Yet, posturing aside, officials and scholars in Cairo understand the insistence on monopoly of the Nile waters, with implicit military threats is literally unsustainable. Indeed, the more intelligent amongst them should know, at least for a few years to come, a direct military attack on the Renaissance dam project is improbable.

(Daniel Berhane)

The letter from the Egyptian Foreign Minister, in November, to his Ethiopian counterpart, re-assuring commitment to cooperation on Nile and distancing Cairo from the remarks of some officials in the media, seems to have laid to rest the months long speculations on the matter.

The alarming signals from Cairo, started with anonymous remarks of Egyptian officials at the dying days of the late Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi, reached its peak November with an advisor of the Egyptian president telling the media the later’s “shock” at the state of ties with Nile basin countries.

These unhelpful remarks were compounded by two-years old emails of a US-based private intelligence firm, published recently on Wikileaks, claiming Egyptians were discussing with Sudan to establish a base to destroy the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, launched the prior month.

The re-assuring letter, written in reply to the one his Ethiopian counterpart sent him at a previous date, was a predictable one.

Egypt rarely took an official position to resolve disputes in the use of Nile waters through military force.

Indeed, its hope in sheer military force appear to have declined after its disastrous attempt to occupy the sources of the Nile in the 19th century under its leader Khadive Esmail. Since then, Egypt and its British colonial masters efforted to secure monopoly of the water over the upper-riparian countries through treaties of uncertain legal status, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office reportedly insists are valid.

Cairo successfully used those treaties and its clout in the crisis-prone Mideast to block international finance to dams on Nile, besides to laboring to exacerbating Ethiopia’s security threats.

Granted, Egyptians didn’t make a formal and conscious revision of their outdated Nile policy.

The 19th century mind-set was prevalent in the days of their late President Naser when Cairo had large clout with the then super-powers, third world countries and was aspiring to federate with Sudan, Syria and Libya and was engaged in decades long state of war with Israel, whom it suspected might conspire with Ethiopia to cut its lifeline.

Given this mix of hopes of grandeur and apprehension of doomsday, no surprise Egypt remained fixated to its securitization of the Nile including the oft-cited belligerent remark of the subsequent President Sadat mentioning military as an option.

In their defense, the Egyptians have no reason to completely rule out the military option, despite Ethiopia’s official statements often underline a commitment to fair use.

Apart from centuries old threats by Ethiopian Emperors to block the waters flow, and apart from Cairo’s greed and chauvinism, it is prudent for them to suspect Ethiopia might not honor a deal once it achieves a certain level of growth and might use it in an eventual contest for regional dominance. At least Ugandans MPs floated, a decade ago, a legislative motion to charge upper-riparian countries per thousands of cubic litters of water consumed.

The major flaw of the Egyptian policy is that it premises an ever-weak Ethiopia, as opposed to an increasingly stable, growing and regionally powerful one, which emerged in the last decade. Thus, as Ethiopia started rallying the region for a collective action, the Egyptians had to resort to pledging pet projects for some upper-riparian countries. Pledges, they are having trouble to honor.

The policy was further proved ineffective when Ethiopia built two smaller dams on the tributaries of Nile in the last decade from her own coffers. The former President Mubarak could only react to the launching of Tana Beles dam by making an official visit to Italy to plead for her company’s withdrawal from the construction and by summoning the Eritrean president to Cairo.

The Egyptian side is indeed in disarray with no realistic game-plan, as observed following the announcement of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project in April 2010.

Though Ethiopia might have taken advantage of the political instability in Cairo, the disarray mainly emanates from their outdated outlook as observed in the ‘national dialogue’ conference held a week after the announcement the project.

As bad habits die hard, the Egyptians resorted to blame game and re-emphasizing policy of destabilization and bribing upper-riparian countries and outdated conspiracy theories.

The media remarks of Cairo’s officials in the past few months are nothing but an indication of the persistence of the confusion and lingering old-mindsets.

Yet, posturing aside, officials and scholars in Cairo understand the insistence on monopoly of the Nile waters – with implicit military threats – is literally unsustainable.

Indeed, the more intelligent amongst them should know, at least for a few years to come, a direct military attack on the Renaissance dam project is improbable.

That is what one infers from considering the two most likely scenarios: That is; Egypt bombs the dam and Ethiopia refrains from military response OR a scenario where Ethiopia retaliates to Egyptian attack on the dam.

Both scenarios would have huge implications for the Nile basin countries and on global powers with stakes in the region.

The first scenario is possible but unlikely to happen.

The Ethiopian government has put its weight behind the dam project, as most of the adult citizen contributed about 8.4% of their personal income for a year. The fury that an attack on the dam will create will be unprecedented. The Ethio-Eritrean war will pale by comparison. The government will loose power either by election or by a coup de’etat to hardliners who capitalize by blaming its low military spending and emphasis on economic diplomacy. Even if that hypothetical hardliner government may not immediately resort to retaliatory military measures, its foreign policy will surely be militarized and confrontational. The implication of this on the internal stability of Ethiopia and the conflict-prone Horn of Africa will be serious. The westerners will have trouble relying on Addis Ababa as regional stabilizer without facilitating the restoration of sanity by resolving the Nile dispute or lending hand to the military build-up.

The second and most like scenario would be the Ethiopian government will respond to public fury by retaliating whoever deemed Egypt’s proxy. The probable target would be Sudan, but Eritrea and Djibouti may not be off-chart, depending on how the government frames the issue and wishes to achieve in the process. No matter what the capacity of the overrated Egyptian air force might be, it can not immune Sudan from Ethiopian ground forces. Not to forget South Sudan who would seize the opportunity to capture the disputed oil-rich Abiye, if not North Kordofan and Blue Nile regions as well. Egypt could only resume backing extremists elements in Somalia at the pain of serious diplomatic fall out with countries in the region and beyond. That would be more than enough excuse for Uganda to resume backing the South Sudanese – this time with legitimate dividends from oil money.

Both scenarios surely concern Sudan, who should provide a passage for Egyptian forces. As much as Khartoum fears an Egypt’s wrath, Khartoum is today more apprehensive of such regional instability which could entail further dismemberment of the state and an opportunity for Western powers to induce regime-change and capture their leaders. Again, the Westerners have developed multiple interests in the region, large enough to oppose an irrational act from Cairo, on whom they have much clout as observed in the past two years.

But there is one very recent variable to the equation.

That is: The Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo and its undecided power struggle with the Army, which postures as guardian of secularism and non-Islamist political forces. A protracted military support to Sudan and overt proxy war with Ethiopia will not only tax the already bankrupt economy but also empowers the Army. The Brotherhood didn’t wait for a half-century to handover power as a result of a chauvinist irrational military engagement.

In fact, at this age, a military conflict will eventually end up in a negotiated settlement, which will likely include the Great Lakes countries. The cumulative amount of water volume Egypt would have to concede will be by far greater than any evaporation impact the Renaissance dam might have.  A scenario where Egypt maintains the status quo after a regional military crisis is one which even Israel with all its economic, diplomatic and military height couldn’t achieve.

I shall hastily note that this analysis may not hold true after a couple of years, assuming the Sudans manage to reach a lasting peace agreement, Kenya survives the looming threats of tribal war, the power struggle in Cairo settles down and Eritrea and Somalia join the international community.

However, in the mean time, Ethiopia will make much progress in the dam project, which in turn forces the International Panel of Experts of the Renaissance dam to articulate all points on concerns as fast as possible. There by, robbing Egypt the benefit of the appeal of its current vague claims on the dam project in diplomatic circles and the media.


Please check the archives for more on the issues raised above.

* This article is published as part of the “Post-Meles 2012″ Special Edition of this blog.

Daniel Berhane

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