Saving Ethiopians in Libya: Egyptian humanitarianism or politics?

Some analysts attributed the Egyptian state’s alleged reluctance to save the Copts to its desire to find a strong justification for striking ISIS inside Libya

Sonia Farid
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was at Cairo International Airport to welcome 27 Ethiopians who were abducted by militants in Libya and freed by Egyptian authorities. In a press conference at the airport in the presence of the Ethiopian ambassador to Cairo, Sisi said Ethiopians were “brothers,” adding: “We’re one people. We drink from the same water,” referring to the Nile.

News of the rescue was generally well-received in Egypt, even if for different reasons. Analysts wondered how political such a humanitarian initiative could be, and how beneficial it is expected to be for Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, particularly regarding disputes over shares of Nile water.


Bilateral relations

Mokhtar Ghobashi, head of the Arab Center for Strategic and Political Studies, said Egypt was setting a precedent for bilateral relations with Ethiopia based on mutual support. “In return for such a humanitarian initiative, Egypt expects Ethiopia to understand its dire need for its full share of Nile water,” he said.

Egypt might be hoping that Ethiopia will stop work on the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is expected to drastically affect Egypt’s share of Nile water, until bilateral negotiations are completed, Ghobashi added.

Nagi al-Shehabi, head of Al-Geel Party - which focuses on the Nile’s role in Egypt’s political and economic development - says the rescue is “a token of goodwill” that will positively impact the progress of negotiations.

“This is especially true because of the complexity of the operation that led to the rescue, which involved a great deal of courage, planning and intelligence,” he said. “This is bound to deepen the relations between the two countries, and to urge Ethiopia not to infringe upon Egypt’s historical right to Nile water.”

Strategic expert General Mokhtar Qandeel said: “Ethiopians are a kind people and they’ll definitely feel grateful.” Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Mona Omar said: “The rescue had a very positive impact on Ethiopian public opinion.”

Beshir Abdel Fattah, researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, agreed that the rescue was part of an Egyptian plan to ease tension that followed Ethiopia’s decision to construct the dam.

“Ethiopia decided to proceed with the construction of the dam right after [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak’s ouster in 2011, without taking into consideration the hard times through which Egypt was going,” he said.

“Ethiopia has also not put the construction on hold while negotiations are ongoing. These are all alarming signs.” Abdel Fattah said while rescuing the Ethiopians was a “nice gesture” on Egypt’s part, “it’ll never stop the construction of the dam.”

Continental role

General Fouad Allam, strategic expert and former head of Egypt’s State Security Bureau, said the change in bilateral relations “will take some time. We have to bear in mind that the current regime is now redressing decades-long mistakes which involved extreme negligence of Egypt’s relations with Africa, and which eventually led some African countries to act against Egypt’s interests, as is the case with the Renaissance Dam.”

Security expert General Sameh Seif al-Yazal said the rescue delivered “a message that Egypt will always stand by its African neighbors. Egypt is starting to restore its leading role in the continent once more.”

This role, he added, would be further enhanced when Egypt frees the second group of Ethiopians detained in Libya: “This is just the first round. Another group will be released in the coming few days.”

Tamer al-Zayadi, an expert in economic policy, said the rescue demonstrated to Africa Egypt’s military prowess beyond its borders and under tough circumstances: “Now it’s obvious that the Egyptian army is strong enough to assume a leading regional role.”

Emad Awni, an expert in political and strategic affairs, said Sisi’s decision to personally receive the freed Ethiopians was “a message that the president is the protector of not only Egyptians, but also all Africans.”

Double standards?

Talk about the ability of Egyptian intelligence and the military has driven many to ask why the same had not happened with the 21 Copts who were beheaded by militants in Libya.

Mina Thabet, a researcher at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said Egyptian authorities made very little effort to save the Copts compared to what was done for the Ethiopians. “The Egyptian state was capable of striking militants’ strongholds in Libya, and was then capable of freeing Ethiopian hostages detained by militants,” Thabet said. “How come it wasn’t capable of saving the Copts?”

Thabet added that the families of the Copts provided information about them when they were still alive and which they gathered on their own, but the state did not make good use of it. “The Foreign Ministry kept telling the families that they’d coordinate with tribal chiefs but nothing happened, while in the case of the Ethiopians this coordination became possible.”

Some analysts attributed the Egyptian state’s alleged reluctance to save the Copts to its desire to find a strong justification for striking the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) inside Libya. “Egypt possibly wanted a pretext to strike Libyan territories and support General Haftar against the Muslim Brotherhood there,” said Ambassador and former Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Yousri.

However, political science professor Mohamed al-Saadani said: “It’s very possible that this time Egypt was able to find suitable mediators that are close to the kidnappers and were, therefore, able to secure the release of the prisoners. Similar attempts could’ve failed at the time of the Coptic hostages. The presidency and the Foreign Ministry did try a lot.”

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