Egypt and the Nile: at a crossroad

For far too long, Egypt has been playing nasty against the entire riparian states of the Nile basin. But the Nile water politics have changed since the last three years following the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to build Africa’s largest dam on the Nile. Now Egypt is standing at a crossroad; making the right decision would be in its own best interest

Zerihun Abebe Yigezaw

Since time immemorial the Nile remained one of the few transboundary watercourses with no multilateral, basin-wide and inclusive treaty that governs the management of its waters. Nonetheless, a negotiation between all the riparian states (except for Eritrea which stayed as an observer) since the early 2000s resulted in the gradual formulation of the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin (CFA), which was hoped to solve the Nile dispute once and for all. Yet downstream Egypt sturdily opposed the CFA due to one sub-article – 14(b), which is about a non-legal concept called water security. Although Sudan followed Egypt in not signing the CFA, its recent moves radiate signals that the country is ready to revise its previous stand.

Be that as it may, idealists perceived the change in government in Egypt in early 2011 as a dramatic shift in the Nile Basin that will help solve decades old dispute over the use of the water from the world’s longest river. That was not to be.

Politicization of water affair 

Egypt hasn’t had an elected president since the July 2013 military coup against the democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. Whoever is going to be the next president of Egypt, however, the Nile issue will remain the hardest nut to crack for one fundamental reason: Egypt wants to see anything about the Nile through the eyes of its politics.

From the onset, the 1959 controversial agreement between Egypt and Sudan over the use of the Nile was marked by an excessive exercise of arm twisting by Egyptian politicians against their Sudanese counterparts. In the negotiations, which took place after a coup d’état in Sudan in 1958, the Sudanese technical experts had the upper hand when it comes to technical details on the common use of the water. But their Egyptian counterparts who lacked the technical expertise suspended the negotiation and turned to their president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who resorted to have a telephone conversation with his Sudanese counterpart, General Ibrahim Abboud. The leader of the Sudanese negotiating team signed the agreement, as was stipulated by president Gamal Abdel Nasser, without consulting it with his Sudanese technical experts. The deal was not technical; it was a political decision done by a presidential phone call from Cairo to Khartoum. 

Today Egyptian negotiators leave no stone unturned to try to persuade (sometimes pressure) Sudanese and Ethiopian negotiators to take the Nile issue for discussions at the respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs of the two countries. In Sudan and Ethiopia negotiating the Nile issue is primarily the concern of technical experts at the Ministries of water affairs than political maneuvering at their respective Ministries of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, not so in Egypt.

New faces new challenges

In negotiations and discussions the interaction of people is the most important factor in determining the outcome of the discussion. This can best be achieved if the negotiating teams, especially those at the expertise level, were to engage in the discussions without recurrent reshuffles. Alas, on the Nile talks, particularly over the last three years, while the technical teams from Ethiopia and Sudan remained more or less the same people who have been involved in the series of negotiations and discussions, Egypt made it a habit to come up not only with new faces but shifting agendas.

During talks in November and December 2013 and January this year on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and its impact on downstream countries in Sudan`s capital Khartoum, for example, Egypt sent different negotiators who were not picking issues from where they were left in the previous session but afresh. The two Egyptian experts who represented their country during the year long works of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) on GERD, Dr. Sherif El-Mohammady and Dr. Khalid Hussein Al-Zawahri were not included in the three meetings between Nov. 2013 and Jan. 2014 in Khartoum. This is a grave concern not only to Ethiopia and Sudan but a few Egyptian experts who were heard complaining about it in private.

Principles of confidence building

Following the decision by Ethiopia to start the construction of the GERD three years ago, in an attempt to defuse growing concerns, the Ethiopian government initiated the establishment of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to assess the benefits and impacts of the dam on downstream states. The IPoE, which was composed of ten experts – four  international experts and two from each of the three Eastern Nile countries (Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan), came up with its eagerly awaited recommendations in May 2013, nearly a year after it commenced its investigations.

Although from the start Ethiopia insisted that the project was awarded based on Engineering Procurement Contract (EPC), the first set of recommendation by the IPoE asked Ethiopia to comply with major procedures to be taken during a construction of a mega dam the GERD is.

The Second set of recommendation was for the three countries to carry out further studies on hydrological flow modeling and socio-economic impact assessment. But this can be done only if the three countries agreed to cooperate. In order to implement the recommendation, which the three countries agreed not to make public, three different tripartite meetings were held on 4th Nov. and 8-9 December 2013, and 4-5 January 2014 but with no concrete result so far.

During the first two meetings discussions were made on establishing a committee of 12 experts from the three countries to follow up and implement the recommendations made by the IPoE. However, the third meeting in January this year was clouded by controversy and a tabling of new agenda by Egypt.

Two major issues set by Egypt split the countries in this round of the meeting held in Khartoum, Sudan. First, the Egyptians requested the hiring of a new International Panel of Experts parallel to the 12 committee of the national experts agreed by the three countries in the previous two meetings. Needless to say it was rejected by both Ethiopia and Sudan as unreasonable and unnecessary. Second, the Egyptian delegation came up with what they called “principles of confidence building” – a list of items in which they requested Ethiopia to accept what they claim is “Egypt`s water security.” This request, however, was immediately rejected not only by Ethiopia but faced strong criticisms from the Sudanese side.

Egypt’s so-called “principles of confidence building” has a number of paradoxical issues. First, the issues they brought amounted to a vague attempt that wanted to bring the CFA from the cold. So far the CFA is signed by six riparian states: Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda. Of these Ethiopia and Rwanda have already ratified the CFA by their parliaments; parliamentary ratification is expected soon in Burundi and Tanzania; while Uganda’s is waiting for presidential decision, which means it is in its last stage.  Although South Sudan has started the process to sign the CFA, its current situation makes its move unpredictable.  In the backdrop of this, therefor, Ethiopia cannot discuss the same issue which is accepted by all riparian states except for Sudan and Egypt. What Egypt needs to do is then to sign and ratify the CFA.

Second, bringing the issue to the discussion table was out of the scope and agenda for a meeting called to discuss matters pertaining to the recommendations of the IPoE on the GERD. Third, Egyptian negotiators needed their so-called “principles of confidence building” to be guaranteed on paper while they continue refusing to acknowledge that Ethiopia’s effort in establishing the IPoE on the GERD was the best and practical confidence building measure one could think of, not to mention Ethiopia’s effort to mobilize other upstream states to delay the ratification of the CFA until after a democratically elected government was established in Egypt. Egypt could have taken the establishment of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in which all riparian states on the Nile cooperated in countless programs as the best confidence (and trust) building mechanism too, but purposely avoided.

Egypt’s Article 44: suicidal or provocative?

When a change of regime dawned in Egypt three years ago many hoped a civilian government will take better chances to tackle the Nile problems in general and the dispute on Ethiopia`s decision to singlehandedly construct Africa’s biggest dam on the Nile in particular: that the collapse of Mubarak`s regime would be a chance to amend Egypt`s long held inflexible position which repeatedly thwarted a basin-wide cooperation especially in concluding the CFA.

In fact, immediately after the fall of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt, the transitional government under Essam Sharaf signaled that the old days were over and the Nile dispute would be solved peacefully to accommodate the interests of all Basin countries. Such hopes were also propagated during the first few months of the one year reign in power of the democratically elected government of President Mohamed Morsi. Following the July 2013 military coup that ousted Morsi, however, resolving the Nile dispute took several steps back where it remained eclipsed.

Unfortunately, not only the issue of the Nile, but Egypt, too, remained a country besieged by political bickering and instability. The July military coup against the government of Morsi didn’t serve the Nile issue either. Now Egypt is preparing to form a new government based on a recently endorsed constitution. Recent developments such as the veneration of one man and the security gap in the capital Cairo and other major cities clears the way for the uncontested scenario of Field Marshal Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi’s free ride as Egypt’s next president.

In the backdrop of this, Egyptians have recently voted for a constitution, Article 44 of which declares: “The state [of Egypt] commits to protecting the Nile River, maintaining Egypt’s historic rights thereto, rationalizing and maximizing its benefits, not wasting its water or polluting it…”.

Egypt’s threefold Nile dilemma begins on the reckless inclusion of the phrase in article 44 of “…maintaining Egypt`s historic rights thereto…” which, from Egypt’s perspective, is defined based on colonial, partial and bilateral “agreements” which allow no water not only for Ethiopia, the source of the river, but also for all upstream states in the Nile.

First, it complicates and makes impossible the ability by the coming government of Egypt to discuss and negotiate anything related to Egypt’s right to use the Nile water. The ratification of the CFA by the six riparian states has already made the colonial era agreements obsolete, null and void from upstream states point of view.

Second, Article 44 clearly exposes Egypt’s incessant hydropolitical narcissism and its tendency of bullying upstream states. But the justified need by all upstream states to use the Nile water makes Egypt’s desperate attempt futile. In fact, as of late, many upstream states see negotiating the Nile issue with Egypt as a waste of time. Third, the so-called “historic right” is a nominal doctrine and is against basic principles of customary international water law – mainly the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization.

Egypt’s exit strategy

Egypt is now at crossroads and has two choices to make: to get stuck in the old school or accept the new reality in the Nile Basin. It will be in the best interest of the next government in Egypt to find ways of compromising and enhance cooperation on the Nile for win-win gains. This could only be possible if the political elite in Cairo are willing to revise the free falls of the constitution drafting committee, which was led by Amr Moussa who was Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and Secretary of the Arab League, and certainly not a hydropolitics expert. The first exit strategy should likely be revising Article 44 for its own sake. The second step would be to give enough weight to the science of transboundary watercourses; politicization of the Nile will not help Egypt in anyway under the dynamics of current circumstances. To this end, it is better if Egypt gives space and proper mandate to competent people at its Ministry of Irrigation and Water than allowing the security, the military and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs a free ride on matters related to the Nile. If the next president fails to craft a scientific strategy, the Nile problem will not be solved and Egypt will remain a captive of its own misdeeds. 

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button