Egypt presidency, opposition figures discuss Ethiopia dam 'crisis'

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Monday 3 Jun 2013

President Mohamed Morsi meets with host of Egyptian opposition figures to discuss 'crisis' posed by Ethiopia's controversial Renaissance Dam project

Egypt politicians meeting
President Morsi met with different political figures to discuss the 'crisis' of the controversial dam project in Ethiopia (Photo: Facebook page of Egypt's presidency)

Opposition figures from across Egypt's political spectrum on Monday asserted that Ethiopia's controversial Renaissance Dam project constituted a potential "crisis" for Egypt.

The assertions were made at a meeting between President Mohamed Morsi and a group of Egyptian political figures.

The meeting was convened to discuss the findings of an eagerly-awaited report by a tripartite commission – including Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian representatives – tasked with studying the dam's potential impact on downstream states.

During the meeting, the presidency contended that the potential impact of Ethiopia's dam project on downstream states – namely Egypt and Sudan – had not been taken into account when the dam was designed.

"It appears that Ethiopia did not deeply study the social and environmental impact of the dam on the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, such as possible effects on…crops and the fishing industry," Morsi told meeting attendees.

Khalid El-Qazaz, presidential secretary for foreign affairs, said that, according to the report, a change in quality of Nile water as a result of the dam would likely harm soil fertility in both downstream states but would affect Sudan more gravely.

The president also said the report did not contain information concerning the impact of the planned Saddle Dam, a part of the project which diverts water back to the Blue Nile to allow the hydroelectric turbines to operate – an element of the project he described as "equally important" as the main dam.

"Ethiopia has to commit to a certain deadline for providing more substantial information on the impact of the dam. It also has to sign a written, internationally accountable document that guarantees the dam will not harm Egypt and Sudan," the presidency declared.

"There is also a need for a technical committee to supervise the project."

'Putting differences aside'

President Morsi called on all political forces to "unite" and put differences aside for the good of Egypt. He was speaking before more than a dozen political and religious figures who had responded to an invitation to a national dialogue meeting concerning Egypt's stance on the Renaissance Dam.

"The water issue is a matter of national security. All options must be available in dealing with the Renaissance Dam crisis," Mohamed El-Katatni, head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said at the meeting.

Salafist Nour Party head Younis Makhioun said at the meeting that Egypt still needed to communicate at a presidential level with Sudan. He also called on Ethiopia to "immediately halt" construction of the dam until a conclusive report was produced.

Makhioun added that Ethiopia had chosen the timing to begin the construction process "because they know there is political tension in Egypt," stressing the importance of political unity.

In comments made via Twitter following the meeting, head of the liberal Ghad El-Thawra Party Ayman Nour expressed his "surprise" that the meeting was televised, adding that attendees were not informed of this prior to the meeting "despite the sensitivity of the situation."

Prominent liberal political commentator Amr Hamzawy, however, commended the president for providing a "transparent" account of the situation, recommending that Egypt form a "crisis management committee" to deal with the issue diplomatically.

Hamzawy also stressed that the presidency needed to maintain transparency with the public on the issue. Makhioun echoed this opinion, describing transparency as "crucial" in mobilising popular support for any move Egypt makes in response to the issue.

A number of political figures, including some leaders of opposition coalition the National Salvation Front, meanwhile, rejected the president's invitation to Monday's meeting, expressing concerns over the transparency and efficacy of the talks.

The last time the president called for a meeting with a diverse group of Egyptian leaders was last month, when seven Egyptian security officials were kidnapped in Sinai.

Most representatives of liberal parties declined the invitation at the time, amid an ongoing political dispute with the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which President Morsi hails.

'Battle not only with Ethiopia'

Some of those who spoke at the meeting brought up wider concerns about the dam project.

Al-Azhar representative Sheikh Hassan El-Shafei said that the situation was a result of the neglect of Nile Basin issues by former presidents Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak.

"I remember an Ethiopian foreign minister once said during a visit to Egypt that 'the Nile does not have wings in the air to fly to Israel, but it might have underground ones'," El-Shafei said, hinting that Ethiopia might use the project to export Nile water to Israel, with whom it has long enjoyed good relations.

Makhioun, for his part, said that it would be "strategically dangerous" for Egypt to allow the dam's construction, as it would provide the US and Ethiopia with a bargaining chip against Egypt and Sudan.

Magdy Hussein, head of Egypt's Labour Party, agreed with both El-Shafei and Makhioun.

"The real battle isn't only with Ethiopia," Hussein said. "It is with the US and Israel.”

Morsi announced that a summary of all the recommendations to come out of Monday's meeting would be presented to the cabinet later the same day.

The international committee looking into the effects of the dam is made up of Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian representatives, as well as international experts. Since May of last year, it has been studying the impact of the planned dam project.

Last Wednesday, Egypt summoned Ethiopian Ambassador Mahmoud Dardir to express its displeasure with Ethiopia's diversion of part of the Blue Nile as part of the preparations for the dam's construction.

The dressing down came amid harsh Egyptian criticisms of Ethiopia's decision to go ahead with the project without taking the technical committee's recommendations into account.

The move to divert part of the Blue Nile, called "historic" by Ethiopian government spokesman Bereket Simon, was censured by downstream Egypt, since the step could negatively affect the latter's annual share of Nile water.

The Blue Nile provides Egypt with the lion's share of its annual allotment of 55 billion cubic metres of river water.

Ethiopian officials, meanwhile, have attempted to dispel fears regarding the dam's potential impact, stressing the project would ultimately benefit all the riparian states.

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