CAIRO — At a time when the Egyptian government officially acknowledged that obstacles re-emerged in the negotiations with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam — which is threatening the Egyptian share of the Nile's waters — Egypt is seeking to take advantage of the rapprochement between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches. This was shown during the last visit of the Ethiopian patriarch to Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria at Christmas. Egypt is trying to benefit from these ties to improve bilateral ties, drawing on historical relations that have linked both churches since the 14th century until their separation in 1959.
This comes as part of Egypt’s penchant toward using all types of soft power on various levels in an attempt to regain its lost role in Africa and rectify the widespread perception on the popular level in all upstream countries that depicts Egypt as stealing Nile water. This inclination coincides with an expected visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to Ethiopia to attend the African Summit at the end of January.
The visit of the Ethiopian patriarch was largely welcomed in Cairo, as he was received by both the Egyptian president and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab.
During a meeting between Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb and the Ethiopian patriarch, Tayeb sent a clear message to Ethiopians, saying that no one could quench their thirst from the Nile water at the expense of someone else’s thirst. “We do not expect the Ethiopian people to inflict damage on Egyptians, because it violates religious principles and all humanitarian values,” Tayeb said.
The Renaissance Dam issue reached a clear stalemate after Egypt and Ethiopia failed to name an international consultative committee to conduct the needed studies on the adverse effects of the dam on Egypt, as reiterated by Alaa Yass, adviser to the Egyptian Minister of Irrigation on dams and Nile Basin affairs. Yass told Al-Monitor, “We agreed on a road map according to the Malabo Declaration between Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister [Hailemariam Desalegn], which stipulates on the completion of studies within six months. However, we noticed recently a deliberate waste of time by Ethiopia and Sudan, while the construction of the dam is ongoing.”
He added, “We do not object to development projects in Ethiopia. However, we have the right not to be harmed as a people who do not have any water source other than this river, not even rainfall. Ethiopia has 12 rivers, in addition to it being a country with heavy rainfall. We have an annual water deficit of 20 billion cubic meters because our share from the Nile is not sufficient. It is a matter of life and death for Egypt.”
Talking about the role of soft power in pushing negotiations forward, Yass said, “The visit of Ethiopian delegations to Egypt, whether on the popular or executive levels, and the latest visit of Patriarch Abune Mathias, allow us to convey important messages to Ethiopian parties that have yet to understand the Egyptian point of view.” Yass reiterated that some Ethiopian parties are mobilizing tension, entrenching a view that Egypt does not want development in their country, which is a real problem.
The opinion of politicians and Copts in Egypt on the role that the Egyptian church can play to resolve the crisis between both countries varied, as some considered it an undesirable overlap between politics and religion. Coptic writer and thinker Kamal Zakher objects to this view. He told Al-Monitor, “The Egyptian Church believes in the principle of not intervening in politics. However, it cannot turn a blind eye to its national role, which goes beyond the political one.”
He said, “I believe that the visit of Patriarch Mathias reflects a popular impact. The role of the church as a soft power is helpful and the Egyptian government should play other roles, such as helping Ethiopians with their development needs.”
Former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammad Naserdine Allam told Al-Monitor, “These soft powers were previously used by Egypt to push forward bilateral relations with Ethiopia. In 2010, Cairo sent a delegation of 90 businessmen to Addis Ababa. The experience showed, however, that the political decision is based on interests, balance of power between both countries, and security requirements.”
He said the inclination of Egypt to use these soft powers, such as the church, may have been effective in the past. But since the construction of the dam is 40% completed, this “defies logic,” according to Allam. He said that he had expected negotiations to fail ever since they started, since Ethiopia was adopting the de facto policy. The latter had used this same policy with Kenya when it built the Gibe III Dam, which had devastating effects on Kenya. Ethiopia keeps calling for negotiations while it is getting prepared for the dam's inauguration next year.
A government source from the crisis management committee set up by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry told Al-Monitor, “Cairo is currently working to use all available soft powers to resolve its crisis with upstream countries, and especially Ethiopia.” The same source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “The issue is not limited to the help of the Egyptian Church. There is coordination with Al-Azhar to redesign its role with upstream countries through its delegations there, in addition to other diplomatic movements on all levels.”
“What Egypt is expecting from religious institutions such as Al-Azhar and the church is not related to political affairs, but aims at gaining popular support,” the source said. “The recent Russian-Egyptian rapprochement provided us with pressure cards that were not available before. A number of European countries are now interested in the issue and offering diplomatic help.”
Cairo wants to reintroduce the historical role the Egyptian church played in the past to resolve the crisis of Nile water flow from the Ethiopian highlands, providing Egypt with a popular support in its political negotiations. However, the majority of observers believe that even if the church’s intervention does not entail an undesirable overlap between politics and religion, it is already too late.
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