Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1152, 13 - 19 June 2013
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1152, 13 - 19 June 2013

Ahram Weekly

Testing diplomatic waters

Doaa El-Bey examines the latest developments in the political stand-off between Egypt and Ethiopia

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt and Ethiopia have been engaged in escalating rhetoric over the Grand Renaissance Dam.

President Mohamed Morsi delivered a speech on Monday to an invited audience of Islamists in which he called on the Egyptian people to stand united in the face of threats to Egypt’s water supplies. The event was held to discuss responses to Ethiopia’s recent decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile. During his speech Morsi repeatedly stressed that Egyptians would not tolerate any encroachment on their historic quota of Nile water.

All options, said Morsi, were on the table.

Amany Al-Taweel, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, points out that such open meetings are all but redundant when it comes to addressing the real issues. Instead, she argues, Egypt should busy itself by first consulting specialised bodies and then by holding closed meetings at which a coherent position can be hammered out.

“Then the opposition should be consulted in a closed meeting. After forming a final stand, it could be declared in a press conference. Holding televised spontaneous meetings is not going to help,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya member Safwat Abdel-Ghani used language similar to Morsi’s during Monday’s meeting. Egypt, he said, was facing conspiracies as international forces sought to interfere in Africa to diminish Egypt’s continental role.

Helmi Shaarawi, director of the Arab and African Research Centre, warns that in the wake of the Ethiopian decision to divert the Blue Nile Egypt is behaving as if it has to start negotiations with Addis Ababa from scratch. Yet the Entebbe Agreement (signed by all Nile Basin states except Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan and Congo), he told Al-Ahram Weekly, is open for negotiation. “We can pursue negotiations to amend the agreement. There is a gap between the Egyptian and the Ethiopian viewpoints, but we can always reach a compromise,” he said.

During his speech Morsi asked opposing political forces to stand united and set aside political rivalries at a time when Egypt faces difficult challenges. There are no signs that the opposition will listen to his demands.

The president’s speech not only contained nothing new, complains Mohamed Abul-Ghar, president of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, it skirted around specifying any single initiative that might help resolve the problem.

Tension mounted between Cairo and Addis Ababa when the latter declared that it would begin diverting the course of the Blue Nile in preparation for work on the Renaissance Dam. In response Egypt called for a halt to all work until further investigations on the impact of the dam are complete. Addis Ababa rejected Egypt’s request.

Morsi’s adviser Ayman Ali responded that “while all people have a right to pursue their own interests there must be guarantees that the Ethiopian dam will not harm Egypt. Otherwise all options are open.”

Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr said Egypt would not give up “a single drop of water from the Nile” before announcing that he would travel to Addis Ababa to discuss the impact of the dam and the Ethiopian decision not to halt its construction.

At a meeting convened last week by Morsi, several politicians made open threats against Ethiopia. Some suggested backing anti-government rebels while others recommended covert use of force. The Ethiopian government summoned the Egyptian ambassador to demand an explanation after the “hostile remarks” made by politicians during the meeting were broadcast.

In an attempt to defuse the ensuing furore a press conference was held by Popular Diplomacy, an initiative set up by independent politicians to resolve outstanding water disputes between Egypt and Ethiopia. The initiative plans to establish a committee, including experts from Ethiopia and Uganda, to examine ways to contain the crisis.

Former MP Mustafa Al-Guindi, a founding member of the Popular Diplomacy initiative, described the president’s meeting with politicians and the broadcast of their comments as a disaster. “It will make any talks with the involved parties extremely difficult,” he warned.

Al-Guindi was a member of the popular delegations that visited Uganda and Ethiopia following the 25 January Revolution in an attempt to improve relations. A visit to Uganda in April 2011 succeeded in convincing Ugandan officials to postpone signing the Nile Basin Entebbe Treaty for two years. A visit to Addis Ababa a month later succeeded in convincing Ethiopian officials to postpone ratifying the treaty for a year.

Popular diplomacy initiatives convinced Ethiopia to establish the tripartite committee two years ago. Addis Ababa had initially refused to form the committee until Egypt signed the Entebbe Treaty.

Now though, says Abul-Ghar, it is time for official diplomacy to take the lead.

“Given that people are already suffering from a shortage of water, and we are completely dependent on the Nile, we can get international support for our case,” says Abul-Ghar. Egypt must petition for international pressure to be brought to bear in support of its position, he argues. Then, Cairo can enter into negotiations with Addis Ababa with the aim of becoming a partner in building the dam and securing an agreement that it will be the last dam built on the Blue Nile and that none of the reservoir created will be for irrigating land in either Ethiopia or Sudan. “Through diplomacy we can reach an understanding on these matters and sign a new agreement,” he says.

“Egypt can argue that Ethiopia started building the project before the report of the tripartite committee and that it refuses to acknowledge Egypt’s water quota,” says Al-Taweel.

Shaarawi also argues in favour of negotiations and pressure. “We should realise that the problem is multi levelled,” he says. “There is major Arab investment, especially from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Indian and Chinese investment in the project. The Muslim Brotherhood regime should use its good relations with Qatar to improve our negotiating status with Ethiopia.”

Chinese and Indian interests in the Arab world could also be a negotiating tool, he says. “These interests could be used to help Egypt in its negotiation with Ethiopia.”

The decision by Southern Sudan to sign the Entebbe Agreement later this month could make Egypt’s negotiating stand more difficult, warns Al-Taweel. The Entebbe Agreement has already been signed by Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Burundi.

Egypt is basing its position on agreements on the division of Nile water that date from 1929 and 1959 which the six countries that signed the Entebbe Agreement reject on the grounds that they were written and ratified by colonial powers.

The Blue Nile provides Egypt with 85 per cent of its annual quota of 55.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water. The Renaissance Dam is one of four dams planned to be built on the Blue Nile.

The move to divert the Blue Nile, described in Ethiopia as “historic”, was taken last month, a day after Morsi concluded his visit to Ethiopia.

The reservoir behind the proposed dam will contain 74 billion cubic metres of water. Ethiopia plans to fill it in five years, which some experts predict could see a 20 per cent reduction of water flowing to Egypt. Yet, according to Egypt’s National Planning Institute, Egypt is likely to need an additional 21 billion cubic metres of water per year by 2050 to meet the water needs of a projected population of 150 million.

Since 1902 there have been over 10 agreements regulating the distribution of Nile water, including the 1959 agreement which specified Egypt and Sudan’s shares at 55 and 18 billion cubic metres.

In 1999, Egypt agreed to join other Nile Basin countries in a negotiation process aimed at addressing the demands of the upstream countries. In 2010, Cairo and Khartoum suspended their participation in the talks after failing to reach any agreement covering the construction of irrigation projects on the Nile.

The final report issued by the tripartite committee last week pointed to existing errors in the present design of the proposed Renaissance Dam and recommended changes.

It also asked for a schedule specifying the amount of Nile water reaching Egypt over the next 60 years.


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