Land of the Pharaohs on the Edge

By Bruh Yihunbelay
Feb. 09, 2013

Ever since the ousting of the former president, Hosni Mubarak, one of the world’s oldest civilizations, Egypt, has faced bitter clashes and political instability with no quick solutions at hand. With that being the case, Ethiopians are closely following the situation, which could either turn out to be a blessing or a curse, writes Bruh Yihunbelay.

Ethio-Egyptian relations are one of the oldest relations in the history of Africa as they date back to the Pharaonic era through trade exchanges between the two countries. Diplomatic ties between Egypt and Ethiopia were established in 1927, the oldest diplomatic relations in the world and Africa.

Ethiopian-Egyptian relations have a special nature, especially because both countries have interests on common vital issues including the Nile water flow, the security of the Horn of Africa region, and combating piracy. Furthermore, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are members of the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO), which coordinates efforts of the three countries to implement projects in the field of water and energy in cooperation with donor countries.

Moreover, Egypt and Ethiopia are members of the Nile Basin Initiative that was established in 1999 with the aim of promoting cooperation among the Nile Basin states to achieve the aspirations of their peoples.

However, the two countries have been at loggerheads when it comes to usage of the Nile waters. In 2010, Egypt discussed taking military action in cooperation with Sudan against Ethiopia to protect their stake in the Nile River, according to internal emails from the US private-security firm Stratfor, which was released by the whistleblower website, Wikileaks.

Egypt and Sudan currently receive 90 percent of the river’s water under colonial-era accords while upstream countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia have been clamoring for a new deal during more than a decade of talks.
The Nile flows south to north, making it one of only a handful of rivers in the world to do so and one of only two in Africa.

So, rather than Cairo sitting at the mouth of the massive water supply, it sits dead last—subject to all the whims and fancies of each upstream nation. With several factional governments upstream and the premium on fresh water, diplomacy only goes so far.
A dispatch from May 26, 2010 that cited information from an Egyptian diplomatic source points to the country’s frustration: “Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir has agreed to allow the Egyptians to build a small airbase in Kusti to accommodate Egyptian commandos who might be sent to Ethiopia to destroy water facilities on the Blue Nile… It will be their option if everything else fails.”

The Blue Nile, which begins in Ethiopia, contributes about 85 percent of the flow that passes through Egypt to the Mediterranean.

Ethiopia became an even bigger threat a month after the Egyptian Revolution toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, when the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was announced with new details about the construction.

Currently, construction has begun and because of the massive nature of project some fear it could destabilize Egypt. They further argue that the consequence will make the 2011 political upheaval look minuscule.

“It would lead to political, economic and social instability,” Mohamed Nasr El Din Allam, Egypt’s minister of water and irrigation until early last year said. “Millions of people would go hungry. There would be water shortages everywhere. It’s huge.”

Ethiopia is also currently working around the clock to make ends meet and fund the dam, which according to observers would need foreign aid to be completed. On their part, Egypt and Sudan have lobbied foreign donors to refrain from funding the project while trying to find a diplomatic solution to the increasingly dire water situation.

According to the internal Stratfor email, a dispatch from June 1, 2010 that cited a “high-level Egyptian security/intel source, in regular direct contact with Mubarak and [then-intelligence head Omar] Suleiman” said:

“The only country that is not cooperating is Ethiopia. We are continuing to talk to them using the diplomatic approach. Yes, we are discussing military cooperation with Sudan. …If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam… Look back to an operation Egypt did in the mid-late 1970s; I think 1976, when Ethiopia was trying to build a large dam. We blew up the equipment while it was traveling by sea to Ethiopia.”

Another dispatch from July 29, 2010, that cited the Egyptian ambassador to Lebanon said that Egypt and leaders of the soon-to-be independent southern region of Sudan “agreed on developing strategic relations between their two countries,” including Egypt training the South Sudan military, and noted that “the horizons for Egyptian-Southern Sudanese cooperation are limitless since the south needs everything.”

In response to the above dispatches, the government of current Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi described the Stratfor emails as hearsay, “designed to disturb Egyptian-Ethiopian relations.”

True to form it can be recalled that in 1979 Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s second president, said: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”

But then again the Egyptians are currently undergoing an unprecedented series of instabilities. And that to some extent has left the administration to focus more on internal affairs.

At the beginning of this year Morsi declared a state of emergency in the cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia after days of deadly unrest. A curfew from 21:00 to 06:00 was imposed for 30 days starting from the day of the announcement.

At least 33 people died during the weekend in Port Said, where a court judgment sparked rioting. Unhappiness with Morsi’s rule fueled unrest elsewhere. This led Morsi to invite opposition politicians to a “national dialogue” meeting.

On his Twitter account, leading Front politician Mohamed ElBaradei called the dialogue “a waste of time.”

With violence erupting time and again in late January, protesters in Ismailia continued to clash with police, who responded with tear gas.

Similarly, in the capital, Cairo, anti-government protesters clashed with security forces near Tahrir Square.

The liberal opposition accused Morsi of being autocratic and driving through a new constitution that does not adequately protect freedom of expression or religion. The constitution was approved in a national referendum in December. The government is also being blamed for a deepening economic crisis. The state of emergency applies to the three cities along the Suez Canal, and their surrounding regions. However, protesters defied the nighttime curfew in towns along the Suez Canal, attacking police stations and ignoring the emergency rule imposed by the president.

It was after a series of riots that General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who was appointed by president Mohamed Morsi last year to head the military, said in a statement following 52 deaths “The continuation of the struggle of the different political forces … over the management of state affairs could lead to the collapse of the state.”

He added that the economic, political and social challenges facing the country represented “a real threat to the security of Egypt and the cohesiveness of the Egyptian state” and the army would remain “the solid and cohesive block” on which the state rests.

As could be expected, Ethiopians are closely monitoring the turn of events that are unraveling in Egypt. Some are saying that the opportune moment to focus on building the dam is right now.

One of the commentators who share this idea is Tadesse Kassa (Ph.D.) a legal expert who recently published a book entitled “International Watercourses Law and the Nile River Basin – Three States at a Crossroads.”

“This the perfect opportunity for Ethiopia to build the dam. This is because Egypt has been pressuring other riparian countries not to cooperate,” Tadesse told The Reporter.
“But sooner or later Egypt will pull herself out of this miserable situation, their focus being fully on the Nile,” he added.

According to him, the issues of the Nile will remain on top of the agenda of the North African country.

“For Egyptians, the Nile is politics, economics, law and something that is part of their day to day lives,” he contends.

Ed`s Note: Solomon Goshu has contributed to this story.

Source: The Reporter