CAIRO - 13 December 2017: I attended the World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh in early November 2017, where I interacted with some of the brightest and most accommodating young thinkers in Egypt.
The issue of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), of course, was the subject I talked most about with many of my acquaintances. My experience at the Forum gave me hope that the future of our two historically tied countries (Ethiopia and Egypt) is safe in the hands of seasoned and balanced thinkers.
Alas, like everywhere else, the popular narrative on the dam is created not by people like the strong thinkers I met, but by a loud, unhinged media that spews out its unbalanced opinions at audiences hungry for information.
Unfortunately, the latter are led to harbor an unproductive, and at times dangerous, perception. According to the common narrative by the Egyptian media, Ethiopia's intentions on Abbay's (Ethiopia's name for the Nile) waters have always been framed as external intervention by supposedly anti-Egypt forces such as the US, Israel and now Qatar.
Such a condescending attitude toward Ethiopians, as people who cannot do anything about their fate, other than serving as instruments of external anti-Egypt forces, has undoubtedly not helped the attitude of Ethiopians toward Egypt and Egyptians, an attitude that is already riddled with myths and misconceptions.
Since the plan to build the GERD was made official, Egyptians have been voicing all forms of opposition, including threats to bomb the dam if Ethiopia ultimately builds it. In Ethiopia, all forms of media have sold stories and analyses based on Egyptian opposition to the dam. Chauvinism, racism, hate and historical animosity were all summoned to the public imagination.
People started writing and talking about historical battles between Ethiopians and the Khedivate of Egypt (I bet many Egyptians have never heard of such battles, let alone their outcomes and historical importance). Many started to fear, others to celebrate, the possibility that an old Ethiopian prophecy about Abbay would come to pass.
There is a prophecy in Ethiopia that goes along the lines of 'If Abay is dammed, blood amounting to Abbay's waters would have to be shed.' Such gruesome prophecies are not idle statements uttered in a hypothetical vacuum. Rather, they are popular imaginations constructed based on Ethiopian people's quest of the Nile in relation to past history and current events.
Now, though I know some, from both sides, would be praying for such horrors, we can safely assume that such is not to the liking of the masses and governments of the two countries. What then can be done to avoid the state of mind and popular perceptions in both nations’ peoples that foment ideologies toward such dreadful horrors?
For the Egyptian thought-makers, especially the media, instead of continuing to feed on the external 'enemies of Egypt' and fixating on 'the historical water rights of Egypt' narration—both of which fail to recognize the dynamics of the Nile quest in Ethiopia—it would be more productive to understand the popular psychology and narration of the Ethiopian masses, in order to engage them, and in return help Ethiopians understand the legitimate fears of the Egyptians.
The Abbay quest in the Ethiopian popular imagination and belief system is so complex and dynamic that it behooves thorough reflection, before coming to conclusions and proposing solutions.
Ethiopians have repeatedly suffered from biblical-scale hunger and mass deaths due to droughts and associated crop failures. Though Ethiopians have always loved their country, there have been lingering grievances and bitterness that the land was unable to feed its loving people. Many Ethiopians, deeply religious as they are (or despite their piety), have for centuries accepted their tribulations as God’s wrath for their transgressions.
Such a narrative has now transformed, and rightly so, into recognizing misfortunes as people's failure to harness their 'God-given' resources and use them judiciously. With this also came the blaming of external forces, who for centuries have deprived Ethiopians of their rights to express their grievances.
Colonial conspiracies; the acts of the Italians and their Ethiopian enablers that divided and weakened Ethiopia; Arab interventionists, mainly Egypt, who always liked to see a weak and divided Ethiopia, would all become the main culprits to blame for Ethiopian people's misfortunes.
Deep in the hearts of the Ethiopian masses, the bloody, almost half-century long Eritrean war for independence has always been framed as Egyptian and other Arab countries' proxy interventions to weaken Ethiopia.
Many Ethiopians and now some Eritreans blame Arabs, particularly Egypt, for intervening, supporting, fanning the flames and perpetuating normal Eritrean grievances into bloody secessionist wars, sacrificing the lives of millions of Eritreans and Ethiopians on the way.
When the Eritreans won the war of independence, and Ethiopians finally agreed to let Eritrea be a free and friendly nation, it was not long before Eritreans and Ethiopians were shocked to learn that the only opposition against Eritrea's official independence came from no other than Egypt itself.
FILE - Eritrean soldiers celebrate the country's anniversary of independence from Ethiopia May 23, 2000
Eritreans felt betrayed, and Ethiopians confirmed what they had suspected: that Egypt had always wanted to keep Ethiopians fighting wars, lest they try using Abbay's waters.
It is almost an official line of thinking that Egypt would be using all possible opportunities to replicate the bloody Ethio-Eritrean wars on other fronts, mainly the Oromia and the Ethiopian Somali Ogaden.
Many other cases of maltreatment of Ethiopians at the hands of Arabs have also resulted in a stereotype of a bigoted, ruthless Arab who would do anything to his Ethiopian neighbor to keep the Habashi poor and unable to fight back or claim what is rightly his or hers.
Claims and stories spread through social media about the excessively inhuman treatment of Ethiopian and Eritrean domestic helpers across the wealthy Arab world; the extreme torture to exact ransom; the extraction and selling of body parts of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees by Arab traffickers in Sinai; the cold-blooded decapitation of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees by Arab Da'esh in Libya; and now the 'slave trade' and savage treatment of African refugees at the hands of lawless Arab Libyans.
Every day stories like these have all added to the historically held stereotype of a cruel, inhuman Arab, consolidating to young Ethiopians the stereotypes they grew up listening to. The Arabs hate Ethiopians so much they have a saying—'If you find a Habashi and a snake together, kill the Habashi first.' It is these historical backgrounds and contrived public narratives that formed the perception of Arabs as a natural enemy in the minds of everyday Ethiopians.
Due to such a negative understanding of the Arab world and, by extension, Egypt and Egyptians, not many Ethiopians recognize the poverty, the thirst for peace and stability of ordinary Egyptians and many across the Arab world.
Egyptian people's legitimate fears about the Nile waters are completely misunderstood and ignored. The Egyptian people's Nile quest and their apprehensiveness about the Ethiopian dam are, therefore, perceived as a continuation of the centuries-old efforts and deceptions by Egyptian rulers to make Ethiopians unable to use the waters that originate from their hinterland.
Unfortunately, such public discourse may, at times, find its way and dictate official policies and dispositions in Ethiopia. Even at this time, when the official view is, apparently, that of working together toward achieving an agreement for a fair utilization of Nile resources, Ethiopian local media, similar to its Egyptian counterpart, every day broadcasts news of Egyptian conspiracies and interventions to undermine Ethiopian stability and development.
The public do believe this, and not without a reason, adding to the vicious cycle of fear, suspicion, stereotyping and ultimately threatening future peace and security in our region. With such deep-rooted grievances and contrived misconceptions, any move by either of our countries, even an honest desire to engage positively, is probably going to be viewed by the other side as camouflage for a sinister ulterior motive.
Through twisted, centuries-old histories and conspiracies, Egypt has been framed, in the mind of the common Ethiopian, as the demon to be vanquished. It has also, ironically, captured the popular imagination among Ethiopian Christians and Muslims for centuries.
The followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church have always held a sense of belonging to the Egyptian Coptic Christian church—a church which shares a lot of resemblance and history to their own.
Both Ethiopian Christians and Muslims have always looked up to Egypt as a source of support, religious unity and strength, in a region where they feel their core traditional and religious values and legacies are threatened by ever-expanding extremist ideologies in the East African region.
Ethiopian Christians have always thought of the Egyptian Coptic Church as their second church. Ethiopians, despite their contrived view of Arabs and, by extension, Egypt, have always wanted a stable and prosperous Egypt as a buffer against extremism in their otherwise highly volatile zone.
My point is, therefore, that each of the governments and political actors in both these countries, beyond using rhetoric that helps them gain popular support, should accept this truth. The truth that there is misunderstanding among the people and the elites with respect to the Nile quest and popular thinking. People should be allowed to understand one another and to listen to one another's fears, plights and aspirations.
Public diplomacy, aimed at creating steady understanding among the two countries' peoples, should be pursued. Instead of feeding the public uncensored facts and inflammatory rhetoric charged with hubris and ultranationalism, it would be more productive to allow the two historically tied people and governments to understand one another, and that should start by listening to the other side of the story.
Mulubrhan Balehegn is an Ethiopian analyst.