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The Takeaway: Egypt welcomes US mediation to help break high-stakes deadlock over Nile dam

Motaz Zahran, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, says Ethiopia has "no political will" to resolve dam dispute; who’s buying Golani’s makeover?; former ambassador to United States says Israel needs "united front" against Iran nuclear deal; Egypt’s first female mixed martial arts fighter.
A worker walks with a piece of wood on his shoulder at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD),  near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. - The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa.
Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. 
Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish

'Avalanche of socioeconomic turbulence' possible if Nile dam talks fail, says Egypt’s ambassador to the United States

Motaz Zahran, Egypt’s ambassador to the United States, welcomed US and international mediation of a dangerous dispute over the Nile’s waters between Egypt and its upriver neighbor, Ethiopia. Zahran said Addis Ababa is showing "no political will whatsoever" in reaching agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is why US and international intervention is needed, and welcome, to break the deadlock.

  • In his confirmation hearing last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that the stalled GERD talks could "boil over," and promised that the United States would be "fully engaged" in the region.
  • "We certainly encourage the new administration to be fully engaged in shepherding" a resolution of the stalled talks, Zahran said in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor.
  • Egypt depends on the Nile for 95% of its water. If that water source isn’t carefully managed, Zahran warns, there is the "potential to disrupt the livelihoods for over 150 million Egyptians and Sudanese"; all this could "create an avalanche of socioeconomic turbulence." 

Zahran also discussed:

• Why the US-Egyptian relationship "transcends local politics" in both countries.

• The Egyptian economy’s resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic (see below).

• Egypt’s role in Israeli-Palestinian and Libyan peace efforts.

• Egypt’s support for the governments of Sudan and Iraq.

• Turkey’s "extremely destructive role" in Libya, which is creating "another Syria."

Listen: Check out my conversation with Zahran here on the latest episode of the "On the Middle East" podcast.

Dateline Syria: Four quick takes from our on-the-ground correspondents

  • The makeoverMohammed al-Golani, leader of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is considered a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, the United Nations and others, is hitting the streets in Idlib in his latest bid to recast himself from turbaned al-Qaeda linked terrorist into a nationalist freedom fighter and a kind of mayor, listening to the complaints of citizens about government services and recent flooding. He recently appeared in a blue blazer and snappy haircut in a photo with Martin Smith of PBS. His public relations makeover campaign is probably linked to Turkey’s efforts to engage HTS in order to keep Idlib out of the grasp of even more radical groups. Khaled Al-Khateb has the report here.


  • Idlib crime on the rise. Golani, like any local official, is responding to community events. He is likely picking up complaints about a spike in crime in Idlib, especially in HTS-controlled areas, making daily life for the people there even more difficult. Armed robberies, abductions and auto theft are all on the rise. Sultan Al-Kanj has the report here from Idlib.


  • Car bombs in FSA-controlled regions. "The northern and eastern countryside of Aleppo, in addition to the north of Raqqa governorate and parts of the northwestern countryside of Hasakah governorate, which are under the control of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), are relatively safer" than other areas of Syria, writes Mohammed Hardan. "No bombings or raids by the Syrian regime and its allies are carried out there, unlike in Idlib and the western countryside of Aleppo. However, being relatively the safest does not necessarily mean safe; northern Syria faces the danger of rigged cars and motorcycles." Check out Hardan's report here on why car bombs are on the rise.


  • Women break taboos with bikes. Overcoming harassment and taboos, and a prohibition on women riding bikes and motorcycles, female journalists and activists in Qamishli, in northeastern Syria, started an initiative called “I Want a Bike.” The campaign encourages women’s empowerment and reliance on bikes to reduce pollution and avoid traffic delays. Akhin Ahmed has the report here.

Iran nuclear deal: Israel needs 'united front' in opposing Iran deal, says former ambassador to US

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, is absolutely fine with Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief Aviv Kochavi speaking out against the United States returning to the nuclear deal with Iran and saying that he has, as a contingency, "instructed the IDF to prepare a number of operational plans in addition to those already in place," as Ben Caspit reports.

"War footing." “Israel needs to present a ‘united front’ in opposition to the Iran deal,” Oren told Caspit in this week’s "On Israel" podcast, adding that if the United States and Iran recommit to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, "We will be on a war footing."

Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Feb. 1, encouraged the European Union to “choreograph” a return of both Iran and the United States to the Iran deal, as we report here.

"Marked friction." Oren described Rob Malley, who has been appointed US envoy for Iran, as "intensely intelligent” and capable, and also noted that Malley has had some "marked friction" with Israel. Rob’s appointment "is not likely in any way to dispel our concerns or ease our anxieties" about the Iran deal, Oren told Caspit.

Elizabeth Hagedorn has the background here on the over 200 progressives and foreign policy experts and former officials who have come to Malley’s defense from detractors’ allegations that he is soft on Iran. 

Cool thing: Egypt’s first woman mixed martial arts fighter pummels stereotypes

“I want women to not only practice the sport but also make it part of their lives as a means of defending themselves in any situation,” said Aya Saied, 29, who fights by the name of Sheklesa, who is the first and only woman on Egypt’s first mixed martial arts "Top Team."

Cairo is notorious for cases of harassment of women. A 2017 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found Cairo to be the most dangerous big city for women, and a United Nations' survey in 2013 found that over 99.3% of women had experienced harassment in Egypt, Farouk reports.

Menna Farouk has the report here from Cairo.

In case you missed it: UN Syria envoy says, ‘We can’t continue like this’

UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen expressed his disappointment to the "small body" of the Syria Constitutional Committee, saying, "We can’t continue like this."

The latest weeklong meeting of the group in Geneva revealed a process that appears to be going nowhere, absent a new understanding of how to proceed. The Constitutional Committee, which is tasked with drawing up a new constitution, has 150 members, equally divided among representatives of the government, opposition and civil society. The small group has 45 members, drawn from the 150.

You can read Pedersen’s remarks to the press here, and my September 2019 interview with Pedersen here.

What we’re reading: IMF report on Egypt indicates success, to date, in managing COVID

Last month’s IMF report on Egypt chronicles a success story, so far, in the Egyptian government’s efforts to mitigate the negative economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Measures taken to address the health and social needs and support the sectors most directly affected by the crisis appear to have helped mitigate the impact of the shock," says the report, and Egypt’s economy is expected to grow, rather than contract. You can read it here.

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