Egypt-Ethiopia tension set to rise
CAIRO - There are fears that Egyptian-Ethiopian relations could deteriorate, not only because of Addis Ababa’s accusations that Cairo abets Ethiopian opposition protests but also due to general mistrust between the two African countries, experts said.
“Apart from revealing Ethiopia’s failure to solve its domestic problems, the country’s accusations are an expression of its lack of confidence in Egypt,” said Mohamed el-Shazly, a former assistant foreign minister and Egypt’s former ambassador in Sudan. “Despite efforts by the Egyptian leadership to mend fences with Ethiopia, Addis Ababa still does not trust Egypt. However, this is a shared feeling on both sides.”
Ethiopia has accused elements in both Egypt and Eritrea of arming and financing opposition by Ethiopia’s Oromo people, a large ethnic group that has participated in months of anti-government protests.
Addis Ababa has been sceptical of Egypt’s intentions since Muhammad Morsi, shortly before he was ousted as president of Egypt, hosted a meeting of political figures in June 2013 regarding how the country could manage its relations with Ethiopia and handle the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric Renaissance Dam being built by Ethiopia on the Nile.
The meeting, thought by participants to be private, was mistakenly broadcast by Morsi’s aides. During the meeting, one political figure present suggested that Egypt spread rumours about purchasing long-range attack planes to give Addis Ababa the impression that Cairo would bomb the dam. Another political figure suggested that Egyptian intelligence support Ethiopian opposition to cause unrest in the African country.
“This was received very badly in Ethiopia, making apprehensions take root and grow there,” Shazly said. “The Ethiopians still cannot forget this.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been trying to win over Ethiopia, warning against limiting historical relations between Egypt and Ethiopia to Nile water.
In March 2015, Sisi visited Addis Ababa and addressed the Ethiopian parliament in an attempt to calm Ethiopian fears towards Egypt. He has said that the Nile should be a source of cooperation among the riparian states, not a source of tension.
Commenting on Ethiopian accusations that Egypt backed Oromo protests, Sisi recently said: “I want to assure our brothers in Ethiopia that Egypt has never ever offered any support to the opposition and will not carry out any conspiratorial action against Ethiopia.”
However, Egypt does not trust Ethiopia either, given the devastating effects the Renaissance Dam will have on its development plans and agricultural expansion, water experts said.
“The Ethiopian dam will significantly reduce the amounts of water coming to us from the Nile, destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and halt our agricultural development projects,” said water expert Nader Noureddin. “Ethiopia says the dam is necessary for its development, caring the least about its effects on Egypt and its people.”
The dam is expected to be functional in 2017. It is predicted to deprive Egypt of 10 billion cubic metres of water every year during the five years it would take to fill the reservoir. Experts say this would destroy 1 million hectares of farmland in Egypt and exacerbate Egypt’s water poverty.
Egypt, which receives 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile every year, suffers a water deficit of more than 30%, according to the country’s Irrigation Ministry. The Renaissance Dam is expected to raise the deficit to more than 40% of the country’s needs.
Attempts by Egypt to mitigate the effects of the dam have produced few results, even after almost five years of negotiation with Addis Ababa.
In September, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a contract with two French firms to conduct technical and environmental impact studies on the dam to reduce potential harmful effects on Egypt and Sudan from the project.
However, the studies are not expected to be complete until the project is operational, which means that nothing can be changed and the dam has become a fait accompli.
“This will necessarily open the door for political tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia,” Shazly said. “Egypt cannot stand idly by while the project destroys it.”