Skip to main content
A waterfall on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia
A waterfall on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Photo via Unsplash

President Donald Trump has instructed U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo to pull back from a commitment to provide $100 million in security related aid to Ethiopia, a leading developing nation on the African continent. According to the New York Times, the State Department indicated this would be a “temporary pause” on some aid in response to “Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin to fill [its] dam before an agreement was reached…” This action by the Trump administration is more than an outrageous encroachment of Ethiopia’s sovereignty. It is an assault on the right of emerging nations to take actions to improve the living conditions of their people.

In response to the decision by the State department, Eyob Tekalign, Ethiopia’s state  finance minister said correctly, “We don’t think that the U.S. has thought this through carefully…We are hopeful that they will reconsider because Ethiopia is doing what is absolutely right and in all senses of the word legally, morally as well.”

The Ethiopian people have funded the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) themselves. This fulfills a bold vision to develop their nation with the 6,200 megawatts (MW) of electricity that the dam will generate when completed. Ambassador Fitsum Arega aptly expressed the desire of the Ethiopian population, when he tweeted, “we will pull Ethiopia out of the darkness,” which is literally and metaphorically true.

Trump’s Bias

All indications are that President Trump acted on the insistence of Egyptian President el Sissi, who has claimed “historical rights” to the Nile River. In truth he is asserting “colonial rights” to the Nile bestowed on Egypt by the British Crown.

At the end of 2019, at the request of President el Sissi, President Trump instructed U.S. Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to act as an independent broker in discussions with Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia. Over four months, several meetings of the three Nile riparian nations were held in Washington DC discussing the “fill rate” of the GERD. There are legitimate concerns about how much water would be withdrawn annually in the next several years to fill the GERD’s reservoir of 74 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water. Technical issues like the rate of which water should be withdrawn from the Nile to fill the reservoir should be resolved by the three nations with the understanding that a functioning GERD will benefit all the people living in the Horn of Africa.

The heavy rains at the beginning of Ethiopia’s rainy season this summer have already filled the GERD with the required 4.5 bcm of water to test two turbines. This was accomplished without any reduction in the flow of the Nile.

As the tripartite discussions, with the US Treasury and World Bank in attendance continued into February 2020, it became clear that the US was “putting its thumb on the scale” for Egypt, in the words of retired US Ambassador David Shinn. By the end of February, Mnuchin secured an “agreement” regarding the Nile with Egypt, without the participation of Ethiopian representatives.  On February 28, 2020, an official statement from the US Treasury Department praised Egypt’s “readiness to sign the agreement,” and instructed Ethiopia that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.” 

Eventually, the unresolved issue of the Nile shifted to the proper venue for African nations to settle disputes, the African Union. The dialogue has continued under the personal supervision of South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, Chairperson of the African Union.

The GERD is built in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River, which supplies 85% of the Nile when it joins the White Nile north of Khartoum, Sudan

Bringing Africa Out of Darkness

What President Trump does not understand; is that his “pause” in aid is not only harmful to Ethiopia, but it is detrimental to the entire African continent. Whether he is aware of it or not, is establishing a dangerous precedent in foreign policy, and not just for Africa.

Ethiopia, with a population approaching 110 million, has made a commitment to eradicate poverty. To that end, Ethiopia has embarked on erecting significant infrastructure projects in roads, railroads, and hydro-electric dams. The GERD has the potential to generate over 6,000 MW of power, doubling Ethiopia’s present capacity, and placing Ethiopia only second to South Africa in energy production in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). Ethiopia would also become an energy exporting nation potentially providing electricity to neighboring South Sudan, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania.

The root cause of virtually every crisis that African nations are facing today, including ethnic conflicts, can be traced to underdevelopment. This is especially true when one examines the dearth of hard infrastructure in SSA with a population nearing 1.5 billion that is projected to reach 2.5 billion by 2050. Electricity for SSA is estimated between 100,000-130,000 MW. This level of output is criminally deficient for a population over 1 billion, with 600 million Africans having no access to online electricity. The lack of electricity is literally a death sentence for millions of Africans.  

Without abundant and accessible electricity Africa will not progress at the level necessary to provide for its present, much less its expanding population. Energy is the sine qua non for economic growth, and to eradicate poverty. It is required for; agriculture, producing fertilizer, pumping water, cleaning water, transportation, lighting hospitals, vaccine production and storage, shipping food in refrigerated cars, powering industry, constructing and lighting modern homes, schools and libraries. For Africans to enjoy the same access to electricity 24×7, as we experience in modern nations, Africa needs a minimum of 1,000 gigawatts or 1 million megawatts of electricity.



What Roosevelt Would Do?

Rather than being threatened with cuts in aid, Ethiopia should be supported in its bold efforts to build and operate the GERD. A thoughtful US policy would be assisting all African nations in addressing the enormous multi-trillion dollar infrastructure deficit, with long term-low interest loans to finance massive investments in life saving infrastructure. Instead of President Trump and his advisors hurling geo-political condemnations against China, it would be far better for the US to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is building vitally necessary infrastructure in Africa and around the world.

Both the Democratic and Republican Party, including President Trump himself, from time to time utter fond references of President Franklin Roosevelt. However, I have found that no leader in either party has any comprehension of the genius of President Roosevelt’s economic policies. FDR as he is known, understood the importance of infrastructure. This was abundantly evident in his New Deal, his creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and his Good Neighbor policy.

During the war he sternly reprimanded Winston Churchill for his imperialist policies in Africa. FDR treated the King of Morocco and other African leaders with the respect he would treat any national leader. President Roosevelt intended to end the Europe's political and financial control in the world.  I can assure you, that President Roosevelt would have championed and aided any developing nation that embarked on energy production.

Sadly, in the seventy-five years following the death of President Roosevelt, the only President, who had shown enthusiasm for the economic development of Africa, was John F Kennedy.

Let the Trump administration pause to rethink a policy that not only violates Ethiopia’s sovereignty, but undermines a strong US ally in East Africa. Let us recognize Ethiopia’s endeavors to improve the living conditions of its citizens, and pause again to ask, how would President Franklin Roosevelt respond.  His TVA harnessed the power of the mighty Tennessee River generating electricity to transform the lives of millions of poverty stricken Americans living in seven undeveloped southern States.  Is it not in the strategic interest of the US to support nations working to eliminate poverty in Africa using Rooseveltian methods?


Lawrence Freeman is a political-economic analyst for Africa who has been involved in economic development policy for thirty years and a former civilian advisor to U.S. Africa Command. He is the creator of the blog The opinions contained in this article are his own.

A satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abbay River (Blue Nile) in Ethiopia on July 11, 2020. (courtesy of Maxar Technologies/via AFP)
A satellite image of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Abbay River (Blue Nile) in Ethiopia on July 11, 2020. (courtesy of Maxar Technologies/via AFP)

Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s office put out a press release on July 21 confirming the first year’s filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been achieved thanks to heavier than normal seasonal rainfall and runoff. Abiy commended the African Union for leading the latest talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt to address their differences over the dam’s filling and operation, and said that further technical discussions would continue.

The statement was light on details but seems to indicate that Ethiopia is pulling back from some of its more aggressive rhetoric used against Egypt, as the two nations have rattled sabers at each other over the course of negotiations. Egyptian hackers have even launched a cyberattack on Ethiopian government websites in the past month.

There has been no official response to the press release from Egypt or Sudan.

Egypt has referred to the GERD as an “existential threat” over fears that a rapid filling of the dam could lower water levels in the Nile to a dangerous degree. Amid rumors last week that Ethiopia had begun to fill the GERD before an agreement had been reached between the three countries, Sudan reported a drop in the water level of the Blue Nile—also known as the Abbay River—reaching it from upstream Ethiopia.

When Egypt sought urgent clarification from Ethiopia over the reports that the reservoir was being filled, the Ethiopian water and energy minister responded that the level was rising due to heavy rains and not to conscious efforts to fill the dam. He said the overflow would be “triggered soon.”


Key Questions Remain

The key questions are how much water Ethiopia will release in years of low rainfall, and how future disputes will be resolved.

The United States, United Nations, and African Union have mediated negotiations to resolve the impasse. The American response has been ambivalent, however, as some in the Trump administration want to side with Egypt, a strategic US military partner, whereas others worry this risks driving a wedge between the US and Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation.


Nelson Mandela stayed on the top floor of the Ras Hotel in central Addis Ababa during his 1962 visit to Ethiopia.
Nelson Mandela stayed on the top floor of the Ras Hotel in central Addis Ababa during his 1962 visit to Ethiopia.

The death of Nelson Mandela in 2013 elicited tributes from around the globe in honor of the man who negotiated with South Africa’s apartheid rulers to bring about majority rule. He continues to be a symbol of resistance and reform. In his delivery of the latest Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on July 18, the late statesman’s birthday, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres used the opportunity to call for wide-ranging reforms to the international order.

But despite the commemorations, which often focus on his capacity for forgiveness in the 1990s and his ability to make peace with the regime that had imprisoned him, the Mandela of the early 1960s was a very different man. He was a guerrilla, not a peacemaker, and in 1961 had co-founded the armed-wing of the African National Congress (ANC), uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), meaning Spear of the Nation.

To truly understand Mandela, we must understand this earlier part of his life. And to understand this earlier part of his life, we must examine his attraction to Ethiopia, where he spent time as a revolutionary and guerrilla in training. In his various memoirs, he made numerous references to Ethiopia, which he first visited in 1962.

Since Mandela’s passing, a degree of controversy around his time in Ethiopia has also emerged, coming from an unlikely source. Shortly after his death, a story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel’s secret intelligence agency Mossad had clandestinely trained Mandela. As evidence, Haaretz quoted part of a letter by a member of Israeli embassy staff that describes Mandela: “He greeted our men with ‘Shalom,’ was familiar with the problems of Jewry and of Israel, and gave the impression of being an intellectual. The staff tried to make him into a Zionist.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has questioned the authenticity of the letter, but there is no doubt Mandela was indeed familiar with Jewish and Israeli issues. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, he writes that he “read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own.”

Ethiopia, the African kingdom that successfully resisted colonization save for a brief Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941, held a particular allure for Nelson Mandela and many African nationalists in the post-colonial period. It could be argued that Emperor Haile Selassie was Africa’s most famous politician of the 20th century, until he was eclipsed by Nelson Mandela. In Jamaica and elsewhere, the emperor was revered as a messianic figure among followers of the Rastafari movement. But history has not been kind to the emperor, partly due to Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński’s book The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, with many now remembering him as the ruler who spent his time feeding the pride of lions he kept at his palace, indifferent to domestic affairs.

Meeting the Ras

Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten the Selassie of the 1960s was an ardent Pan-Africanist, and it was in AddisAbaba that the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central, and Southern Africa (PAFMECSA) was hosted in 1962. PAFMECSA was the forerunner of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which was, in turn, the forerunner of the African Union.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls his excitement upon visiting Ethiopia. The prospect of seeing Ethiopia had always intrigued him more than visiting Europe or America. “Ethiopia has always held a special place in my own imagination…” he writes. “I felt I would be visiting my own genesis, unearthing the roots of what made me an African.”

Forty-three years old at the time, Mandela experienced a culture shock when he boarded the Ethiopian Airlines flight from Khartoum to Addis Ababa to find an Ethiopian pilot at the controls. “How could a black man fly an airplane? But a moment later I caught myself: I had fallen into the apartheid mind-set, thinking Africans were inferior, and that flying was a white man’s job. I sat back in my seat and chided myself for such thoughts. Once we were in the air, I lost my nervousness and studied the geography of Ethiopia, thinking how guerrilla forces hid in these very forests to fight the Italian imperialists.”

Entering Addis Ababa, which he calls the Imperial City, in February 1962, Mandela’s vision of Ethiopia was, for the moment, shattered: “a few tarred streets, and more goats and sheep than cars. Apart from the Imperial Palace, the university, and the Ras Hotel, where we stayed, few structures could compare with even the least impressive buildings of Johannesburg.”

Today, most roads are paved and crowded with cars, especially the city’s ubiquitous shared taxis, though the city’s skyline is still somewhat spartan when compared to the skyscrapers of Johannesburg. Time, though, has been less kind to the Ras Hotel: in one corner stands a haggard stuffed lion while women of the night cast around the lobby for potential customers. Outside the revolving door, touts and beggars wait to pounce on tourists under a portico next to the neighboring book vendor selling Amharic and a few English books, including a knockoff copy of Kapuściński’s The Emperor. The Ethiopian “national cuisine” served in the hotel is among the best in the city. It remains one of the few places in the Ethiopian capital where one can find meat dishes being served even on days of the week Ethiopian Orthodox Christians observe fasting days where they avoid consuming meat.

Another change from when Mandela first visited the city is that a room on the third floor has since been turned into a veritable shrine to the man himself, albeit one that is available for booking, and the third floor is now the Mandela Floor. A larger-than-life image of a grey-haired Mandela greets visitors from the top of the stairs, followed by a photo of Robben Island on the door to the Mandela Room. The three-chambered suite is modest by today’s standards, but would have seemed lavish in the early 1960s, when it was graced by many notables, including the Yugoslav statesman Marshal Tito.

Mandela met many revolutionaries and people of note at the 1962 PAFMECSA conference, but it was Emperor Selassie—whom Mandela asked for help raising funds, a crucial part of the ANC’s revolutionary cause—who made one of the biggest impressions. As he later recalled in Conversations with Myself: “That was an impressive fellow, man, very impressive. It was my first time to watch... a head of state going through the formalities... the motions of formality. This chap came wearing a uniform and he then came and bowed. But it was a bow which was not a bow—he stood erect, you see, but just brought down his head.”

He later observed Selassie at a military parade. At the time, Ethiopia was a United States ally, and US military advisors at the occasion paid their respects to the emperor, leading Mandela to note: “to see whites going to a black monarch emperor and bowing was also very interesting.” The US was one of just six countries to never recognize the Italian occupation of Ethiopia, and the two states were enjoying warm relations at the time of Mandela’s visit. In 1957, then US vice president Richard Nixon visited Ethiopia and hailed the kingdom as “one of the United States’ most stalwart and consistent allies.”

Training in Guerrilla Warfare

After the conference, Mandela left Ethiopia to continue his wide-ranging fundraising tour, visiting Egypt, Mali, Tunisia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Sudan, and the United Kingdom. Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba was a particularly strong supporter, donating £5,000 (about US$150,000 in today’s money) to uMkhonto we Sizwe for arms. En route, Mandela also received some training in guerrilla warfare from Algerian rebels in Morocco.

As agreed, Mandela soon returned to Ethiopia for military training. The ANC had offices in Cairo and Accra, but neither Nasser’s Egypt nor Nkrumah’s Ghana had a military versed in guerrilla warfare. Many Ethiopian officers had honed their field craft fighting the Italians during World War II. In deciding to train in Ethiopia rather than a Warsaw Pact country or China, Mandela was openly branding the armed portion of the ANC struggle as African and moving the ANC’s position away from the Soviet Union, a policy that might have influenced him to meet with the Israelis.

Ethiopia, whose military had multiple veterans of the guerrilla war against the Italian occupation, also possibly presented Mandela with the best opportunity to learn the military skills necessary to lead uMkhonto we Sizwe. He planned to spend six months receiving training on weaponry, tactics, and leadership. The ANC’s armed wing had already launched a series of sabotage attacks in South Africa, so instruction on mines and other explosives was also given. Mandela’s training included live-fire exercises with both Eastern Bloc- and American-made weapons. His instructors were Colonel Tadesse Birru, Colonel Fekadu Wakene, and Lieutenant Wondoni Befikadu. Wondoni, a former fighter, led the physical training, and Tadesse lectured Mandela in the philosophy of guerrilla warfare. The recently emerged Israeli government letter implies Mandela was trained by someone referred to as “the Ethiopian,” which could mean some of Mandela’s instructors were linked to the Israelis.

Indeed, Israel was keen to cultivate good relations with the non-Arab countries in Africa at the time, though later, as African liberation movements came to be dominated by communist elements, this policy shifted slowly to an awkward security relationship with the apartheid South African government.

Biniyam Mengistu, a tour guide and local historian in the southern Ethiopian city of Harrar, believes Mandela received some of his instruction in Harar. If this were true, it was perhaps Tadesse who invited him to visit this important city in the east of the country. The region’s main inhabitants, the Oromo people, are Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, and Tadesse eventually launched his own guerrilla war against the state four years later in the name of Oromo nationalism. In 1975, he was executed by the Derg regime.

To this day, the time Tadesse spent with Mandela is a source of pride for Oromo nationalists. A grainy photo of him in uniform standing next to Mandela can be found on many Oromo nationalist websites, and the Oromo National Congress (now the Oromo Federalist Congress) originally named itself after Mandela’s African National Congress.

The Way of the Gun

In the end, Mandela’s time in Ethiopia lasted only a few short weeks before it was decided he was needed in South Africa. On the orders of Haile Selassie, Tadesse gave Mandela a Bulgarian-made Makarov pistol and 200 rounds of ammunition before his trip home. He was also issued with an Ethiopian passport under the name David Motsamayi (meaning David the Walker).

Upon his arrival in South Africa, Mandela spent time at an ANC safe house, Liliesleaf Farm, in Johannesburg. As the police closed in on him, he decided to bury the pistol. Digging a 1.5 meter pit not far from the farm’s kitchen, he wrapped the weapon and its ammunition in foil and placed the stash, along with his military uniform, under a tin plate. He was arrested days later.

Mandela did return to Ethiopia decades later, in 1990, to address the OAU in Addis Ababa. This meant meeting Mengistu Haile Mariam, Ethiopia’s brutal dictator who had ruled the country directly or indirectly since 1974. During Mengistu’s rule, more than 2 million Ethiopians were murdered or died of starvation, and with the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse, Mengistu beseeched Mandela to visit and provide him with a small propaganda victory.

Perhaps reluctantly, Mandela agreed to the short visit while already on a trip to Tanzania. Coarse footage from the period shows the veteran Mengistu beaming as he honors Mandela, yet it is Mandela who appears the statelier figure. When Mengistu was overthrown the next year, he fled to Zimbabwe and even briefly visited South Africa in 1999 for medical treatment. Mandela’s government considered turning him over to international authorities, but Mengistu soon returned to Zimbabwe, where he has kept a low profile ever since.

Old Friends

Mandela’s time in Ethiopia provides insight into the man and helps place the ANC struggle in its broader African context. It further illuminates his commitment to the armed struggle, making his later role as peacemaker all the more revealing.

Ethiopia has never forgotten its links to Nelson Mandela, and in 2011, for example, 2,300 trees were planted around Addis Ababa in his honor on the Second Annual International Nelson Mandela Day.

The pistol Mandela received in Ethiopia and buried in Johannesburg has never been found. He provided information about its probable location and even searched for it on a visit to Liliesleaf in 2003. Excavations began on the site in 2011 to search for the lost pistol, but it remains lost.

A version of this story was published in Think Africa Press in 2014.


This photo posted on the official Facebook page of Egypt’s presidential spokesman on July 16 shows President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (center) meeting with Libyan tribal leaders in Cairo. (Egyptian Presidency/via AFP)
This photo posted on the official Facebook page of Egypt’s presidential spokesman on July 16 shows President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (center) meeting with Libyan tribal leaders in Cairo. (Egyptian Presidency/via AFP)

Egypt’s parliament has given President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a mandate to deploy troops “outside the borders of the Egyptian state, to defend Egyptian national security in the Arab strategic direction against the actions of armed criminal militias and foreign terrorist elements.”

The mandate was passed only a few days after Sisi met with Libyan tribal leaders, who asked for the support of the Egyptian armed forces to “expel the Turkish colonizer.” The vagueness of the mandate’s wording, however, suggests that this approval by parliament could also have been given in the context of the ongoing dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.


It increases the risk of the conflict turning into a full-blown regional proxy war


Egypt has been a continuous supporter of the Libyan House of Representatives, based in Tobruk, the rival government to the Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in Tripoli. The House of Representatives is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) under its commander Khalifa Haftar, which has been waging a steady campaign to oust the GNA since April 2019. Just a few months ago, Turkey began to send troops and material support to the GNA, helping to stop the LNA’s advance on Tripoli and reverse several key gains it had made.

Reacting to these setbacks, Sisi has issued several public statements making it clear that the seizure of the Libyan cities of Sirte and Jufra by rival forces would be viewed as a red line, thus inviting military intervention. Jufra functions as a corridor into western Libya and is home to an airbase that has been crucial for LNA advances. Sirte is an oil port that plays a key role in the Libyan oil economy. Both Egypt and Turkey are looking to expand their Mediterranean energy markets, with Libya a key strategic location for both countries.

Unlike prior escalations of the Libyan conflict, the direct involvement of the Egyptian military in Libya’s protracted civil war increases the risk of the conflict turning into a full-blown regional proxy war akin to what has transpired in Yemen and Syria. With Turkey a member of NATO and Egypt an ally of the United States, the fallout of such a conflict would be catastrophic for regional security and for the well-being of Libyan civilians. Every effort now needs to be made to pull all foreign actors operating in Libyan territory back from the brink.


Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on September 3, 2018. (Andy Wong/AFP)
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on September 3, 2018. (Andy Wong/AFP)

Egypt’s El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company and China’s Dongfeng Motors have signed a deal for electric car production in Egypt. An agreement was signed on June 18, stipulating that El Nasr will produce 25,000 electric vehicles annually.

Not only is this a boon for Chinese car manufacturing, which according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers saw a 42 percent decline in the first quarter of 2020, but it also revives Nasr after the company shuttered its production plant in 2009.


Strategic Relations

This marks yet another expansion of China’s growing footprint in Egypt. Economic and political relations between the two nations go back to 1956, when Egypt formally recognized the communist government of the People’s Republic of China, making it the first Arab and African nation to do so. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s succeeding presidents Mohammed Morsi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have made foreign relations with China a top priority.

For China, Egypt’s strategic location and its ownership of the Suez Canal make it an important ally as it expands its Belt and Road Initiative.


A view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction, in a photograph taken near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile in July, when the rainy season starts, but it has not yet reached a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan downriver. Egypt fears it would reduce its water supply, and Sudan warned on Wednesday that the filling of the GERD without an agreement between the three countries would pose a risk to its own dams. Sudan is especially concerned about Roseires Dam near the Ethiopian border, which plays an important role in supplying the country with water and hydroelectric power.


The latest round of negotiations also failed to produce a compromise


Consultations have been ongoing between the three countries, with input from the World Bank and the United States. Most issues have been resolved, but the remaining bones of contention are the fill rate of the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir and the long-term operation of the dam.

The latest round of negotiations, by videoconference, also failed to produce a compromise. On June 19, Egypt requested the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, after which Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC expressing its concern over the filling of the dam without a signed agreement. The UNSC will discuss the issue on Monday, June 29.

And the African Union’s Executive Council will hold an emergency video meeting on Friday, June 26, to discuss the dispute in response to a call from South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the African Union.


In October 2017, Egyptian security forces arrested LGBT activist Sarah Hegazy for raising the rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt.
Egyptian security forces arrested Sarah Hegazi in October 2017 for raising the rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBTQ community, at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo. (Photo via Twitter)

On Sunday, June 14, thirty-year-old queer feminist Sarah Hegazi took her own life in exile in Canada.

A short letter attributed to Sarah, written in Arabic, circulated on social media days after her death. The letter read: “To my siblings—I tried to survive and I failed, forgive me. To my friends—the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world—you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”

Three years ago, Sarah had attended a concert in Cairo featuring a Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Filled with joy at the event, Sarah waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride used by LGBTQ movements around the world.

Little did she know that it would forever change the course of her life.

About a week after the concert, Egyptian authorities arrested and imprisoned Sarah on charges of “being part of a banned group that aims to interfere with the constitution.” They also arrested several other concertgoers based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. Sarah was released on bail after being imprisoned for three months.

Sarah, an Egyptian national, was a self-proclaimed lesbian and feminist. She was an activist for both causes long before the Mashrou’ Leila concert.

Sarah also identified as a communist and became involved with the Spring Socialist Network once in Canada. In Egypt, she was fired from her job for her political views. In her articles, Sarah openly discussed her opposition to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military general, who took over the Arab world’s most populous country in 2013.

In prison, Sarah was tortured by members of the Egyptian police and subjected to solitary confinement during detention. Authorities also encouraged female inmates to torment her.

“I have not forgotten the injustice which dug a black hole into the soul and left it bleeding, a hole which the doctors have not yet been able to heal,” Sarah said in an article published in 2018 with independent online newspaper Mada Masr.

“I became afraid of everyone. Even after my release, I was still afraid of everyone, of my family and of friends and of the street. Fear took the lead,” Sarah wrote.

Sarah’s story has ignited an awareness that cannot be stopped around the world. She has brought focus to the maltreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Egypt and the Middle East.

The trauma that minority communities face is often reflected in higher death and suicide rates resulting from both mental and physical illnesses. Many people underestimate the harmful impact of bullying and hate speech. Such hate is even more detrimental when supported and endorsed by the state, which is the case of Egypt and many countries across the Arab world.

In her 2018 article for Mada Masr, Sarah openly discussed that she was struck with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the persecution that she faced for simply waving a symbol of queer pride.

She developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually, she was forced to leave Egypt out of fear of being arrested again. While in exile, Sarah’s mother passed away in Egypt, adding to her grief and trauma.

To face such persecution is one thing, but to live with painful memories that haunt you is another. Sarah wrote that she lived in terror, stuttered when she spoke, and even had trouble being around people or speaking in the media. She had also attempted suicide twice.


“We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.” — Hamed Sinno


Her death has opened the door to a much larger discussion on Egypt and across the Middle East. For far too long, Egyptian authorities have stifled and threatened the lives of minorities, vibrant and creative youth, women, and members of the LGBTQ community.

“That is what trauma does to the body. That is what hate does to the body,” Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, said in response to Sarah’s death.

“The thought that someone can leave a society that keeps trying to kill them, and still carry that society inside them, still be moved to taking their own lives, chills me to the bone, as I reflect on my own exile, and the exile of the people I love,” the New York-based singer-songwriter wrote. “We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.”

The band also paid tribute to Sarah on their official Twitter account.

In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in jurisprudence, but detention and charges are still made on the basis of laws combatting “debauchery” and prostitution.

Some of the kindest souls and brightest minds of Egypt and the Arab world have been sent into self-imposed exile due to such vague interpretations of the law that allow for oppression, violence, and intimidation.

Sarah’s tragic death has shed light once again on these repressive crackdowns and the persecution of women and the LGBTQ community in Egypt. It is also another reminder that “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” as Pope Shenouda III once said.


Reem Abdellatif is an Egyptian international freelance journalist and editor. She writes about women’s economic empowerment, environmental awareness, energy, business news, travel, and geopolitics.


Abiy - Alburhan
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, then chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and now chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, photographed in Khartoum on June 7, 2019. (AFP)

Sudan and Ethiopia have both condemned cross-border incursions by Ethiopian militiamen and soldiers last week, and have called for a truce and an amicable solution to the border tensions.

On May 27 and 28, Ethiopian bandits launched cross-border raids on the Sudanese villages of Mashre El Fursan and Barakat Nourein, witnesses told Radio Dabanga. A Sudanese army captain was killed in the skirmishes, and several soldiers and civilians were wounded.

Such raids and occupation of farmland are not uncommon in the border region of El Gedaref state, especially during the harvest season, but this time the gunmen were supported by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, according to Brigadier General Amer El Hasan, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Sudan summoned the Ethiopian embassy’s chargé d’affaires over the attacks, and in response the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs said there was “no honorable reason for the two countries to descend into hostility”.


Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties


It is imperative for Khartoum and Addis Abbas to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue amid the ongoing fraught negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach an agreement before July—when Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties—it might lead to a dangerous instability in the region.



Lina Attalah
Lina Attalah is editor in chief at the independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr. (


A well-known Egyptian journalist, Lina Attalah, was arrested on Sunday by security forces while interviewing the mother of a political prisoner outside Cairo’s Tora Prison. Attalah is editor in chief of one of Egypt’s last few independent media outlets, Mada Masr, in a country whose leadership under President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has seen a dramatic curtailing of media freedoms.


She is not the first journalist to face intimidation and harassment.


Attalah was later ordered released on bail of about US$126 after news of her arrest spread on social media, prompting widespread condemnation of her detention.

She is not the first journalist to face intimidation and harassment. In December 2019, twenty-two journalists were arrested for reporting on protests demanding el-Sisi’s removal from power, the largest wave of arrests since 2014. Egyptian authorities justify these arrests by accusing the journalists in question of promoting “fake news”, misusing social media, or supporting terrorist groups.


Wide-Ranging Anti-Terrorism Law

Egypt’s continual struggle with terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere became the pretext for a highly controversial anti-terrorism law passed in 2015, whose broad definition of terrorism allowed the government to impose hefty fines on any media publication that allegedly issues “false” reports on counter-terrorism or military operations.

Media-freedom activists in Egypt characterized the law as draconian and expressed fears that it would shut down smaller news outlets or invite self-censorship. In February this year, an amendment to this law removed mentions of satellite TV channels, radio stations, and social media accounts from the definition of terrorism acts, a decision viewed with skepticism and derided as a “charade” by lawyers and free-speech advocates. They argue the law still gives enough leeway to the state to designate journalists it disapproves of as terrorists or being responsible for incitement to terrorist acts.



Abiy With Sudanese Delegation
Ethiopan prime minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes the Sudanese delegation to Addis Ababa.


A Sudanese ministerial delegation sat down with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa over the weekend to discuss the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and border security concerns. The delegation follows a phone conversation between Abiy and Sudanese prime minister Abdallah Hamdok on May 12, when the latter urged his Ethiopian counterpart to agree to a tripartite deal between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt before beginning the filling process.

The GERD fulfills a decades-long Ethiopian dream to harness the power of the Nile River to meet the country’s ballooning energy needs for its 109 million-strong population. Egypt, however, is concerned that a hasty filling of the dam could lower the Nile’s water level and jeopardize its agricultural industry, with Sudan fearing the dam will exacerbate issues of water shortages.


Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.


A day after Hamdok’s call to Abyi, Sudan announced it would not sign a partial deal due to a lack of technical and legal articles in the agreement, which Ethiopia has criticized as an undue burden. Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.


Other Matters on the Agenda

Outside of discussions on the GERD, the Sudanese delegation and Ethiopia discussed issues of trade, mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing attacks between Sudanese farmers and Ethiopian militias in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref Governorate. Ethiopian forces recently occupied parts of this governorate, threatening to reignite a border dispute that was resolved in 2003 after Ethiopia formally returned the territory to Sudan.


Daily Picks
Jan 22, 2023