Egypt gathers allies to control Ethiopia’s stance on the Nile
EDITORIAL | When Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sissi toured Djibouti last week on Thursday, it made history. During Djibouti’s 43 years of independence, no Egyptian president had visited. Still, al-Sissi did not come for tourism or to relax on the beaches of the small Horn country of Africa.
A broadcast released after a meeting between al-Sissi and his host Omar Ismail Guelleh said they had agreed on a “strategic partnership”, in particular to combat terrorism and other security issues, especially as both countries are anchor states in the Red Sea, a of the world’s busiest cargo fields.
Safety in this canal, especially in Bab al-Mandebsundet, is crucial. And Egypt’s Suez Canal, the shortest sea route between Europe and Asia, allows ships traveling through the canal to save fuel and distance, but it does not come for free. An expert estimate shows that ships pay as much as $ 101,000 in fees to be passed through, making the canal an important economic plank for Egypt. A security threat to the south of the Red Sea may be unwelcome.
Nevertheless, al-Sissi also traveled on a second schedule: Securing the Nile. Djibouti does not belong to the Nile. As a regional headquarters of the intergovernmental agency for development, it still routinely meets with basin countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya, which are members of the bloc. Other basin countries include Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo [current chair of the African Union], Rwanda and Burundi.
The communiqué in Djibouti City said the Egyptian leader wants a “fair and binding” agreement on the filling, operation and management of the Grand Renaissance Dam [GERD] on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
For him, such a deal will prevent tensions and stabilize the region “and preserve the interests of all parties.”
Built at an estimated cost of $ 5 billion, GERD is Ethiopia’s premier hydropower project with a 74 cubic meter reservoir and capacity to produce up to 6,400 MW of power when fully operational. It has been under construction in the Benishangul-Gumuz region near the border with Sudan since 2011.
Ethiopia has claimed that it is only using its rightful resource to provide the much-needed power to develop the country with 110 million people and has called on the region that shares the world’s longest river to “reconsider” its use. Seleshi Bekele, the Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy, claims that the dams will help prevent flooding in the Sudanese plains. “It is designed smartly because filling and construction run in parallel, constructed as high-quality and modern technology,” he says.
Egypt’s concern, however, is that it relies on the Nile 90 percent of the time for fresh water and sees GERD as a project that will reduce the amount of water that reaches Cairo. Although Ethiopia has claimed that the plant will only delay, not stop the flow of water, some experts believe that Cairo is arguing.
A study by the Horn International Institute of Strategic Studies in Nairobi showed that the amount of water reaching Egypt will decrease in inverse proportion to the number of years it takes to fill the dam. It saw that if the dam takes 21 years to fill, Egypt’s irrigated agricultural land will shrink by 2.5 percent due to a loss of 3 billion cubic meters. This proposal has since been climbed down. The countries are now fixed for 7 and 10 years. The study showed that Egypt can lose as much as a third of its irrigated land if it turns seven years old and almost a fifth if it turns ten years old.
But not sharing the river water is not an option.
“Ultimately, any agreement, whether a transitional solution or a permanent treaty, that provides further clarity in the division of the Nile’s water resources, would be very necessary to improve regional stability.
“For success, all parties should abandon tough positions and be ready to compromise. Such goodwill would go a long way in setting a precedent for the necessary future cooperation between the Nile states, the Horn Institute concluded in a separate report.
Ethiopia, which is the source of almost 85 percent of the Nile, feels that it has not used its resources well. However, Egypt has invoked an archaic treaty signed with islands. A first agreement [signed between Egypt and the British colonial government in East Africa] In 1929, Egypt provided a share of 48 billion cubic meters of water, more than half of the Nile’s annual flow to the Mediterranean. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed another bilateral agreement, dividing the Nile between them. This meant that Egypt would be entitled to 55 billion cubic meters and Sudan about 18 billion. Neither Ethiopia nor other eastern countries participated directly in the agreements.
Since then, independent East African countries from the Nile Basin have tried to renegotiate a treaty to change the share of water shares, but Egypt stood firm on its share. The previous deal was so bad that they excluded coastal countries from taking sovereign projects on the Nile, such as building canals or dams.
By not reaching an agreement, Ethiopia and Egypt have instead focused on gathering allies. The ongoing failed talks have been mediated by the President of the African Union, Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi. Several rounds went without a solution. Tshisekedi has also made rounds and told the members reasons for the stable. Ethiopia says that SU will help, Egypt says that AU may need external help.
On May 31, the Ethiopian ambassador to Tanzania, Yonas Yosef, pushed the envelope further and sought Dar es Salaam’s support to keep the matter in the AU. A report by the state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation reported that Tanzanian Foreign Minister Liberata Mulamula had agreed to support the AU.
Still, it is only half of the strategy to get support for AU-led mediation. Egypt has also gone around cementing military and defense agreements with coastal countries. Egypt’s Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Mohamed Farid Hegazy was in Nairobi and Kigali last week, where he signed defense cooperation agreements.
In April, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry traveled to Kenya, Niger, Senegal, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, the Comoros and Tunisia to deliver a message from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi “on the Renaissance Dam issue.”
“He stressed the sincere political will shown by Egypt during the talks, hoping to lead a serious negotiation process leading to a binding legal agreement on GERD filling and operation,” said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez at the time.
Egypt has since signed a military intelligence agreement with Uganda, a military cooperation agreement with Sudan, and has courted South Sudan by dangling the development of the Jungle Channel in exchange for support. In Uganda, Major General Sameh Saber El-Degwi, the Egyptian intelligence official who signed the security agreement, was sincere: “The fact that Uganda and Egypt share the Nile, cooperation between the two countries is inevitable because what affects Ugandans will in one way or another affects Egypt, he said.
It is unlikely how far this deal can affect Uganda’s stance. Earlier, President Yoweri Museveni criticized Egypt’s reluctance to allow foreign countries to use the Nile. And Ethiopia has existing bilateral ties with some of the basin countries. It has a reciprocal defense pact with Kenya, for example, signed more than 50 years ago.
Whether the military alliances can mean anything to the Nile is yet to be seen. But at least the Nile, despite its length, does not carry the most significant volume of water. It can at least also show that Egypt’s real intention is beyond the Nile, perhaps to count on rivals like Turkey.