Tensions are spiralling around two issues that directly impact on Egypt’s national security: the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and Turkish military intervention in western Libya that has sharpened polarisation in an already divided country.
When negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia collapsed, Egypt submitted a complaint to the UN Security Council detailing the decade-long record of Ethiopian intransigence and evasiveness that led up to Addis Ababa’s threat to begin filling and operating the dam in July in the absence of an agreement with downstream nations. The potential harm to Egypt could be immense and include, at least, the loss of vast stretches of agricultural land and a halt to electricity generation at the Aswan High Dam. The Egyptian complaint to the UN Security Council was an expression of Egypt’s frustration after having exhausted all possible means to persuade Ethiopia to work towards an equitable solution that serves the rights and interests of all three parties. Egypt has now asked the Security Council to intervene. As President Al-Sisi said: “When we turned to the Security Council, it was out of our determination to follow the political and diplomatic course to its end... We need to act vigorously in order to conclude the negotiations and reach an agreement and solutions that realise the welfare of all.”
With regard to developments in Libya, following a recent inspection of forces at the western border, President Al-Sisi warned of a “genuine threat” to Egypt because of developments in western Libya and told the army to be ready for possible action. Egypt has had to draw a red line to Turkish military aggression in Libya. As the president noted, any Egyptian intervention there would be legitimate under international law, both because Egypt would be exercising its legitimate right to self-defence and because it would be at the invitation of Libyan authorities — specifically the Libyan House of Representatives, the sole popularly elected body in Libya. The Egyptian message to the Turkish occupation of western Libya is clear: it must not step beyond the red line from Sirte to Al-Jafra.
National security priorities guide Egypt’s actions in both the GERD and Libyan crises. The first concerns the life and death question of water; the second involves border security in the face of the proliferation of extremist and jihadist militias in western Libya, many at the service of Turkish ambitions that now set their sights on Libyan oil and gas fields. Coming on top of Turkish military aggression in northern Iraq, Turkish military and administrative control of large portions of northern Syria, Libya has become the third Arab country to be targeted by Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman expansionist designs. Yemen may be next in line.
In both crises, Egypt is simultaneously guided by the desire to give prevalence to all possible avenues towards political and diplomatic solutions. It is an approach that Egypt has followed consistently in its foreign policy in its African and Arab spheres. However, when confronted with direct threats to its national security, and parties that spurn political solutions and cross red lines, Egypt has another face to show in order to defend its people, stability and security.
The UN must now shoulder the responsibility of averting needless military clashes. It should take the necessary actions to compel the concerned parties to return to the negotiating table and to minimise windows for costly military confrontations that only serve extremist groups and the ambitions of acquisitive regional powers with aggressive irredentist designs.
At the same time, if the Security Council fails to act on the question of GERD, it will leave the door open to all possibilities as we approach the Ethiopian deadline to begin filling the dam’s reservoir unilaterally, without consideration for the reservations expressed by international panels of experts, or for Egypt’s and Sudan’s welfare. Remaining silent in the face of Ethiopian intransigence is not an option because it threatens Egypt’s main artery of life.
Egyptian public opinion is united behind their political leadership on these issues. It is looking to the international community and world powers to halt the perilous follies in neighbouring Libya and the Nile Basin, because if they proceed unchecked the consequences will be far from pleasant.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly