Egypt, Ethiopia and religion in the Nile dam dispute


In depth: As the dispute over the Nile Dam between Egypt and Ethiopia escalates, religious leaders in both countries are stepping in. While this development risks increasing tensions, it also presents opportunities for dialogue.

As the United Nations marked World Environment Day in early June, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar gave an interesting speech on sharing water resources.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, explained that they are “common collective property”, and that changing this status amounts to usurping a right of God.

States or people who “tyrannize” these resources, he continued, are “unjust aggressors” who should be stopped by the international community.

“The dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and the downstream countries which still have not reached an agreement on how the Nile will be shared between them”

Although the Grand Imam spoke abstractly and did not mention Ethiopia by name, his remarks were almost certainly made in view of Addis Ababa’s attempt to begin the second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Dam. Renaissance (GERD), which began on Monday.

Responding to the Ethiopian decision, the Egyptian irrigation minister said it was “a violation of international laws and standards that regulate projects built on shared basins of international rivers,” saying Cairo has rejected this “unilateral measure”.

The dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and downstream countries who still have not reached an agreement on how the Nile will be shared between them.

Sudan recently reaffirmed its rejection of the Ethiopian proposal to start the second fill, calling it a security threat, while Cairo deepened its military cooperation with Khartoum and Ethiopia’s other neighbors.

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, December 26, 2019. [Getty]

As recently as last week, in what appeared to be a response to Egyptian and Sudanese postures, an Ethiopian general said Russia today Arab service that Ethiopia is ready for a “military solution to the Renaissance Dam problem, and [that] Egypt will not be able to destroy it.

This rhetoric is an indicator of how serious the Nile Dam problem is for all of these countries, so the blurring of politics and religion should come as no surprise in the case of Al-Azhar, says Dalia Fahmy, associate professor at Long Island University who focuses on politics and religion in Egypt.

“This is not the first time that the religious establishment has been co-opted by the state,” Fahmy said. The New Arabic. Since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, “Al-Azhar has been used on several occasions as a mode of soft power by the Egyptian state”.

This led to a decrease in Al-Azhar’s influence in the Arab and Muslim world, Fahmy explains, which is clear from both the lack of coverage of his speech and its negligible impact. But his words were not ignored in Ethiopia.

Recognizing the importance of al-Tayeb’s decision to intervene on this issue, Ethiopian Grand Mufti Haji Omar Idris retaliated shortly after, reaffirming his country’s Islamic credentials and the legitimacy of his right to use the Nile.

It is the country of the Najashi, said Mufti Haji Omar Idris, the former Ethiopian king who gave refuge to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad who fled the persecution of Mecca, encouraging the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar to revisit the issue of GERD.

“That religious leaders talk about it shows that this dam is more than just a source of hydroelectric power, but it is also a source of unity and a new story for Ethiopia”

This is not the first time that the mufti Haji Omar Idris has defended his country’s project for a dam on the Nile. When former US President Donald Trump said Egypt could “blow up” the dam, he condemned Trump’s comments as unacceptable.

Earlier this year, he also spoke about the importance of the dam in boosting Ethiopia’s development agenda. Lack of access to good electricity causes “tremendous pain”, he said, forcing people to live in “abject poverty and darkness”.

“It is painful to see our people living in such conditions in the 21st century when our country is rich in natural resources which could generate or guarantee a life of prosperity for every citizen,” he said.

What is remarkable about his speech is that he also advocated for Ethiopia’s right to use the Nile, claiming the exact opposite of Sheikh al-Tayeb, claiming that the country from which it is a river has priority in its use.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a concrete colossus 145 meters high and 1.8 kilometers long, is on its way to becoming Africa’s largest hydroelectric power station. [Getty]

The Grand Mufti’s decision to comment on the GERD issue captures the general sentiment of Ethiopians – whether Muslims or Christians – and has become something people are rallying around around, said Mohammed Girma, a guest lecturer at the University of Roehampton and specialist in religion in Ethiopia.

“That religious leaders talk about it shows that this dam is more than just a source of hydroelectric power, but it is also a source of unity and a new history for Ethiopia, so it has an obvious physical dimension. but also metaphysical too, “says Girma The New Arabic.

The fact that it attracts religious leaders, he explains, is not the most interesting development, however. GERD has also started to usher in a shift in Ethiopian religious discourse, changing the way the sacred and the secular relate to each other in the country.

There was a clear line between the two realms before, says Girma, but now “that duality is breaking down. Religious leaders no longer neglect the material for the benefit of the spiritual ”.

“When Ethiopia was a more religious country, it was more lenient in its willingness to negotiate with Egypt and more willing to let go of the problem,” Girma continues. This relates to Ethiopia’s previous dependence on Egypt for its Abunas, the leaders of its powerful Orthodox Church, creating a symbiotic relationship between Ethiopia and Egypt.

“We spiritually relied on Egypt because historically they sent us the heads of the churches of Alexandria, and Egypt depends on Ethiopia for water, life and survival,” Girma said.

The Nile is an essential part of the identity of the Coptic Church in Egypt, appearing regularly in prayers made by members of the clergy. Earlier in June, images started circulating of Pope Tawadros II blessing the Nile.

“While religion has been an essential part of the diplomatic toolbox of the two countries throughout their dispute on the Nile, the religious weight of the two countries presents risks as well as opportunities”

Pope Tawadros II, patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, attempted to exploit some of this residual influence when he appealed to Ethiopian leaders on the basis of a common “Africanness”. He most recently declared his support for the Egyptian government’s efforts to find a solution that protects the water rights of Egyptians and Sudanese.

The Coptic Church previously played an indirect role in lobbying Ethiopian public opinion and religious leaders, but in doing so, it also openly leaned on Egypt’s side.

“This is another example of how the politicization of religion led to Egypt losing very important soft power,” Daily Fahmy said. The New Arabic.

When Ethiopia broke with the Coptic Church in Egypt in 1959, it became “spiritually self-sufficient,” says Girma, and “Ethiopians began to explore ways to improve their material conditions more deliberately and intentionally.” .

This split coincided with a drive to start developing and modernizing Ethiopia, which Girma says reached its peak with the Nile Dam, despite the more complicated relationship the Ethiopian church has with its government as a result. recent criticism of the government’s war in Tigray.

“For society to have a coherent understanding of development, religious leaders play a role,” Girma explains.

While religion has been a staple in both countries’ diplomatic toolkit throughout their Nile dispute, the religious weight of both countries presents risks as well as opportunities.

“If religious leaders on both sides come together and try to create a different narrative on how to fairly share this water, it would create a platform for a different kind of conversation.”

“If religious leaders on both sides come together and try to create a different narrative on how to fairly share this water, it would create a platform for a different kind of conversation,” Girma said.

However, religion is a double-edged sword. “Religion can be a danger if it legitimizes toxic narratives coming from both sides of the Nile, which would create more and more tension and animosity. “

“Egypt and Ethiopia are bound by this order of creation forever because they cannot be separated, regardless of the state of relations between countries. ”

Faisal Ali is an Istanbul-based multimedia journalist. He writes on East African politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @ fromadic92

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