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Al-Sisi`s Nile Policy: What is New and What is Not?

June 30, 2014

By: Zerihun Abebe Yigzaw

As A Background

Following the popular revolt supported by a military coup of July 2013 Egypt`s democratically elected President Morsi was deposed and the country was ruled by a caretaker government nearly for a year. On June 2014 Egyptians “elected” a new president named Abdel Fatah Al Sisi-who was a defense minister under Morsi and who was, in fact, in the forefront in unseating Muslim Brotherhood`s Mohamed Morsi. Since January 2011, from Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi to Field Marshal Abdel Fatah Al Sisi, Egypt has seen four presidents and four prime ministers who in one way or another reflected their stance about the Nile.

Following the ousting of Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, Essam Sharaf`s transitional government was quick to criticize the way Mubarak`s regime ‘treat upstream states of the Nile and lambast its Africa policy. The transitional prime minister further while sending a public diplomacy delegates to upstream states of the Nile pledge that the old era is gone and a new era is opened between the riparian states of the Nile and Egypt. As a good gesture and good neighborliness, the then Premier of Ethiopia the late Ato Melese Zenawi promised to delay the ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement on the Nile (CFA)-which is devised to establish a new Nile Basin based equality of all riparian states, until Egypt elects a stable and democratic government. This promise worked for Egypt and despite the public diplomacy delegates and the then Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised a new era was opened, his successor Mohamed Morsi who was elected as a result of popular election slightly wining over Ahamed Shafiq who was the last Prime Minister of the Mubarak era was not strong and committed enough to continue the track.

Despite Morsi`s had the chance to solve the Nile dispute, the Tamarod movement with the military was on his neck. Then he was forced to use the Nile card to mobilize Egyptians to a foreign ‘enemy’ on the upstream of the Nile to avoid the mob stood against him. His speech and people around him barreled of a water war drums and `our blood is an alternative for a drop of water of the Nile` with the drama at the Presidential campus are what makes his presidency`s memorable moments regarding the Nile. But the very interesting development was the June 2013 brief visit to Ethiopia of Mohamed Amr who was a Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt and the consequent joint statement they made to commence on discussions to implement the recommendations of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE).
Following the termination of the discussion, Egypt went back to the common way of undermining Ethiopia through its propaganda machine in the media. The then minister of Egypt`s Ministry of Water and Irrigation, Motaleb turned in to accusing Ethiopia of being uncooperative and stated that “Egypt will never negotiate on its water share”- a share which Egypt claimed it has under the 1959 ‘Agreement’ with the Sudan-an agreement which is nullified and not a concern of upstream states mainly Ethiopia.

Politicians and statesmen in Egypt have this commonality that they always state that their country`s only water source is the Nile and strives to show that their country is unthinkably dependent on the Nile. And they went further and for them the Nile issue is a matter of life and death. For them the self-apportioned 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile waters as per the 1959 ‘Agreement’ is not negotiable. So they say Ethiopia and other upstream states must recognize that. Due to this main reason, Egypt`s relation with upstream Ethiopia is at unhealthy. At the center of the conflict mainly is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Behind all these developments, Abdel Fatah al Sisi`s inauguration as the new president of Egypt, by many, is regarded as a change in policy and in fact for some a shift in Egypt`s policy on the Nile. The question is the, are there any new developments on the Nile? Is Al Sisi`s presidency different from his predecessor`s policy on the Nile? What is new and what is not?

The Al Sisi Rhetoric

President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi (photo from BBC) As a presidential candidate competing with the Nassrist Hamdeen Sabahi, Al Sisi stated that, he understands Ethiopia`s need for development but the “Nile water is a “matter of life and death” for Egypt,” Ahram Online reported. He further stated that he is ready to visit Ethiopia for dam talks to resolve the dam row with Ethiopia peacefully. In his inaugural speech, Sisi also stated that he “won’t allow the Renaissance Dam to cause a crisis or a problem with sisterly Ethiopia“. This new rhetoric is mainly a pledge that Egypt is ready to solve the Nile crisis especially the dispute on GERD peacefully and through dialogue. This was further stressed in the discussions between Dr. Tedros Adhanom and President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi. The new president further understands that GERD is not an Ethiopian dam project alone rather it is a symbolic Africa`s project. This understanding is of course reflected in the President`s speech when he say, “I will never allow the issue of the Renaissance Dam to be a source of creating a crisis or a problem or be an obstacle for enhancing Egypt’s relations with Africa in general or with sisterly Ethiopia in particular.” The meeting between Ethiopia`s Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Egypt`s previous Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and the understanding to continue the tripartite meeting was also regarded as a positive step. The remarks and developments mentioned in one way or another were regarded as Egypt`s change of heart.

Continuing the Tripartite Meeting

What is new from the pre-Sisi Egypt is, the agreement reached between Ethiopia and Egypt to continue the Tripartite discussion to implement the recommendations of the IPoE. The discussion was started in November 2013 under the Adly Mansour presidency and continued until January 2014 in Khartoum-the capital of the Sudan. However, the discussion was halted due to the unnecessary tabling of an agenda out of the scope and purpose of the discussion by Egypt. Mainly, in the January discussions, Egypt came up with the so-called “principles of confidence building” which was another attempt to bring back the 1959 ‘Agreement’ by other means.

Now the Al Sisi administration seems worried that Egypt`s unwise decision to push for the discussion halted back in January is not helping the country as Ethiopia is also continuing the construction of GERD 24 hours a day for seven days a week. The decision to resume the discussions by including the Sudan is a positive step. Yet no one is sure whether Egypt will stick to the principles of the discussion and refrain from tabling unnecessary agendas.

Egypt: Stemming the Technical Nile and Propel the Political Nile

Despite almost all transboundary watercourses involve politics and appear political due to the nature of modern states and their boundaries. Had there no boundaries, rivers would have remain one geographical unit and apolitical. The Nile is the most politicized transboundary watercourse as compared to other similar transboundary watercourses including Euphrates-Tigris as well as Mekong. Egypt is the dominant state in pushing the politicization of the Nile as compared to other riparian states. For almost all riparian states of the Nile upstream to Egypt including Sudan, the Nile is a technical issue not a political one. It is the Ministries of Water Affairs which are responsible in dealing with the Nile issue in all riparian states except in Egypt-where the Ministry of Water and Irrigation has nominal power in Nile related negotiations. In almost all upstream states the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other related institutions play a supportive role and plays a crucial role in diplomacy. That is why the ministries are working together by strengthening their horizontal relationships.

But, Egypt, relentlessly has been trying politicizing the Nile especially following the signing of the CFA and the commencement of the construction of the GERD. This is move of Egypt is based on its (mis)calculation that putting the Nile issue on the political table will allow here to use any instrument possible to pressurize upstream states rather than solving the issue technically which is more based on scientific data and evidences. Egypt is trying to play its 1959 game that helps her to win over the coup troubled Sudan. The political Nile is more open for lobbyist strategy than the technical Nile. It is this writers doubt that the recent moves of Egypt despite not new is an attempt to propel the Nile in to the political space.

The Nile: “Importance to Egypt and Ethiopia`s Plan and need for development”

On Ethiopian side it is most neglected to remind the phrases in Al Sisi`s inaugural speech where he said, “if the dam [GERD] constitutes its [Ethiopia`s] right to development, the Nile represented our [Egypt`s] right to life.” The Egyptians have been constructing the discourse of their extreme “dependence” on the Nile and Ethiopia`s perceived “less dependency on the Nile”- a statement which is baseless and not supported by facts. As for Egypt, it is one of the most ground water richest countries on the world with the potential of almost equivalent to the Nile`s 500 years flow. Ethiopia`s dependency on the Nile is more than answering its developmental questions rather it has to do with the life and death of the people of the country. Ethiopia`s territorial integrity, its peace and stability, its economy-in terms of energy, agriculture, surface water availability etc is shouldered by the country`s Nile Basin which accounts 2/3 of energy and irrigation potential, 70 percent of the country`s water resource, nearly 40 million people and 2/3 of the regional states.

Following the 23rd African Union Summit (AUS) in Malabo-Equatorial Guinea the leaders of the two countries-Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi met and discussed on various issues to boost bilateral relations. In the meantime, the Egyptian media have reported that, following the meeting of the two leaders, “Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, along with his Ethiopian counterpart Tedros Adhanom, stressed in the statement that Ethiopia will understand the importance of the Nile to Egypt; and that Egypt will understand the Ethiopian plans and need for development.” In this statement the phrases “Ethiopia will understand the importance of the Nile to Egypt” is a manifestation that Egypt is trying to bold its dependency on the Nile and is an attempt to bowl Ethiopia in to its shrewd politics. This is clearly seen when the following statement declare that “Egypt will understand the Ethiopian plans and need for development.” These statements clearly and unambiguously matches President Al Sisi`s inaugural speech and his remark about the GERD. The statements are not, of course, a problem but they are because of the discourse attached. The message is Ethiopia is less dependent on the Nile than Egypt, and as far as Ethiopia`s question is concerned, its question is a question of development and it can be answered by other means. Can Ethiopia afford that? Never! Ethiopia should be worry of such phrases and texts. It is language in use and that is discourse. What is astonishing is, though, the statement by the two foreign ministers was misinterpreted by the Egyptian media-which is the usual business. The discussion and the focus of the joint statement was regarding the GERD but the Egyptians attempted and tried hard to make the center of the discussion the Nile in general and with the usual cunning politics.

Where is the Changed Heart?

The Sisi rhetoric does not reflect a change of heart of Egypt. It is too early to conclude that Egypt`s Nile policy is changed. The declaration that the solution on the Nile is dialogue and peaceful discussion between the concerned parties is what all Egyptian leaders since the January 25, 2011 popular revolt have been saying but fall a short when it comes to practice. Above all the pillars of Egypt`s Nile policy is not changed and is less likely to happen in the near future. There are plenty of reasons for this conclusion.

Egypt has always saying that the self-claimed and apportioned “Nile water share as per the 1959 Agreement is not negotiable.” This is a matter of life and death in the Egyptian view of the Nile and any hydraulic infrastructure development in the upstream of the River. In his visit to Chad on April 2014, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab stated that ” We’re not against the Ethiopian people but we advocate our interests… We [Egypt] will protect our rights to the Nile water with the support of the world and African countries, and with our efforts,” The Problem is not protecting their interest. The real problem is the definition of their interest as it is based on unfairly, unjustly and unlawfully claimed right based on colonial, partial and non-inclusive pseudo agreements of 1929 and 1959. Moreover, the emphasis on the importance of the Nile for Egypt and its restriction as a question and plan of development for Ethiopia is a clear manifestation of the real stance of Egypt. In fact, it is in the same administration that we are hearing from the Minister of Agriculture, Adel Al Beltagy appointed by President Abdel Fatah Al Sisi himself, saying “Egypt will not give away a single drop of water of its share of Nile Water, which totals at 55 billion cubic meters.

Besides, like the previous years Egypt seems continuing the divide and rule policy that it is known for. The solution for the Nile is not a bilateral path rather a multilateral one which embrace all the riparian states under one legal regime and river basin commission which is responsible for the management and utilization of the Nile waters. But the Sisi administration like its predecessors have already focused on strengthening bilateral relations than the multilateral one. The visits to Sudan by the president Al Sisi and the minister of Irrigation -Hossam Moghazy  and the planned visits to other Nile Basin countries is part of the divide and rule approach that the country adopts. So where is the Changed Heart of Egypt?

In Sum
Negotiation on the Nile is over and closed back in 2009 at the Kinshasa meeting of the Nile Council of Ministers of Water Affairs. What remains is discussion regarding the implementation of the recommendations of the IPoE on the GERD. The discussion despite held in three rounds from November 2013 to January 2014 at Khartoum it was halted due to the obstructionist strategy of Egypt. Currently, Egypt through its president and minister of foreign affairs pledge that the discussion will be resumed by including the Sudan-whose GERD position is clear and supportive of Ethiopia. Such come-back for discussion and talks over the GERD would not be taken for granted as a change of heart from Egypt in its Nile policy. It is too early to conclude as the pillars of Egypt`s heart is not yet changed and roped by its position on the unfair, partial, unjust, colonial and bilateral pseudo-agreements. In fact, one should not forget the current constitution of Egypt and its Article 44 which hinders the government of Egypt from solving the Nile dispute as it obliges the government to protect the so-called Egypt`s `historic right` on the Nile. As repeatedly said, though, the only solution for the Nile problem is dialogue and genuine cooperation which needs the true change of heart from Egypt not a tactical change to preserve a dying and obsolete zero-sum ‘regime’ on the Nile. Till that, what we have seeing and listening is no more than a mere change of tactic to buy time and appear cooperative while continuing the divide and rule policy.

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One Comment
  1. Zerihun Abebe Yigzaw, you make your country proud. simply watch this snakes work their way around Africa. these people are nothing but curse to our beloved country and the Continent of Black people.

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