March 12, 2020
Summary: despite morphological and anthropological evidence, Egypt did not yet acknowledge the foundation of its African civilization. Nevertheless, it always seeks hegemony over the Nile River and continues enjoying exclusive right, including veto power, based on the 1929 and 1959 Anglo-Egyptian colonial agreements. Using its proximity to the West and the Gulf, Egypt succeeded in depriving Ethiopia access to international financing for development. Since after its 1876 military defeat, it has been engaging in an indirect war against Ethiopia and supported the Eritrean war of independence, Somalian irredentism, and various ethnic based liberation fronts. It brought neighboring countries into Arab League and continues supporting ethnic and religious entrepreneurs to destabilize Ethiopia hoping to deter development efforts.
Against such backdrop, Ethiopia emerges as key partner against global terror and a grantor of regional security and becomes one of the fastest growing economy. Ethiopia forged partnership with new global powers, regional actors, and the upper Nile riparian countries and signed the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to which Sudan and Egypt are not signatory. Ethiopia’s renaissance dam project aims to mitigate regional electricity shortage, forge regional integration, and promote equitable utilization of water resources. Egypt took its objection outside Africa, to the US and World Bank, for mediation the preliminary outcome of which endorses colonial rule, undermines Ethiopian sovereignty, and contradicts US’ non-colonial legacy and the Banks commitment to development. Ethiopia should, together with African Union and riparian countries, engage Egypt based on the CFA and tripartite agreement and develop comprehensive regional integration plan for mutual benefit and reverse the unfolding tension.
Geopolitical and historical background of the Ethio-Egyptian relations:
Despite the phenotypic and morphological evidence of the mummies and the findings of the Senegalese anthropologist Cheick Anta Diop, Egypt does not recognize the bedrock of its African civilization. Ethiopia and Egypt became Christian and Muslim nations in the 4th and 7th centuries, respectively and have maintained delicate relations. Egypt has always aspired to control the sources of the Nile River and occupied Sudan in 1820. Ismail Pasha, the grandson of Ahmed Ali, tried to invade Ethiopia using Swiss military advisors and demobilized US confederacy officers but abandoned his ambition after humiliating defeat in 1875/76.
Unlike Egypt, Israel has been interested in the Nile water and forged amicable relation with upper riparian countries, especially with Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda following its reestablishment. Alarmed by Israel’s rapprochement to Africa, Gamal Abdel Nassir emerged as anti-imperial ideologue, leader of non-allied movement, and become one of the founding member of the organization of African Unity (OAU). His anti-colonial rhetoric resonated to newly independent African countries and they eventually severed diplomatic relations with Israel after the 1967 war.
Under Anwar Sadat, following the Camp David agreement, Egypt ended its focus on Africa and never designed robust African policy since then. Except the little African museum it established in 2016, the Egyptian elite and public lack knowledge about Africa and Africans. Its foreign policy narrative depicts the Nile riparian countries as politically unstable and economically unable to develop their water resources. After the 1995 assassination attempt, Hosni Mubarak abandoned African affairs and has never attended any OAU or AU summit.
Observing the vacuum, Israel returned quickly, reestablished its lost relationship with Africa, and continued supporting Africa on agriculture and water resource management. Egypt suspects that Israel’s growing presence across the upper riparian countries aims at encircling Egypt and exacerbates its preoccupation on the Nile water resources. Egypt accuses Israel of selling the Spyder-MR air defense system to Ethiopia to shield the renaissance dam project.
Besides its proximity to the West, Egypt remains close to Iran with which it shares two of the core Islamic agenda. On one hand, Egypt stands with Saudi and Emirates and strongly opposes Turkey and Qatar for supporting Muslim Brotherhood that it considers as existential threat. On the other hand, Egypt aligns with Iran, which Saudi and Emirates consider archenemy, and shares its strategic objective on supporting Syria and over-sighting Israeli’s nuclear program. Despite its regional military powerhouse, Egypt refused to deploy its troops and offered symbolic military advisors to legitimize Gulf’s operation in Yemen. Such strategic depth made its ambivalent positions acceptable to both the West, the Gulf, and Iran.
The source of the lingering contentious challenge is the British colonial legacy:
The British government’s desire for secured cotton supply for its textile industry was the foundation of the Anglo-Egyptian colonial legacy across the Nile River riparian countries. The 1929 colonial agreement assigns 4 billion and 48 billion cubic meters of water to Sudan and Egypt, respectively, and offers further Egypt exclusive ownership over the Nile River water with veto power. Sudan’s demand for equitable share soon after independence were dwarfed by Egyptian conspired coup d’états and subsequent agreement that preclude other riparian countries and reassigned 18.5 billion and 55.5 billion cubic meter water of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt, respectively. The Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule discouraged Sudan’s increasing demand for equitable water by introducing the Jonglei canal under the pretext of containing evaporation that eventually divided the indigenous African southerners from their norther brothers.
Destabilization remains Egyptian permanent strategy for its hegemony on the Nile River
Ethiopia contributes 85 percent of the Nile river water and remains the major target of Egyptian relentlessly efforts of destabilization. Using its proximity to the West and the Arab world, Egypt has been successful in preventing Ethiopia from accessing multilateral financing to develop its water resources.
Since the 1950s, Egypt has been engaged in an indirect war against Ethiopia. It supported the Eritrean war of independence from its inception and denied Ethiopia access to the sea. It provided critical and lifeline support for various ethnic base liberation fronts aiming for Ethiopia’s disintegration. It actively recruited Ethiopian neighbors into the Arab league irrespective of their identity or creed, and supported the Somalian war of irredentist aggression against Ethiopia and paved the way for the emergence of the then Islamic Court and al-shebab. Egypt continues arming South Sudan searching for a military base and it allegedly finances Ethiopian ethnic and religious entrepreneurs to capitalize on the current internal instability and become detrimental to the completion of the GERD project.
Ethiopia emerged as key Western partner against terrorism and plays dominant role in regional security. New global powers and regional actors fostered new partnership with African, some with unprecedented investments. Nevertheless, Africa faces demographic Tsunami and its population is expected to double by 2050, creating high- youth unemployment exasperated by environment degradation, climate change, and penury of electricity. The Nile riparian countries fostered new partnership and signed the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which demands a more equitable use of the Nile river water resources based on shared interest.
As one of the world’s fastest growing economy, Ethiopia’s faces massive electricity shortage that called for a power generation renaissance dam project on the Nile River with domestic financing. The dam not only reverses the Anglo-Egyptian colonial exploitative relation but also dismantles Egypt’s psychological dominance on black Africa. Uganda is following suit and undertaking similar project on the White Nile valley, with Chinese financing. Although Egypt is nervous about the dam projects, the amount of annual water flow and the speed with which Ethiopia will be filling the dam seems the bone of Egyptian contention.
Egyptian offensive diplomacy:
Africans generally recognized Egypt’s dependence on the Nile, demand only equitable use of the water, and called for revising/abandoning colonial era agreements. However, Egypt remains intransigence on its hegemony and continues its defiance against African demand for a more equitable water share. Egypt rejects African appeal for negotiation and declines from signing the Nile cooperative agreement, as it does not perceive immediate challenge to its exclusive control.
Hoping to exploit Ethiopian instability, Egypt is engaging with new diplomatic offensive hoping to deter the progress towards the GERD completion. At the end of his term as head of the African Union chair, Egyptian president exported an African agenda outside Africa to the US and the World Bank (WB). The US-WB evolved from facilitation to mediation the preliminary outcome of which sounds an endorsement of the Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule that profoundly undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty. Many believe that the US-WB position compromises the US established credibility as a non-colonial power and questions the WB commitment to African development.
The way forward:
As African affairs, the Nile water resource utilization should have stayed in the hands of Africans, especially on political matter. Ethiopia ought to work with the African Union and the entire Nile riparian countries and negotiate based on the tripartite agreement, Nile basin initiative (CFA) and all other applicable international laws for a more just outcome. Ethiopia, in coordination with other stakeholders, needs to take leadership to counter the unfolding Egypt-Arab League joint campaign against Ethiopia and expose the challenges the Nile basin community faces due to Egyptian desire to extend colonial rules anew.
Except insisting on its dependability in the Nile, Egypt has not yet exploited its massive reserve in the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, never sought alternative technology to utilize salty water, improved on its wasteful usage of the Nile River water, has not shared upper countries expenses on environmental and climate change related costs.
Ethiopia should play leadership role in transforming the unfolding confrontation into legitimate collaboration among all Nile valley countries and design a comprehensive development plan for mutual benefit similar to, among others, the Senegal, Gambia, Zambezi, and Chad river basin development projects. Exclusive focus on short-term Egyptian interest undermines the long term and more strategic challenge associated with water security, climate change, and environment.
Africans should restrain from standalone transactional relations and transform standalone projects into collaboration for mutual benefits to mitigate African predicament. Key stakeholders should encourage Egypt to become signatory to the Nile initiative agreement (CFA) and riparian countries should accommodate the needs of all member countries. There is no shortcut to bypass the adverse impact of age-old colonial legacy except developing genuine regional integration plan based on shared interest. The question of equitable water usage is long overdue and no diplomatic tactic nor war rhetoric will curb African quest for equitable usage. The international community should support the African Union in resolving the growing tension among members, the failure of which will undoubtedly lead to human tragedy.
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