Since US President Joe Biden’s arrival to power, no member of his administration has addressed the Renaissance Dam crisis, and no one knows so far how it will be addressed, especially since commentators have preferred to adopt a neutral stance. From this comes the new war between Egypt and Ethiopia, as the two countries doubled their efforts in Washington to push the Biden administration to stand with them. The two countries resorted to promoting their official narrative towards the crisis among American circles. The two countries used several lobbying and public relations companies to polish their image and push the staff of the new administration and members of congress to understand their position.
The US Justice Department documents revealed that Ethiopia is using a new pressure company to communicate with congress and the Biden administration at a time that Addis Ababa is locked in a diplomatic crisis with Egypt over the dam. In Washington, the Ethiopian Embassy signed a contract worth $35,000 a month ago with Venable legal consulting firm early this month, for an initial period of three months, with the possibility of extending it. According to the terms of the contract, the US company will provide a “government relations service that may include liaison with congress members, the ministries and the Biden administration.” It will be supervised by attorney Thomas Quinn and political advisor Lauren Ahue. This new contract comes at a time when Ethiopia is under increasing pressure in Washington on several fronts, from the Renaissance Dam crisis to the internal tensions it is witnessing in its eastern provinces.
Ethiopia’s recent contract was not the first of its kind. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abey Ahmed had previously signed an agreement with Barnes & Thornburg for $130,000 a month during the period from June 30 to September 30. Barnes & Thornberg has focused exclusively on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue through its contacts with several congressional offices, as well as officials in the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Treasury. Ethiopia succeeded in attracting members of Congress of African descent to its side.
The African-American Caucus issued a statement on June 23, stating that “the Black Caucus in congress urges the United States and all other international actors to respect the 2015 Tripartite Declaration of Principles Agreement signed between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to continue to play a neutral role.” They also called for only seeking advice from the African Union and diplomats on the ground in the region. The statement emphasised the African Union’s central role in the negotiations on the Renaissance Dam crisis, which represented a blow to the Donald Trump administration’s attempts to marginalise the African Union’s role.
Ethiopia is promoting in American circles that the dam project is a development work that produces the electrical energy needed to light the homes of millions of Ethiopians who do not yet have electricity in their villages and that the dam is a vital priority for development.Ethiopia’s image in the American capital is facing a significant crisis due to ethnic tensions in the northern Tigray region, where an armed conflict took place. Before becoming a national security advisor to President Biden, Jake Sullivan warned of “potential war crimes” and urged the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front to start negotiations supervised by the African Union.
As for Egypt, Ethiopia preceded the contract with new lobbying companies in anticipation of Biden’s arrival to power in an attempt to persuade his administration to follow the Trump administration’s example in supporting the Egyptian position. In the aftermath of Trump’s defeat in the election, the Egyptian embassy in Washington moved quickly to sign a year-long contract with Braunstein Hayat Farber, valued at $65,000 a month. Cairo tried to take advantage of al-Sisi’s special relations with Trump, as the latter brought the parties to the conflict in the White House. Still, his efforts were unsuccessful, which prompted him to suspend some aid to Ethiopia last September.
The former head of the Foreign Relations Committee, Ed Royce, manages Egypt in the company, and his team includes former Alaska Senator Mark Begich and Nadim al-Shami, the former chief of staff for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. According to Royce’s email to several members of the House of Representatives and their assistants, he urged them to participate remotely in a seminar organised by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington about the Renaissance Dam and the Nile water crisis early this month. “As you know, negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have stopped, and without an implementable agreement, the construction of the dam will have major environmental repercussions, whether for the people of Egypt and Sudan or on the regional ecosystems of the Nile,” Royce said in a message.
Several members of the Egyptian negotiating team for the Renaissance Dam file participated in the symposium. The company “provides government relations services and strategic advice on issues before the US government,” according to the contract documented on the US Department of Justice website. During Trump’s rule, Cairo’s pressure succeeded in issuing an official US statement, calling for the necessity of reaching an agreement between the parties concerned before filling the dam reservoirs.
The negotiations, which were conducted under US supervision and with the World Bank’s participation, came as a result of an Egyptian invitation. However, they reached a dead end after Ethiopia rejected the American initiative presented to the parties regarding rules related to the period over which the dam would be filled and its operation method. Washington enjoys good relations with Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the negative image due to their poor human rights records and undemocratic practices.
Ethiopia is a strong ally of Washington in East Africa. A study by the Congressional Research Service indicated that “Ethiopia plays an important role in confronting Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups in the Horn of Africa.” To promote its position, Ethiopia relies on the humanitarian dimension supported by official reports issued by the World Bank, which indicate Ethiopia’s urgent need for electric energy. At the same time, Cairo has important relations with Washington due to its policies in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, there may be no alternative to Washington’s mediation between the two parties in a way that avoids the negative aspects of Trump’s mediation.