Egypt Resurrects the Myth of Blocking the Nile ( PART ONE )

Egyptian authorities and opinion makers have once again been filling their speeches and writings with numerous references to the old myth. A myth, that Ethiopia plans to block the Nile and that as an arch-enemy of Egypt it intends to divert the River and sever Egypt’s “life-giving artery.” Since the start of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), references to this medieval nonsense have proliferated with Ethiopia depicted as a permanent adversary of the Egyptian people.

It’s all been part of a bellicose geopolitical and hydro-political rhetoric built on the strategy that, “the arithmetic of the waters of the Blue Nile River is…a zero-sum game that Egypt is determined to win.(Egypt and the Horn of Africa’ – Addis Tribune, June 26, 1998). It’s an attitude that was very clearly reflected in comments at the end of the most recent Tripartite Water Ministers Meeting, which ended in Khartoum on January 5. In a press statement, Khaled Waseef, a spokesman for the Egyptian Irrigation Ministry, referring to what he called threats that would endanger the interests of Egypt.

He said, Egypt would never accept the construction of the GERD. He threatens that Egypt would take “alternative routes” over the Dam and added improvised fabrications that the construction was meeting financial and technical problems. (Al-Ahram, 8.1.2014). According to the Egypt Independent newspaper, the Egyptian delegation called Ethiopia “intransigent” at the negotiation table. The delegation was quoted as saying that now “all options are open’, and underlining that “we will never return to the negotiation table.”

It also made a number of false allegations including claims that the Ethiopian government is facing problems financing the dam, that its construction posed risks to the resources of the Ethiopian people, and that the technical studies carried out on GERDP had been inadequate.

The Logic of Might

These comments display an apparent determination to revitalize arguments of violence and conflict, an approach that could lead the Nile Basin back into the historic mire of dysfunctional socio-cultural, political, economic, and ecological strife. They demonstrate how current Egyptian officials and journalists are still haunted – by the ghosts of medieval Egyptian leaders who asserted Ethiopia’s geopolitical intent to divert the Nile and by the illusory visions of Khedive Ismail, in his attempt to forge a North East African Empire in order to control the Blue Nile.

All this, and the phrases “alternative routes” and “all options are open”, is part of the building of a myopic conception of monopolizing the Nile waters at the expense of the upstream countries. It suggests that Egypt has no intention of discarding the unlawful colonial-era agreements that it wrongly believed gave it veto power over the efforts of others to use the waters of the Nile River and allowed it exclusive usage for the fertilization of its sands and deserts with the Blue Nile’s golden silt and alluvial soil of the spectacular meadows of and lofty mountains of Ethiopia.

It underlines the concept of the end justifies the means, seemingly ingrained in Egyptian foreign policy and its continuous efforts to prevent any type of development in the Greater Horn of Africa which might affect the waters of the Nile, and more particularly on the Blue Nile, the source of so much of the River’s water. All this, as Patricia Wright, author of ‘Conflict on the Nile’ stresses, has led to the idea that Egypt must be in a position either to dominate Ethiopia, or to neutralize whatever unfriendly regime might emerge.

Egypt’s policy of derailing Ethiopia’s efforts at development and modernity has been a constant thread throughout the last century. They were translated into specific action during the regime of the late President, Anwar Sadat. In the 1970s and 1980s when Ethiopia was most severely affected by long term droughts with millions at risk of starvation and death, the then Government raised the possibility of building a dam on the Blue Nile. President Sadat immediately threatened military action, calling on the United States to speed up the delivery of the promised military aid so that Egypt might not be caught napping, if it had to take action.

The then Egyptian Minister of Irrigation, Abdul Azim Abdel Atta, made the same point “Egypt will never permit Ethiopia to exploit the waters of the Blue Nile…” Egyptian officials took action to block possible loans to Ethiopia and funds from financial institutions, including the African Development Bank. The result was the death of hundreds of thousands of people and torment for millions more.

This rhetoric of violence still seems to linger in the minds of Egyptian politicians. This remains the case even today when Ethiopia has begun to move towards transforming the lives of Ethiopians as well as planning to boost the development of all Nile Basin countries through its aim of exporting hydropower and provide electricity for millions of the people of North East Africa. In an interview with Al-Monitor after the end of the Water Ministers Meeting in January, Mohamed Abdel Moteleb, Egypt’s Water Minister, repeated the ferocious warning that “we do not have the luxury of giving up any drop of water from Egypt’s share of the Nile water.”

This resurgence of aggressive bombast has been a major disappointment to Ethiopia. Ethiopia has repeatedly demonstrated its belief in the principle of equitable and fair utilization of the Nile River. Again and again it has tried to reassure Egypt and Sudan about the GERD. It was, after all, Ethiopia which suggested the setting up of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to assess GERD’s implications for the lower riparian countries. The IPoE report was clear. The GERD would not cause any ‘appreciable harm’ to the lower stream countries but rather provide benefits.

In addition, Ethiopia immediately accepted the IPoE report and set about implementing all its recommendations which included carrying out two further studies (for a water resource system/hydropower model and on trans-boundary environment and socio-economic impact).

As part of the follow-up process for the recommendations, there were to be tripartite meetings of the Water Ministers of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia. Differences emerged at these meetings with Egypt wanting the appointment of a new international panel of experts, and at the third meeting unexpectedly presenting a new proposal on the principles for confidence-building. Sudan and Ethiopia felt the first was unnecessary as the studies would be carried out by international consultants and under the auspices of a committee of national experts drawn from all three countries. The second point, the principles for confidence building, referred to issues that actually contradict the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement which Ethiopia recently ratified and which has also been signed by six other upper Nile riparian countries. Ethiopia and Sudan made it clear the mandate and the agenda of the Meeting was to establish appropriate mechanisms to follow-up the IPoE report and resolve issues that had not been finalized at their previous two meetings, not to address meaningless phrases that had nothing to do with the issues.


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