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Tuesday, 9 January 2018

It’s ‘foreign policy day’ in Egypt as Cairo girds for Pence’s arrival — and engages with Khartoum, Asmara and Addis in a delicate regional dance

It’s going to be a day of foreign policy headlines in Egypt, if a spate of news yesterday and overnight is any indicator:

US Vice President’s Middle East tour is back on this month: US Vice President Mike Pence’s delayed Middle East tour of Egypt, Jordan and Israel is back on for later this month, the White House announced on Monday. Pence will kick-off the tour in Egypt on 20 January, where he will meet with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, reads the statement. The tour will “address the shared need to combat terrorism and assist persecuted religious minorities,” the White House says, but you can also expect the US recognition of Jerusalem will play in talks when Pence meets El Sisi, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. US President Donald Trump unnecessarily stirred up a hornet’s nest last month when he followed his Jerusalem announcement by saying he would cut US funding to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine if the Palestinians do not go back to the negotiating table. Pence, a strong supporter of Trump’s decision on Jerusalem, will also visit the city’s Western Wall and give a speech at the Israeli parliament. A number of Egypt’s religious figures, including Pope Tawadros and the head of Al Azhar, have announced they will not meet with Pence in protest of the Jerusalem decision.

Meanwhile, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arrives in Cairo today to meet with President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, Al Masry Al Youm reports. The two presidents will almost undoubtedly look into the impasse between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the wider regional Cold War which appears to have drawn in Ethiopia’s main regional rival Eritrea. Afwerki and his accompanying delegation will also sit down today with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and General Intelligence Directorate head Khaled Fawzy. Afwerki arrives after Sudan closed its border with his country — and after an unconfirmed report that Egypt has sent troops to his nation with UAE backing, as we noted yesterday.

As for Ethiopia, the country has yet to respond to Egypt’s proposal to include the World Bank in GERD negotiations as an impartial third party, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said yesterday, Al Mal reports. Shoukry had initially presented the suggestion during a visit to Addis Ababa last month in hopes of resolving the impasse between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia after the latter two countries refused to ratify the results of environmental impact studies on the dam. The World Bank reportedly gave a preliminary nod to the suggestion last week, and will reach a final decision this month. Egypt is committed to avoiding tension over the negotiations, which are currently focused on the technical aspects of the dam, Shoukry reaffirmed.

It’s against that backdrop that El Sisi said yesterday that Egypt is taking preemptive steps to ensure it does not end up facing a water crisis. The president made the remarks at an inauguration ceremony for several projects, including a water treatment plant. El Sisi announced that in addition to capitalizing on its share of Nile water, Egypt is working on water treatment and desalination projects worth EGP 70 bn to ensure consumption needs are being met, an Ittihadiya statement says.

All of this comes as Sudan renewed yesterday its complaint to the UN Security Council, once again claiming it has sovereignty over Egypt’s Halayeb triangle, the Sudanese Foreign Ministry said in a statement. It remains unclear whether the complaint calls on the council to take any action against Egypt, whose membership in the council expired at the end of 2017. Tensions have been rising between Khartoum and Cairo for several months over Omar El Bashir’s government using the GERD talks to push its claim to the Halayeb Triangle. Playing the Halayeb card is also a useful tool for Khartoum to detract attention from ongoing bread riots. Sudan withdrew its ambassador to Egypt last week for “consultations,” as we noted yesterday.

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