Egypt's live TV coverage of Nile crisis meeting draws fire

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 4 Jun 2013

Candid statements by Egyptian political figures regarding Ethiopia's contentious Nile dam move – aired on live TV without their knowledge – draw scathing criticism, mockery from President Morsi's detractors

Nile crisis meeting
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, center, meets with politicians at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 3, 2013 (Photo: AP)

A host of unguarded statements made at a meeting between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and political figures held to discuss the Ethiopia dam 'crisis' have prompted a wave of criticism against Egypt's already-under-fire government decision-makers.

Walking into Monday's meeting unaware that the event was being aired on live television, Egyptian figures from across the political spectrum candidly spoke their minds, with many making what were seen as offensive suggestions as to how to deal with the ongoing controversy over Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam project.

While Morsi did not respond to any of the controversial statements made at the meeting, his aide for political affairs, Pakinam El-Sharqawy, has since apologised for failing to inform attendees that the 'national dialog' meeting was being broadcast live.

"It was initially planned that the national meeting would be recorded and aired the following day as is usually the case, but due to the importance of the topic it was decided at the last minute to air the meeting live," she said via Facebook late on Monday. "I forgot to inform attendees of the changes."

Her apology, however, failed to offset her – or the speakers' – embarrassment.

The well-known 'We Are All Khaled Saeed' Facebook page – which played a prominent role in mobilising the public for Egypt's 2011 revolution – said of the affair: "How can a meeting held to discuss a national security issue... be televised live without attendees' knowledge?"

The page also blamed El-Sharqawy, who attended the meeting, for not immediately informing participants – especially once they began speaking bluntly – that the meeting was being broadcast live. "Is this appropriate planning from the presidency of a country with Egypt's status?" page administrators asked.

For his part, leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei, who had refused to take part in Monday's meeting, described the statements made at the event as "irresponsible." He went on to issue his "sincere apologies to the people and governments of Ethiopia and Sudan" for what was said by meeting participants.

'Maintaining secrecy'

At the meeting, liberal politician Ayman Nour said that "Sudan's stance on the crisis is disgusting," before suggesting that Egypt spread false rumours about an impending Egyptian airstrike on the Ethiopian dam. Promoting such a rumour, said Nour, "could yield results on the diplomatic track."

In comments made via Twitter following the meeting, Nour, head of the liberal Ghad El-Thawra Party, expressed his "surprise" that the meeting had been televised live. He said attendees had not been informed of this fact, "despite the sensitivity of the situation."

Salafist Nour Party leader Younis Makhioun, who also seemed unaware that the meeting was being aired live, stated that destroying the dam should be a last resort.

First, Makhioun recommended backing Ethiopian rebel movements against Addis Ababa. "We can communicate with them and use them as a bargaining chip against the Ethiopian government," he said.

"If this fails, Egypt will have no choice but to play its final card: using the intelligence apparatus to destroy the dam," said Makhioun, whose Nour Party won roughly one quarter of the seats in parliament in 2011/12 elections.

Mohamed Anwar El-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party, elaborated on the role that should be played by Egypt's intelligence apparatus, again referring to Ethiopian rebels who might be co-opted by Egyptian intelligence.

"Ethiopia [consists] of multiple tribes, and your Excellency [Morsi] knows that everybody in Africa can be bribed," he said.

After several other speakers candidly spoke their minds, Magdi Hussein, leader of the Islamist-leaning New Labour Party, urged attendees to "maintain the secrecy" of what was said at the meeting – before being told that the event was being carried on live television.

Diplomatic incident?

Due to its Mubarak-era foreign policies, which neglected relations with African nations, Egypt over the last three decades has barely been seen by most African states as part of the continent.

On several occasions, the Morsi administration has pledged to repair Egypt's damaged relations with its African counterparts. Such hopes, however, appear to have been dealt a serious setback in the wake of Monday's unfortunate meeting.

"These are the people who will restore our relations with Africa," veteran journalist and opposition figure Ibrahim Isaa said sarcastically in televised comments following the meeting.

Mostafa El-Guindy, former MP and vice-president of the Pan-African Parliament (the African Union's legislative body), who had been involved in previous talks between Egypt and Nile Basin countries, described Monday's meeting as a "disaster."

"A child would know that such matters cannot be discussed this way," El-Guindy, who is also a member of the 'Popular Diplomacy' initiative (which aims at resolving the current impasse with Ethiopia), said in televised comments.

"What happened is high treason and will turn all African nations against us," he said. "We [the Popular Diplomacy initiative] must hold a popular press conference as a national duty to reject what was said [at Monday's national dialog meeting] and stress that Ethiopians and Africans are our brothers."

Tension between Egypt and Ethiopia escalated last week after the latter abruptly diverted part of the Blue Nile, which represents Egypt's chief source of Nile water. The move, seen as an essential step towards building the country's planned Grand Renaissance Dam, came in the immediate wake of a visit to Ethiopia by President Morsi.

Egypt – fearing the move's impact on its traditional supply of Nile water – quickly summoned the Ethiopian ambassador in Cairo to express its displeasure.

Ethiopian officials, for their part, have attempted to dispel fears regarding the dam's potential impact on downstream states, insisting that the project would ultimately benefit all riparian states.

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

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