The African countries through which the Nile River runs have a geographical unity. There are 11 such countries with different languages and religions, but the geographical unity of these countries is a must in order to guarantee welfare and prosperity for all.
Egypt’s early 19th-century ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha had an eye on the future, and he was worried by water shortages that in turn had led to a decrease in crop productivity. As a result, he established the Delta Barrages or Al-Qanater Al-Khaireya across the Nile in order to prevent the loss of large quantities of fresh water into the Mediterranean Sea.
When Mohamed Ali came to rule over Egypt in 1806, he was in need of money to carry out the ambitious development projects he wanted to see implemented in the country. He appointed Muallem Girgis Al-Gohari, an Egyptian Copt, as finance minister, since the Copts at that time had a wide experience of financial matters, with many of them being tax-collectors.
He also appealed to the ruler of the Sharqiyya governorate, Muallem Rizk Agha, whose grandfather had been a loyal aide to the former Mameluke leader Ali Bey Al-Kabir. Rizk Agha took charge of Mohamed Ali’s customs department.
Earlier, when the Scottish explorer James Bruce had come to Egypt in 1768 in search of the sources of the Nile, Rizk Agha had lent him materials for his mission. He gave Bruce a book from the then Coptic Pope of Egypt, asking him to hand it to the then Ethiopian king when he got to Ethiopia. Bruce spent years in Ethiopia looking for the sources of the Nile.
Egypt’s Copts also played a tangible role in developing Sudan and Ethiopia. With the establishment of Khartoum in Sudan in 1821, there was a need for a large number of workers to handle building and other matters. Working conditions were harsh, and sometimes the local Sudanese opposed the new-found modernity. However, the Copts took the initiative and volunteered to work in Sudan, also bringing Christianity back to the country after it had disappeared for nearly five centuries.
The Coptic Pope Boutros VII responded to a request from Egyptian Copts living in Sudan for a pastor to conduct their religious services. Bishop Damianos was dispatched there as a result. In general, the Coptic employees working in the Sudan, whether civil or military, acted as the true representatives of modern Egypt, and the government of the time allocated them residences in Khartoum and Omdurman.
Egyptian-Sudanese trade cooperation also took off in the 19th century, and leading Egyptian businessmen with names like Shenuda, Boktor and Bassili had a remarkable presence in Sudanese trade at that time. They exported beads, tin and other items to Sudan in return for rubber, iron and copper.
Egyptian Copts played the same role in Ethiopia, where skilled workers and craftsmen helped to develop the country. The local Sudanese and Ethiopians took the Egyptians as their role models, imitating their habits, traditions and ideas of modernity. It was difficult to imitate the English occupiers because of the barriers of language, tradition and costume.
Following the era of Mohamed Ali Pasha and during the rule of the Khedive Ismail in the later 19th century, Egypt started to send military campaigns to Ethiopia to counter the Ethiopian rulers’ attempts to control the Nile’s water. Khedive Ismail made every effort to protect the Nile River, the main source of water for Egypt. However, even so the Ethiopian rulers’ attempts to deprive Egypt of its share of the Nile’s water did not stop, and one even thought of altering the river’s course, so that its water would drain into the Red Sea instead of the Mediterranean.
The prominent Egyptian writer Abbas Al-Tarabili once said that Ethiopia called the Nile River in the area from Lake Tana the “Great Abbay”. Only after it comes near to the Sudanese border do the Ethiopians name it the Blue Nile.
Later, during the rule of former king Farouk before the 1952 Revolution the Egyptian Irrigation Inspection Department, then based in Sudan, took part in various engineering works related to the Nile. Indeed, Egypt and the Nile are inseparable. Whenever Egypt is mentioned in a poem, a song or a political context, the word “Nile” automatically crosses people’s minds. The relationship between the two is a long and historical one. The Nile, in Egypt, is both part of reality and part of the imagination. It is the arterial blood of 100 million Egyptians, as the famous Egyptian poet Farouk Guweida has said.
Africa is a continent which has a unique nature, and it is different from the rest of the world. In the near future, Africa will surely become one of the most important parts of the world, and in order to do so the African countries should forge a geographical coalition. We have a lot of challenges in front of us that oblige us to join hands, including the recent revolutions in electronics, information technology and bio-engineering as just a few examples.
The new world order also requires a different kind of diplomacy in dealing with the political issues that divide countries. From the beginning of the crisis over Ethiopia’s building of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt has appealed to quiet diplomacy to prove its right and the right of all the other Nile Basin countries to the Nile’s water.
Each of the 11 African countries through which the Nile runs has the right to its share of this water. The Nile is the main source of fresh water for these countries, especially Egypt and Sudan, and this situation means that there should be greater integration between the Nile Basin countries. Instead of engaging in conflict with each other, they should put aside their differences and reach a rapprochement. Any talk about the sole right of either the upstream or the downstream countries to the Nile’s water should stop forever.
It is totally unacceptable for any African leader to claim his country’s ownership of the Nile’s water and to state that only excess water should go to his African neighbours. At this critical moment, the Nile should bind all the Nile Basin countries together.
Following the diplomatic path will lead to objective solutions to this thorny issue. It is for this reason that holding a mini-African summit now would be a good step towards settling the dam crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly