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Thursday, 03 December 2020

INTERVIEW - Egypt faces unprecedented challenges from Libya, Ethiopia: Parliament speaker

Ali Abdel-Aal, the speaker of the House of Representatives, spoke about domestic and foreign issues in a wide-ranging interview with Alaa Thabet, the editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram daily

Alaa Thabet , Friday 7 Aug 2020
Ali Abdel Aal
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At the time when Egypt is readying to vote for its new upper parliamentary chamber, the lower house has been keeping a close eye on two major national security threats that have posed grave challenges to the government: the expected shortage in the water supply because of the intransigent stance taken by Addis Ababa on its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and Turkey’s interference in Libya.

But these two threats, although serious and unprecedented, should not obscure the strenuous efforts exerted over the past seven years to secure a better economic and social future for Egyptians, Ali Abdel-Aal, the speaker of the House of Representatives, told Al-Ahram daily newspaper.

According to the speaker, the economic policies adopted over the past few years have been the safe haven which have helped Egypt survive the current COVID-19 crisis. Although 2021 was expected to be the year of the country’s economic take-off, the outbreak of the coronavirus proved that, were it not for such harsh economic reform policies, the country would have turned into a failing state, Abdel-Aal said.

Feeling the heat of the negative impact of the pandemic, the head of the parliament's lower chamber told Al-Ahram that the pandemic was not the only challenge that Egypt’s leadership has faced.

On the western borders, radical armed militias have devastated Libya, which has had strong ties with Egypt for centuries. In most cases, Abdel-Aal said, these groups fight for their own interests, be they financial or political.

“The planned target, which has become clear to almost everyone now, is to divide that country into cantons led by armed militias serving foreign interests,” he said.

Two memorandums of understanding have been signed by Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord’s Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj in Tripoli, illegally designating maritime zones of influence for the Turks, who will in turn enhance their military presence in Libya.

Thousands of armed militiamen have been shipped from Syria to Libya via Turkey, bringing about the same destruction and fears and heightening the differences between Libyans, as well as creating a firewall on the western border of Egypt. When national security is threatened, then the leadership should look deeper into the evolving crisis before the flames reach Egypt’s doorstep.

“Egypt has always sided with the Libyans’ aspiration to maintain the unity of their lands. We believe that a fair and solid settlement of the Libyan issue will not be viable but through Libyans themselves,” he said.

President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced the Cairo Declaration in June, which aims to settle the Libyan conflict.

The initiative, according to Abdel-Aal, supported a ceasefire, starting on June 8, that obligated foreign powers in Libya to withdraw and dismantle the armed militias.

“Our country has enough means to deter and enforce its will when decided. Soft and hard powers are envisaged and exchanged when necessary to help Libyans reject the Turkish interference in their internal affairs. Turkey’s primary target is to divide and lead Libya, and to blur the people’s identity to levy its tight grip over the country’s resources. Therefore, the parliament in Egypt has called upon Libyans to unify their ranks, and to do away with the political and armed conflict,” he said.

The international community should also face their responsibilities and confront Turkey’s interference, which has escalated tensions regionally and has negative repercussions for efforts to reach a political settlement in Libya, he argued.

In an unprecedented step, Egypt’s parliament has unanimously approved sending troops outside the country’s borders to support national security. The voting echoed two major issues, Abdel-Aal said.

“The first issue is related to the size of anger Egyptians felt due to the Turks’ presence in Libya, while the second should be seen within the framework of the Egyptians’ full and unlimited trust of their armed forces and its political leadership.”

The second national security issue which Abdel-Aal highlighted is the expected shortage of water because of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Egypt has never stood against the aspiration of an African nation, not to mention a Nile basin country, he said.

“We do recognise those countries' right to establish their own dams, to produce power and build developmental projects on the Nile. But this great river is an international source of water and the downstream countries have equal rights to development. As much as we recognise other peoples’ rights, no one should ignore ours, which have been acknowledged historically through binding international treaties,” Abdel-Aal said.

He added that Egypt has helped establish several dams in Nile basin countries to enhance means of development in the continent.

Cairo spent eight years in futile negotiations with Addis Ababa in an attempt to create a joint vision to tackle the repercussions of the GERD and to avoid a shortage of water in downstream states.

“The negotiating efforts were based on the simple fact that it should be a win-win situation. But unfortunately, the Ethiopian side has abused its position as an upstream state, acknowledging its sole interest in filling the dam and ignoring the unprecedented negative impact on downstream countries,” said the speaker.

The abusive use of Ethiopia’s right to unilaterally fill the dam was behind Egypt's complaint to the UN Security Council in June. As described by Abdel-Aal, going to the Security Council was the right step on the path to securing Egypt’s right to the Nile water and avoiding tension in the region.

The parliament has been supportive of Egypt’s political leadership, which has had multiple issues to deal with, especially the economic reform programme and developing the health system -- overburdened because of the pandemic -- and the social and security issues that have resulted from COVID-19.

The state’s development projects, which have touched all facets of Egyptians’ lives, have clearly shown that El-Sisi is determined to build a modern state that has strong infrastructure.

Accordingly, when time came to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the June 30 revolution, the people were able to recognise these multiple achievements.

That date is seen by Abdel-Aal as a turning point in the country’s history, a date when Egyptians managed to salvage their identity, achievements and freedom.

“At the time, the country was about to slip into an unprecedented dilemma. Only God knows when and how we would have been able to get out of it,” he said.

“The state has to confront and stand against countries that have been financing several attempts to bring it down. The government and the Egyptian people stood side-by-side with their leadership to peacefully establish the new basis of security, reform the economy and usher in the process of recovery,” said the speaker.

“What is more significant is that individuals now have full recognition of their rights and responsibilities, and the country has therefore managed to become the hub for investments, launching giant national projects and ushering in a new era of hope for a better future,” Abdel-Aal continued.

The challenge was as big as Egypt itself. Consecutive governments have had to carefully diagnose the chronic issues at all levels and prescribe the right treatment, the speaker said. Integrating this treatment was not easy, but the outcome has become obvious in the mega-projects such as the road and electricity networks, the development of slum areas, and, above all, the economic reform programme that the government has pursued.

Floating the local currency and eliminating some government subsidies were two of the most significant decisions that should have been taken long ago, the speaker said.

Abdel-Aal believes the two decisions were vital and if they had been taken earlier, their impact would have been softer. “Though fundamental, no one had the courage to take such decisions, [instead seeking] to maintain their popularity. The fact is that both the leadership and the people of Egypt have been through very difficult times, but they have both successfully managed to overcome the difficulties and the most serious threats, working their way to stability and security,” he said.

Developing slum areas has been a major challenge, both socially and economically. The government has adopted a preventive policy; these areas have had negative social and health effects and upgrading them has therefore been essential.

“Creating a healthy and clean environment in the slums has been recognised and appreciated by the residents. Yet, once those areas are well-developed and renovated, there should be a harsh stance taken against violators, and a strict implementation of the law and regulations for a clean environment, to maintain the people’s and the state’s efforts,” he said.

The country’s leadership believes that the individual is the cornerstone of developmental efforts, and within this context several decisions were taken to eliminate these slum areas. When the government exerts such strenuous efforts to realise these dreams, strict measures should be in place to protect the new realities, Abdel-Aal stressed.

Citing what was known as the Maspero Triangle in Downtown Cairo, Abdel-Aal said the decision to eradicate the slum area there should have been taken in 1968. “There were a lot of plans to develop this area, but none were executed until recently, which was also the case with the Baron Palace in Heliopolis, which was recently turned from a deserted building into a touristic site,” he said.

Government officials must therefore be up to the huge responsibilities they bear, the speaker said, adding that there is now no place for officials who are incapable of translating the people’s dreams into realities.

The parliament, which has borne the responsibility of being the country’s sole legislative body for almost five years, is due to end its current term in January. Until that time, the body will continue to pursue its duties, welcoming members of the upper house when they are elected this autumn, and ensuring a fair election for next session of the House of Representatives. 

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