13 - 19 June 2002
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (446)
Knife against the throatEgyptians' anxiety over the Nile, the country's lifeblood, is as old as history. However, in the late 19th century and for a good part of the 20th, anxiety graduated to alarm, and for good reason. That was the period in which the imperialist movement reached its height and when the contest over Egypt heated up between Britain and France on the one hand and between the Empire and the Egyptian nationalist movement on the other. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* traces the historical course of the great river
"Egypt deprived of free access to the waters of the Nile -- the Nile and Egypt and the knife at her throat." Perhaps nothing could best epitomise the relationship between Egyptians and their river than this headline introducing the Al-Ahram editorial of 21 April 1929.
The question of control over the Nile must first be put in historical perspective, starting with the rivalry over Egypt between that epoch's two great colonial powers, France and Britain. The rivalry reached a head in the famous standoff in Fashouda. In 1898, a French military force advanced to that site in southern Sudan where the Nile narrows sufficiently to make it possible -- without great effort -- to cut off its flow to the north. Not that this was the prime intention. Rather, it was France's way of putting the knife to Britain's throat in order to force it to enter negotiations over its continued presence in Egypt. London got the message and responded by dispatching a force of its own to the area. When faced with this signal of the British readiness to go to war against its tenacious neighbour, Paris backed down.
The conflict between the British colonial authorities and the Egyptian independence movement opened with the ultimatum delivered by British High Commissioner Sir Edmund Allenby to Prime Minister Saad Zaghloul following the assassination of Sir Lee Harvey Stack, commander of the Egyptian army and governor-general of Sudan. Of the ultimatum's seven points, the most threatening was the sixth, which stipulated that Zaghloul was to "inform the relative authority that the government of Sudan will increase the area of cultivable land in Al-Jazira from 300,000 feddans to an unlimited area as the need arises." Of course, the irrigation water for that agricultural expansion would be the same water destined for Egypt.
Sir Edmund Allenby
Naturally, the first concern of the Ziwar government, which succeeded the Zaghloul-led "people's government" that resigned in the face of the ultimatum, was to minimise the impact of the sixth point. Fortunately, the authorities in London felt that Allenby had gone too far by using the Nile to intimidate Egypt. They were incensed that Allenby had not consulted them beforehand over such a sensitive issue that could easily provoke Egyptians to revolt. It was, therefore, not long before an exchange of letters took place between London and Cairo, the result of which was to lift the knife from the Egyptian throat, at least for the time being.
The letter of 25 January 1925 from the Egyptian prime minister to the high commissioner in Cairo read: "I see it as my duty to draw your attention to the fact that an item in your memorandum of 23 November 1924 has provoked considerable concern in the country. As Your Excellency is aware, all discussions that have taken place between the Governments of Egypt and Britain in the past have sought to reach an agreement over the distribution of the waters of the Nile, and especially over the question of expanding the scope of irrigation in Sudan. The Egyptian government remains firm over its right to the waters of the Nile."
Allenby responded the following day. In the interests of demonstrating its good intentions, he wrote, the British government "is prepared to issue instructions to the government of Sudan not to execute the instructions previously issued to it with regard to the indefinite expansion of the cultivable land in Al-Jazira. Instead, a committee of experts shall be created, consisting of Mr Cramer as chairman -- the selection of whom has been agreed upon by both governments -- and Mr McGregor and Abdel-Hamid Suleiman as the delegates of Britain and Egypt respectively. This committee shall begin meeting as of 15 February 1925 with the purpose of studying and recommending rules governing irrigation in a manner that fully safeguards the interests of Egypt and does not prejudice in any way its natural and historical rights."
Al-Ahram tells the rest of the story. In its edition of 9 May 1929, on the occasion of the signing of the agreement for "the regulation and distribution of the waters of the Nile between Egypt and Sudan". Al- Ahram featured a lengthy report on the activities of the committee. The committee members began with a visit to the Delta Barrages and the Rashid Dam. They then embarked on an inspection tour that led them to the Sinar Dam, the Al-Jazira Canal, the site chosen for the proposed Gabal Al-Awliya' Dam, the Aswan Dam, the Esna Barrages and the site for the barrages at Nag'a Hamadi.
The activities of the committee were interrupted by the death of its chairman in May 1925, but recommenced later that year, resulting in a report that was issued on 21 March 1926. Understandably, in view of the circumstances that gave rise to the committee in the first place, Al-Ahram was most concerned with that part of the report pertaining to irrigation in Sudan.
The newspaper relates that following the reconquest of Sudan the Egyptian government approved the construction of a number of pumping stations to irrigate extensive tracts of land there. "One was installed for the trial cultivation of cotton and another for the cultivation of grain. However, for some time operations remained confined to that triangle formed by the Blue and White Niles. This area, known as Al-Jazira, had begun to be prepared for cultivation in 1905. Eight years later, it was determined that 100,000 feddans could be put under cotton cultivation without detriment to Egypt. However, as expertise in agriculture there increased and with the low levels of flooding in 1913-1914, this assessment proved inaccurate and it was realised that through the construction of a reservoir it would be possible to increase the cultivable land area to 300,000 feddans without having to depend on the flooding period. At the same time, the Egyptian government was contemplating building a dam on the White Nile at Jebel Al-Awliya' in order to hold back the surge of the Nile and create a store of water to serve in the summer season."
When World War I broke out, the project had to be put on hold and it was not until 1920 that thoughts turned to reactivating it. However, in the interval came the Egyptian revolution of 1919, and among its many repercussions were the harsh criticisms levelled at the Sudanese water projects by the Egyptian nationalist movement. In response, the government formed an independent tripartite commission the members of which were chosen by the governments of India and the United States and Cambridge University. In 1921 the commission released its findings, which corroborated the information that had been cited in justification of the projects under attack.
In spite of this, disputes over the distribution of Nile waters deferred agreement over the issue until 1929. In all the negotiating rounds with Britain, Egypt had remained adamant in linking an agreement on the Nile with a general settlement that would fulfil nationalist demands for the British evacuation from Egypt and the unification of Egypt and Sudan. The latter demand formed the base upon which all negotiating rounds were grounded, since the British were determined to "segment the Egyptian question" in the hopes of securing their interests in Sudan before having to address other issues.
The year 1929 proved favourable to British designs. In Egypt, the unpopular "government of the iron grip" led by Mohamed Mahmoud, who had suspended parliamentary elections shortly after coming to power, was looking for any success it could score towards the fulfilment of nationalist demands. Meanwhile, in Britain the ruling Labour government was demonstrating that it was prepared to go further than any Conservative government towards reaching an agreement with Cairo. As a result of this propitious convergence, negotiations were relatively speedy and on Tuesday 7 May 1929 Egypt and Britain reached an "agreement over the regulation and distribution of the waters of the Nile between Egypt and Sudan", as the Al-Ahram headline read two days later.
It took 30 years after the reconquest of Sudan to reach this agreement, marking the first contractual relationship between Egypt and Britain over the distribution of Nile waters. It appeared in the form of two memoranda. The first was from Prime Minister Mohamed Mahmoud to the then British High Commissioner to Egypt, Lord George Lloyd, which read:
"1. In confirmation of our recent discussions, I am honoured to inform your excellency of the opinions of the Egyptian government pertaining to the matters of irrigation that were the subject of our discussion. The Egyptian government agrees that the resolution of these issues cannot be deferred until such time that our two governments can conclude an agreement over the status of Sudan. However, this agreement in no way prejudices Egypt's full liberty with regard to the negotiations preparatory to an agreement on Sudan.
"2. It is clear that the development of Sudan requires a greater quantity of water than that available to it at present. The Egyptian government has always been keen to ensure the agricultural development of Sudan, and so it remains. It is, therefore, prepared to agree with the British government to increase the current quantity on the condition that the increase does not impinge upon Egypt's national and historical right to the waters of the Nile or upon the quantities of water Egypt needs for its own agricultural development, and on the condition that we implement a satisfactory mechanism for safeguarding Egyptian interests.
"3. On the basis of the foregoing, the Egyptian government accepts the conclusions reached by the Nile Waters Commission in 1925, which report is appended to this memorandum. Nevertheless, in view of the delay in the construction of the Jebel Al- Awliya' Reservoir, the Egyptian Government considers it necessary to modify the schedule and the quantities of water that are to be taken incrementally by Sudan, whereby the said quantities should not exceed 126 cubic metres per second.
"4. It is also understood that the following arrangements will be observed with regard to irrigation works along the Nile:
a. The inspector-general of the Egyptian Irrigation Authority in Sudan, or his deputies or any other official appointed by the Ministry of Public Works, shall have full freedom to cooperate with the resident engineer of the Sinar Reservoir in monitoring the flow and water tables so as to enable the Egyptian Government to ascertain that the distribution of water from the reservoir proceeds in accordance with the agreed upon allocations.
b. No irrigation works can be executed on the Nile, its branches or its lakes, the effect of which will be to reduce the amount or levels of water that reaches Egypt without the approval of the Egyptian government.
c. The Egyptian government shall be given all necessary facilities to conduct thorough and extensive hydrological studies on the Nile in Sudan.
d. Should the Egyptian government decide to establish works on the Nile or its branches in Sudan, or undertake any other operations the purpose of which is to increase the waters of the Nile for Egypt, it shall agree with the local authorities in advance over the measures necessary to safeguard local interests. The construction, maintenance and administration of these operations shall be a purely Egyptian concern and fall under the supervision of the Egyptian government.
e. The British government shall use its good offices with the governments in the area that are under its influence in order to facilitate for the Egyptian government the surveys, measurements, studies and works mentioned in the two preceding paragraphs.
f. This agreement shall not in any manner be deemed to infringe upon the process of monitoring and regulating the river, which subject shall remain open to negotiation between the two nations.
The high commissioner's answer was brief. His memorandum supported the principles upon which the agreement was based and maintained that the essence of the agreement was founded upon the report of the Nile Waters Commission "and will have no effect on the current situation in Sudan". It also affirmed the British government's recognition of Egypt's national and historic right to the waters of the Nile and that, "The government of His Royal Majesty considers the preservation of this right a cardinal principle of British policy."
The British press rejoiced over the agreement. The Times, known for its connections in the Foreign Office, announced that the news of the "comprehensive agreement over irrigation projects in Egypt and Sudan" was enthusiastically received in both Britain and Egypt. "It has answered the dreams of British engineers who have been involved in the development of artificial irrigation in Egypt," it wrote.
The Near East was exuberant in its praise for the government of Mohamed Mahmoud, which it described as a government of deeds, not words. It continued, "An agreement over Nile waters was impossible when the issue was being used to serve political ends. However, after parliamentary rule was suspended it was possible to extricate it from the world of politics and negotiate over it towards the achievement of a single aim: a practical and realistic agreement. From the text of the agreement one can see how foolish the former Egyptian point of view was when the aim was to exploit the issue politically. Now it is in Egypt's power to forge ahead with great irrigation programmes which have long been recognised as extremely necessary."
The Economist voiced a similar opinion. Water was one of the most vital issues for Egypt and Sudan. It was fortunate that it was separated from political issues "for as long as there is no divergence in the essentials with regard to water, it is hardly logical that the interests of Sudan and Egypt develop into a subject of dispute. It has been made clear that when the opportunity to preserve the Nile in a rational and scientific manner presents itself, its waters can be distributed in accordance with the most stringent specifications."
The Observer echoed this belief when it argued the need not to link economic and political issues. "The waters of the Nile are a matter of life and death. It cannot wait for the conclusion of political accords."
The Manchester Guardian struck a rather discordant note, commenting that Egypt could do nothing in Sudan without Britain's approval. In addition, it cautioned, "There are other projects than could be implemented in the vicinity of Lake Albert and Lake Tana, should the Ethiopian government wish to undertake them, which would be of vital concern to Egypt in view of their effect on the sources of the Nile."
In Egypt, apart from the pro-government papers -- Al-Siyasa and Al-Ittihad -- the remainder of the national press was hostile to the agreement. Al-Ahram, on the other hand, adopted a moderate position, for which reason the high commissioner singled it out for praise in his weekly report on the press that he sent to his superiors in London.
Al-Ahram listed what it considered to be many positive aspects of the agreement, adding that it only wished that the text could have been worded more explicitly and that the high commissioner would have been more definitive in his affirmation of the need to respect Egypt's natural and historical rights. It added, "We must act immediately to put the irrigation programmes that devolve from these rights into effect in view of what appears to be a definite British desire not to impede the implementation of the specifics of the recent agreement."
However, as was its custom, Al-Ahram offered itself as a forum for its readers to voice their opinions. Appearing under the headline, "The Nile Waters Agreement -- the views of others," the majority of the readers' letters reflected a general dissatisfaction with the agreement.
One letter writer was a prominent merchant who worried that Egyptian trade was now deprived of all but a few Sudanese markets. "If transportation costs remain at their current levels, Egyptian trade will have no hope of benefiting from Sudan, whether from its crops or its purchases. It has become cheaper to import a kilo of Sudanese sesame from Liverpool than from Khartoum because of the freighting costs between there and Cairo."
Another writer, an official in the stock exchange, remarked that the British had come to realise their mistake in their attempt to deprive Egypt of the water necessary for increasing cotton cultivation, which was the foundation of British industry. Britain once had a monopoly over the textile industry but now faced heavy competition from Europe and the US, he said. Increasing Egyptian cotton would fulfil the needs of European and American textile firms, with plenty left over for British factories, he concluded.
More important, however, was the lengthy statement on the Nile Waters Agreement issued by the Egyptian Wafd Party which was published in Al-Ahram over two issues. In the opinion of the overwhelmingly popular nationalist party, the agreement prejudiced Egypt's right to control and administer the Nile. The agreement, it claimed, cut off the Sinar Reservoir and the inspection of the irrigation of Al-Jazira from the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works by placing it under the control of the government of Sudan, rendering the water of the Blue Nile subject to the authorities of officials not subordinate to this ministry. "To make matters worse, the agreement provided that this separation would comprise all irrigation works that the Sudanese government hopes to establish on the Nile, its branches and its lakes." Moreover, while the irrigation works which Egypt undertook in Sudan would be subject to the approval of the government of Sudan, the works undertaken by the government of Sudan were not subject to Egyptian approval.
In the opinion of the Wafd, the agreement also failed to address a number of technical issues. At the beginning of the flooding season, the statement said, Egypt would be deprived of a sufficient share of the water of the Blue Nile and the valuable fertile silt it carried to Egypt. Secondly, although the agreement specified water allocations, it failed to specify how much land was to be irrigated by the Al-Jazira Canal. According to the findings of the Ministry of Public Works, this was not sufficient to guarantee Egyptian interests, since the effective administration of the Nile no longer fell under the authority of that ministry. Thirdly, the executive measures referred to in the agreement and which could have a profound impact on Egyptian interests had not been announced. Nor had the arbitration board been appointed. At the same time, such a board did not dispense with the need to confer effective power upon the Ministry of Public Works so that it could tend with urgent contingencies. Moreover, the agreement paved the way for the construction of the Jebel Al-Awliya' Reservoir, a project which had yet to be given proper technical study, particularly as pertained to its potential detrimental effects upon Egypt.
In light of the foregoing, the statement concluded that the agreement, as a whole and in part, violated Egypt's sovereign rights and drove a wedge between Egypt and Sudan, the sister countries bound by the unity of the Nile and by inextricable natural and historical bonds.
That Al-Ahram featured the response of the minister of public works directly alongside the Wafd statement testifies to the newspaper's objectivity. In his attempt to "explain the advantages of the agreement and expose the fallacies of the opposition", the minister -- Ibrahim Fahmi -- leveled harsh criticism against Othman Muharram, his predecessor from the previous Wafd government. Muharram, he charged, had issued spurious statements that created suspicion about Egypt's intentions. "This suspicion not only impeded the implementation of engineering works in Egypt and Sudan, but also extended to the staff of our administrative authority in an unprecedented manner."
An example of the effect of his predecessor's actions, he continued, occurred when the contract of the Egyptian inspector-general of irrigation in Khartoum ended and the Sudanese government, with British support, demanded a review of the Egyptian irrigation officials in Sudan. Instead of objecting to that demand, Muharram pledged to appoint a former senior irrigation official in India, on the recommendation of the British high commissioner, and give him a salary of LE2,800. He also charged that his predecessor was also responsible for placing the effective administration of the Sinar Reservoir in the hands of the Sudanese government, by creating a joint administration for the reservoir whereby any dispute would be referred to the general-inspector or the delegate of the Sudanese government. Fortunately, he added, the recent agreement restored to Egypt the right effectively to monitor the administration of the flow and distribution of water from the Sinar Reservoir.
Ibrahim Fahmi went on to deny the Wafd claim that irrigation works undertaken by Egypt in Sudan were contingent upon Sudanese approval, as was abundantly evident in Article 4 b of the agreement. In fact, he concluded, the agreement guaranteed a number of rights for Egypt. Now Egypt would have the right to the waters from the natural flow of the Nile from 1 January to mid-July. It would be able to set the amount of water allocated to Sudan in the flood season. It could prevent Sudan from undertaking any works that would be detrimental to Egypt at present and in the future. Finally, whatever political disputes arose, they would not effect the implementation of the agreement.
Of course, the agreement went into effect in spite of the controversy it stirred and remained in force until 1959.
Letter from the Editor
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