House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman turned Egypt lobbyist Ed Royce (R-Calif.) is leveraging his environmental credentials to try to convince his former colleagues about the alleged risks posed by Ethiopia’s massive hydroelectric dam on the Nile.
This week Royce prepared emails to lawmakers inviting them to send “someone on your team assigned to conservation issues” to a virtual briefing about the dam, a new lobbying filing reveals. The Zoom briefing is organized by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington and is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 1.
Royce labeled the email invitation as an “Event on International Conservation Issues.” In it he recalls his role as one of the original founders of the International Conservation Caucus on Capitol Hill.
“As a co-founder and former co-chair of the International Conservation Caucus, I wanted to call an environmental issue to your immediate attention,” Royce wrote. “As you may know, the negotiations surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have stalled. Without an enforceable agreement, the operations of the dam will have significant environmental ramifications, for both the populations of Egypt and Sudan as well as for the Nile’s regional ecosystems.”
The briefing is expected to feature several members of Egypt’s negotiating team. They include Hisham Bekhit, a professor of Irrigation and Hydraulics at Cairo University and Mohamed Helal, the legal counsel for Egypt’s Foreign Minister and an assistant professor of law at Ohio State University.
Royce is a policy director with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which signed a $65,000-a-month contract with the Egyptian embassy in November right after Joe Biden declared victory over President Donald Trump, who had been a close ally of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the dispute with Ethiopia. Others on the contract include former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Nadeam Elshami, a former chief of staff to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Egypt has made clear it hopes President Biden will stay engaged on the issue. In a Jan. 14 online conversation with the National Council on US-Arab Relations, Egyptian Ambassador to the US Motaz Zahran called on the new administration to help resolve the diplomatic crisis.
Ethiopia for its part started lobbying again last summer as Trump was seen as siding with Cairo in his quest to broker three-way talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The Ethiopian Embassy in Washington hired Indiana law firm Barnes & Thornburg for $130,000 on June 30 for an initial three months.
Monday’s briefing comes as another round of negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan broke down earlier this month. The three countries are deadlocked over oversight of the dam and how quickly to fill it, with Egypt worried about the impact on the Nile river, which it relies on for more than 90 % of its fresh water. Ethiopia meanwhile sees the 6,450 MW project, which began in 2011 and is nearly complete, as a vital development priority.
“Any time you build a dam, you’re going to have environmental issues, because the dam basically changes the way water in the river flows from a natural process to an artificial process,” said John Mukum Mbaku, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Africa Growth Initiative. “Now that the dam is built, and there’s no going back, the question now is whether Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia can agree on an arrangement so that you can minimize environmental damage to Egypt and Sudan and you do not affect the flow of water from Ethiopia into Egypt and Sudan.”
Royce’s involvement with the International Conservation Caucus carries particular clout. The US caucus, one of several around the world, was founded in 2003 and is now the second largest bipartisan congressional caucus on Capitol Hill, according to its web site, counting more than a third of House members and a quarter of senators as active members in the last Congress.
The caucus was formed with the conviction that “the United States of America has the opportunity, the obligation and the interests to advance the conservation of natural resources for this and future generations.” Recent co-chairs included Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) and David Joyce (R-Ohio).