Egypt’s non-negotiable right to the Nile

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 15 Jul 2021

Egypt’s referral of the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to the UN Security Council is part of its policy of bringing the issue to international mediation, writes Hany Ghoraba

A decade of pointless negotiations with Ethiopia over the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile has convinced the Egyptian leadership that it is time to take matters to international mediation before Egypt has to resort to firmer action. The UN Security Council meeting on the matter on 8 July was part of this intention on the part of the Egyptian government, designed to counter Ethiopia’s irresponsible insistence on treating the Nile as its own possession. 

The debate over the use of a river originating in one country and flowing through another has long been settled by the international law governing such issues. Accordingly, the claim by Ethiopia that the Nile originates on its territory and thus that it has the right to control it is simply an act of aggression that places this already divided country in the line of fire from its neighbours, particularly those who rely on the Nile for their survival such as Egypt and Sudan. 

During the recent Security Council session, the Ethiopian representative, his country’s Minister of Irrigation Seleshi Bekele, delivered a speech full of arrogance and self-deception. He started by saying that he was amazed to find himself addressing the Security Council, adding that he was the first such minister to do so. But, of course, the Ethiopian government chose him as the representative of his country in making this speech.

Bekele then repeated his country’s claim that it is willing to resolve the crisis and that the real issue was that Egypt and Sudan are not willing to do so. Bekele tried to stress the importance of the African Union (AU) being the primary sponsor of the negotiations and not the UN Security Council. But he failed to mention the fact that Ethiopia has broken its commitments and every agreement it has signed on the GERD, the last of which was the memorandum of understanding between Egypt and Ethiopia in 2015. 

Ethiopia’s record of bailing out of any signed agreement is well known, and from here came the importance of involving the Security Council in the negotiations before any further escalation of conflict in the region. 

The international community has not seen the escalating situation between Egypt and Ethiopia as perilous enough to intervene, despite Ethiopia’s complete disregard of international law. This complacency has empowered the regime in Addis Ababa to continue its tomfoolery with the continuous building of the massive dam, and it has even gone as far as to threaten to build a hundred more, according to its Foreign Ministry. 

This very declaration exposes the lies that the Ethiopian regime has been trying to sell to the international community and its claims that it seeks a peaceful resolution of the crisis with Egypt. To cover up its domestic failures, the Ethiopian regime led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has incited the Ethiopian public against Egypt through an elaborate media campaign that claims that Egypt is one of the reasons for Ethiopia’s failure as a state – a claim that could not be more ludicrous.

Egypt’s allies and friends around the world understand the severity of the situation. Former US president Donald Trump wondered why Egypt had allowed the building of the dam, asking why it did not simply demolish it. He said the Egyptians would take it down if they had to, adding that he would not blame them if they did. However, Egypt chose not to take this road, even though it is more than capable of doing so effectively.  

The Egyptian state has chosen diplomacy instead, given the stark quantitative and qualitative difference between the sophisticated Egyptian army and the rudimentary Ethiopian one. Moreover, there are other aspects to consider if military operations are to be initiated by Egypt over the GERD crisis. As President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has said, a war over this issue would cause mayhem in the region and eventually affect the whole world. 

A new war in the region, or even a limited conflict, could result in the disruption of the flow of vessels through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal for as long as military operations are ongoing. The Suez Canal blockage in March this year caused global trade losses amounting to $9 billion, and that was just over the one week of the canal’s closure. Should a new war occur, these losses will take place over a longer period and cause a spike in oil prices as well as shipping prices should the war drag on. 

Thanks to Egyptian diplomatic efforts led by Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, the international community’s response to Egypt’s call to intervene before the situation escalates has been in many cases conspicuous, with the Arab League, the US and the European Union all issuing statements. The Russian response has been obscure and requires clarification. That said, there has still been no clear message from the international community to hold Ethiopia to its responsibilities over the GERD. This kind of complacency will escalate the situation in the coming period, as Egypt will not put up with further incursions by the regime in Addis Ababa. 

The world has stood by nearly silent as the Ethiopian regime has murdered and tortured thousands of people in the Tigray region of the country. Egypt cannot be a victim of this regime, as it has more than enough capabilities to defend its national interests. The Ethiopian regime’s threatening tone against Egypt and Sudan does not befit a country that is itself fighting a civil war and that has already been responsible for massacres. The Tigray Defence Forces fighting the government in Addis Ababa have reclaimed the capital of the Tigray region and kicked out the Ethiopian army forces in a humiliating defeat for the regime.  

Ahmed must not be allowed to use the GERD to cover up his regime’s crimes in the country and thus cause the larger crime of disrupting water supplies to over 150 million people in Egypt and Sudan. It is up to the Security Council and its permanent members to realise that a war may be imminent if they do not keep the Ahmed regime in check and oblige it to negotiate in accordance with international law.   

If this does not take place, Egypt will defend its God-given right to the Nile, emphasising its position as the first and most important ancient civilisation in the world founded on its banks. It is imperative for Egypt to maintain the security of its citizens, which far surpasses the importance of maintaining cordial relations with Ethiopia. 

The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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