The Social Science Research Council’s African Peacebuilding Network (APN) had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Rawia Tawfik, a 2017 Individual Research Grant recipient. This interview was conducted on June 21, 2017, during the APN 2017 Training Workshop on Research Methods in Accra, Ghana. It has been edited for length and clarity.
APN: Could you tell us a little about yourself and your APN research project?
Dr. Rawia Tawfik: I am an assistant professor in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University in Egypt. I teach African politics and international relations and I do research into issues related to African development, political economy, and Egyptian foreign policy towards other African countries. My APN project is focused on a theme I have been working on for the last two years: hydropolitics in the Nile Basin. I am looking at ways to reduce conflict over transboundary resources—especially along the Eastern Nile between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—and to promote regional cooperation between these countries. There was a sense of optimism about regional cooperation after signing the Declaration of Principles on the Renaissance Dam in March 2015, and I am studying whether the domestic variables in the three countries are more conducive to cooperation now than in the past. I am also interested in how to build a coalition of interest between actors, including non-state actors such as the business community and civil society, who could help push forward the agenda of regional cooperation.
So how did you come to be interested in this particular topic?
It was actually a very hot topic around the time I finished my PhD in 2012. I started looking at what the main issues in African politics were, with a particular emphasis on Egypt’s relationship with Africa. At the time, Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam was a serious point of contention and conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia. Sudan was of course, also a very important actor in that situation. The issue of the Nile is such a sensitive one for Egypt and Ethiopia that threats of war were being made.
I started to look at the conflict in a different way and tried to take a balanced view. Of course, writing as an Egyptian, there is a risk that nationalistic sentiments regarding Egypt’s historical ‘rights’ will get the better of you. There seemed to be no balanced voices on either side. I left Egypt for a while and went to Germany, where I studied the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam on relations between these countries, under the supervision of a German scholar who was also interested in the topic. She helped to check any of my biases. We successfully published a number of research papers on the topic. I then wanted to explore these relations outside the context of the dam, so that’s what I am trying to do with my APN project; to explore other issues, what we can call ‘cooperation beyond the river,’ that is, beyond water resources. How can we transcend the focus on negotiations over the renaissance dam to have a broader view of regional cooperation?
We are very excited to have our first grantee from Egypt. How did you come to hear about and apply for an APN grant?
I heard about the APN grants through social media. One of my professors in African studies posted the call for applications on a Facebook group. I was a bit concerned that my topic would not fit the criteria because the themes listed in the call were all related to national or local conflicts. I was not sure whether transboundary conflicts over shared resources would be of interest, however, I was very pleased to be awarded the grant and I became even more excited when I found out that I was the first Egyptian to receive this grant.
What do you think of the research methods training workshop so far?
It has been great so far. I came to the workshop knowing that I will not only work on improving my own project, but that I will also learn about other cases from all over Africa, which is important for me as a professor of African politics. When I was on my way from the airport with my Moroccan colleague Jamal Bahmad, he was trying to explain his project on cinema, which I found to be a very unique topic. The topics are so diverse in terms of the units of analysis and the themes, which makes the experience quite enriching for me. It is also a great opportunity to network. For my research project, I will be conducting interviews in Sudan and Ethiopia and fortunately, there are scholars from both countries represented here whose networks I can benefit from. I might even be able to find a host institution, which would facilitate my fieldwork. These kinds of networks, not just between individuals, but also potentially between institutions, are very important, and I hope they will last long after we complete our projects.
How are you feeling as you prepare to embark on your research project?
I am quite excited although I know it will be challenging. I noticed that I am the only one out of the sixteen grantees who is doing fieldwork in three different countries. Many people are doing fieldwork in different sites, but within the same country. I will be travelling a lot over the next four to five months which will be part of the challenge. I have even been discussing it with my mentor, Kenneth Omeje, on a practical level. My head of department at Cairo University always asks me whether I feel safe doing so much travel, especially to countries which have tense relations with Egypt like Sudan and Ethiopia. But if you are a social scientist you simply cannot avoid doing this kind of research. You cannot sit in an air-conditioned office and write about issues which you have not heard about from the people directly involved. You have to go into the field and hear different perspectives, otherwise you will only hear one narrative. This has been my experience during the past fifteen years of doing research. I have found that going to the field is an integral part of doing research that both reflects reality and hopefully, contributes to changing it.
Thank you for making time to speak with us.
Rawia M. Tawfik is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Economics and Political Science at Cairo University, Egypt. She holds a DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom, and an MSc in Politics from Cairo University, Egypt. Her research interests include issues surrounding African development and regional integration. She was a visiting research fellow at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg, South Africa, the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) in Pretoria, South Africa, and the German Development Institute in Bonn, Germany. Her post-doctoral research has focused on the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on conflict and cooperation in the Nile Basin. She has published a number of journal articles, book chapters and research papers on Nile hydropolitics, regional integration in Africa, and Egypt’s foreign policy towards Africa. She is a 2017 APN Individual Research Grant recipient.