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Egypt: better to unshackle the Nile

The real challenges in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam GERD related talks are not the issues but the personalities and interests of individuals who are around the file. Therefore, unshackling the Nile from troublemakers is the only way out, writes Wondyifraw Qerenso.  

As have been said rivers are natural creations. They flow following a God given course and do not recognize political boundaries. However, the world has witnessed from Asia to Europe and Africa to the Americas rivers with tremendous political implications. 

Egypt, the land of the Pharaohs, however, has shackled the Nile. The Nile is a political object. It is a highly securitized and politicized river. The Nile is a prisoner of reprobate politicians in Egypt. Had they left the Nile to be a technical matter, there would have not been a single drum of dispute

Regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia has been extending an olive branch to resolve any difference peacefully and in a civilized way. That is how disputes or disagreements should be resolved in the 21st century. However, the response from the Egyptian side seems unwelcoming and is tiresome at most. There are dozens of illustrations to this.

Ethiopia, for instance, unprecedented in the history of the Nile Basin, initiated the establishment of a tripartite committee to review the design and study documents of the GERD in 2011 and later the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) was established in 2012. Ethiopia then provided the IPoE with more than 150 documents and made all the data and information accessible and opened its doors for discussion and dialogue. At that moment, Egypt was in transition and a new transitional Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, was in power. He pledged that “the GERD will be a symbol of cooperation” and showed a positive and encouraging signal and his visit to Ethiopia in May 2011 was heralded as marking “a new era of relations between Egypt and Ethiopia.” The IPoE, after a full year of reviewing the documents, submitted its final report and Ethiopia and Sudan declared officially and publically that they accept the report wholeheartedly despite Egypt’s reservation. With this as a precursor, the Egyptian side came to its original self and made “the new era of relations” slogan just rhetoric.

The coming to power of the Muslim Brotherhood under Mohammed Morsi turned the story telling, ricocheting the words of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak that ‘Egyptians blood will be the alternative if a drop of water is reduced from the Nile.’ The show went on further and Morsi was seen on a live television program conspiring against Ethiopia. The world watched the puerile drama which includes speeches and comments of well-known politicians and clergies of Egypt that ‘recommended solutions for Egypt’ starting from ‘sending Egyptian actors to Ethiopia through waging a propaganda war against Ethiopia falsely declaring that Egypt has an air-to-air refueling capacity to send its jets to Ethiopia and sabotaging the dam through its commandos.’ Laughable! The rhetoric seems to frustrate Ethiopia and Ethiopians as if they would not say “water is thicker than blood.” Throughout history Ethiopians have never crossed the right of others and protect their right, pride and sovereignty as the Egyptians themselves know very well in the sixteen battles they lost to Ethiopia in the 19th century alone.  Ethiopia, however, did not respond with the same tone of Morsi by declaring “an eye for an eye”. Ethiopia followed a wise approach of not escalating the matter just for the sake of peace and considering the bigger picture for the peoples of the Nile Basin as children of the same river.

Despite the unfriendly Egyptian approach, Ethiopia and Sudan advised to implement the IPoE recommended studies than wasting time. In June 2013 the then Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Amr came to Ethiopia and the countries agreed to start discussions to implement the IPoE recommendations, namely to conduct water resources modeling and transboundary socio-economic impact assessment studies jointly conducted by the three countries. These studies were conducted by Ethiopia. The recommendation is simply a sign of building trust and confidence by conducting the studies by the three countries using primary data.

The implementation of the IPoE recommendations is not going well as well. The process is full of ups and downs. It seemed the countries were agreeing but later the news of disagreement is everywhere. The Tripartite National Committee (TNC) represented by four experts from each country, which was established in 2014 to “follow up on the conduct of the two studies”, has made 18 meetings so far; the last in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 5, 2018. Tripartite meetings at the level of water affairs ministers and joint meetings of the Ministers of Foreign and Affairs and water affairs were conducted. Furthermore, the leaders of the three countries also met frequently and signed the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (DoP) in March 2015 in Khartoum, Sudan. However, agreement on the GERD seems elusive. The question is, then, why?

What do the Egyptian people want and what has Ethiopia offered?

Irrespective of the bad intentions and attitudes as well as ill-intentioned interventionist actions of the establishment in Egypt from Gamel Abdel Nasser to Abdel Fatah el Sisi (just to mention the 20th and 21st century alone), Ethiopia has been looking at the bigger picture and trying to work on people to people relations. It is an open secret that the Egyptian government, especially the establishment, does not like the people to people relations among the two countries. The only chance to work that out and move forward by strengthening people to people relations without any agenda is in the court of Abdel Fatah el Sisi and those who surround him.

It is very clear that, what the Egyptian people need is whether the Nile is reaching Egypt or not. What the Egyptian need is peace and development. To this end, as the foundations of any relations between countries are the needs and aspirations of peoples. Understanding this fact, Ethiopia has extended its hand and has been endeavoring to accommodate the interest of the Egyptian people. The reception accorded to the first and the last Egyptian public diplomacy delegation in 2011 is a testimony in this regard. Ethiopia has always been open, transparent and respects the needs and aspirations of the Egyptian people and is ready to work together. So, the question is, why is the hassle and the music of conflict being played by the Egyptian politicians?

What the Egyptian politicians want?

When Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was the transitional prime minister of Egypt, he declared his country was opening a new page in its relations with Ethiopia. This warm beginning was cooled during the era of Mohammed Morsi. When President Sisi assumed power looking at his charming face and approach, there was a lot of hope to strengthen relations with Ethiopia. As heard from his speech in the Ethiopian Parliament in March 2015, President Sisi is a man whom Ethiopia can work and do business with. However, it seems that the establishment and some politicians as well as individuals around him are not helping him.

The Nile file is a technical one. It could be resolved had it been left to the technical people. But, in Egypt, the Nile file is shackled by people from the intelligence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Looking at the evolution of the discussion between the three countries regarding the GERD, by observing their public engagements through statements in the media and if someone is to be blamed for the slow progress or for any regressive trend, it is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Arab Republic of Egypt, Sameh Shoukry and people around him. In this regard, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt, Ahmed Abu Zeid is another challenge to the progress. The later actually seems the maker and breaker of the Nile issue like a pharaoh with his father Mohammed Abu Zeid as well as brother Khaled Abu Zeid. Some insiders has it that the Nile file is the one that Sameh Shoukry is trying to manipulate to stay in power for any reshuffle by President Sisi next June.

The solution

Looking at the most critical issue at hand, for example, as the Egyptian media repeatedly raises is the filling of the dam. The filling of the GERD is a subject matter too far for the politicians to deliberate on. It is not something that can actually require a political decision. For instance, a politician cannot simply say “fill the dam within X years.” It is the technical people, the hydrologists, who better know the nature and behavior of the river and depending on the metrological data available to say something more credible and agreeable.

Even regarding the studies that the French consultants are supposed to study, the issues should only be seen from the perspective of what is agreed to be studied as specified in the Terms of Reference for the studies. If the consultants are contradicting the terms of reference then the three countries as clients through the Tripartite National Committee have to manage the contract and make sure the contract they signed with the consultants is fully observed.

Swerving from those approaches mentioned above are simply a waste of time and does not reflect the needs of the people of Egypt except troublemaking.

Looking back at how the tripartite engagement of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia started, there is a lot to appreciate. A lot has been achieved despite the ups and downs in the process. Cultivating the positive outcomes and engaging in a constructive manner should also be encouraged. However, still there are challenges towards in the journey to achieve the needs and aspirations of the peoples of the basin countries.

The real challenges in GERD related talks, I presume, are not the issues but the personalities and interests of individuals who are around the file. Therefore, unshackling the Nile from troublemakers is the only way out. If Egypt continues to keep the Nile file in the hands of the likes of Sameh Shoukry, then, no solution is on site. Egypt has to free itself from the 19th century approach of twisting and politicization of the Nile issue. Treating the Nile at the technical level is the River’s freedom and will provide an opportunity for the basin countries to enhance their cooperation and facilitate regional integration.

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Wondyifraw Qerenso