Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is heading to Addis Ababa this week to participate in an African Union summit. Mr. Sisi will also reportedly undertake direct, high-level talks with Ethiopia’s prime minister on the future of the Nile River, and Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam in particular.
The hydroelectric project has been a source of friction between Addis and Cairo since its inception. Egypt’s previous president, Mohammed Morsi, took a hostile stance toward the project, which Mr. Sisi’s administration has gradually reversed. But concrete progress on the issue has been slow to materialize. The bilateral commission established to study the issue has met several times but produced no decisive conclusions.
Egypt and Ethiopia are both members of the Nile Basin Initiative, which was established last decade to enable all riparian states to manage the river cooperatively. But Egypt has yet to ratify the NBI’s governing document, the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework. Instead, Egypt has clung to a colonial-era agreement which divided the river’s water between Egypt and Sudan, and gave no rights to the upstream states.
According to Alex de Waal, writing in the New York Times, Mr. Sisi’s visit, if handled correctly, could be the start of a new and friendlier era in regional relations:
Better relations with Ethiopia could also be Egypt’s ticket to mending its difficult relations with other governments in sub-Saharan Africa. Two days after the Egyptian military ousted Mr. Morsi in July 2013, while Gulf states rushed to assist the new government, the African Union suspended Egypt’s membership on grounds that the coup violated its principles. (Egypt has since been reinstated.) And there is little sympathy on the continent for Cairo’s position on the Nile issue, since it appears to be blocking Ethiopia’s development under colonial-era treaties widely seen as exploitative.
Mr. Sisi should take advantage of his coming visit to Addis Ababa to finally make progress on joint management of the Nile. That could open the way for Egypt and Ethiopia to find common ground on thornier issues, such as how to handle internal conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan. And that, in turn, could be a step toward greater stability in the region.