Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Addis Ababa, Waleed El Zomor on his part said the trade and investment relation between the two countries is in a good condition.

“There is good commitment in Egyptian businessmen to come and explore investment in Ethiopia,” the Egyptian embassy official remarked.

El Zomor also mentioned Egypt’s increased commitment to further enhance the import and export volume between the two nations to over 200 million USD. Egypt increased its export volume into Ethiopia by 27 percent between 2012 and 2014, he said, adding in 2014, Ethiopia secured over 33 million USD from export products into Egypt.

Agro processing, pharmaceuticals and chemicals industries are among the priority areas for Egyptian companies to bolster trade and investment ties. Tourism, peace and security are mentioned by El Zomor as potential future areas of partnership between the two nations.    He applauded Ethiopia’s emerging economy as an important element in attracting Chinese, Turkish, Indian and other international companies.

He cited visits by leaders of the two countries that aimed at strengthening bilateral exchanges and partnerships. Ethiopia exports among others, cereals, live animals and coffee to Egypt while it imports chemicals and medicines from the country.

Coupled with such business exchanges, the completion of the dam, as has been repeatedly expressed  by Ethiopia, will not only increase the amount of water in favor of Egypt but will also drastically reduce  the amount of annual flood from the run off in the upper riparian states, particularly Ethiopia.

Although Ethiopia has taken the initiative in building the Dam by taking the financial and technical burden for the benefit of all concerned, the ultimate power output from the Dam will help to fulfill the power needs of the riparian states of Eastern Nile and justice will prevail in providing opportunities for other states in and outside of the Nile basin to enjoy their share of energy generated by GERD.

GERD is not only a power generating scheme, it is a cornerstone for the promotion of economic integrations, mutual trust, cultural exchange between the riparian countries and provides the basis for using carbon free energy to curb the adverse effects of climate change.

As the construction of GERD is in full swing, the people and government of Ethiopia harbor no doubt that a new era is ushering not only for Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt but also for other riparian countries of the Nile basin. The entire process will further revolutionize the ever growing relations between Ethiopia and Egypt cemented in history, the Nile and age old cultural ties.


Source:  Ethiopian News Agency


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