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Ethiopia, Egypt & the Nile Question: The chaos politics & religion are creating

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By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory

The Blue Nile Falls i
The Blue Nile Falls i

Egypt’s President Morsi is scheduled to speak Monday, June 10, at the conference of 13 Islamic parties. The conference is called to hammer out common position on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, and craft their recommendations thereon to the president. This would be a good opportunity to learn what the president would suggest as a solution to the perennial Nile Question.

Hopefully his agreed to speak at this meeting comes in realizing that already in a short time there have been mounting road blocks that with every passing day since the end of May 2013 have been gathering strength. Unhelpful controversies have instead taken the place of real communications between the two countries.
This article is plotted without any information about this conference coming. Therefore, it should be seen as an attempt to see through the shadows how Egypt’s position on this latest problem on Ethiopia’s Nile could evolve in the face of the many impediments on the way.

Discouraging from the outset, however, is that some of the conference’s conclusions have already been written, even before the invited conferees sit to take part in its deliberations. For instance, invitation letter prepared by the Moslem Brotherhood, addressed to all political parties in Egypt, speaks the aim of the gathering being “the preservation of Egypt’s rights to Nile water”. For any reader, this informs that Egypt’s water quota is in danger of being lost, which in reality is not the case.
Nevertheless, the saving grace is that the organizers wanted the conference, as an initiative of the moderate Wasat, Party, according to media reports, with a view to saving the face of Egyptian Islamist parties, who in an open microphone were caught in embarrassing behavior on June 3 at meeting called by the president to discuss their views on the report of the panel of experts investigating the impact of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Dam on the two downstream states and the environment along the world’s largest river.
Amongst the known participants in this conference are the Moslem Brotherhood, Salafi-oriented Nour Party, Wasat Party, the Construction and Development Party, Asala Party, Al Watan Party, Fadila Party and Islah Party.
PART II. Water diversion
There are a good number of doubters, including this writer, who sense that the report of the 10-member panel of experts – not that I have seen it – has hardly informed this latest round of water dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt. Evident now is the fact that the report seems to have been eclipsed by the anger of ordinary Egyptians in response to Ethiopia’s diversion on 28 May of the water’s of the Blue Nile.
This is an established practice by dam builders on a temporary basis to facilitate the dam building, without either interrupting the flow of the river or diminishing the amount of water flowing to its traditional destination.
Nevertheless, ‘diversion’ is a misleading word and the understanding even by newspaper editors is a sense of permanent change of course, which is not the case. Unfortunately, the gust of popular anger in Egypt borne of this poorly explained action has been heightened, the intensity of which hardly finds comparison in the past so many decades. From recent memory, not even the signing of the Entebbe Treaty by the first five Nile Basin states (Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) in May 2010 – leaving out Egypt and declaring their intention to use the River Nile in any way they please, as Kenya’s minister of water and the environment put it at the time, could come closer.
Understandably, this action has shown how painful this challenge could be to the Egyptian people – fed and bred through centuries of state propaganda and arrogance of power – that has assured them that the Nile River is theirs alone. It is evident that, the politically motivated aside, in a country that has no other water sources many ordinary Egyptians must have seen in this action the makings of a horrendous crime against their very survival both as individuals and citizens and the continued existence of their nation.
What has been lost in the process and over time is the fact that Ethiopia’s desire for half a century has been to ensure its own development, without affecting Egypt’s interests and the wellbeing of its people.
PART III. Is the new Egypt truly cooperative, believer in mutual benefits?
While the change that has taken place in Egypt in the last two years has created expectations that the Nile Question could finally be resolved amicably, unfortunately, the debate since the end of May has been hijacked by a sloppiness in both countries. This was quickly exploited by old habits with the aim of reviving exclusive national interests resistant to other states of the Nile Basin to become beneficiaries of the Nile River’s resources.
Over the weekend, I rather felt whole again, after reading the remarks of Ambassador Tariq Ghoneim, an old warrior who once had served as Egypt’s envoy in Addis Abeba. At that time, he won notoriety for the controversy his interview created, with the suggestion right there from Addis Abeba with Capital for Ethiopia to relinquish the Nile for Egypt.
Mr. Ghoneim now acknowledges that these are changed times, usually leaving diplomats exposed to consequences of their actions in performance of their duties. It is in that context Ambassador Ghoneim observed this “might be a good time for some breakthrough in the long-stalled talks on Nile River water sharing”, especially under circumstances in which in both countries forceful political leaders with strong views have left the scene. Since he did not elaborate, I though for a while, I still welcomed irrespective of whether his words cut one way or behave like a double-edged sword.
In other words, while acknowledging the psychological impact of the symbolic meaning of the Ethiopian action of May 28, politicians could have, at least for once, played the role of a psychologist to relieve the shock gripping several million Egyptians. I admit their reaction is understandable and any country and any people could have reacted the same in that situation. After all, not that the May 28 challenge is the first of its type by any Nile Basin state asserting its water right, but that country happens to be Ethiopia – 86 percent of Egypt’s water source.
Consequently, since May 28 this situation has rather compelled official Egypt to respond both calm the popular anger, caused by the water diversion and in striving to give the appearance of threatening Ethiopia.
I should point out that the above is not to imply that Ethiopian authorities have failed to issue advance notification to official Egypt. They have done that, since it is a requirement under international law in conditions involving changes to waterways (to establish agreement in accordance with Article 3 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses), or in any event of way tampering with the flow of rivers crossing international frontiers.
In both Cairo and Addis Abeba, Egyptian officials have confirmed that Ethiopia has complied with this requirement. But Egypt did not make the information public until the day the water was diverted. At the time, official Egypt was preoccupied with its concerns about the timing – May 28 being the eve of the trilateral committee’s report release, as reported for the first time on the media on 28 May and also confirmed by Egypt’s ambassador Mohamed Idris in Addis Abeba.
For Ethiopia, delaying the diversion of the water was unthinkable. May 28 coincides with the 22nd anniversary the TPLF seized power and, therefore, priority was given to scraping out of it propaganda mileage for local consumption, as can be seen from reporting on state-owned Ethiopia’s media. It should be mentioned here that, at no time has there been any statement by official Ethiopia, justifying its refusal for delaying the water diversion in terms of the dam’s construction schedule. This could have been done, without Ethiopia feeling it was yielding its rights, that is, seeing from the popular angle. Today, it is possible that it could have relatively reduced extent of the current problem official Egypt finds itself in.
In that respect, it still is regrettable that Ethiopia’s advance notification could be of no help for ordinary Egyptians. In other words, Egypt has not utilized the information to alert its people before May 28.
Briefly put, this has led popular anger to roil the current water related political tension between the two countries.
This means that the diplomatic and political solution that the problem calls is likely to confront difficulties in coalescing domestic consensus. This must be seen against the backdrop of the fact that the Arab Spring has weakened the Egyptian state; its unfinished revolution and subsequent events have polarized civil society, which has made the president unpopular and his political base – the Moslem Brotherhood – an efficient political machine.
PART IV. Events and influences: Official Egypt’s re-ordered priorities
Before the release of the experts’ report, the first anti-Ethiopian demonstration took place on May 31st. Therefore, the cascading effects of the water diversion has its marks in different, as the media reported, some of which are mentioned hereunder:

      •   In the two days following May 29, investors in Egypt’s

    stock market lost

        over a billion US dollars. The market interpreted the diversion of the Nile waters for the first time in a very important upper riparian state – Egypt’s water tower – as precursor of political instability.

      •   Egyptians expressed their burst of anger on the first Mosque day since, i.e., 31 May, with a couple hundred demonstrators attacking the symbol of Ethiopia’s presence in Egypt – the Ethiopian embassy.
      •   Carrying a slogan that read: “We reject attempts to take our Nile water”, the demonstrators called for expulsion of the Ethiopian ambassador.
      •   Demonstrators committed acts of violence against Ethiopian citizens visiting the embassy; attempts were also made at seizing the diplomatic mission, which in its 67 history for the first time came under protection by heavily armed Egyptian security personnel and armored vehicles.
      •   On Saturday June 1, when the Egyptian government released its response to the experts’ report, its tone only betrayed its preoccupation in a typical Middle Eastern fashion – on one hand at maximizing Egypt’s water quota and on the other at ensuring that no harm is done to its traditional share of 55.5 billion cubic meters. To that end, the Egyptian government statement indicated:
      “We have a strong legal case to insist that our share of the Nile water is preserved – this is not just from a political perspective but also from a legal perspective.”
      •  There were no threats in Cairo’s June 2nd statement or any violent language that could muddy the water. This is also consistent with the desire for cooperation that has been coming out of Egypt in the past two years. For instance, if we recall recent events, bear in mind that Mr. Morsi one fine day on 24 April announced through his spokesperson that Ethiopia would not let its Renaissance Dam harm Egypt’s interests. Moreover, following his attendance of the AU summit on May 25-26, 2013 in Addis Abeba, there was reported rapport between the leaders of the two countries, with Egypt not raising any opposition to either construction of the dam or its implications.
      •   It is rather the anger in the streets in Egypt that has coalesced opposition parties, especially religious groups, civil society organizations that now seem to be overplaying their hands. This was clearly seen from the hostility demonstrated on June 3 by the leaders of some religious political parties. At a meeting to which the president invited them to share with him their views on the report, some of them offered suggestions ranging from bombing the dam, carrying out sabotage activities to destabilizing Ethiopia by supporting anti-regime forces within the country. Under international law, this has no better name than a call for aggression.
      Of this, it is reported that an Egyptian foreign ministry source had told an Arabic language paperAl-Akhbar, “the Ethiopian government is moving toward prosecuting [sic] Egypt in the International Criminal Court (ICC), under its Article 5 (d) – “the crime of aggression” has mandate to exercise jurisdiction and initiate investigation. I have no information, but my sense is that this is unlikely, since Ethiopia appears to more interested in engagement with Egypt on the diplomatic track.
      •   There is no doubt that also on the part of the president of Egypt there is keen interest in getting this problem peacefully and diplomatically resolved – if only he knew how to get the pressure by some parties, particularly Islamist parties and driving this agenda of hostility off his back.
      •   Overall, this pressure has resulted in the sort of the president’s retreat from the conciliatory tone he has been sounding for several months. Owing to that, since the bad politics displayed by some opposition parties in his presence, is now compelling him to reassure Egyptians on one hand that he is tough enough to protect Egypt’s water sources. On the other, he is making an effort to tell Ethiopia he is not interested in conflicts. This has put him in a Mubarakesque dichotomy. This in tense times and difficult situations might have kept war at bay, while he Mr. Sadat and Mubarak made sure with their support for the EPLF and TPLF ended up facilitating damage to Ethiopia’s unity and territorial integrity.
      •   Mr. Morsi is now saying to Egyptians that he would take all actions (‘all options open’) not to risk losing a “single drop of Nile water.” On June 5, Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Bahaa El-Din said that the Egyptian government “has started taking procedures that we will not announce.” For this story, the state-owned Ahram could find no better title than Egypt irrigation minister hints at covert response to Ethiopia dam project.
      •   In his first interview on June 6 since the release of the report, President Morsi stressed that ‘the Ethiopians are “Egypt’s friends,” who should look after its interests, said Morsi, stressing that Egypt in turn “will not allow itself to harm a friend, and therefore we don’t speak of thwarting the development of a friendly state.” Clearly, this in a way reflects good gesture, since he was also addressing himself to the clarification Ethiopian authorities sought through Egypt’s envoy in Addis Abeba.
      •   Surprisingly, on the same date, i.e., June 6, there was deliberate or inadvertently leaked story that an advisor to Mr. Morsi was preparing to inform MENA that Egypt was to present Ethiopia with demand to halt construction of its dam. This must have come as shock to the Ethiopian authorities, to which they reacted forcefully.
      PART V. Tricky time and risky situation
      The present difficult situation in Egypt and Ethiopia are less likely to facilitate smart solutions inside divided houses. A few things come to mind that explain this.
      •   The weakened state of the state in Cairo in the wake of the Arab Spring has weakened the presidency. This is felt more clearly by the absence of presidential leadership on the recommendations of the expert panel. On top of that, coming as does the president is from the Moslem Brotherhood and he is seen with suspicion as either being considered incapable of protecting Egyptian interests.
      •   Egyptian society is divided, the Moslem Brotherhood victory having left the liberals, leaders of the revolution in a state of frustration and empty handed. As a result, the non-Islamist parties are compelled to play the role of detractors to leadership by the president.
      •   As the Nile crisis intensifies, Egyptians see that they are without a strong state, which, while avoiding war, could manage to block any forward movement by other states in the Nile issue.
      Therefore, the danger today is that the Nile controversy cannot be handled by a state on autopilot, for lack of ability to create societal consensus. The communication band between the opposition and leaders of the state in Egypt has for a while now has been narrowing.
      While the Moslem Brotherhood, the president’s political base is well-organized, public opinion shows that the number of Egyptians displeased with the president’s performance has increased significantly. By mid-may, the Baseera Reasearch, the main public opinion center in Egypt, indicated that thepresident’s approval rating has slumped to 46 percent, compared to the high of 78 percent in his first three months in office.
      In fact, so antagonized is the political environment in Egypt now that, as the president is preparing to celebrate his first anniversary in power on June 30, he has to find way around opposition insistence on fresh election. The latest suggestion came from an ex-Morsi assistant, who suggested that the president could avoid showdown on 30 June by holding a national referendum to determine if Egyptians want him to finish his four-year term.
      In this situation, the president may find diplomacy an inadequate tool to find settlement with Ethiopia. In the absence of diplomacy, how could a state carry out its deal and negotiations with other states, for example the Nile issue now, while he could not foster national consensus. This leaves citizens concerned by the future of to water contemplate solutions to problems the full picture of which they have hardly captured or are helped to grasp.
      Briefly put, the prevailing environment in Egypt is not friendly for a diplomatic approach. The concern here is that, like any politician, whether President Morsi would be tempted to exploit the public frustration to improve his political fortune and leave the Nile Question without any lasting answer. This is not an easy situation that could go away with cementing alliances that desire to push unrealistic solutions. If that is the choice Mr. Morsi would make, how could he stop Ethiopia from pursuing building its controversial dam? Would he be willing to use force?
      The first hint of an answer to these could be found in the statement the president would make at the conference organized by the 13 Islamic parties this Monday.
      The possibility of direct Ethiopia – Egypt conflict is very unlikely, although the pressure on the president to do something could be very strong, given his need to keep the Islamist parties on his side.
      PART VI. Egypt is after more and harsh concessions from Ethiopia
      Ethiopia has given everything Egypt needs so far. No land in the Blue Nile Basin is being used for modern agriculture. This is a concession Ethiopia has given Egypt, even without any negotiations. Ethiopia has assured Egypt on several occasions that it is only using the Blue Nile waters to generate power. This latest confirmation also came from the Ethiopian foreign minister in London in April.
      Nobody can speak with certainty what challenges climate change could bring in the next 10 – 15 years or in a generation. In this situation, going along with high-end water commitment with Egypt would be an irresponsible decision on the part of Ethiopian authorities, and a betrayal of the interests of the next generation.
      Egypt has received everything Ethiopia could give, even beyond the call of common interests and theoretical mutual benefits. In the last few days, when Egyptian officials and experts could not find any fault with the experts’ report and recommendations, they jumped onto maximizing their water quota. The over the top of the head estimate is an additional 20-25 billion cubic meters. In simple arithmetic, this would go higher than even the available envelope, leaving not even 3 – 5 billion cubic meter of water for Ethiopia.
      Furthermore, Ethiopia must resist any insinuation, not even proposal, by Egypt to bring unrelated issues into their final proposals – assuming that any time soon the two countries find themselves sitting to discuss the give and take on the Nile issues. These need to be resisted – be it in trade concessions, land for commercial agriculture or any other investment related proposals. Ultimate peace and respect by a state to another is attained not through concessions, but the ability to logically and firmly defend ones interests.
      As touched upon earlier, it is not likely that Egyptians would choose to go to war with Ethiopia, while the Nile continues to flow. Religious parties see the need for war and destruction, as they made it clear on June 3. Now the open question is how much control Cairo would exert to discourage any sign of paramilitary activities against Ethiopia and its interests?
      *Updated – The title changed from: Ethiopia, Egypt, the perennial Nile Question and the chaos politics & religion are causing