A transformed relationship

Mohammed Idris is the outgoing ambassador of Egypt to Ethiopia. He graduated from Cairo University in 1984 in medicine, specializing in conditions affecting ear, nose and throat (ENT). He worked for a very short period of time as a physician before becoming a diplomat by joining the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1987.

He also earned a master’s degree from the University of London in Political Science. Prior to coming to Ethiopia, he served in different posts stationed in the US, Turkey and Syria. During his time of service, he held the post of deputy ambassador and permanent representative in New York. In September of 2011, he was assigned to Ethiopia as an ambassador and permanent representative to the African Union (AU) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).

Neamin Ashenafi of The Reporter sat down with the ambassador at the Egyptian Embassy to discuss a range of issues including the Nile, his work here in Addis Ababa, the expansion of the New    Suez Canal and other pertinent issues. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You have been serving as an Egyptian ambassador for the past four years as the relationship of the two countries passed through different stages. How do you evaluate and describe the evolution of the relations between these two countries?

Ambassador Mohammed Idris: For me, it was a really great time—a challenging but a fruitful one. Of course, there were lots of developments in the past years in our bilateral relations and there were also lots of challenges. However, with a collective effort and mutual understanding coalescing with farsighted leadership, it was possible to overcome the difficulties. I can say that, now, we are moving from the past to the future, from misconceptions to positive relations between the two sisterly countries. So I see that we have placed the relations on the right track and we are moving positively towards a brighter future.

Leaders of the two countries have been said that the relations between the two countries has transformed from being contentious to being cooperative. How do you view such a statement?

It is true that we are cooperating on a wide range of issues. The way things were being handled for years harmed the relationship between the two countries. Together with my staff, what we were trying to do over the last [four] years was to pay due attention to the different aspects of the relationship and multi-dimensionality of the relations. We have historical, cultural, religious and economic ties. So there are lots of areas where we can cooperate and work on. We are also trying to boost the cooperation in terms of public diplomacy. Of course, we have the Nile, which is important for both countries and we will reinforce the nature of our relations. Definitely, when we have more cooperation, we will have more vested interests in trade and investment, and things would be much simpler and we will be able to overcome any differences.

So are you saying that the relationship is progressing and is getting better than it was during previous times?

Exactly. We are now utilizing the potentials of the relationship. These potentials are not things that are presumptuous; it is the reality between the two countries. So what we should do is to continue making use of the potentials that already exist.

Given the fact that the relation and cooperation between these two countries is progressing to a new level of cooperation, how do you describe the presence of Egyptian businesses and investments in Ethiopia?

It is moving positively, but, of course, our aspirations and hopes are limitless. So we should do more and we will do more in order to elevate this level of cooperation in the economic and investment frontiers. Our expectations and hopes will always be much higher, so that's why we have to do more. We have lots of Egyptian investors who have shown interest and are already working in Ethiopia and others are in the process of coming here to invest. We are working to launch an Egyptian industrial zone here in Ethiopia and this will definitely open lots of doors for enhancing the cooperation in terms of trade and investment. The two countries have huge markets with each having more than 90 million people and this, of course, can be a driving force for advancing huge trade relationships and we are working on this. We are trying to get a lot of our imports from Ethiopia while also providing many of the needs of the Ethiopian market, which is increasing to cope with the developmental plans. This will create a network of common interests and a win-win situation for both sides. This will definitely have an overall positive impact on our relations.

Can you be specific about the number of Egyptian investors and their share in the Ethiopian market in terms of investment within the period of the last four years?

The figure is approximately in the range of 1.7 billion dollars. But of course, in the pipeline, there is much more. Definitely, when the industrial zone starts its activities, it will be boosted more. Already, many Egyptian businessmen have started to make plans to work through this industrial zone and are waiting for the official launch of this industrial zone so that they can come and work. We had a very important meeting, which happened when the president of Egypt visited Ethiopia last March and when he met with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia. They were keen to meet the business community from both sides and to convey to them a clear message to use the current positive political atmosphere in the two countries. Of course, there is a link between the overall political atmosphere and the degree of economic and investment relationship between countries. So, whenever there is a positive atmosphere, it enhances investment. The message – through the two leaders – have been passed to the business community. We are doing this for the benefit of the two countries and the people, and a businessman should see this opportunity and make use of this positive political atmosphere between the two countries.

The tripartite committee that comprises Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan has now selected an international consultancy firm to study the impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. What is the level of understanding and trust between the two countries concerning the Nile and the selection of this international consultancy firm?

This issue has two aspects: one is the political track and the other is the technical track. On the political track, there is full understanding that the great Nile River should be an umbilical cord that connects and binds our two countries and our two peoples together as the late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once said. This is agreed upon on the political level and this understanding is now fully subscribed to by the two sides. Now, of course, there is another aspect: the technical aspect—how to transform and translate this political understanding on the ground. This is also a track that is not an easy one. It has so many details, so many technicalities and so many scientific aspects. So, the teams from both sides on the technical track are working on this. They have agreed on many issues and achieved a big deal of this.

And as it is known now, there is also agreement with the consultancy firms, which are internationally known and very credible with scientific reputation. They are going to work for the studies and the aim of the studies is to ensure that we are embarked on the technical implementation of our mutual political understanding that what we are doing on the ground is fulfilling the aims and aspirations which we agreed on under the political level.

The teams from the three countries agreed on many aspects and they are now in consultations with the agreed upon consultancy firms to finalize the plan of work and how they are going to conduct their assignment in the time ahead. There have been meetings that took place previously in Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan and it was expected to take place on Thursday and yesterday in Ethiopia, between the experts of the three countries to finalize the pending or the remaining technical aspects. And I am sure we will be able to reach an understanding and be able to move forward. The important thing here is where our departing point is and where our destination is. Our departing point is the great river, which binds us together through the door of history and will always bind us, and should be a source of benefit and prosperity for all the peoples of the three countries. And our destination point is to fulfill this aspiration to swim and prosper together. And we can spend our time cooperating together and benefiting together. And we have the option, and our option is to cooperate.

I think there is a clear understanding that where are we starting and where are we heading to, between the beginning and the end, is, of course, a path, and this path is a technical path, which is not easy, which is complex, technically, scientifically and methodologically. But I think, with good will, political will and common understanding, we can finalize what is still remaining or pending on the technical track and I am sure this will happen.

Do you believe that the meeting last week would sort out the remaining issues and finalize the issues that are pending?     

Definitely, when a meeting happens, it shortens the distance, whether it finalizes everything or not. Of course, it remains to be seen, but definitely, it is going to make the remaining distance shorter. If it finalizes everything, that would be great. If it still finalizes parts or segments of the remaining aspects, then the following meeting will finalize the reset. So, we should always be forward and positive looking, not be restricted or believe that if there is something pending, that means there is a big problem. It is natural and it has been all over the world in different issues and it always takes effort and time in order to get a common understanding between all the parties.

Egypt recently launched the expansion of the New Suez Canal with the existence of many leaders across the globe, including the Ethiopian prime minister. The project cost the country more than 8 billion dollars How do you describe the significance of the project in terms of economical benefit to Egyptians and its geopolitical impact in the region?

Of course, we are honored that the prime minister of Ethiopia joined the celebration in Egypt. The project has different aspects. First, it has a symbolic aspect for Egyptians; the original Suez Canal, which was inaugurated in 1869, was excavated in ten years time and almost 120,000 Egyptians died in the process. Of course, at that time, technology was primitive and the circumstances of work were inhumane. So there was a lot suffering, but through this of suffering, this project was completed and inaugurated. Now, this new project came to an end within one year and with the complete financial support of only Egyptian citizens. The third aspect is the overall regional context in which this project was executed. It was not done in perfect or even in normal circumstances; it was done in abnormal circumstances. If we look at the Middle East region, we will find turmoil, chaos and hotspots everywhere, and ways  terrorism is affecting the region and the continent. So, within all challenges facing Egypt from within and outside, this project was executed in one year’s time, so it also has a meaning and a message to the Egyptians and to the outside world as well.

When it comes to economic aspect, it is a benefit, not only for Egypt but also for everyone considering the benefit for all African continents and a benefit for the world, because, of course, this is an international passage. It is not only Egyptian vessels or Egyptian trade that is passing through; it is also the continental and international trade. Definitely, it will have a positive impact and economic benefit and gains for our continent and also for the world. And that’s why it was termed as Egypt’s Gift to the World.

There are reports and statements from analysts who argue that the project did not bring the desired amount of money as per the projections made by the government that the project would generate about 13.3 billion dollars after ten years. How would you defend the project from such an argument and reports?

Frankly, of course, we have to look at things from the objective manner, and objective manner means that we have to take different views and considerations. There are great fans and supporters for the project and there are also critiques towards the project, and we have to take into consideration both. However, given the significance, which I just mentioned earlier—the historical symbolism, the significance for the Egyptian people in building this huge project in one year with their own funding—is a big gain for the people of Egypt.

The other aspect is economic. Of course the economic aspect is not hypothetical; we have to see it on the ground. The project was opened on the 6th of August, so just a few weeks ago. Even though it was inaugurated a few weeks ago, the amount of the traffic through the canal has increased a lot. The amount of increased traffic means that the revenue is coming and the benefit for international trade is also increasing. This is not something that is hidden. People watch the canal and they can witness if there is traffic or not. If there is an increase, that means this increment will have a dividend for the people of Egypt. And at the same time, this project was inaugurated only a few weeks ago. So we also have to see through time if the project is really going to have an economic benefit and a positive impact or not. The more valuable aspect of the project is still yet to come.

So you are telling me that there is a possibility to achieve the projection after ten years?

I think so, I hope so and time will tell us. Because at the end, nothing can be hidden. Time will tell us if this is going to materialize or not.

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