Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1246, (14 - 20 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Media ‘exaggeration’

Ahmed Eleiba examines conflicting accounts of Egypt’s role in freeing 27 Ethiopians held in Libya

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s media was out in force to cover President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with 27 Ethiopians at Cairo Airport on Friday. The Ethiopians were in transit, having just been freed from what Egyptian officials said were the clutches of a dangerous criminal gang in Libya. Egypt’s media cited unnamed “high-level agencies” in their reports.

The release of the Ethiopians comes a month after the Islamic State (IS) group broadcast video footage of its murder of 30 Ethiopian citizens — all Christian — in the Libyan city of Sirte. In February IS kidnapped and slaughtered 20 Egyptian Christians, prompting Egyptian air raids on IS positions in Derna.

Back in Ethiopia the local press was quick to suggest that Cairo had exaggerated, and at times misrepresented, its role in the freeing of the captives. While quoting Libyan sources to corroborate this, Ethiopian reporters did not balance their version of events with any Egyptian account of what had happened.

 “By the grace of God and due to the efforts on the part of major agencies the Ethiopian citizens kidnapped in Libya have been freed,” Al-Sisi told reporters in the VIP lounge at Cairo Airport.

The president added: “Coordination between us and the Ethiopian government occurred on all levels. The Ethiopians do not have a direct border with Libya but they do have a sister country, Egypt, and they have their brothers in Egypt.”

He expressed his gratitude to the “agencies”, both in Egypt and Libya, that undertook the operation, and stressed: “Egyptian agencies rescue, protect and provide safety. They do not abduct or inflict harm. They restored our brothers to their country.”

Mohamed Idris, Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the release of the Ethiopian hostages sent “a message that the two countries coordinate and work together to carry out what they have agreed and have shared interests.”

Said Idris, “We helped our brothers, in keeping with the responsibilities that Egypt upholds in helping its brothers and neighbours . . . We played a role [in the release] and that role is valued by the Ethiopian leadership and people. Our Ethiopian brothers sense a new policy coming from Egypt. It is in our interests to promote this.”

On how the release of the prisoners might affect wider relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, Idris said:

“The question of the Renaissance Dam clearly has priority but it is not the only issue. Nor can we focus on one issue if we are to promote relations. We must work on many issues, on the basis of the interests we share. All branches of the Egyptian government must pool their efforts to ensure the continuation of this approach towards a country that carries great weight and pays a major role in Africa.”

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn expressed his gratitude to Egypt, Sudan and the Libyan authorities for their efforts to aid the return of the Ethiopian citizens following their evacuation from Libya.

From Cairo the 27 Ethiopians flew to Addis Ababa. Speaking to the press on arrival some members of the group said they had not been detained by a “dangerous criminal gang,” as the Egyptian media claimed, and had not been released as a result of a military operation.

According to Reuters, the group’s spokesman, Garma Almo, said the Ethiopians had been held for eight months in a government prison in Tobruk and their release had taken place under the supervision of the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry and the Libyan Embassy in Addis Ababa.

The 27 were then flown by Libya’s national carrier to Alexandria, then on to Cairo by EgyptAir. The Ethiopian embassy paid for the tickets on African airlines to Addis Ababa. Reuters also cited sources as saying the Ethiopians had been held by “Libyan immigration authorities.”

Al-Hussein Al-Musirri, a Libyan journalist, told the Weekly that Libyan officials say the majority of the Ethiopians who arrived in Cairo had been detained by the Libyan authorities on charges of illegal immigration.

“Egypt capitalised on its political relations with the Libyan government in the east and succeeded in evacuating the detainees who had been held in Al-Kuweifiya prison for months,” Al-Mussiri said.

“The official Libyan account of the releases,” claimed Al-Mussiri, “appears designed to foster the impression that a Libyan-Egyptian-Ethiopian-Sudanese action team is working to evacuate all Ethiopians from Libya after they started to be targeted by IS and 30 Ethiopian Christians were massacred last month.”

So what actually happened?

In brief, it would appear that Cairo employed political efforts in a process to free a group of Ethiopians held by Libyan authorities. Drawing on its relations with Libyan officials, Egypt secured their release and sent a delegation from General Intelligence and an Egyptian airplane to evacuate them from Libya. The operation was carried out in coordination with the other members of a four-nation team and was eventually crowned with success.

Sources contacted by the Weekly agree that the story of abduction, as reported in the Egyptian press, appears to be a case of media hyperbole, or a foolish attempt by some officials to spin a heroic narrative, without bothering about that fact it enmeshes Egypt in a web of contradictions.

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