I’m listening to Al Jazeera’s analysis on the centrality of Egypt to the ‘Arab world’ and how the ousting of Morsi might affect the civil war in Syria, the situation in Palestine-Israel, and general stability in the Middle East. But what about Egypt’s impact on the rest of the African continent? As events unfold, here are few key issues to watch regarding Egypt’s transition – once again – to new leadership.
Mohamed Morsi is now out of office just a year after being elected.
Egypt has the second largest economy on the continent and remains one of the most populous countries in Africa, placing it in an influential position with regard to other African countries (Egypt’s position has allowed it to play a significant role in the African Union and African trade agreements, and under Morsi’s government claims to have sought increased trade exchange and even a free trade zone among 26 African countries.
However, after the coup the African Union is expected to suspend Egypt from its membership. Egypt, as the crossroads between African and Southwest Asia, is also a key location for refugees from other African countries, mostly from the Horn of Africa). Recent disputes with Ethiopia over a Nile dam project have hinted at the possibility of military action, and protests by Oromo refugees in Egypt have increased tensions between the two countries. Other North African countries that experienced regime changes during the 2011 North African Revolutions may also be affected, or inspired, by ongoing actions in Egypt.
The Nile ‘water war
Following rumours of possible war between Ethiopia and Egypt over water disputes, former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi began talks with Ethiopia’s government about the possibility of the Blue Nile hydroelectric dam project. 86% of Egypt’s Nile water comes from Ethiopa’s Blue Nile, leading Egypt to worry that the new hydroelectric dam project would reduce their water supply. Amid tension between the two countries, the Ethiopian government is scheduled to approve an increase in its defense spending by more than 15%.
Further dialogue about the dam project looks unlikely, at least not with Morsi’s involvement, but Ethiopia may take advantage of the Egyptian upheaval to secure a more favourable deal for itself. In correspondence, OPride editor Mohammed Ademo speculated, “I am sure Ethiopia is going to seize this opportunity to forge ahead with the construction of the dam,” [which they previously delayed during the January 25 Egyptian Revolution].
Any hold that Egypt had over Ethiopia has suddenly been weakened, meaning that Ethiopia’s actions moving forward during Egypt’s unrest will affect future relations over water sharing. Former President Morsi had said, “If Egypt is the Nile’s gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt… If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”
Morsi’s not-so-veiled threats of possible war are now no longer valid, and despite the importance of water sourcing in Egypt, the Egyptian military and Interim President are unlikely to consider the hydroelectric dam a top priority now or in the immediate future. Why? Well, with the internal crisis and a still highly unsure political situation, Egypt’s military will not have the power or national backing to do much to prevent Ethiopia from moving forward with the dam project, at least for the time being. The coup overtook the Nile as a more urgent issue facing Egypt
Interestingly, leading opposition figure Mohamed El Baradei – who could play a key role in the new Egyptian government – issued a call on Twitter for an “equitable compact with modern technology, agriculture, & electricity [as the] only solution” to disputes with Ethiopia. Does this suggest that Egyptian opposition, if in control of the country, might be more friendly to Ethiopia and other African countries?
The Nile is clearly an ‘African’ issue: President Museveni denounced implicit racism in Morsi’s government, saying that “Egypt cannot continue to hurt Black Africa.” This suggests that Egypt’s history of Arab nationalism and discriminatory anti-African politics played a role in North/East Africa’s troubled relations. Along the same lines, Dr. Zuma of the African Union called cooperation over Nile water resource a pan-Africanist issue. This is because policies and agreements around the water affect numerous nations in North/East Africa, including Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, and Uganda.
Immigrants and refugees in Egypt
Protests by Oromo refugees in Egypt – fleeing ethnic and political persecution in Ethiopia – further inflamed an already tense relationship between the countries. Oromo refugees have reported increased discrimination and violence by Egyptians due to the dam disputes, likely feeding into the xenophobic violence that is all-too-common in North African countries against sub-Saharan African migrants.
Immigrants and refugees in Egypt are among the most vulnerable groups to be affected by the current instability, but I have not seen this issue addressed in coverage of Egyptian events. The possibility of violence between pro- and anti-Morsi protestors leaves other Africans even more vulnerable and subject to attacks on suspicion of their ‘foreignness.’ “The worst case scenario,” said Oromo journalist Ademo, “is that the refugees would face increased backlash from Egyptians buoyed by the momentum of Morsi’s ouster.” Likewise, the status of refugees stranded along the Egyptian border with Libya, previously ‘in negotiations with Egyptian authorities’, will assuredly be sidelined: what will happen to these populations?
Indigenous minority populations
Like immigrant and refugee groups, the situation or perspectives of indigenous Egyptian populations have so far been ignored in coverage of the coup. Although Egypt is widely considered an Arab state and even a part of the ‘Middle East,’ there are indigenous African populations in the country: the Nubians, Imazighen, and Beja people, for example. Egyptian nationalist sentiment is widespread on all sides of current demonstrations, and it is based heavily on an exclusionary politic of Arab ethnic nationalism. General Sisi, now a central figure in Egypt after Morsi’s overthrow, is known to be a “fervent admirer” of the highly Arab nationalist former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The more this sentiment is fuelled by high-energy protests, the more likely that discriminatory Arab nationalist policies will be later entrenched in the Egyptian government, whatever form it takes. Such policies would in turn influence Arab nationalist tendencies in other North African countries, with grave consequences for indigenous Imazighen and other African migrants.
Who are ‘the Egyptian people’?
Are the ‘voices of the Egyptian people’ really being heard? Beyond the pro- and anti-Morsi protestors mostly gathering in Cairo, we must question what it means to be ‘the Egyptian people.’ Certainly, the voices of Nubians in southern Egypt and Amazigh people in northwest Egypt are not at the forefront of political analysis. Egyptian democracy might well extend beyond the ballot box, but I doubt the willingness of the military to represent or defend marginalised indigenous African populations in the country. There is a serious urban vs. rural divide demonstrated by the overwhelmingly urban-centered protests. The masses in Cairo are largely celebrating Morsi’s overthrow, but so far there has been complete silence over how this might affect other populations.
Libya and Tunisia
Finally, Egypt was not the only North African country to have experienced regime change since 2011, and many people in Libya and Tunisia might also be feeling shut out of their post-revolutionary governments. Will Egypt’s example serve as an inspiration for them to rise up as well, in hopes of continuing the revolutions? After the wave of Islamist parties coming to power after the North African Revolutions, an ousted Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt strikes a blow at Islamist power in the region. The failure of Morsi’s government to solve the problems facing Egyptian society also weakens the future of Islamism as a solution to economic and social issues in North Africa.
In the coming weeks and months, we will see the results of Morsi’s overthrow on the rest of the African continent. If Islamism isn’t the answer, what might be?