Ethiopia: Where Did Egypt’s “We Are Happy” Stance Come From All of a Sudden?

By Mesued Mustefa

I wanted to write this piece a long time ago, but events in Gaza caught all my attention and I decided to delay it.

As we all followed the events of the last couples of weeks,the politics of the Nile River has gotten another momentum. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan started the tripartite talks all over again after months of being at a standstill. It was all over the media that negotiations of technical expertise among water ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia had reached a dead end after all parties refused the proposals set by Egypt to reorganize an international committee to restudy the impact of the ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

After following the third round of negotiations held in Khartoum in June of 2014, Egyptian newspaper Al-monitor reported the main reason behind the standoff. It stated“The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia during the negotiations is related to two points. First, Ethiopia refused the participation of international experts in the new mechanism put in place to follow up on Ethiopian studies about the consequences of the Renaissance Dam. These studies will be conducted in accordance with the report of the international committee. Second, Ethiopia refused to discuss the document on ‘principles of confidence-building’ between the countries of the eastern Nile basin — namely Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Egypt proposed this document to provide guarantees for the downstream countries against any negative effects that may be generated from the construction of the dam.” Reports after the failed negotiation in Sudan indicated that a deal on the implementation of recommendations by an expert panel on the Nile River water sharing was not reached during the third round of trilateral meetings between ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

As we have followed, Ethiopia had rejected both an Egyptian recommendation for the formation of an expert panel with representatives from Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa that would monitor the building of the dam and ensure that the recommendations of an independent expert panel are followed and recommendations called for establishing certain principles guaranteeing the rights of affected states.After this failed negotiation,Ethiopian Water and Energy Minister AlemayehuTegenustated “The construction of the Renaissance Dam is taking place without any hassles or difficulties. The project will be finalized according to the decided time frame,” stressing “the project is not facing technical or funding problems.”

It is a well-documented fact that Egypt has been extensively pushing for the necessity of another round of studies before constructing the dam for the last few years. Explaining the Egyptian position on this issue Sherif Eissa, head of the Nile water department at Egypt’s foreign ministry and a member of the Egyptian delegation in negotiations with Ethiopia, told Egyptian government affiliated newspaper Al-Ahram that the international committee’s report found that additional studies should have been made before construction work began to assess its impact on the environment socio-economic and hydraulic. The official stated”Experts have said that the studies conducted by Ethiopian authorities are Level 1 and that Level 2 studies were needed to show the impact of the dam on downstream countries.”

Stating the focus of the negotiation and the interest of Egypt he said “There are many ways to reach a compromise. We will focus during the meetings on the specifications of the dam, the volume of water behind the dam and reservoir and on joint management that guarantees the production of electricity in Ethiopia and the natural flow of water to Egypt.”

Those who followed the issue clearly understand that Egypt was following the deep-rooted unjust stand of “historical right” in its foreign policy. This policy had clearly affected the negotiation process and delayed the agreement to be reached between Nile basin countries. We had been hearing presidential and political leaders speeches including “Our blood substitutes any decrease of the flow of the river waters, even a single drop” for several times on several occasions.

Change of policy?

In the last few decades we have witnessed a radical and unjust policy of Egypt towards the Nile river, which inculcates the “historical right” argument. This policy of Egypt emanated from the 1929 and 1959 unjust treaties’ of colonial times. Those unjust and illegal treaties’ of Nile River, which was made by Egypt, Sudan and other colonial powers, gave illegal right to Egypt and Sudan. For instance in the 1929 treaty it declared that no activity would be carried out on the Nile that would lessen or reduce the flow of water to Egypt. On top of all that, the agreement also introduced the concepts of“historical rights, acquired rights, and established rights.” It stipulated that “no irrigation or power works or measures are to be constructed or taken on the River Nile or its tributaries, or on the lakes from which it flows in so far as all these are in the Sudan or in countries under the British administration, which would entail prejudice to the interests of Egypt.”

This accord established Egypt’s right to 48 billion cubic meters of water flow, all dry season waters, and veto-power over any upriver water management projects; Sudan was accorded rights to 4 billion cubic meters of water. Available researches indicate that over the entire year, about 86 percent of the Nile’s water originates from the Ethiopian Highlands, while the White Nile contributes only 14 percent. During the flood period however, 95 percent of the water originates from Ethiopia and only 5 percent from East Africa. It is really hard to differentiate this derogatory and unfair treaty with that of the expansionist syndromes of colonialism.

It is also all the same in its nature of injustices in the 1959 agreement, which reaffirmed the ‘full utilization of the Nile waters between Sudan and Egypt. By this agreement both Egypt and Sudan were ignoring Ethiopia, which contributes 85 percent of the water to the Nile, and other upper stream countries like Uganda, which contributes the remainder. Surprisingly the 1959 agreement between the two recipients of the water allowed Egypt to receive three times as much water as the Sudan, refers to “full utilization” and “full control of the river” and ignores the other Nile basin countries. The signatories of the 1959 agreement allocated Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually while Sudan was allowed 18.5 billion cubic meters. These 79 billion cubic meters represented 99 percent of the calculated average annual river flow. This agreement only leaves 1 percent of the Nile River for the other at least 8 members of the Nile basin countries. One can ask this:can the recipient decide the fate of the river while the significant contributors were ignored from the scene?

In spite of all of the above unjust behaviors of the colonial treaties, Egypt kept pushing to quote these treaties and used it to influence bilateral and multilateral treaties among the upper and lower riparian counties for decades. In most cases the policy of” historical right” gave Egyptian politicians power to threaten the upper river countries for using the water. In 1979 for instance, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat threatened war on violators of what he saw as his country’s rights to the Nile waters. In a similar note,by reaffirming the long and deep rooted policy of Egypt regarding the use of the Nile River, the recently toppled president was heard saying “Our blood substitutes any decrease of the flow of the river waters, even a single drop.”

Similarly, though the Egyptian and Sudanese governments denied the reports, in 2012, international newspaper reported in a Wikileaks document acquired from Stratfor, the Texas security company, that the Egyptian and Sudanese plan to build an airstrip for bombing a dam in Ethiopia. It shows how much the Egyptian are willing to do anything necessary to protect their rhetoric of “historical right.”

The same kind of news was also heard in 2014. In April 2014 a few web-based newspapers published that Soyuz-U rocket, made by Russia’s Energy Space Corporation, was launched with an Egyptian satellite as its payload. Based on this unconfirmed news, this Earth observation satellite is reported to be put to use for high-resolution remote sensing. By quoting vice president of Egypt’s National Authority for Remote Sensing and Space Sciences, Alaa El-din El-Nahry, Ahram Online wrote that the satellite is intended to track the construction of the Ethiopian hydroelectric dam. It would capture high quality photos of the construction site along with other sources of the Nile. Observer of the issue claimed, “the information would presumably be used to facilitate Egypt’s upper hand in the negotiations regarding the construction, use and eventual management of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Dam.” This action again shows a policy of mistrust and a win-lose approach that has been being built for decades in Egyptian policy with regards to the Nile River.

After seeing all the above historical background and ongoing current facts about Egypt’s stance regarding the use of the Nile River by other riparian countries, one can ask one very critical question. Where does the “we are happy” stance come from all of a sudden? Is it a change of policy from Egypt? Is it a change of policy from Ethiopia? Is it the outcome of the relentless diplomatic efforts of Egypt? Is it simply a time buying strategy of both Egypt and Ethiopia? Is it the outcome of the pressure from international actors? Is it a strategy to sabotage the study of the upcoming trilateral technical committee?

The devil is in the details

Engaging with Egypt through all kinds of diplomatic dialogue is nothing but a good approach. But my worry is that Egypt has invested all its diplomatic channels to gain international support from all over the world for her causes of “historical right” in the last couples of years. The recent agreement between countries to set up an International Panel of Experts could be considered a time winning framework for Egypt, or as a victory for continuous efforts of diplomacy to undermine Ethiopian interest. I am just wondering one thing. What if this international panel of experts comes up with different kinds of studies? I am still not seeing the reorganizing of this panel since the previous international committee reaffirmed that there is no harm on Egypt.

Arab-ization of Nile…?

As a one time international relation student and critical observer of the issue, I can anticipate that Egypt is already expecting a winner position from the upcoming trilateral technical committee. As far as my understanding is concerned, after the recent bloody revolution in Egypt to topple the democratically elected president, the recent government, led by one time filed Marshal, has adopted a systematic policy to maintain the old policy of “historical right.” I simply call this policy “deceiving.” After falling to maintain the promises of bringing democracy to his country, the new president has opted to gain the support for halting the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by any means from outside. They have been trying to make the issue of the Nile the quest of all Arab countries. Those who followed the diplomatic battle regarding the Nile River could recall the continuous attempt of Egyptian authorities to “Arab-ize” the cause of the Nile River. There are ample historical writings and literatures that stipulate the modern civilization in the Middle East has a great attachment to the Nile River.

By dismantling Muslim Brotherhood;Egypt has tried to gain the trust of the Gulf countries — except for Qatar. This move of the General has brought two things for the newly elected government. The first thing is that the general has demolished his threat and by doing so he served the interest of Gulf countries. It is obvious that the royal corrupted officials of the gulf region see the wave of democracy as a threat for their regime. On their part the Gulf leaders expressed their satisfaction toward the change in the political scene of Egypt after the fall of the Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rushed to offer financial aid packages to the Egyptian government amounting to USD 10.7 billion in the span of only six months.

The other significant development is that Egypt has become a close ally of Russia. By seeing the recently multi-billion dollar arms deal between Egypt and Russia, the recent surprise visit of Sergei Lavrov, powerful diplomat in the current diplomatic circle of the world, during negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and the use of Russian made Soyuz-U rocket, as claimed by some newspapers, to track the construction of the Ethiopian hydroelectric dam, I simply see the shadow hands of gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Russia, in the recent development of the Nile river negotiations.

What makes Egypt happy now?

Surprisingly, unlike previous comments and speeches, recently, after arriving in Addis Ababa, Egyptian Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed that he was happy with the outcome of the tripartite dialogue. In a joint statement he said “We are satisfied with the results of the trilateral, technical committee that recently met in Khartoum.”

It seems that the recent round of meetings in Sudan brings new dimensions to the ongoing negotiations. Media outlets are reporting that in the recent tripartite talk in Khartoum, water ministers of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan agreed to establish a committee to conduct the studies recommended by the International Panel of Experts. The Tripartite National Committee (TNC) comprising four experts from each country will conduct the studies recommended by the Panel. As far as my understanding is concerned there is a deviation of stand from the Ethiopian side, since we have heard that Ethiopia has already studied the social and environmental impacts of the dam. Egypt has been pushing the establishment of this international panel of experts. Political observers pointed out that Egypt is also leaning towards adopting new policies aimed at resolving its dispute with Ethiopia concerning its Renaissance Dam project. But I beg to differ from the position of some observers that pointed out that Egypt is adopting a new cooperative approach regarding the Nile riverbecause as far as my understanding is concerned, they can’t simply radically change the foundation of their foreign policy all of a sudden.

Dealing with Egypt and Sudan alone will affect the interest of Ethiopia

Maybe I am wrong but my feelings keep telling me that dealing with Egypt and Sudan alone will affect the interest of Ethiopia. As a true supporter and contributor of the Renaissance Dam, I have been following the issue with passion and interest. Ethiopia has done a tremendous job in bringing the upper riparian countries together by creating the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA.) In order to share the Nile waters ‘fairly and equitably’ between all the riparian countries, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi signed the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA.) The Agreement stated that the Nile Commission would be established upon the ratification by the legislatures of at least six riparian countries. By using this framework Ethiopia and other upper riparian countries should stand for their right to use their resources. This framework sends a clear message for Egypt to recognize and internalize the hard fact that each state has the right to equitable utilization of its waters in accordance with international law. As far as my understanding is concerned, the best way to handle the Nile issue is that Egypt should start to realize the fact that like all nations, Ethiopia has the right to exploit its natural resources for its own developmental aspirations. It is a just thinking that Ethiopia deserves a fairer apportionment of Nile waters. It is unjust to support a colonial-era treaty that excluded Ethiopia and other riparian countries and granted the lion’s share of the Nile waters to Egypt. My final word is that separate negotiation and engagement should not undermine the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which I believe is the best and most effective strategy to tackle the unjust stands of Egypt.

Ed.’s Note: Mesued Mustefa is a consultant and part time instructor at New Generation University College (NGUC). He has a Masters Degree in Journalism and Communication and a postgraduate certificate in International Diplomacy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at

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