Many great achievements were made in 2017, but some issues are yet closed – photo by Egypt Today
CAIRO – 29 December 2017: As the year draws to an end, a number of issues on Egypt’s agenda are still waiting for settlement. These unfinished problems dominated news-cycles in Egypt grasping the interest of everyone, whether in the government or average citizens.
Looking back at 2017, it can be described as one of the most exciting years in Egyptian history. It was a year with truly dramatic and pivotal events, and many great achievements in different fields, however some files are yet closed.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)
The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam issue was on the top of the Egyptian government’s priorities in 2017. Construction of the $5 billion Ethiopian dam has begun nearly six years ago on the Blue Nile River and is now close to completion. The dam raised plenty of concerns in both downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, that the flow of the Blue Nile will be curtailed, particularly during the filling of the dam’s reservoir. The Blue Nile is the main tributary of the Nile River, and both Egypt and Sudan rely on the river for irrigation and electricity.
Ethiopia’s determination to build such a giant dam violated the provisions of international law regarding transboundary rivers, which prohibit countries from undertaking hydraulic projects that could harm other countries sharing the same river, and require upstream nations to obtain the approval of downstream ones before building dams.
Since 2011, Cairo has undertaken all required measures to avoid the negative impact the Ethiopian dam will have on its historic Nile water share, amounting to 55.5 billion cubic meters, in accordance with the historic 1959 agreement with Sudan. The real average consumption of water in Egypt is 105 billion cubic meters, of which 80 billion cubic meters are covered by the reuse of wastewater.
Egypt did not oppose the dam’s construction provided that the filling of GERD’s reservoir should be applied in cooperation with downstream countries to minimize potential negative impacts.
Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia formed the GERD Tripartite National Technical Committee with the aim to reach an agreement that preserves the rights of the three countries in the river. The committee agreed with two French firms, BRL and Arterlia, to make a technical study on the dam's potential impact on Egypt and Sudan. The committee held several intensive meetings to reach a consensus over the initial report prepared by the French firms on the GERD’s impact, however they failed.
The studies were proposed to begin in late 2016, but required an agreement on methods from the three governments before they could begin. Egypt approved the initial report, though Ethiopia and Sudan demanded major amendments to the proposed studies.
Egypt frequently expressed concern about ongoing delays in the approval of the technical studies, given that Ethiopia is continuing the construction of the dam.
The air links between Egypt and Russia
The 27-month suspension of direct flights between Egypt and Russia was the main issue occupying minds of all workers in the tourism sector. Several reports about the resumption of air traffic with Russia were circulated in the media in 2017, however the case has not been resolved yet. During that period, the Egyptian government spared no effort to find a solution to the issue, due to the importance of this anticipated step to Egypt.
In October 2015, the Airbus A321, operated by Metrojet, crashed over the Sinai Peninsula, which was carrying Russian tourists returning from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing all 224 on board.
Although Egypt-Russia investigations have yet to reveal the reason of the crash, Russia, along with England and some other countries, decided to suspend direct flights to Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh for indefinite period. The decision decimated Egypt's vital tourism industry.
The tourism sector is one of Egypt’s main foreign currency earners, which has suffered badly from the travel ban that turned the once 100 percent occupied resorts to empty places.
To understand the impact of a possible resumption of air links, one should know that Egypt is highly regarded as a tourist destination that can attract diverse types of tourists, such as those interested in exploring the country’s ancient culture, or those who want to enjoy sunny beaches.
Tourist inflow to Egypt peaked in 2010, when 14.7 million tourists visited the country, but the number fell to 4.5 million in 2016.
Russian and British tourists capture the largest portion of tourist inflows to Egypt. According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the Russian tourist inflow to Egypt reached its peak in 2014, with tourists recording 3.1 million. Following the Russian plane crash, this number went down to 2.38 million in 2015.
The British tourist inflow used to range between 800,000 to one million tourists, but this number also declined after the suspension of flights to Sharm El-Sheikh. British flights are now limited to the tourist areas in the Red Sea and the Upper Egyptian cities of Luxor and Aswan.
Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sharif Fathi visited Moscow in early December when he signed an air security agreement that will hopefully set the required procedures settle the issue permanently. It comes after several countries and international aviation bodies praised the security and safety measures adopted in the Egyptian airports following the Russian plane disaster in October 2015.
Counter-Terrorism in Sinai
The Egyptians were shocked with the bloody terrorist attack that hit the main mosque in North Sinai’s Al-Rawdah Village on 24 November. It took the lives of 311 people, roughly 22 percent of the village’s male residents. The village’s population is not more than 2,111 people, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics’ (CAPMAS) 2016 report.
Although the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2017, issued in late November, excluded Egypt from its list of the ten countries most affected by terrorism, this year witnessed the deadliest attack in the history of the country, raising a question: when will the ongoing terror attacks in Egypt, particularly the Sinai Peninsula, end?
The Sinai insurgency initially consisted of separate militants who exploited the chaotic situation in Egypt following the 25th January Revolution and launched a series of attacks on government forces in Sinai. Since 2014, the terrorist attacks started to take shape of regular and organized operations. The most dangerous terrorist group, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis (ABM), pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) threatening of more raucous attacks.
The Egyptian authorities have attempted to restore security in the Sinai through both political and military measures. Egypt launched several military operations, including Operation Eagle in mid-2011, Operation Sinai in mid-2012 and Operation Martyr's Right from 2015 till present. The ongoing operation was considered to be the largest military action in the Sinai Peninsula in years. The operation targets sites in Rafah, Arish and Sheikh Zuweid, all towns in northern area of the peninsula.
The army announced in mid-2017 that the military’s Martyr's Right operation resulted in the death of about 500 militants and destroyed hundreds of hideouts and vehicles used by terrorists since its beginning in September 2015. The army’s strategy to face terrorism was based on three stages. The first depended on monitoring terrorism regional and international networks that provide logistical and financial support to terrorists in the country.
The second stage was based on the execution of military sweeping operations in cooperation with police forces and the residents of the Sinai Peninsula, aiming to achieve full elimination of the terrorists’ presence. The third stage sought to launch comprehensive development projects to improve the living status of the residents in Sinai.
Ban on football fans from attending matches
Egyptian football fans are still barred from attending matches due to the security authorities’ concerns of possible clashes as was the case in some previous events in the past few years. The league matches are currently played in empty stadiums.
The government imposed the ban after 72 fans of Cairo’s giant Al-Ahly SC died in February 2012 in bloody riots after a league match in Port Said. The government partially lifted the audience ban, but in February 2015, it was restored following bloody clashes between security forces and Al-Zamalek SC club supporters as they were entering Cairo's Air Defense stadium by force. Around 20 Zamalek fans died after being suffocated or crushed in a stampede as the result of poor crowd control.
Most of the victims in both incidents were members in football hardcore fans organizations, called Ultras, which are known of violent behavior at matches. The Egyptian government designated these groups as terrorist entities.
Since then, attendance at games has been highly restricted. Only the national team supporters have been allowed to attend the matches of Egypt in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, as well as the continental matches of Egyptian teams.