Egypt and Ethiopia. Water and Climate. Competition or Conflict?

One of the more bizarre episodes of the short tenure of President Morsi, one which occasioned this author to think of him as a mortal danger to his country, occurred in the spring of 2013. Dr Morsi held a conclave of prominent Egyptians to discuss policy toward the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, during which many participants were heard to recommend ways to attack and destabilize their neighbor. The trouble was that Dr Morsi chose to broadcast the entire event live on Television. An Ethiopian acquaintance emailed a terse and chilling evaluation of the event; “Ahmed Gragn”. This was a reference to the Jihadist warlord who ravaged Ethiopia in the early 16th century during a failed attempt to convert it to Islam. The relationship between the two countries is a vital one for both, as they share a life-sustaining river and a history of intimate and occasionally fractious relations. Will Egypt and Ethiopia manage their relationship during the next decade as an example of effective collaboration or destructive competition? The fear is that the Nile basin may witness one of the first, and possibly most destructive, competitions of the new age of climate change.

The centuries long relations between the two countries are those of intimate, but not always loving, siblings. During the Middle Ages Ethiopia feared that Egypt was attempting to convert it to Islam; and as a result kept a wary eye on its northern neighbor. Egypt saw in Ethiopia a vital link in its trade routes. Ethiopia, predominantly Coptic in faith, recognized the Egyptian Church as its spiritual source, and often threatened to cut off the supply of the Nile waters whenever the notoriously brutal and sectarian Mamelukes leaned too heavily on the harried Copts. During the 19th century the nature of relations began to change. Ethiopia feared Muhammad Ali’s designs, while admiring his reforms, and wishing to emulate them. An Egyptian expedition to Ethiopia in the 1870s failed disastrously, due to the efforts of the great reforming Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV. That failure was instrumental in the formation of the ‘Urabi movement and the development of Egyptian nationalism and its inclination to favoring of the Army. The 20th Century saw an improvement in relations under the watchful eye of elites in both countries. Ethiopia had its share of philo-Egyptians who knew Egypt well and respected and admired its culture. Egypt, in turn, had many philo-Ethiopians who recognized the cultural kinship between the two countries. This closeness managed to smooth over the many crises of that time, such as Ethiopia’s suspicion of Nasser’s pan-Arabism, the discord between the Ethiopian and Egyptian Churches that led to the autocephaly of the Ethiopian Church, and the Ethiopian anger over Nasser’s High Dam plans. By the 1980s these elites had pretty much disappeared in both countries, victims of the Ethiopian revolutionary Derg and the rise of Islamists in Egypt. The latter kept up a barrage of demonization and insults toward “Al Habasha”, the common term for Ethiopia. As the two countries looked after the troubles at their borders, and internally, the relationship became one of ignorance and aloofness.

The construction of the “Renaissance Dam” in Ethiopia raises the spectre of discord again. Filling the dam will temporarily alter the river’s flow, but even a temporary alteration could be disastrous for Egypt. But more serious issues remain beyond the dam. Egypt and Ethiopia have identical populations, but Egypt uses 10 times as much water from the Nile as Ethiopia. The reasons are both historical and technological. Ethiopia enjoyed abundant rains, and the Blue Nile is difficult to harness. But with climate change and population growth Ethiopia will need to use more of the Blue Nile water, which supplies 85% of the Egyptian Nile. New technology, and a resurgent and reforming Ethiopia will suddenly make the ancient threat of withholding the Nile very real indeed. The picture is made worse, at least for Egypt, by the expectation that rising sea levels from climate change will place some of its low-lying arable land under the sea. Threats of force, as Morsi’s farce indicated, are unrealistic. Egypt, even at its strongest point, can not mount a foreign expedition, and in any case, few outsiders ever managed to win a war against Ethiopia. Ethiopia, stealing a page from Nasser’s High Dam adventure, has taken a “go-it-alone” approach without sufficient attention to the dangers of that approach. Egyptian leadership has, on the other hand, been largely absent; as the country is occupied by the pointless turmoil of its Arab and Islamic identity struggles. The latter has given Ethiopia scant reasons to be accommodating. This is a bad brew, and one with considerable danger for the world beyond the two countries. A water conflict between countries of a combined population of nearly 200 Million souls could send millions of refugees toward the shores of Europe, making the Syrian nightmare seem like a trickle. The involvement of China in acquiring water and land in Africa adds yet another dangerous international dimension to the equation. But what can be done?

We must recognize that the Nile basin issues can not be resolved solely by the countries involved. Climate change is a creation of the industrialized world and it has a responsibility to assist the affected countries. But beyond the moral imperative, there exists a practical necessity of not seeing a human crisis at the periphery of Europe and near the heart of Africa. The problems of the Nile basin resemble others previously managed by the United States during the first half of the 20th century, and by the Netherlands in its struggle with the North Sea. An international consortium, including all Nile countries, to manage the river waters for the people living alongside it, and funded partially by the developed nations is the best way forward., The cost will be small compared to the cost of managing crises and refugees. Such an achievable effort will radically alter the landscape of the basin, for the better, and provide a better life for nearly 300 Million people. Failure is unimaginably dire.

— Maged Atiya


The Syrian Refugee Vote – A Warning

The French President declared that France was at war immediately after the November 13 terrorist attack on Paris. Across the Ocean, the American President offered wholehearted support but insisted that “we are not at war with Islam”, echoing a statement by his predecessor George W Bush 14 years ago in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attack. But the political environment in the US grew more sour with despicable demagoguery. Dr Ben Carson riffed on “rabid dogs”. Donald Trump urged all measures including “registration” of Muslims . Other Republican politicians castigated them, but in uncertain tones. It is ironic that the attack in far away Paris aroused more backlash than another, 14 years ago on American soil, that claimed 20 times more lives.

Of greater concern was the US House of Representatives vote by the nearly veto-proof margin of 289-137 on a measure to tighten the vetting of Syrian refugees. President Obama opposed the measure, but more members from his party deserted him on this vote than on the Iran deal, where they were lobbied heavily and expensively. It would be a mistake to blame this vote on prejudice and Nativism gone wild. This is a warning that we should take seriously. Many Americans, including those of a liberal bent, are unsure about the wisdom and risks of admitting a large number of refugees, even while cherishing the American ideal of welcoming all immigrants and refugees. After all, it took no more than a few young men to place Paris and Brussels under siege. This is not the first time where the tortured Middle East presents the US with a difficult choice between its ideals and its interests. This is a moment that calls for far-sighted leadership, still missing at the moment. Many politicians, of both parties, but predominantly Republicans, found it an occasion to appeal to fear. The President has taken the moral high ground, but failed to advance arguments that convince and comfort.

There is also a religious angle to this refugee issue, which adds an unfortunate dimension to the controversy. Jeb Bush urged that we should “focus on Christians who are in the greatest danger”, while the clumsy Cruz simply urged admission of only Christians. President Obama rightly called out both men on their comments insisting that the US does not apply religious tests. But while doing so he also failed to address the larger issue. Many Americans favor giving preferential treatment to Christians because they feel they are in bigger danger and less likely to face assimilation problems. Few bothered to ask Jeb Bush about the policies of his brother, whose venture in Iraq contributed to the decline of the Christian community there, but who gave little thought of increasing immigration quota for them. In framing the Syrian refugee problem in a religious rather than a national construct US leaders played into the very same ills that caused the dissolution of both Iraq and Syria. Again, this should have been a moment for leadership from Syrian-Americans and Muslim-Americans, asserting the primacy of national over religious identity. But that leadership seemed dormant.

An interview on MSNBC with Dalia Mogahed highlights the problem of leadership and identity. The producers of the show chose Ms. Mogahed, who is Egyptian born, to speak about Syrian refugees, presumably because she identifies herself as “Muslim-American”, but almost never as “Egyptian-American”, a reflection of what tears up the Middle East. A well-known pollster, one-time assistant to President Obama, and author of a book on “Who Speaks for Islam”, Ms. Mogahed missed a golden opportunity to connect with her fellow Americans and show that she understands their fears and can address them from a unique perspective. Ms. Mogahed blamed the rise in Anti-Muslim feelings on electioneering, and on events such as the Iraq war, hiding behind statistical correlations to avoid the painful but relevant issues. She alleged that the majority of Muslims are silenced by extremists and the mainstream media. She expressed umbrage that Muslims need to apologize for the heinous acts of other Muslims, when it is obvious that they disagree with such acts. That last argument was intellectually defensible and politically tone deaf. She could have advanced the agenda for tolerance by being less hedging and hurt. It is the lot of minorities, unfairly, to have to try harder. This is why Civil Rights leaders wore their Sunday best to the marches. It is why Eastern Christians often silence their Church bells and move their liturgies to Fridays. To maintain harmony in a diverse society everyone has to do more than the minimum necessary, especially in stressful times. These are stressful times indeed. Rather than present a vision of a future Middle East in harmony with American ideals, she left a vague sense of unease about problems from “over there” becoming entrenched “over here”.

But beyond the lack of leadership that addresses problems clearly and honestly, another reason for this spike of Anti-Muslim feelings may simply be “Middle East fatigue”. The US first engaged with the region in the 1850s, when it was still called the “Holy Land”. Even the term “Middle East” is an invention of an American Admiral. For over a century and a half the US influenced the region deeply, often with missionary zeal, and in ambiguous ways, with both sincerely held high ideals, and embarrassingly base actions. Still, the US can claim no more than a small part of the current chaos. The peoples of the region are the true architects of their bed of nails. Today’s events and those of September 11 2001 are separated by nearly four Presidential terms and two Presidents of very different temperaments and policies. Yet neither man has been able to come to grips with the chaos and the resulting terrorism. Americans must be excused for thinking that the Middle East is unreformable and that their energies are best directed elsewhere. Syrian refugees must seem like a reminder of failure, and of its threatening consequences. It is unfair to those currently on the road, and the many more likely to follow once the US policy of removing the brutal Assad succeeds.

— Maged Atiya


A Requiem – and The Long View

“Requiem” is a quintessentially Christian rite, but it comes to mind in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. There is, at the simplest level, a necessary requiem for the dead, whose lives ended suddenly and violently simply for being in the wrong country at the wrong time. At a wider level, there is a need for a requiem for the swirl of comments and recommendations about how to deal with the surge of terrorism by fundamentalists among Muslims. We can also hope for a requiem for the usual pieties, about how most Muslims have no truck with terrorism and how we should not let this scourge affect our “life style”. These pieties are irrelevant; for the majority of Muslims, who suffer more than ten-fold from this terror, have not been able to put an end to it, and for the obvious fact that because it takes a few determined men to put an entire country under siege, terrorism will affect our lives, regardless.

We also need a requiem for the endless chatter from political leaders who exude determination and certainty about how we can defeat this “evil”. They have failed at all attempts. One American President sought to put an end to it by invading a country and foisting a democratic system on its inhabitants. Another withdrew armies and tried to reach out with a friendly hand and a serious mien of understanding, laced with the occasional apology for errors long committed. Neither put an end to terrorism. Future leaders insist that a judicious mixture of these two approaches will certainly work this time.

We could use a requiem for the shibboleth of the usual phrases, “clash of civilizations”, “battle of ideas”, “what went wrong”, “democracy”, “inclusiveness” etc. They can no more save us, however correctly we pronounce them, than the 42,000 Ephraimites. We could also use a requiem for the inordinate, even irrational, fear of Islam among many in the West, and the consequent desire to placate the most oppressive elements among Muslims. A requiem is needed for the “explanations” that poverty, lack of education, or political oppression create this lust for innocent blood. They hurt by misdirection. All contribute, in a secondary way, to terrorism, but terrorists are rarely the most abjectly poor, nor the least educated, and many are raised in the liberal West. In any case, it is slow work to eradicate these ills in our own societies, let alone in lands far away.

When the requiems come to a close, and all are laid to rest, we are left with the singularly important “Long View”. In this view we see this terrorism as a product of a historical struggle for a redefinition of Islam, a younger sibling of Christianity, to fit in a world it did not create; and one with uncertain outcome yet. In the Long View we have equanimity about the certainty of terror attacks, and the hope that we develop the requisite capability to foil them or lessen the associated loss of life and property. In the Long View we see the revival of failed states as necessary to a better outcome for this struggle, and recognize the need for competent native partners and expectation that such work will not always be to our liking. In the Long View we recognize that at times it is better to do nothing than to flail uselessly, and that temporary gains and losses tell little about the final outcome. That outcome is determined by faithfulness to the few beliefs that we hold to be self-evident.

— Maged Atiya

The Incompetent State

The crash of the Russian airliner in the Sinai is now causing widespread damage to the tourism industry in Egypt, estimated to bring in 6-8 Billion USD annually. There is even talk of a “collapsing state” due to this loss. To put things in perspective, there are over 100 US companies whose net profits exceed that of Egypt’s tourism industry. This is a frightening picture of the fragility of the Egyptian state. Lost in all the noise and opinionating, based mostly on pre-conceived biases, is a discussion of how Egypt got to this sorry state.

Tourism, or at the least the current Egyptian version of it, is not a happy industry. A few magnates, owners of resorts and associated businesses, do well. The majority of workers are “service industry” types; literally people who cook, clean, and serve the tourists sunning themselves on the beaches. For a country to base half its foreign earnings on this industry is a humiliating and profoundly damaging state. This humiliation, rarely acknowledged in the open due to the overly sensitive Egyptian psyche, is at the root of what seems to be national madness. A sense of injury and hurt aimed at the world in general, and at any particular critic that dares point out problems that Egyptians themselves have identified. This should be a moment of reflection for Egypt. The loss of tourism revenue threatens the state because Egypt imports twice as much as it exports, and relies on food imports to feed its burgeoning population. To correct this state, it is important to identify and correct its root causes.

The country as a whole suffers from poor education, low social entrepreneurship and rapidly increasing population. These problems reflect badly on the system that Egyptians have constructed to misgovern them since 1954, when the first “native” state took over. We do not need to dive into post-colonial mumbo jumbo to discuss this issue. Many countries around the world have threaded the development needle, evolving from a backward state to advancing and prosperous development. Often this is done under the watchful eye of enlightened authoritarian systems, which eventually give way to better and more liberal governance, once the population hits a magic level of GDP and Middle Class prosperity. The trouble with Egyptian authoritarianism is that it has been largely incompetent at economics, and often too weak to face a population fond of religious orthodoxy and bent on social conservatism. To escape the current vicious economic cycle, there will need to be major investment in Egypt, probably by many outside actors. The reason to do so is simple. No one wants a failed state on the Nile, astride Africa, Asia and Europe. But such investments must be pre-conditioned on major changes in public policies that favor investments and encourage small and medium entrepreneurs, and end the back-scratching cronyism of large businessmen getting preferential treatment from the state, or the Army. Such conditions will undoubtedly raise Egyptian hackles; as the hyper-nationalism seems rampant today. But many Egyptians are waking up to the outline of the disaster looming ahead. As the adage goes, an impending disaster can focus the mind.

It is pointless to recommend “democratic reforms” on Egypt today. They will not come, and any democracy that might conceivably emerge today will be fragile, prone to demagoguery, and in the grotesque language favored by many think tankers “illiberal”. To have a democratic state one must start with an actual state. Sadly, the best that can be recommended to Egypt today is capable and competent authoritarianism, which the current version is not. Many are asking that relations and aid to Egypt be predicated on ending its “repressive” policies. This observer argues that aid and relations be predicated on the quality of managers and the policies in place. In the end, native prosperity is more likely to bring social and political freedom than the well-intentioned urgings of outsiders.

— Maged Atiya

The Kosygin Tactic

The suspension of Russian flights to Egypt will likely decimate tourism in the Red Sea. So why did Putin, who is idolized by many in Egypt, make that decision? It is possible that he is concerned about Russian lives, put at risk by lax airport security. It would be a welcome change from his heretofore attitude toward lives, both Russian and non-Russian. More likely Putin is using the crash of the Russian airliner as pretext to wrest something out of Egypt, as always for his gain. As a man well versed in Soviet history he must know something about the “Kosygin tactic”. The Soviet Union desired a naval base in Alexandria. From the beginning of the Yemen war in 1962 to the final departure of advisors in 1972 the man in charge of the policy, Alexei Kosygin, alternately provided aid and withheld it to coerce Nasser into providing the base. Nasser, and his fellow Free Officers, would not relent, if only because they built their reputation on keeping Egypt out of foreign alliances and keeping foreign bases out of Egypt. For that decade the Soviet Union approximated a frustrated High Schooler ineptly trying to unhook the well-clasped ample Egyptian bra. In the end it was an unlikely American, Henry Kissinger, who pulled a “Kosygin” on Kosygin, and cemented a relationship, now fraying. (Kosygin never recovered from that humiliation). Putin clearly wants something and is trying to coerce it out of Egypt. Perhaps it is mere influence, or something more substantial such as assistance with the various Middle Eastern escapades he is involved in.

Egypt today is a country at the end of its tether (more on that in a separate post). Like the proverbial animal in that pathetic situation it could lash out and act in an unpredictable fashion. But this denouement is an opportunity for the country to start anew and chart a better path. It is 1876 all over again in Egypt, but this time without either the rapacious European bankers or Lord Cromer. It is the end of the 1954 Nasser state (as 1876 was the end of the Muhammad Ali state). That state has reached a dead-end, where it can no longer sweet talk or coerce the citizens, and where it offers no vision beyond plodding along. Egypt needs an overhaul and reorganization of the state; its legitimacy and obligations to the citizens, defences, finances, administrative structures and relations with the region and the world. One suspects that many in power know that, but are unable to break the tether that binds them to the post of the 1954 state, and keeps the country just barely away from the peace and prosperity it desires. President Sisi expressed effusive gratitude to the US in September, both to the English and Arabic press. But the US kept a lofty distance, perhaps because it is no longer in a mood of “nation building and democratization”. Little more than a decade ago the US spent a Trillion Dollars and thousands of lives trying to build a democracy in so-called Iraq; a task as fanciful as growing Cranberries in the Sahara. With collapsing states all over the region the US is in no mood for a second go. That is a costly mistake. There are better ways to build nations than Paul Bremer and his merry crew of Heritage conservatives (hint – it involves capable natives). There are better ways a great power can assert its influence beyond raw military might (perhaps advice can be sought from the sage of Sutton Place, who pulled the first Kosygin). The US can finally cash in, on the cheap, on the bet it has so expensively made and now discarded. With Egypt almost entirely alone and friendless, the US can step in with a package of recommended administrative reforms and assistance to rebuild the shambling state and create a native example of what can work in the region. Egypt has been in recent times a regional example or a cautionary tale. It is unlikely that counter-productive Egyptian pride will accept a Cromer redux, so the manner of assistance must be clothed in acceptable forms. Several times in the recent months Egyptian officials asked for such “assistance” from Egyptians abroad, and even created a special ministry for “immigration”, headed by a woman. The feelers are all there, as they were in 1973. A great power should, like a real estate speculator, know when to step into a troubled neighborhood and buy on the cheap. Putin has spent several years tweaking the US in the Ukraine and Syria. It would be sweet to send him chasing his head, bare-chested, in the one place likely to matter greatly in the Middle East. And, as an added bonus, finally figure out a US policy in the region away from the failures and frustrations of the Arab-Israeli conflict, or the slowly unfolding debacle of either embracing the Saudi monarchy or dancing with the Iranian Mullahs. But two critical questions remain; is the US in a mood to truly affect the Middle East for a better long term outcome, and does it have the diplomatic and cultural skills to do so?

— Maged Atiya


The Idiot State

Einstein defined madness as repeating identical actions expecting different results. He also could have defined idiocy as the allocation of scarce resources toward irrelevant goals. The region around Egypt is rife with horrors born from the collapse of ineffective states. Respect by the citizens is central to an effective state. No one, however, respects an idiot. There is plenty of evidence that the state in Egypt is devolving to idiocy, especially since the events of January 2011. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. And the state of idiocy is not new.

When Nasser succeeded to the post of Prime Minister, then President, in 1954 he wanted to beautify the banks of the Nile near downtown Cairo, building a Corniche accessible to the common people; a laudable goal. Impatient with state bureaucracy, he trusted the task to a Free Officer, Abdel Latif Boghdadi. Two decades later, more of that story would emerge in a Church basement in the US through the words of an Egyptian immigrant. He was a fast rising young civil engineer when the project was proposed. He reviewed the plans and put a hold on granting the necessary permits. He had noticed the lack of proper drainage. His actions earned him the anger of Boghdadi, but he ultimately prevailed. The Corniche remained a lovely river walk well into the 1980s. The man’s career, however, suffered irreparably, ultimately causing his immigration. The recent floods in Alexandria are an eerie echo of those events. Pell Mell development drowned the city in rain due to improper drainage. A man who knows the city well commented that most of its state employees are “hapless Hanbalis, more worried about prayer schedules than drainage pipes”. Even worse, the young, dynamic, civilian and progressive governor, who had warned of this potential problem, was sacked. Egypt’s “Peter Principle” goes something like this “every capable man or woman will fall to the level of their worst expectations”.

Idiocy is evident in how mistakes are handled. The army incorrectly targets a convoy of tourists, killing a dozen, including Mexican nationals. This is no unusual event in the annals of counter-terrorism. The US Army, the best in the world, has done worse, including bombing a hospital in Afghanistan a few weeks after that event in Egypt. The idiot state flails for excuses and attempts to deflect blame through transparent lies. The intelligent state assumes responsibility and launches credible investigations to rectify the process and reduce future errors.

Idiocy is also evident in the manner by which the state defends itself against those who seek its destruction. Much effort is placed going after the lesser threats, wasting resources and credibility that should be invested countering more serious ones. When a judge denies medical treatment to a tearful young woman under administrative detention, he lessens himself and the system he serves. The state can not gain respect while appearing spiteful and petulant. Similarly, the prosecution of an American citizen, one Mohammad Soltan, was a classic case of idiocy. The young man is a clueless naif and unfortunate scion of bigotry. He bumbled into peripheral participation in what some called the “Rab’aa PR Project”, a euphemism for sectarian incitement. The smart response would be to deport the young man to obscurity in Rustbelt USA. Instead, the idiot state detained him and then released him, to wide acclaim by pundits and politicians in the West. They effectively made him the unlikely face of “Human Rights Violations” in Egypt.

Idiocy is a dangerous state among those with a modicum of power. It is sometimes difficult to tell who is a bigger danger to peaceful survival of the state; those who loudly proclaim the desire to destroy it, or those who ineptly offer to defend it. The trouble with the current situation is that most  opponents of the state are bigger idiots. So how do we end this Jeremiad? We can begin by quoting the words of Emmanuel Abraham, an Ethiopian diplomat who spent decades smoothing the troubled relations between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1995 he wrote “It seems to me that the modern people of Egypt, and especially that section which had a smattering of modern education and which in consequence has assumed the leadership of the common people, have abandoned the faith of their forefathers and have not fully grasped modern ideals and knowledge. They are like a man who goes out on a boat without oars.” It is good and well for people to insist that the Egyptian state becomes more democratic and “inclusive”, although this skeptical observer insists on an exact definition of what gets “included”. More importantly we should insist that the state advances its goals, even those we disagree with, intelligently. Those who want to bring democracy to Egypt might do well to start by bringing a pair of oars.

— Maged Atiya

On Guns in America

The following remarks were given by Monica Atiya to a meeting of local and congressional leaders on how to best reduce gun violence in America.

We come together today days after yet another campus tragedy.

The Roseburg shooter was described as shy and lonely with very little going for him except a passion for guns. A young man reminiscent of the Sandy Hook shooter. That same week, the Flagstaff campus incident came on the very day that President Obama was visiting Oregon to privately comfort the families and community there. At times like these, we find it obvious that guns are the problem.At times like these, others find it equally obvious that guns are the solution.

In order to make progress, we can not continue to demonize either side. Gun sales go up when we demonize the other side. Only gun manufacturers benefit. The gun lobby relies upon, and profits from, keeping us apart, when, in reality, a majority of the American people, responsible gun owners and gun safety advocates alike, have the same goal: to keep our children, our communities and ourselves safe.

Some say rational debate is not possible on the issue of guns. Rational debate is not only possible, it is the only way to save the over 33,000 victims, the bystanders caught in the crossfire, the suicides by gun, the innocent students and school staff, whose lives are lost to gun violence each year in America.

Though we may never fully understand the mentally ill, we may never fully unravel sociopathy, we must and we will work together to ensure that gun safety is every rational American’s priority.


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