The continuing political turmoil in Egypt has had an impact on every aspect of the country’s life and one of those is foreign relations, as Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy readily admits. Most of this externalised turbulence, if you like, has been felt in the Middle East where Egypt’s alliances have oscillated as wildly as its own changes of government over the last two and a half years.
The biggest impacts have been on Egypt’s relations with Turkey and Qatar which were the regional states that most strongly supported former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and were therefore the states most angered when he was toppled on 3 July 2013. Egypt has just expelled the Turkish ambassador and Ankara quickly followed suit.
Fahmy told visiting South African journalists this week he had no choice after persistent and very negative criticism from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the 3 July ‘coup’ (which the current Egyptian transitional government calls the 30 June revolution, dating it rather by the day Egyptians massed again on Tahrir Square to demand that Morsi step down).
The Qatar ambassador will probably be next to pack his bags, Egyptian officials say. But of course in the highly polarised Middle East environment of the Arab Spring – if that expression still means anything – the toppling of Morsi was wildly popular with other anti-Islamist governments, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
So, while Egypt had to quickly repay a US$ 4 billion loan to Qatar, this loss has been more than compensated for by credit from its new allies, such that Trade and Industry Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour is able to say the country doesn’t need the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The events of 30 June to 3 July have also reverberated southwards across Africa, although not nearly to the same degree. They have certainly hurt Egypt’s relations with South Africa which have never been very warm but have chilled by several degrees in the past four months. Pretoria also criticised the removal of Morsi as a coup and was even more critical of the violence and hundreds of deaths when Egyptian security forces removed Muslim Brotherhood protestors from the streets of Cairo in August. The Egyptian authorities reacted angrily with some sharp remarks comparing the handling of the Brotherhood demonstration with South Africa’s Marikana disaster and so on. It got down to that level.
Although the African Union also condemned the ouster of Morsi as a coup and suspended Egypt from membership under its rules against unconstitutional changes of government, no other individual African state seems to have been as critical as South Africa was.
But the impact of the turmoil in Egypt has been felt in other, more subtle ways, as foreign ministry spokesperson Badr Abelatty explained this week when he suggested that Ethiopia had taken advantage of Egypt’s distraction by internal events to charge ahead with building its US$ 4,7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile just 20 kms from its border with Sudan. He said the planned height of the dam wall had soared by about 35 metres while Egypt was distracted by internal turmoil.
The international panel of ten experts appointed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which has been assessing the likely impact of the dam for some time, had reported that it was unable to assess the impact of raising the dam wall so high, Abelatty said. The panel said it required more studies and statistics from Ethiopia before it could assess the economic, environmental and safety impact of such a huge dam. Abelatty said that many experts question the location of the dam – in an area where a lot of earthquakes have occurred. If such a large dam were to burst ‘Sudan would be finished and the flood would destroy at least upper Egypt’ he claimed.
He points out that Egypt relies on the Nile for 95% of its water while the upstream Nile Basin countries depend on it for only 2% to 5% of their water needs. Egypt acknowledges that Ethiopia, in particular, has other needs, such as energy and development, which the dam is intended to serve, ‘but not if they harm our interests. According to international law, the Nile is a resource for all’. All countries involved must seek a ‘win-win’ solution, Abelatty says, noting that the panel of experts is scheduled to meet again on 3 December for its next discussion.
This represents a softening of approach from the bellicose stance the Morsi administration inadvertently revealed. On 4 June Egyptian politicians from across the political spectrum met to discuss what to do about the dam. There appeared to be wide consensus that Egypt should use force, if necessary, to stop construction, either by bombing the dam with aircraft or helping Ethiopian anti-government rebels to sabotage it. The meeting was accidentally broadcast live, causing huge embarrassment to Egypt.
The new ‘win-win’ talk will help it regain some sympathy from Africa where Egypt has lost much of its traditional influence while trying to manage its own turmoil. Fahmy insists that his transitional government is now determined to re-nurture its ‘African roots’ and says that he has put the emphasis on Africa rather than the West, in his first foreign visits since taking office in July, travelling to Uganda, Burundi, Senegal and Sudan. Abelatty elaborates on a new Partnership for Development with Africa which Cairo is developing which will increase Egypt’s development aid to the continent.
He pointedly notes that Fahmy has also visited Senegal since taking office, to demonstrate that Egypt is not just obsessed about the Nile. Nonetheless the Nile is undoubtedly front and centre of Egypt’s Africa policy right now and is likely to remain so for a while to come. Maybe Egyptian jets won’t bust the dam but Egyptian politicians and diplomats are certainly going to bust a gut trying to ensure by every other means, that it doesn’t go ahead, or at least not according to the present blueprint.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa