Could President El-Sisi be sincere in vowing not to allow rift with Ethiopia?

10 Jun

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

Egypt’s new President Abdul Fatah El-Sisi came to office Sunday June 8, 2014, declaring – in his words – “It is time for our great people to reap the harvest of their two revolutions.” This reference relates to Mubarak’s overthrow by the first revolution. The second revolution brought to power the Field Marshal and defense minister turned civilian now President of Egypt, after he overthrew the first democratically elected president Mohammed Morsi a year ago in a coup d’etat.

This means that in the mind and soul of his speechwriters, possibly including the new president, the period and personalities in between, i.e., the transition up to Morsi’s end, must have clearly been considered mere nuisance.

Therefore, the task at hand for the new president, he says, is consolidating the gains of the two revolutions. For him, “The success of a revolution lies in the crystallization of its goals and its development for the better.”

Sisi comes with many faces, called contradictions

From my vantage point, Mr. Sisi is directly heading into the eye of the storm, with too many contradictions and half of Egypt not acknowledging him, or standing against him. Those not in favor of him have made known their unhappiness by having nothing to do with his celebration as president.

In brief, Egypt is terribly divided, making implementation of policies extremely difficult for any leader. On top of that, the president is stepping up to the plate with many contradictory perceptions and positions.

For instance, cryptically speaking, sisi has made it clear that those who are not with him are against him. This is in reference to those that continue to extend their support to the Muslim Brotherhood. It means that they would not be part of what he at times calls the ‘great march’ or the ‘journey forward.’ At the same time, this is a president who praises the virtue of “ Egypt’s unified national fabric“.

How could the president accomplish his task of lifting the millions of Egyptians that have fallen into poverty he has kept on referring to? The human rights issue aside, how could Egypt under him take its ‘inclusive journey’, which he said he has in mind? If he is not clear on this, he certainly is purely military leader heavily reliant on prisons, guns and tanks to do all the tricks for him. If indeed this is the case, he would live to regret his decision of excluding others, no matter which ally pumps him with billions and armaments.

Fortunately, his red zone is not defined in anti-terrorism law terms, as in Ethiopia. He simply said there would be “no reconciliation with those that had committed violence.” It appears to me it is a national policy that believes in the door being carefully opened up. This means it is not totally closed.

At the same time, I share the president’s phrase about the danger of extremism and state capture the Muslim Brotherhood had exercised, which in future must be avoided in all its forms. But the president must set the right example. It is alleged that coverage of the transfer of the presidency only by the state media, which is a danger to the building of democracy in Egypt.

Moreover, the other worry is that the Egypt he has begun to oversee started off during the first week after he announced his candidacy with unfortunate actions. It sentenced 683 people to death in just one hour. This has put Egypt in the dark annals of unfathomable state actions. It is also troubling that The Guardian today reported that Egypt has reversed conviction of officials found guilty, for example the colonel jailed for gassing 37 prisoners. These do not augur very well for the new president.

Veneer of Sisi’s foreign policy

Regarding foreign policy, at his inuaguration Morsi started by announcing to pursue ‘balanced foreign policy’. This was mostly intended to assuage any Israeli concerns. Nonetheless, that became Morsi’s policy anchor that was seen by the big and medium powers in the United States and Europe as a good start for an Islamist president.

Enter President Sisi. He is now saying “The age of subordination in Egypt’s foreign relations is over.” He sort of pointed out that the axle of his foreign policy is closer ties with Gulf states. Very stiking about this policy is the linkage between the security of the Gulf States being closely tied with the security of Egypt.

Mr. Sisi has made reference to the Palestine issue merely for purposes of the record, more than the principle and emotional commitment on the part of Egypt.

As far as Ethiopia is concerned, at least, President Sisi has stepped with the right foot into his Nile diplomacy. That he started by reiterating past Egyptian position, i.e., recalling our long history and that how much Cairo wants improved and closer ties with Ethiopia. Ahram Online quotes the new president iterating he would not “allow the Renaissance Dam to cause a crisis or problem with sisterly Ethiopia.”

This is very positive pronouncement. The question however is whether he can keep his promise, or if the worst political and economic crises in Egypt today would not overwhelm him tomorrow to compel him to see importance of diverting the attention of Egyptians from their daily problems.

It is also important to realize that the president predicated – just as in the past – his offer of friendship on the proviso: “Egypt understands Ethiopia’s needs for development and thus Ethiopia should understand Egypt’s needs to its share of the Nile.” If the translation has been rendered properly, it means that in diplomatic parlance he is signaling that the ball is in Ethiopia’s court.

On his first day as president, Mr. Sisi has two invitations for official visits: Ethiopia and Russia. How much that would dent his policies is yet to be seen.

Mercurial Egypt

From my perspective, the problem dealing with Egypt is that all Egyptian leaders say the same thing, without excluding their use of opposite position anytime they so feel. If one takes the Egyptian position the day the report of the International Panel of Experts on the Ethiopian dam was released, one could see its mercuriality across time.

For instance, the first official reaction of Egypt to the report, under the leadership of Mohamed Morsi, was hostile, threatening to go to the International Court of Justice, unless Ethiopia stopped the construction work on the dam. Unfortunate for them, this position could not spare the president and his prime minister from initial accusations by the Sisi team and charges of neglect of Egypt’s interests on the Nile. The reality, however, was that the same evening on June 1, 2013, the Morsi government announced:

    If Ethiopia and Egypt fail to come to an agreement about controversial new dam project on the Blue Nile, the matter could be taken to International Court of Justice … We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved – this is not just from a political perspective but also from a legal perspective … The reserve of the Renaissance Dam requires 74 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia has an initial plan to fill up the reserve in five years, which could cause Egypt a cut of over 20 percent in five successive years, contributing to Egypt’s existing water shortages …

However, if one considers Morsi’s statement of April 24, 2013, the above position was somewhat pushed to the side. In a latter statement through his spokesperson Ahab Fahmy, Morsi said in the light of the historic ties between the two countries, “Ethiopians would not allow harm to befall Egypt” – if they understand the dam has a negative impact. At the time, in my article Conciliatory Cairo reacts to GERD & Nile River issues more realistically, thanks to the Arab Spring , I referred to this as a virtual handshake.

Since Morsi’s overthrow the position of Egypt was like a mercurial person’s mood, given the variations in the official statements they were making – at times peaceful and conciliatory and on occasions belligerent.

In noting that, in February 2014 in my article Seems certain Nile solution has evaded Ethiopian & Egyptian water ministers, I made the observation:

    One problem today is that Egypt’s policy on the Ethiopian dam is all over the map, as much contributing to the impassé. Today it is “yes” and tomorrow “No”. This has forced consistency on the Ethiopian side, rather sign of their distrust of Egypt.

It is very important that this entire approach between the two countries is changed. I say this, because I have an idea of its origin.

In my January 12, 2011 article on Guiseppe Verdi’s Aida,Aida, Verdi’s opera, stands out as reminder of the on-going Nile dilemma – I quoted the words of the Egyptían equality activist and writer Iqbal Baraka from her It is not our Nile, where she wrote:

    It never happened in any era or age in which Egypt paid attention to the fact [that] the Nile has other wives and sons who should share in the great heritage (the Nile). We were brought up to believe in a great myth that the Nile is exclusively Egypt’s own and we went on making love songs about Egypt and showing our pride to the world that we were able to build a great civilization along its [banks].

One lesson derived from dealing with Egypt this far must be the fact of what Iqbal long ago wrote. Egypt is still angry at Ethiopia, because Ethiopia went ahead with building the GERD, without seeking Cairo’s permission. The problem with this in the first place is in the expectation, which has no basis in reality or common sense.

Now President Sisi’s Egypt must realize that the Nile has other owners too, endowed with as many rights; the Nile also has many other sons, daughters and wives that need “to share in its great heritage.” Only regional cooperation could give practical expression to the satisfaction of the needs of the states and the populations.

Therefore, the wiser both our countries would be, if all Nile Basin states gird to see what can be done to multiply the benefits to be collectively gained from resources of the river.

In future, the judge of progress in the talks and possible other undertakings must be what Egypt can do to reach mutually beneficial understanding and agreements. The GERD is now the Nile’s toddler, the Basin’s assured reality, which would not go anywhere.

It is for this that I urge with all humility the new leadership of Egypt not to needlessly waste the energies of both countries trying to turn back the hands of time. Egypt must not allow the myth Ikbal Baraka was talking about to continue to be the constant hurdle, or diplomatic niceties constantly thrown at visiting delegations from seemingly standing to fill the void, from being taken as the ultimate outcomes.

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