Ethiopia & Egypt’s diplomacy to tackle the vexed Nile River issues under climate of uncertainties

25 Jul

by Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory

Enters June 30, 2013 in Egypt. The warning by the opposition, especially the Tamarod campaign, which former President Mohamed Morsy had defied, even jeered at, became what it said it would be. This was shown by the thunderous speed and might that swept him out of office, leaving lessons to those that arrogantly scoff at the power of the people.

In the midst of resignations of ministers and other officials, governance and state administration deceptively seemed to continue, while it was inertia and the appearance of the army that ran the country for weeks. Surely, but things were not the same. Egypt was unusually quiet for 21 days, with nothing on the horizon expressing concerns about its water security or volleying threats against Ethiopia. Unfortunately, this calmness was short-lived.

It took only five days after the interim government was sworn in on July 16 for Egypt’s foreign ministry to put the onus on Ethiopia for the lack of movement on the controversial Grand Renaissance Dam. Therefore, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelaaty appeared from nowhere on July 20 to express his ministry’s “deep concern” about the lack of reaction from Ethiopia “to the invitation by Egypt’s water and irrigation minister for a meeting in Cairo on the consequences of the dam.” The tone of the statement was of blame on Ethiopia, which Egypt knows full well that during those days not even Egyptians ever knew who was running the country.

This is in no way intended to question awareness of the spokesperson that Dr. Mohamed Abdel Motaleb was nominated days before his confirmation as the new minister of water resources and irrigation. He thus replaced Mohamed Bahaa-Eddin only around the time the interim President Adly Mansur swore his 33-member cabinet on July 16, 2013. Although a very experienced engineer and professor, like all other transfers of power, there are procedures to be followed and preparations to be made to focus on key issues.

The Egyptian foreign ministry spokesperson would also remember that already since the first week of July, the outgoing water and irrigation minister was concerned “Egyptian authorities are not focused on the Ethiopia dam crisis due to the turmoil caused by the removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency.” Of this, the state-owned Egyptian newspaper observed Bahaaeddin “had not received any calls concerning his successor.”

Therefore, I must confess that in reading about the new slant by Egypt and its angle in the midst of chaos in Cairo, I was kind of puzzled by the spokesperson’s complaint, which appeared on Egypt’s foreign ministry webpage. To this day, I could not understand what Egypt would gain in creating such false impression that the ball was in Ethiopia’s court and Ethiopia did not show interest in being part of the game.

For two countries that must engage diplomatically to find agreeable solution to both sides to this Nile problem, whose import with the Renaissance Dam has significantly changed, I could hardly see what Egypt could harvest from simple-minded propaganda. This would only muddy the diplomatic field. The truth is that during those days, when silence and quiet observance was tempered by those whose duty it is to see what is taking place on the ground, even Egyptians did not know who was running their country, much less Ethiopians.

Could there really be anything diplomacy can do to calm the waters?

My misgiving may either surprise or irritate some readers, thinking that diplomacy as the art of the possible is not given its due credit. The strain here is that the art of the possible requires some unknown corner to explore, untouched and untried things. This now is the challenge for the negotiators on both sides.

Ethiopia and Egypt know each other’s positions, including the limitations set on their flexibilities.

Ethiopia knows that Egypt demands it should turn off the GERD project, if not, Addis Abeba should be prepared to agree to scale it down to acceptable size. This was officially discussed in Addis Abeba, when the former Foreign Minister Kamel Amr and Ethiopia’s Tedros Adhanom met on June 17-18. They had to leave it there only agreeing to continue the talks in Cairo at a future date.

As far as the Ethiopian authorities are concerned, they have made it clear ad infinitum that the Renaissance Dam is their do or die undertaking. More than anyone else they realize the huge implications of retreat or revision, once they have pledged to the nation that it would be done, no matter what. That is why at already at the beginning of March 2013, Ethiopia’s foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom announcedr that Ethiopia would only be willing “to make some adjustments, if found depending on the findings of the report [Panel of International Experts], the construction will not be seized by any means.” Whether this would go forward to its logical conclusion is something we have to wait and see.

Perhaps secretly skillful, insightful Egyptian diplomats and negotiators realize that short of wars, which they may want to avoid at any cost, there is little else they could do to get Ethiopia to change its mind. Some of these foreign service officials might even have welcomed the firmness on the Ethiopian side, their calculus informing them that this might lead to lasting and cooperative arrangements between the two countries regarding utilization of the Nile River.

In a way, their appreciation also includes how much the Nile Question and relations with Ethiopia has exposed the medieval mentality within the Moslem Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. The world saw them itching to go to war.

After they have gone, there is nothing that can be taken for granted either way. What form future arrangements take depends on the stability Egypt attains and the wisdom that prevails on both sides.

On the Ethiopian side, clearly the monotony of Ethiopia hearing itself saying the same thing time and again cannot be denied. Of course, if Ethiopia had better and concrete ways of demonstrating its harmlessness to Egypt, it would have done anything to acquire that capacity just for the sake of making it easier for Cairo to see it. As far as foreigners are concerned, the policy in Addis Abeba is live let live.

On the other hand, in this situation – as a country with lots of hydrologists and water engineers – Egypt also must feel the strain of lacking the ability to come with concrete evidence to persuade and pressure Ethiopia to clearly show how it is gravely endangering Cairo’s water security. Therefore, both sides need to be open to facing their inadequacies to move to the next step of finding workable solutions.

I bring this to urge both Ethiopia and Egypt to engage with realism, aiming to attain the possible. Most importantly, both sides must allow their people to learn, to know and be better informed and on a timely basis of the policies and developments in their relations.

We saw what happened in the streets of Cairo that the Nile is no longer an exclusive issue to be left to the Oracles in Addis Abeba and Cairo. This is one reason, why in official remarks and statements they need to show sense of responsibility to the feelings of the people. This includes the recent complaint (insinuations) by the foreign ministry spokesperson in Cairo, which created mistaken impressions around the world and needless conclusions. For instance, Mr. Badr Abdelaaty’s remark of July 20 only helped Egypt to portray Ethiopia in negative light. I very much doubt it if that could translate into something facilitating the search for diplomatic solutions the two countries consider their pressing problems. For merchants of death, it gave them the opportunity to speculate about the dambusters.

If the diplomatic search for solution to the problems Ethiopia and Egypt are faced with at this point are to be greeted with mutually beneficial solutions, it would be important for both sides to avoid scavenging for small shots here and there and cheap propaganda to make cute points that only help newspapers sell more, or ultra-nationalists find cause for celebration in these dreary times.

This view is not intended for consumption by politicians of any stripes or their foot soldiers in both countries. The fact of the matter is that one cannot afford to gamble on his /her nation’s future. A little over two years ago, I saluted the remarks by the great Egyptian journalist and writer Mohamed Heikal, when he spoke to Egyptians after former President Mubarak was booted out. He told the journalist interviewing him, “I don’t believe you should put the future on hold in order to bring the past to account.”

It appears to me that both Ethiopia and Egypt this would go a long way in serving the values of wisdom, which should remind not only individual citizens, but also those in power of their responsibilities for the coming generations and what we all share as home.

Did Heikal have his misgivings about the past? He sure had, and that he indicated with reason and sanity, as follows:

    “[The] “political crimes”[Mubarak’s] include the assault on the spirit of the republic, staying in power for 30 years, amending the constitution to allow a succession scenario, expending the country’s resources and wealth as if it were personal property, acute negligence on issues that are imperative — such [as] Nile water and sectarian strife, cooperation with Israel at the expense of the interests of the Egyptian people, ordering the forging of the people’s will in election after election, violating human rights by making Egypt a destination for torture, and conspiring in clandestine operations to achieve illegal political and financial gains that harm Egypt’s reputation, national security and stature.”


Egypt is back in business

Interestingly, the first international news agency to report on the phone conversation between Foreign Ministers Nabil Fahmy and Tedros Adhanom on June 19, 2013 was Xinhua. Not the Ethiopian foreign ministry, much less the Ethiopian state-owned media, had an inkling of this conversation until 21 July. I had looked everywhere and found none other – not on the Egyptian side either or the international news corporations.

I should state that, for the greater part Xinhua’s information happened to be right, save minor inaccuracies.

Now we know that Ambassador Mona Omar was in Addis Abeba on July 23 with a message and as envoy of Egypt’s interim government. A long tried hand in diplomacy, Ms. Omar met with Hailemariam Dessalegn in his dual capacities as Ethiopia’s prime minister and current chairman of the African Union (AU).

Understandably, Egypt has been put to shame by its ostracization within the AU for the overthrow by the army of a legally and duly constituted government. Once upon a time this used to be seen as Africa’s strongman experience – a curse strictly geographic and Sub-Saharan and a feature of the region’s governance.

There is a lesson left by this for all countries, especially those experiencing profound tensions between the state and the people pertaining to civic and human rights violations and economic injustices.

We learned from the media that Hailemariam was seen trying to distance himself – anyways without much success – from the decision to sanction Egypt. He let the visiting delegation know that he did not consider the removal of Morsy as coup d’etat.

The fact of the matter is that, if this ostracization of Egypt is likened to pregnancy, the woman is either pregnant or she is not. That is to say, what happened in Egypt is either a coup or something else from which nations must force themselves to look the other way.

Because of their difficulties, the Americans have been in that same situation. Lately, while they show cherishing a ‘soft coup’, they still do not want to call by its real name. Today, however, the Pentagon announced its decision to delay delivery of four F-16 jets on the ground of, according to the BBC, “displeasure with recent events.”

If a country refers to this as a coup, it is no expression of love either to Morsy or the Moslem Brotherhood, the fact of whose removal because is widely welcomed due to their attempts at Islamizing society.

Therefore, I could not fathom why Hailemariam chose to be further away even from the American stance on this, when he had the African position to defend. I hope there is no thought of this position posing obstacles to the talks between Ethiopia and Egypt. If at all that is the reason, the prime minister should be reminded that, as an AU member, Egypt was part of the original decision to stamp out coup d’etát out of Africa – an experience that Cairo thought was Sub-Saharan problem in which it has now unexpectedly found itself in.

The other part of Ms. Omar’s mission is the Renaissance Dam issue. I can imagine how much the exchange has become more of comparing notes, rather than exploratory in trying to see for any change in national positions. Whether the Egyptians like it or not, for some time to come there is only one way to skin a cat in Ethiopia: the GERD would in no way affect Egypt .

Therefore, it appears that the only thing Hailemariam has favorably responded to is his confirmation to the envoy that an Ethiopian delegation would be in Cairo in time for the resumption of the talks where they were left off last time in June.

The future

Finally, while the uncertainty in Egypt could force matters into unanticipated direction, one needs to be encouraged by the initial remarks of Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy. He indicated that his primary duty is prioritizing the issues he would focus on, which included “restoring Egypt’s regional role and the Ethiopian dam.” There is no doubt that this line alone could be subject to numerous interpretaions.

The way I read it the tone was not one of sabre-rattling, of wars and bloodshed. As he put it in his first press conference within the foreign ministry, in the context of restoring Egypt’s position in the Arab, African and Mediterranean regions, he addressed the Nile Question, where he stated he would endeavor to ensure:

    “[T]he Egyptian water security through intensive movement using all legitimate means to reserve the Egyptian water rights and interests in the water of the Nile along with respect for the aspirations of the countries and peoples of the Nile Basin, including those of the brother Ethiopian people in the field of development.”

The key operative words appear to me both lawful and peaceful. My concern is whether there is any possibility for the foreign ministry officials to realize Fahmy’s dream, when the country takes a more frightening path with Gen. Sisi calling on Egyptians to give him mandate to crackdown on substantial members of Egyptian society.

In the light of this, I ask Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn who is running Egypt – the Interim Government under President Adli Mansouor or Gen. Sisi.

*Updated with additional material

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