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HomeOpinionWhy hubris and political grandstanding undermine Egypt’s Nile interests

Why hubris and political grandstanding undermine Egypt’s Nile interests

Egypt _ Nile
From Google map of Egypt

Berhanu Abegaz*
May 14, 2020

Egyptian folklore and delusionary grandiosity about water rights never cease to amaze (and amuse) the seemingly hapless residents of the upper Nile Basin.  This is especially so for independent-minded Ethiopians who, despite their debilitating poverty, have for millennia provided massive and unrequited development aid to the Sudan and Egypt.  You see, Egypt may be the gift of the Nile, but the Nile is the gift of Ethiopia. Ergo: An ungrateful Egypt is ultimately the gift of Ethiopia, which contributes over 80 percent of its waters and invaluable silt to underwrite the desert civilization.  

Professor Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam’s recent commentaries (Ahramonline, May 10, 12, and 13, 2020) are  the latest examples of willfully distortionary and condescending pronouncements, by those who should know better, regarding Ethiopia’s credible challenge to Egypt’s well-cultivated sense of entitlement and hydro-hegemony.  A casual reader of the jaundiced commentary by the former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation will be forgiven for not recognizing that:

  • The Nile Basin is the only major world watershed without an internationally recognized comprehensive treaty among the 11 riparian states. The defunct colonial (1929) and bilateral (1959) agreements that involved only Sudan and Egypt, and the withdrawal of the two lower riparians from the Nile Basin Initiative betray Egypt’s futile intention to sustain an untenable status quo.
  • Egypt and Sudan, whose inputs have been invited in the filling schedule of the GERD, had never consulted Ethiopia when they built their dams or engaged in massive and misguided diversions (e.g., Toshka) and recklessly wasteful utilization of Nile waters.
  • Mohammed Ali’s Egypt was defeated twice when it invaded Ethiopia to occupy the Blue Nile basin, and its current diplomatic offensive, is the latest example of a long campaign to keep Ethiopia weak by denying it access to water-development financing and destabilizing it politically.  Needless to say, Ethiopians remain unimpressed by the saber-rattling and compassionless diplomatic overkill—even with a full appreciation of Egyptian military capability and geopolitical influence.

Believe me when I say that Ethiopians recognize to a fault the existential angst Egyptians feel about their overdependence on the Nile.  We also feel equally passionate about the cause of eradicating mass poverty in Ethiopia.  But Ethiopians remain bewildered by the lack of empathy for the Ethiopian poor and the mean-spirited disregard of their sovereign rights by Egyptian officials and intellectuals.  So, when it comes to needs, who would accept the odious notion that Egyptians must eat and live in lighted environments while Ethiopians should continue to starve and live in darkness? If Egypt’s claim to 100 percent of the Nile waters just because it needs it, how come it does not volunteer to give 100 percent of its oil to Ethiopia because the latter has none?  And, why do we keep hearing clever arguments that Ethiopia can use its non-Nile waters (only 10 percent of Ethiopia’s rivers are non-transboundary) when no Egyptian would accept the cruel idea that Palestinians should be resettled in Arab countries just because their brethren have plenty of land?

The crux of the issue is the crafting of an agreement, based on the applicable international laws that govern transboundary waters so that the 200 million-plus people in the two African giants can sustainably and equitably utilize the precious Nile. Based on the templates provided by other international treaties (Mekong, Euphrates, Ganges, Danube, Colorado, Panama), a comprehensive agreement envisaged by the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin Initiative will have three pillars: 

  1. Equitable allocation of the Nile waters.   This is the stickiest issue since Egypt stands to lose as much as half of its current use.  Egypt  would be wise to brace itself to accept the inevitable–pay for the above-allocation tapping of waters, eliminate water-intensive crops such as cotton, abandon its reckless water-diversion projects, investment in preventing the Mediterranean from infiltrating the Nile Delta, invest in range management to mitigate the drying up of many tributaries in the Ethiopian highlands, and tap prudently into its massive underground waters.
  2. Collective inspection of all dams in the Nile Basin.  A framework needs to be developed within NBI to ensure that all economically sensible dams are technically sound and financially viable.
  3. Collective investment and management of the ecosystem of the Nile Basin.  This should include all riparians, big or small, to as the only legitimate approach for ensuring environmental sustainability and adequate water supply in the face of global warming and increased demand.  The greatest danger facing Egypt and the Sudan is, in fact, the alarmingly rapid drying up of the Nile tributaries as the Ethiopian highlands become denuded and Lake Tana is being suffocated by water hyacinth.

As Yoweri Museveni likes to say, Mubarak forgot that Egypt is an African country—geographically and economically.  Egyptian strategists are, therefore, well advised to recalibrate their bullying posture toward the hinterland by recognizing as equals the likes of Ethiopia and Uganda.  An African solution to an African problem is far superior to one imposed by the Big Powers or fellow Arab states on behalf of a sniveling Egypt.

 Yes, Egypt is a regional power, but it certainly is not a superpower.  It should learn to act like a responsible big neighbor seeking a win-win solution under the applicable international laws.  It will surely suffer the diminishment of its de facto water share. Still, such a self-limiting addiction to other countries’ sovereign assets should be replaced by an ambition for a fully industrialized and modern service-providing Egypt. If and when it does, Egypt will be in a better position to lead the Greater Nile Valley to the brave world of peace, freedom, and prosperity for all.  


(*): The writer is Professor of Economics, William & Mary, USA.

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