In an attempt to show unity against potentially adverse effect of Ethiopia's Grand Nile Dam project on Egypt, President Mohamed Morsi delivered a speech to an all-Islamist audience on Monday evening, at which he urged attendees to stand united in the face of Egypt's latest foreign policy challenge.
"If Egypt is 'the gift of the Nile,' then the Nile is God’s gift to Egypt," were the opening lines of Morsi’s speech at a national conference organised by Egyptian Islamist parties. The event was held to discuss recommended responses to Ethiopia's recent decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile – a move that Egyptian critics fear could diminish Egypt's traditional share of Nile water.
"This is a great show of unity that reveals that we stand together to face threats to the country," the president said before cheering crowds.
"As free revolutionaries, we will continue on our path," large swathes of the audience chanted in unison.
Blaming Egypt's former regime and "those who wish to see [the former regime's] return" for alienating Egypt from fellow African countries, Morsi stressed Egypt's vital role in the region. He went on to blame the current row with Ethiopia on decades of Mubarak-era corruption and lack of transparency.
The president also stressed that Egypt would not be distracted from its mission to protect its borders, water resources and land by post-revolution political turbulence or economic challenges. "We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary," he warned.
President Morsi repeatedly stressed that Egyptians would "not tolerate" any threat to their traditional allotment of Nile water, describing the river as the country's "primary source of livelihood, history and civilisation."
"The people of Egypt are patient with anything, unless their borders and lives are put under threat... in which case we will stand united to tear out the threat at the root," he declared. "With our faith in God and the will of the Egyptian people, we will surmount all difficulties."
Calls for 'dialogue'
The president went on to stress, however, that "dialogue" with its fellow riparian states represented Egypt's "best means" of resolving the crisis.
After May 2011, he said, Egypt had joined an international commission tasked with studying the dam's potential impact on downstream states. The commission, he said, had so far held six meetings and conducted four field visits to Ethiopia.
The studies, however, had proven insufficient to assess the dam's impact on Egypt or assess its overall environmental and social impacts, he said. Independent technical studies by foreign specialists, he added, had revealed that the dam would have negative ramifications if it was not built in accordance with certain criteria.
Morsi went on to say Egypt had been exerting efforts to bolster relations with Nile Basin states, especially Ethiopia, citing recent increases in tourist numbers and bilateral trade, along with $2 billion worth of recent Egyptian investments in Ethiopia.
An Egyptian committee, meanwhile, has also been drawn up, he said, to prepare Egypt for the "defence of its security from any possible threat."
The president also said that "all options" were on the table to respond to the current situation and insisted that Egypt would not accept infringements on its water security.
"We have said several times that Egyptians with their revolution carry a message of peace...We do not want war, but we do not accept threats to our security."
Morsi also asked opposing political forces to stand united at a time when Egypt faces hard challenges and to put aside all political rivalries. He went on to call for "national reconciliation," adding that he was certain that political figures would respond positively to his appeals.
"The country demands that we stand united," he said, issuing his call for reconciliation only weeks before planned mass demonstrations on 30 June to demand snap presidential elections.
Finally, the president said that Egypt sought to "strengthen unity" with other African states, especially Ethiopia. "We do not want to create enemies; we want dialogue... and development for Africa," he asserted.
With hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members outside the conference venue and hundreds more inside the auditorium, the president was constantly cheered by supporters.
Also speaking at the podium were Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya member Safwat Abdel-Ghani, representing the political parties that hosted the event, and Akram El-Ganzouri, representing participating professional syndicates.
Abdel-Ghani expressed concern that Egypt was facing many "conspiracies and challenges," including limited water resources and a steadily mounting population, but also referred to "international forces interfering in Africa [in an effort] to become regional players at the expense of Egypt’s diminishing role."
"We should not forget that these forces are plotting against Egypt and exploiting the region's poverty," he said, hinting that the Ethiopian dam project had been encouraged by foreign interests.
Listing the recommendations of political parties, Abdel-Ghani demanded that Ethiopia halt any further work on the dam until a comprehensive study is finalised by the tripartite committee and Egypt and Sudan had coordinated their positions.
The Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya leader also called on Egypt to "watch the movements of the Zionist enemy operating within the Nile Basin countries."
"We will say this one generation after the other: we will remain Israel's enemy," the crowd chanted in response.
At a 3 June meeting between political forces and the presidency, concern was expressed by some attendees that Ethiopia might use the dam project to export Nile water to Israel, with whom Addis Ababa had long enjoyed good relations.
"All options should remain open to defend Egypt’s right to water, which an issue of national security," Abdel-Ghani concluded.
The conference was called for by Islamist parties at a meeting hosted by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) last week, held to mull possible responses to the Nile dam crisis.
Earlier last week, President Morsi met with a group of political figures to discuss the report issued by the international technical committee tasked with studying the Ethiopian dam's impact.
The meeting triggered a storm of controversy as various figures present made open threats against Ethiopia, unaware that the meeting was being televised live.
Ethiopia set off alarm bells in Cairo two weeks ago when it began diverting a stretch of the Blue Nile to make way for the $4.7 billion hydroelectric Renaissance Dam project.
Ethiopia has faced criticism by downstream Nile countries Egypt and Sudan for going ahead with the project without waiting on the recommendations of the committee tasked with studying the regional impact of the dam.
Nile riparian countries have argued over the division of Nile water for decades. Analysts have repeatedly warned that the dispute could eventually boil over into military conflict.