Rivalry over the River: Egypt’s Disorder and the New Geopolitical Order

By Shahrazad Far,  associated researcher at MEDEA Institute

Nile water governance has always been the point of contention amongst the ten Nile basin countries. But an unprecedented escalation has been recently witnessed in the decades-long dispute, which has increasingly become pressing in the last decade. At the frontline of the dispute are two of the richest civilizations in Africa, namely Egypt and Ethiopia, who share a long history of rivalry centered on the Nile, dating back to their ancient kingdoms. In late May, Ethiopia announced the beginning of its much disputed hydroelectric project of the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. The $4.7 billion Mega hydroelectric dam began diverting the flow of the blue Nile, which is the primary source of the Egyptian Nile river. Ethiopia aims at boosting its electric power capacity, which by all accounts suffers chronic shortages. The worry over the negative impact of the dam is shared between the two downstream countries of the Nile basin, namely Egypt and Sudan. Hence, upon announcement of the project, a committee of representatives and experts from Egypt and Ethiopia as well as Sudan has been formed to study its impact. After many delays, the tripartite report was finally released on the 3th of June. The report confirms Egypt’s fears of the adversary impact the Ethiopian dam will have on Egypt, economically, socially, as well ecologically and thereby affecting the very livelihood of millions of Egyptians[1].

Egypt’s Reactions

Not surprisingly, the news did not reach Cairo well. Protective of their Nile water share, Egypt as well as Sudan took the news as tantamount of practically rendering previous agreements breached and thereby ascending the tension between Cairo and Addis Ababa since the beginning of the dam building. Nonetheless, Egypt’s reactions were further from being coherent. During the escalation of the crisis, reactions of the Egyptian president Morsi have gone back and forth between a harsh tone stopping a little before decaling war at Ethiopia and a softer tone calling for urgent cooperation.

Even before the report was released, wikileaks documents showed that Egypt was masterminding an attack on Ethiopia’s dam back in 2010[2]. To make matters worse, a live-on-air gaffe[3] during a meeting headed by Morsi over the issue has sparked much outrage and criticism as it revealed suggestions of sabotaging the dam as a solution to the crisis. Yet, Ethiopia remained firm on its stance of using Nile water for the purpose of the economic development of its own people, reassuring Egypt and dismissing any substantial harm against Egypt all along. Soon after the release of the report, however, Morsi dismissed the war as an option while still confirming that all options are open[4]. Morsi’s tone, nonetheless, remained condescending as far as Egypt’s Nile water rights are concerned, to the point that Musenvini of Uganada described Egypt’s comments on the matter “chauvinistic”[5].

The incident was enough to alert the Egyptian populace, who started feeling that the incident was another step towards change in the wrong direction; a change against their own interests. A growing sense that their government may not be up to the task started taking hold, especially that such an event was not conceivable for many Egyptians. And because to many Egyptians, Egypt is the gift of the Nile as Herodotus once said and reiterated by Morsi, such a step by Ethiopia was taken as a direct offense to undermine the sacredness of the Nile to the Egyptians, who feel- rightly or wrongly- a historically deep sense of entitlement to the Nile.

But aside from that, Egypt has every reason to be alarmed. Egypt is facing a real challenge here. Egypt relies heavily on the Nile river water, which is primary and only source of renewable water in its extremely dry climate with virtually little rainfall. In fact, Egypt resorts to reusing water through recycling up to five or six times just to meet its needs; a practice which is directly linked to high rates of kidney diseases[6]. Also its population continues to be in a constant growing trend; a trend that other Nile basin countries witness as well. Fewer water supplies and more people is an equation for de-development. Not to forget that that less water supply also means less electricity supply. But one of the most important reasons that render Egypt even more vulnerable as far as the Nile water supply is concerned is the fact that Egypt is the most downstream country in the Nile basin. This leaves it effectively at the discretion of upstream countries, especially Ethiopia, where most of Egypt’s Nile water comes. This vulnerability becomes more pronounced should its historical Nile water rights, which were enshrined in outdated, disputed and unfair colonial era agreements, have to be renegotiated on equal terms among all Nile basin countries. All these reasons put together form the backdrop against which the Egyptian government’s sporadic outburst as well as public alert to the news can be explained.

Failure to Seal a New Deal

This vulnerability pushes Egypt to insist on continuing the colonial legacy and to call Ethiopia to abide by the colonial agreements. The colonial era treaties affecting Nile Water use, namely, those between Egypt and Sudan of 1929 and 1959, first guarantees Egypt the lion’s share of the Nile water and second safeguards it by giving it a veto power over any activity by other Nile basin member countries. As a perfect example of how the British Empire ruled, the agreement fixes in place a zero sum game paradigm along with a divisive construct as an integral part of governance that served the empire’s objectives at the time but still runs today. And in the personalized regimes of the region, the structures of this agreement have inevitably ignite rivalry and exacerbated the situation over the years.

Nonetheless, putting aside its dam project, Ethiopia’s claims for more fair distribution of Nile water are legitimate ones and so are its historical grievances over its shares. Moreover, other Nile basin countries echo these demands. Nile rights evoked in the signed agreements encroached on their freedom to initiate development projects for the betterment of their own populations. But Addis Ababa is walking the fine line between making the best of its Nile share for its economic development, on the one hand, and not infringing on the flow of the Nile to the downstream countries, namely to Egypt and Sudan, on the other. That is why Ethiopia insists on the claim the dam project will also benefit both Egypt and Sudan as well[7].


An Interruption of the Status Quo

As the colonial agreements fell short on delivering fairness among the Nile basin countries, many attempts and initiatives were pushed over the years for renegotiating the terms of the agreements. The issue was always to find a compromise between two contending stances with regards to agreements regulating the share of water. On the one hand, the upstream countries demand fairer share of water through establishing development projects to cater for their growing populations. Downstream countries, on the other hand, are keener on pursuing longer-term strategies that guarantee and even improve their water share flow as a priority before giving their consent on projects that can potentially result in the very opposite[8]. As a result, negotiations took off in 1997 to later take the form of an initiative supported by the World Bank known as the Nile Basin Initiative NBI[9]. It was established in 1999 as a platform for negotiations and is fundamentally an ambitious project aiming at reducing conflicts through joint economic projects amongst the countries involved. Nonetheless, the two diverging views between the upstream and downstream countries seemed irreconcilable. As a result a decade later in 2010, and much to the discontent of Egypt and Sudan, several of the upstream countries that were eager to replace the Nile Water agreements of 1929 and 1959, went ahead to sign a new agreement, which became known later as Cooperative Framework Agreement CFA. This move, de facto, eliminated Egypt’s veto over the matter, especially after Ethiopia’s ratification of the agreement on the 13th of June, after which other signatories i.e. Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Burundi are expected to follow, with Congo and South Sudan announcing their interest in signing the agreement[10].

Tangible Changes

The fact that the overwhelming majority of Egyptian Nile water comes from Ethiopia after which the blue Nile and the white Nile flow to Egypt as the river Nile, has always been the one strong card in Ethiopia’s hands. But why is Ethiopia more confident using it now and emerging as a power to reckon with? The timing of the re-eruption or rather escalation of this old-new dispute coincides with Egypt ‘s internal disorder upon the fall of Mubarak and the win of the Muslim Brothers. In fact, very soon after the fall of Mubarak, the crisis started spiraling as Ethiopia disclosed more details about its grand dam project. This is indicative of tangible changes that the area and the region as a whole are undergoing. If anything, this crisis is a clear manifestation of the decline of Egypt’s influence and role both in Africa and the Arab world over the past decades. Somalia’s turmoil and Sudan’s division, both of which lend more power to the position of Ethiopia, as well as the arrival of new global players such as China, providing technical and financial support to upstream countries, are all facets of changing regional political climate. To add to the aforementioned, Sudan-Egypt relations also witnessed a visible deterioration since the 1989 Sudanese military-Islamist revolution. Sudan, which remains Egypt’s only ally has more stakes in the issue, namely the indispensability of its collaboration with Ethiopia over terrorism issues as well as the diplomatic support Ethiopia provides with regards its relations with South Sudan[11].

In this light, Morsi is reaping what his predecessors sowed. Although Nasser focused his foreign policy on his African neighbors, Sadat and Mubarak led many decades of foreign policy that turned away from Africa, and abandoned any leadership role in the continent. That is why Egypt next challenge is not only to manage the internal instability but also external rivalry over its organic sources but forging strong relations with its African sisters. This Nile crisis may prove to be more destabilizing that the Egyptian uprising[12].

Fear, Suspicion and Tension

Nevertheless, the Nile water touches another sensitive cord in Egypt for reasons of national security. The incident increases the reciprocal sense of suspicion and fear between Egypt and Ethiopia, which have grown stronger over the past few years. Ethiopia’s claim that Egypt has always attempted to weaken it is responded by a similar claim from Egypt who sees its strong and friendly relations with Israel as a source of suspicion. Israel’s continued attempts to strengthen its relations with some of the Nile basin countries, especially the upstream ones, namely Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, are seen as a maneuver against Egypt’s interests. Lieberman visit to Africa in 2009 has certainly not appeased Egypt’s fears, especially that his delegation included representatives of the “intelligence community”[13]. Although Israel dismisses these claims as mere Arab conspiracy theories, there is still an evident interest for Israel to engage with African partners who share antagonism towards Egypt. Now, more than ever before and with the winning of Muslim Brothers, Israel is facing a security threat at its doorstep.  It may very well be a more reliable strategy for Israel to weaken Egypt through non-military means, in which case Nile water issues will surely keep Egypt’s leadership busy and attention away from targeting Israel. What increases the suspicion in Egypt is the historically good relations between Israel and Ethiopia; a relationship which attracts Israeli funding to similar hydroelectric projects in Ethiopia, where the funding may be welcome[14].

Nonetheless, Egypt’s suspicions of Israel’s involvement in Nile affairs have a longer history. They stem from a project that was once proposed by the Zionist father Theodore Herzl in 1903 with the hope of rendering Sinai part of the future Jewish nation. The British, at the time, dismissed the project, which suggested diverting the Nile water towards Sinai[15]. The project was resurrected later, when it was approved by Sadat during the peace negotiations with Israel and became what is known as “the Peace Canal”. Despite the controversy, the project was materialized only later during Mubarak in 1997.

The Path Ahead: Cooperation or Confrontation?

Are all options open as Morsi claims? Is this crisis really heading towards a water war or it is a mere words war? Three decades ago, Anwar Sadat declared that the only reason for Egypt to go to war again is the Nile water. From this prism, the Ethiopian Hydroelectric project qualifies as a war pretext where retaliation is legitimate. But facts on the ground have changed since Sadat and they now tell a different story. Despite the recent exchanges and the rhetoric, there is little proof of any substantial war intentions[16]. Moreover, Morsi may very well be using the issue of the dam to divert the Egyptians attention from other domestic issues in order to boost his sinking popularity[17].

Egyptian statesmanship days are long gone. Yet, is not only the geopolitical climate that is changing; it is also the geophysical one especially as global warming effects become more evident[18]. The negotiations and agreements are made on the false assumption that the same amount of water that flows will be there forever. Also, there is the possibility that the Ethiopian dam project may not accumulate the expected amount of water it was designed to.

The system of governing the Nile has surely proven non enduring and problematic. Egypt needs to rethink its strategy in the continent, especially in so far as the Nile water is concerned. This means that cooperation paradigm should replace old paradigms in an attempt to produce shared growth and prosperity as well as mutually beneficial agreements. Egypt has to revive its foreign policies with other African nations and start focusing on fostering relations on the continent, where its very livelihood rests. For that end, softening the tone and rhetoric will be indispensable, along with ensuring a more equitable water share, that gives more incentive for all the Nile basin countries to ensure the health of the water. This will make water a force multiplier for the region rather than a source of conflict. Keeping in mind that several of the Nile basin countries suffer major socio-economic problems, there is need for new kinds of initiatives that tap on win-win opportunities and find common solutions through shared interests.




[1] See: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/73064/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-presidency-issues-summary-of-tripartite-repo.aspx

[2] See: http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/10/12/243396.html

[3] See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/egypt/10100044/Mohammed-Morsi-aide-apologises-for-on-air-gaffe.html

[4] See: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-22850124

[5] See: http://www.independent.co.ug/news/news/7886-museveni-calls-egypts-statements-about-river-nile-chauvinistic

[6] See: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/ethiopias-giant-dam-muddies-the-waters-downstream-in-egypt

[7] See:  http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/73917/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-will-benefit-from-Nile-dam-Ethiopian-ambassa.aspx

[8] See: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/ethiopias-giant-dam-muddies-the-waters-downstream-in-egypt

[9] See: http://www.nilebasin.org/newsite/

[10] See: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/13/ethiopia-ratifies-new-nile-agreement-opposed-by-egypt/

[11] See: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/06/2013612105849332912.html

[12] See: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/ethiopias-giant-dam-muddies-the-waters-downstream-in-egypt

[13] See: http://www.haaretz.com/news/yossi-melman-why-did-lieberman-really-go-to-africa-1.8190

[14] See:  http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/73917/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-will-benefit-from-Nile-dam-Ethiopian-ambassa.aspx

[15] See: http://www.eurasia-rivista.org/the-conflict-over-the-nile-water/11230/

[16] See: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/06/2013612105849332912.html

[17] See: http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/73688/Egypt/Politics-/Morsi-using-Ethiopia-dam-crisis-to-boost-popularit.aspx

[18] See: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8187984.stm