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Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia is almost done with his second stint in the country. He loved his time in what he calls one of the most beautiful countries in the world. He points to Ethiopia and Egypt’s common history, and untapped potential trade in the billions. Misunderstandings between the two countries are largely due to bad luck and mistakes leaders made in the past. Now he says is the time to take advantage of the new spiritual leadership both countries enjoy, he adds that the GERD talks are progressing well after some past delays. Capital’s Teguest Yilma sat down and spoke with Abou Bakr Hefny Mahmoud about a stronger relationship and better region. Excerpts:
Capital: How was your stay in Ethiopia, and how would you describe the Egyptian Ambassador’s function, how does it feel to be Egypt’s Ambassador to Ethiopia today?
Abou Bakr Hefny Mahmoud: I was actually a diplomat in Ethiopia from 1997- 2001, so my family and I lived in Addis Ababa previously, and when the post for ambassador to Ethiopia was vacant I asked for it. Ethiopia is the top strategic nation for Egypt; being a diplomat in such an important mission, is a big responsibility and a great pleasure. So being the ambassador of Egypt to Ethiopia means that I am under the microscope of Cairo 24/7 and anything I say or do will be captured and scrutinized and analyzed. It’s a burden but it is a pleasure as well, because I feel I am doing something good.
For the past three years many things have been achieved. From the bilateral point of view, we have been through some clouds, but summer clouds they come and go, because the historic ties between Egypt and Ethiopia will never vanish. What links us is very important. It is not only about the Nile, although it’s one of the important aspects of the relations of the two countries. Both countries helped start the African Union…
We do have historic relations; we have been linked with one church for 1,500 years. I have always said that the Orthodox tie between the two nations also makes divorce impossible. In 1938 when the Italians invaded Ethiopia, Egypt and Mexico were the only two nations that defended Ethiopia in the League of Nations. At the time many Egyptians also came with the Red Crescent mission led by Prince Ismail Daoud, King Farouk’s cousin, and died trying to save our brothers and sisters in Harrar.
In modern history, there was a very close relation between Nasser and Hailesellasie; they had a lot of respect for each other. I always say that the relation between our two countries is full of bad luck and a lot of incorrect myths. During the Fatimide era [dating back to 1000] we had a wild King named El Hakem Beamr Allah, who prosecuted Egyptians including the Coptic community. He would make them wear a big cross so that everyone could recognize them. When that occurred, the Ethiopian Emperor threatened that should this prosecution continue, he would close the water. The same year we had a very low season, and Egyptians were very scared thinking that Ethiopia could close and open the tap of water. Since then the myth of the water issue started.
What came after that is a series of bad luck that followed us for a long time. When Nasser shifted with the Soviet Union, Haileselassie was with the western world. And then when Sadat came to power, Egypt turned to the US and Mengistu shifted to the Soviet Union. We have been victims of the cold war; but today, we are going through a historical moment where our two countries are headed by two wise leaders, very pragmatic, very open and both of them are very spiritual and they have very good contact. The chemistry goes well and they have the same belief that Egypt and Ethiopia if they put their hands together they can achieve great things.
Capital: Where does Egypt stand today on Abay/Nile and how is the discussion between ministers of Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt progressing? What’s the latest news you can share with us?
Abou Bakr Hefny: Egypt believes there is enough water for everyone and the only way to better the lives of our people is to negotiate. We believe that there is no real problem and that everything can be solved through negotiations between sisterly countries and this is the only and lonely path to achieve this. These talks are still on and we hope that the scientific studies will be concluded as soon as possible so that we can relax our people from the three sides, since Sudan is in the middle of us.
In that regard Egypt is sacrificing many things to settle the issue of the Nile peacefully. We have said that we are ready for instance to transfer the high water density demanding crops to Ethiopia as Ethiopia has an abundant amount of water. Egypt is one of the driest countries in the world; we depend 99% on the Nile as we don’t have rains. So we are ready to take some of the scarcity of water that will come with the filling of the dam [GERD], and make sacrifices for the mutual interest of the three countries, but without substantial harm. This will only be decided through negotiations and the scientific outputs.
Capital: Some say that Egypt is not comfortable with projects that are conducted by the upper stream countries. What is your comment on this and what should be the future direction in relation to mutual development?
Abou Bakr Hefny: This is not true. In 1954 Egypt once financed an oil dam in Uganda which cost us the equivalent of USD 50 million. This is how we have handled things for a long time as long as there is dialogue we will not be harmed and we even will be supportive of stopping water at the upper side. This is not only Egypt’s approach but what international law states. When you are the last stream country and completely dependent on the water, of course you will be concerned. So it’s not like we have a hidden agenda. International law also states a consultation must be done with the lower stream countries about utilizing the water, whenever the river is trans-boundary.
Capital: What about the rumor suggesting Egypt removed itself from the tripartite national committee set up to resolve issues related to the GERD?
Abou Bakr Hefny: I can say this is a total fabrication, which I have just become aware of now. The head of the two states had talked in China and there are talks in Addis Ababa. The three water ministers sat down last week as you see in media. So the consultations are still ongoing.
Capital: How deeply are you involved in these negotiations? What do you think the future holds as far as using the Nile?
Abou Bakr Hefny: As an ambassador, I am only involved in diplomatic matters. Negotiations are not my duty rather I am an observer. But, with the negotiations, I believe they are going along smoothly. Previously, the pace was too slow. The dam is here and for the filling to start as stipulated in the declaration of principles the negotiations and studies have to be speeded up.
Capital: Tell us about Ethio-Egypt trade relations; where do you think things should improve or change?
Abou Bakr Hefny: Both nations have a symbiotic relationship in many areas especially agriculture. Egypt consumes a lot of cotton, and meat. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is rich in water, cotton and livestock. We have signed an agricultural agreement but the amount is small. For example, Egypt and Kenya have a USD one billion trade balance every year which is USD 800 million in favor of Kenya. We get most of our tea from Kenya. When it comes to Ethiopia we have a USD 250 million trade balance and the livestock sector has taken up USD 200 million. Egypt’s private sector is eager to invest in Ethiopia. If we had similar trade lines with Ethiopia it would involve billions in USD in cotton and livestock.
Capital: Have new Egyptian companies established any businesses here during your tenure? What is the current status of the agreement to establish an industrial park in Ethiopia?
Abou Bakr Hefny: It is still on the table. The Ethio- Egyptian Industrial Park will be worth USD 120 million. The ball is in Ethiopia’s court. There are serious talks about establishing a state of the art hospital and a delegation will be going to Egypt next month. This will be the legacy I have here in Ethiopia which is close to my heart. Also, there are many Egyptian pharmaceuticals here. We have more than 60 Egyptian doctors working in Ethiopian hospitals currently. In Jimma, Addis Ababa and Mekelle there is cooperation in training doctors. Dr. Kemal Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American doctor and one of the well-known names in the world, will come to Addis Ababa. He will train an Ethiopian team to conduct a Spinal Deformity operation center so that St. Paul Hospital will become the third center in Africa that treats this type of deformity.
Capital: Apart from the intellectual exchanges, what kind of cultural exchanges are taking place between Ethiopia and Egypt?
Abou Bakr Hefny: I am afraid little has been done in that regard. Some parties from the region and others outside the region were not happy to see Ethiopia and Egypt together. I firmly, deeply and strongly believe that if the two nations put their hands together much can be done. The two nations have the tradition of state. When Ethiopia had a problem in 2017 we saw this experience. What saved the nation was the civilization of its people. Egypt also once stayed without a president or a government for a year and a half but survived. What we share is much and we both have a good state and a civilization.
Capital: What should be done to remove this cloud and to strengthen the relationship between the people?
Abou Bakr Hefny: We need to better utilize the ties between both nation’s Muslim and Christian communities. We have a project on the table to link Lake Victoria to Alexandria and create a maritime route. It has been approved as a COMESA project. People between the Nile will be able to navigate it and it will encourage tourism between Ethiopia and Egypt. We are also developing medical tourism which many Ethiopians will benefit from. As well as the newly discovered line to the Holy Land from Egypt that the Holy Family used will be another point of common interest to explore. Ethiopia is one of the most beautiful countries I have visited in my lifetime and its tourism is underutilized.
Capital: Let me take you back to the visit of the P.M. to Egypt early during his tenure; what new proposal, if any, or assurances has he given Egyptian leaders about his policy regarding Abay/Nile?
Abou Bakr Hefny: The press conference given by the two leaders was explicit, and nothing other than that speech can be said. The press conference was beautiful and people had tears in their eyes. The assurance that we have taken was that Ethiopia will never harm its brothers and sisters. What we hope is to speed up this process as promised and to reach an agreement. If we solve our common problems, I see no reason for stopping us from being the two greatest nations in this part of the world. Our enemies are common: terrorism and poverty.
Capital: How does Egypt feel about the improved relationship between Ethiopia and Eritrea?
Abou Bakr Hefny: If there is no peace in this region no investor will come here. We have invested USD one billion, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, to develop infrastructure. It is music to our ears to see peace in the Horn of Africa.
Capital: There are rumors that Egypt doesn’t want a stable Ethiopia and that the recent turmoil is instigated and supported by Egypt. What do you say about this?
Abou Bakr Hefny: These rumors have gone around before. In 2018 we had a high commission meeting in Cairo. I believe we can’t take such rumors seriously. But, there are interested parties who don’t want to see these two nations get along. We don’t have to give them a chance to destroy us and tie our hands from making our region great.
Capital: A couple of years ago two Egyptians were accused of spying and arrested here, and shortly after released. What can you tell us about this affair?
Abou Bakr Hefny: There were no charges made against them. We brought Ethiopian Lawyers to defend them. After a month of incarceration they were released.
Capital: Any concluding remarks?
Abou Bakr Hefny: I have many friends and I always hope to see them in Cairo or Ethiopia. I want to say you have a beautiful country and keep it safe. The first thing you should preserve is the state. The only path you have to prosperity is putting state first.