By Yousif Yahya
Just when it seems Egypt’s relationship with its neighbors could not get any worse, a new obstacle emerges. Every year, Sudan renews a complaint with the U.N. Security Council regarding its disputed borders with Egypt. The council has never formally acted upon this complaint. In 1995, Sudan aided in an attempt to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak while he visited Ethiopia. Upon his return, Mubarak responded by annexing Sudanese territory. While the Egypt-Sudan border remains disputed, now, with Sudan’s assistance, Egypt is hoping to secure its share of the Nile to ensure that Ethiopia does not control the flow of the river.
Sudan plays a critical role in managing the Nile. The Blue Nile, flowing into Sudan from Ethiopia, and the White Nile, flowing from Uganda, merge in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum to form the Nile as the world knows it. Since Ethiopia and Egypt, despite their ecological ties based on sharing the Nile, do not share a border, Sudan mediates between the two states. The former Sudanese foreign minister, Ali Karti, spoke to Sudan’s unique strategic position between these two neighbors, declaring, “The position of Sudan is clear and we have already called on Egyptian officials to take advantage of the central role that Sudan could play regarding the crisis, but the arrogance of the previous government did not allow them to accept this idea.”
Today, the issue surrounds the Grand Renaissance Dam (Gerd), currently under construction in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, which lies on the Sudanese border. When the project is complete, it will be the largest hydropower dam in Africa. Many international and local observers have concluded that the dam will change the power dynamics in the region, with Ethiopia becoming a leading regional power. However, this conventional wisdom is misguided. Ethiopia is going to flourish economically, but it will not be able to channel its resources to project power in such a way that it will change the region. The country will first need to pay back bondholders that financed the dam project prior to investing in any new projects.
The Gerd is a hydropower dam, which means that it will only obstruct the flow of the water in the first stages of the project to fill its own reservoir. Once full, the water will go back to its original flow. Yet Egypt still fears that the dam is going to decrease the country’s future share of the Nile’s water. This would not only deprive farmers of clean water, but would also slow down Egypt’s own hydropower dams, which are used to provide power to its fast-growing population. These are key issues that turn the dam into both a national security and a sustainable development issue.
Adding to Egyptian fears, for centuries folktales have focused on Ethiopia turning Egypt into a desert. A 1706 letter from the emperor of Ethiopia to the authorities in Cairo lends credence to these folktales: “The Nile might be made the instrument of our vengeance, God having placed it in our hands its fountain, its passage, and its increase. And put it in our power to make it do good or harm.”
Former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi once warned, “every drop of water stolen from the Nile would be defended by a drop of Egyptian blood.” Egyptian foreign ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty stated that the Nile’s flow “is a matter of life or death, a national security issue that can never be compromised.” Of course, this tone drastically changed after a military coup ousted Morsi. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is now willing to cooperate and has said about the dam, “We have chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development,” further adding that the project will “achieve benefits and development for Ethiopia without harming Egypt and Sudan’s interests.”
Based on hydropolitical hegemony theory, Egypt’s threats to stop the project are completely rational. The theory states that control over water resources shared between multiple riparian states can create international political tensions and even prompt conflict. Though an attack by Egypt on the dam could be justified, the country cannot afford to be condemned in the international community because of its weakened economy and declining human rights record. However, Sisi is not only a military general but also a smart politician, and Sudan’s assistance was needed to resolve the issue.
Sudan had negotiated as far as it could with both of its neighbors individually, and then went further, hosting tripartite talks that ended the incendiary rhetoric coming from Egypt and Ethiopia. With Sudan’s assistance, Egypt brokered a deal for its share of the electrical output of the dam. Egyptian leaders are taking this new approach because they know that if they want Egypt to regain the respect of the international community, Egypt must show it will abide by the rules of that community. Additionally, both Egypt and Ethiopia are recipients of American aid, so any thought of aggression by either of the two states can mean draining a pot that neither can afford to lose.
While tensions surrounding the dam’s development have been alleviated for now, the deal does not resolve the larger dilemma at hand. In terms of development, the dam is a win-win situation for Ethiopia, but both Sudan and Egypt’s shares are going to be affected in the first stages of the project—and the damage to Egypt’s economy in particular will be greatest. In turn, Egypt must compromise with Sudan over outstanding territorial issues and ramp up its water diplomacy to ensure that it will receive a share in the dam’s the profits.
Yousif Yahya is a research assistant at World Policy Institute.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]