“Ethiopia and Egypt have one history and one destiny” Ambassador Mohammed Idris, Egypt Ambassador to Ethiopia
Mohamed Idris is currently the ambassador of Egypt to Ethiopia. A physician turned diplomat, the Ambassador joined the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987.
In the mean time, he proceeded with his studies and got his Master’s Degree from London University in Political Science. Prior to coming to Ethiopia in the aftermath of the revolution, he served in different posts stationed in Washington DC, Turkey and Syria. During his time of service, he held a deputy ambassador post permanent representative mission in New York. In September 2011, he was assigned to Ethiopia as an Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the AU and UNECA. Given the recent diplomatic issues regarding the Nile, Ambassador Mohamed Idris sat down with The Reporter. Excerpts:
The Reporter: A year ago, there were some high level diplomatic exchanges between Cairo and Addis. The exchange was regarded as a new chapter in the two nations’ relationship. So, have you seen the status of the relations since then?
Ambassador Mohammed Idris: The current status shows that there is the will to move forward on a cooperative path. Since the revolution, the relationship is witnessing a new chapter in history. This new chapter is based on trust, confidence, common understanding and cooperation for the benefit of the two peoples. It is moving on dual track; one is the popular track, which represents the true sense of the people in both countries, while the other is between governments. We had a public diplomacy delegation come to Ethiopia to convey the message of friendship and cooperation, and now a public diplomacy visit from Ethiopia is scheduled to convey a similar message. This shows that the people of both sides are keen to work together. At the same time, this path is coupled by another track-the official. The official track is responding to the peoples' will and is trying to transform this will into a practical step on the ground. These two tracks are moving on the right path. And I am sure that the time ahead will witness more and more consolidation of this cooperative mood between our two sisterly countries.
Despite this positive mood, there are still serious concerns about whether it could be practical. A few months back, leaked information that belonged to a geopolitical intelligence company, Stratfor, disclosed that Egypt and the Sudan were plotting to bomb the Ethiopian Renaissance dam. What do you say to that?
I read such stories and I think they always jump over the reality. These are conclusions that are totally unfounded and untrue. The reality is that the peoples of the two countries believe they have a lot of things in common across history, their present day and for the future. And they can benefit only when they cooperate. These facts are reaffirmed in the public diplomacy missions, which could not have been manipulated by any side. This reality is also accompanied by official steps. These steps took place in several fields: in the field of trade, investment, agriculture and so on. And recently, young diplomat trainees visited Ethiopia and met with their different counterparts, government officials, and the academia. This is a practical move to have a first hand information and avoid gross misunderstanding and misinterpretations.
This document quoted Egyptian higher officials' secret conversations. Do you believe the change of heart and the political view that you are referring to actually represents a majority of the politicians in Cairo?
I think the majority both in Egypt and Ethiopia are well convinced that the two peoples have got much in common and the bond has much to give to the two countries. Ethiopia and Egypt have more vested interests in one other than antagonism and definitely have more to gain by cooperation than dispute or conflict. With regard to those negative media reports, they are completely unfounded. After the release of the reports, the Egyptian government has made it clear to its Ethiopian counterpart that the reports were totally fabricated.
The three countries, including Sudan are cooperating through the panel of experts. So that means the reality on the ground contradicts these reports.
But beyond these reports, there are also other practical concerns. Sudan and Egypt have not yet signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement. That indicates the two nations have not abandoned the old treaties of 1929 and 1959, which give the two nations an exclusive right to them.
The fact that Egypt, Sudan and Congo did not sign the CFA doesn’t necessarily mean that the treaty will undermine or deflect the countries from the path of cooperation. Because the three states believe in the principle of cooperation, they have been cooperating for the last 14 or 15 years, since the NBI (Nile Basin Initiative) was established; today is not the beginning of the Cooperation. The CFA is simply a modality of cooperation. So if they have some conflicting views, it is a difference of views still on cooperation; it has nothing to do with the principle of cooperation, which all the countries are committed to. But it is different on how to cooperate. What is going on now is a collective attempt to try to talk and have a dialogue to find a common formula to agree on the issue. However, we have to agree on every detail and every element, if we are to form one level of cooperation to another.
The concern is that two downstream nations, Egypt and Sudan, have been given an exclusive right on the Nile by the colonial era agreements of 1929 and 1959. So far, there is no sign that the two countries are abandoning the old agreements, hence how could there be another framework of cooperation between the upstream nations and them?
Those are agreements we inherited from the colonial era. These are decisions that we did not make by ourselves. We did not impose these agreements; we simply inherited them from our past colonial powers. As a continent we inherited so many aspects of the present day Africa; even our borders. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward together. But as we move along, we have to talk at every step and every detail; we have to agree on where we are going and what our destination is.
Currently, a panel of experts is studying the impacts of the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is constructing. And it is expected to release its report in May. But in the mean time, this week, the Saudi Arabian deputy ministry of defense, speaking on the Arab water meetings in Cairo, accused Ethiopia of posing a threat to Sudan and Egypt. Don’t you think this statement could affect the mood of cooperation and particularly the work of the panel of expert?
Quite frankly any statement has to be accurately quoted in its exactly right context. Because if you take something out of context, it gets so distorted and we don’t have the accurate statement. We only have what the media has told us about it. At the same time, what I am sure about is that Saudi Arabia is a friendly nation both to Ethiopia and Egypt. And just today [Thursday], I was in an event where the Saudi Minister of Finance was in attendance; currently, he is visiting Addis Ababa. I am also sure that Saudi is keen to cooperate with both sides and play a very constructive role in promoting cooperation among the three countries.
Very recently, we celebrated the 7th Regional “Nile Day” and you were part of the group that visited watershed management sites around the sources of the Blue Nile. What was your impression?
The ceremony was well organized. As part of the event, we visited the some exemplary ground sites of projects under the NBI cooperation. That included Tana Beles watershed management project where we saw with our own eyes and met very smart farmers in the area who gave accounts of how the projects are benefiting them. It definitely promotes sustainable development with its three colors: the economic, social and environmental. The site visit was inspiring to go for more cooperation. When we see the fruit of cooperation like this, we become more convinced that cooperation is the only way to benefit from the Nile. The riparian nations have one history and one destiny. This great river should be a bond between our countries; should be an area of cooperation, development and prosperity and should not be an area of contention at all. Those who would plan to drive us into conflict and sidetrack us from our way of cooperation will not succeed because they are going against the reality.
In previous times, it was widely believed that Egyptian high-level experts working in international organizations and Egyptian government were busy lobbying international donors not to finance any Ethiopian projects on the Nile. Do you think this mindset has changed fundamentally?
Ethiopian officials always, wisely say that Ethiopia has one and one enemy, which is poverty. This is very wise and responsible. Poverty is common enemy for both of our nations. We in Egypt believe that prosperity of the Ethiopian people is the prosperity of Egypt as well. Whatever good thing happens to our family in Ethiopia, will also be a good thing for us. We are also sure that the feeling is the same vise versa. We are common factors to one-another's success. I want to emphasize that things should not be looked at from a divergent point of view. We can benefit only when we cooperate. We have different options for development: the high-case scenario is to have a win-win situation regarding the Nile. The other version is to have benefits for one at the expense of the other. This is the most unwelcoming scenario.
But international organizations and international donors have some standing policies of doing business that will not be affected by the influence of any nations. The same is true for water experts and professionals; they do not have the power to shift the view of these international donors. They do have independent policies and frameworks regardless of any objections coming from any party. From outside, any project or any developmental endeavor has benefits for our sisters and brothers in Ethiopia, we so much appreciate and encourage it. At the same time, we are also aware that some of projects will not do any damage to the brothers and sisters in Egypt. Let me tell you one thing about the perception in the countryside back home. Water is life for anyone, and for Egypt, water means the Nile because it is the only source of water there. That’s why it is a matter of sensitivity and a concern for the Egyptians. As the same time, it is also clear that climate change, land degradation and deforestation are problems that either of the countries can’t face alone.
The populations in all of the Nile basin countries are increasing rapidly, which in turn increases the competition for share of water. To make matters worst, the volume of the water is decreasing from time to time. Besides cooperation, what do you recommend to the three states? Could one recommend formation of a regional economic block and political integration as well?
I believe this is the way forward, and it is also the only way that makes sense. In fact, this is what is appropriate for the whole continent; integration is a necessity and no wonder the theme of the African Union for its 50th year anniversary is “African integration and the African renaissance.” When it comes to the three sisterly countries, I believe that integration is the way forward. These three countries have great potential in human resource, water, land and so many other diversities.
Two weeks ago, a prominent Egyptian Imam spoke from Washington DC, suggesting Muslims in Ethiopia should fight Christians. In light of the current Islamic movement in Ethiopia, what is your comment?
I have read and heard about this Imam during the past few weeks. This is totally nonreligious, not Islam or Christian. All religions have one core message, which is love, respect, cooperation and caring about each other; not fighting and killing. So, we should also be very conscious of people who call themselves Imams. Not anyone who has a long beard is an Imam or religious person. There are a lot of distortions out there. So all these calls should not be confused as teachings of religion.
But the Egyptian government is yet to react officially against his teachings?
It has never been given any attention or was never considered a religious message. For people either at an individual or official level this is totally out of the religion. It is just a mere destruction and it is anti religious attitudes.
Could you please briefly comment on the current turmoil in Egypt?
The demonstration going on is transforming the Egyptian society and the Egyptian political arena. The Egyptian revolution of January 2011 was like a political earthquake. Every earthquake has its aftershocks and we are witnessing and living the aftershocks of the massive earthquake that took place. This is nothing different from all revolutions in history that had a post-revolutionary transitional periods, which were very confusing and perplexing. The Egyptian revolution is not an exception to this. Of course, there is the need to quickly overcome this transitional period and move forward. Now the political arena is witnessing new developments and actors that were not there before. And these actors need to develop a constructive approach towards each other. This approach needs a build up because the political powers have different political views and different political power. But it is important these political powers interact together in a constructive manner. And this process needs time to be built until the political powers see a common ground and try to expand that political ground. At the same time, try to live with some of the differences because it is inconceivable that all political powers have a unified position. The most important variable here is the ability of Egyptian people to cause and impose a change. They have to be an active participant in the making of the history of the country. This is irreversible that the people are aware that their role should never be marginalized.
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