Egypt seeks assertive role, worries about Nile dam

CAIRO Sun Jul 21, 2013 9:09am IST

Egypt's new Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks during a news conference in Cairo July 20, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El

Egypt's new Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks during a news conference in Cairo July 20, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's new military-backed cabinet made clear on Saturday it wanted to play an assertive role in regional politics, urging Ethiopia to attend talks over a dam on the Nile and stressing it sought change in Syria.

"Egypt's leadership is inevitable," said Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, a member of an interim government sworn into office just four days ago following the ousting of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi on July 3.

Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States, put forward a similar array of priorities to Mursi, albeit with a different tone, stressing that the ongoing domestic upheavals would not undermine Egypt's international clout.

"I seek to activate Egypt's international role, especially on issues related to national security and regain Egypt's Arab and regional status," he said.

Under Mursi, Egypt took an increasingly strident stance against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling rebel forces seeking to oust him from power.

Mursi said last month that he backed a no-fly zone over Syria and had cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus. Fahmy told reporters this decision was under review, but said the interim cabinet still wanted change in Syria.

"We support the Syrian people and their aspirations for freedom," he said, adding that he would meet Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, on Sunday.

However, Fahmy firmly distanced himself from Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, which last month joined a call by Sunni clerics for a jihad, or holy war, against Assad and his Shi'ite allies.

"There are no intentions for jihad in Syria," he said.

DAM WORRIES

Indicating that Ethiopian plans to build a dam on the river Nile remained a considerable concern for Egypt, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement it hoped the chances of reaching a deal with Addis Ababa would not evaporate.

"Egypt is deeply worried that Ethiopia has not yet reacted to the invitation Egypt's minister of water and irrigation made to conduct a meeting in Cairo on the consequences of the dam," the statement said on Saturday.

Egypt fears the $4.7 billion dam, which Ethiopia wants to construct near its border with Sudan, will reduce water flows vital for its 84 million people and its agriculture.

The dam issue rose to the fore under Mursi, who said last month that "all options" remained open in dealing with Ethiopia, with a group of Egyptian politicians caught on television suggesting they might support Ethiopian rebels or even military action.

Cairo hosted an experts' meeting in June to study the impact of the dam on Egypt and Sudan - the two downstream Nile states. The Foreign Ministry statement said Cairo's proposed meeting was meant to discuss that report.

Fahmy told reporters he welcomed a U.S. initiative to resume direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, cautioning that they should be held within a tight timeframe.

Egypt was for decades a main player in the so-called peace process, but has played little or no part in efforts by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to get the two parties back to the negotiating table after almost three years of stalemate.

In a sign Egypt was already engaged in regional affairs, King Abdullah of Jordan paid an unannounced visit to Cairo on Saturday - the first by an Arab leader since Mursi's ousting.

Abdullah had been openly critical of the Muslim Brotherhood and swiftly welcomed the decision by the Egyptian army to remove Mursi from power. Presidential sources said he would discuss the Palestinian peace talks' with the new Egyptian leadership.

Signaling a return to cooler relations between Egypt and Iran after an attempt at rapprochement under Mursi, Egyptian security forces on Saturday raided the Cairo office of the Iranian Al Alam Arabic satellite channel.

The channel's director was detained and equipment seized, Al Alam said. A security source said the outlet lacked a license. (Additional reporting by Ayman Samir, Tom Finn and Ali Abdelaty, Writing by Crispian Balmer and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Alison Williams)

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