During the meeting, Egyptian political leaders discussed ways to convince Ethiopia to abandon the Great Renaissance Dam project, including contemplating the idea of physically sabotaging or attacking the dam.
The Great Renaissance Dam project and Ethiopia’s planned diversion of waters from the Blue Nile is a highly contentious issue in Egypt. Speaking before the meeting with President Mursi, irrigation minister Bahaa El-Din claimed that Ethiopia’s plan would lead to “disaster” for Egypt.
He said, “We will not allow anyone to touch Egypt’s share of Nile water,” adding that “this is a matter of life and death for Egypt.”
He also emphasized that Cairo had not agreed to the dam’s construction, noting that “in times of shrinking water resources,” Egypt would seek to raise its share of Nile water and “not allow for its reduction.”
The meeting, which was broadcast live on Egyptian state TV under the banner “Live: National meeting with President Mohamed Mursi to discuss the issue of the Ethiopian Dam project,” saw senior Egyptian political and religious leaders put forward ideas to scupper the dam project.
Abu Alila Madi, co-founder of the pro-Mursi Wasat Party, suggested that Egypt should discuss military options in order to pressure Ethiopia to come to the negotiating table.
Well-known liberal opposition figure Ayman Nour said that Egypt should spread rumors that it was planning to acquire sophisticated new military aircraft that would allow it to target the dam, claiming this could put “pressure” on the Ethiopian government and yield diplomatic gains.
Nour also suggested that Cairo send intelligence and military teams to Addis Ababa, saying, “We don’t need an embassy in Ethiopia, what we need is work teams in the country,” adding this must include an intelligence and military presence.
He said, “We need to intervene in their domestic affairs,” acknowledging that “this goes against everything that we are supposed to say … but there must be intervention in their domestic affairs so that we can influence their decision-making.”
Other politicians suggested supporting Ethiopian rebel factions with financing and even arms and explosives, to sabotage the dam project.
For his part, former Egyptian parliamentary speaker and Freedom and Justice Party chairman Saad El-Katatni reiterated the irrigation minister’s statements during the presidential meeting, describing the dam initiative as a “national security issue.” He added, “This is an issue of life and death.”
Religious leaders were also present at the meeting, including popular Egyptian television preacher Amr Khaled and representatives of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church. They all stressed the importance of dialogue with the Ethiopians to resolve the crisis.
Egypt was greatly embarrassed by the gaffe, which could harm regional and international diplomatic relations.
Leading Egyptian opposition figure Mohamed El-Baradei took to Twitter to offer “sincere apologies to the people and governments of Ethiopia and Sudan for the irresponsible utterances at the president’s ‘national dialogue.’”
The headline of the independent Al-Tahrir daily newspaper was “A scandal in front of the world.”
A presidential aide apologized for the gaffe after she failed to inform politicians holding talks with the president that the meeting was being broadcast live.
“Due to the importance of the topic, it was decided at the last minute to air the meeting live. I forgot to inform the participants about the changes,” presidential aide for political affairs Pakinam El-Sharkawi later tweeted.
“I apologize for any embarrassment caused to the political leaders,” she added.
Popular Egyptian talk show host Reem Maged, who aired clips of the meeting on her show, was quoted as saying: “It’s true that we asked for transparency from the government, but not like this, not to the point of scandal.”