Egypt gets worked-up over manufactured frenzy, Ethiopia still rejects “historical share” claim

Egyptian media and foreign ministry spent the last week bogged down in a manufactured frenzy, (not to mention their gaffe in Nairobi which may hint at a behavioral pattern). The state media Al-Ahram and other complacent news outlets published a “misreading” of a statement of an Ethiopian official and the foreign ministry has “tried to calm” the frenzy that ensued. Let me give you the full story and my two cents.

I learnt from Egyptian news outlets that, Ethiopia’s government spokesperson, Minister Getachew Reda, gave an interview to the London based Arabic website Al-Ashraq Al-Awsat at the end of last week. The reports caught my eyes since they were carrying phrases like “Egyptians angry”…and the like.

In the interview, according to Egyptian outlets, when asked about the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Nile River, the spokesperson has apparently said “Renaissance Dam has become a reality… we haven’t promised to halt construction pending the completion of technical studies. No matter what happens things will not change. The people of the three countries will benefit from it. But if some parties believe that they will be harmed by it, then this is not Ethiopia’s problem.” I assume the news websites plucked 70% of the above quote out of thin air. Even if it’s true, what the spokesperson allegedly said is the position Ethiopia reiterated consistently over the years and I couldn’t see a reason for controversy.

Based on that statement, Egyptian media created frenzy by misquoting and suspicious misreading of the spokesperson’s statement. The state media, Al-Ahram put the quote like this: “If some parties believe that they will be harmed by it, then this is not Ethiopia’s problem.” and put a spin on it to make it sound as if Ethiopia rejected the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) agreement and “by extension” Egypt’s “historical share”.

Wait! What does the DoP agreement got to do with Egypt’s water share?  

As of what I can learn from the leaked DoP document, the agreement signed between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt on March 2015 has these three relevant points.

I – Principles of Cooperation– To cooperate based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win and principles of international law.

III – Principle Not to Cause Significant Harm– The Three Countries shall take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm in utilizing the Blue/Main Nile.

IV – Principle of Equitable and Reasonable Utilization – The Tree Countries shall utilize their shared water resources in their respective territories in an equitable and reasonable manner.

[In ensuring their equitable and reasonable utilization, the Three Countries will take into account all the relevant guiding factors including the social and economic needs of the Basin States; the population dependent on the water resources in each Basin State; existing and potential uses of the water resources; conservation, protection, development and economy of use of the water resources; the availability of alternatives, of comparable value and the contribution of each Basin State to the waters…]

Photo - Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Photo – Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [Photo – Social media]

To begin with, I see no correlation between the DoP agreement and Egypt’s long-held claim of “historical rights”. And my default assumption is that the government of Egypt knows well the agreement it signed. Moreover, I found the agreement to only give basis for an impact study on the dam; and further cooperation/consultations on a consensus based implementation of the recommendations of the study. The agreement does not seem to contradict the alleged statement of the spokesperson since it leaves no room “for claims of harm the parties may make despite the findings of the study or “halt of dam construction pending the completion of the study”.

In fact, I found the agreement to promote “mutual no-significant-harm” policy which is in sync with Ethiopia’s long-held position of “mutual benefit.” On the other hand it seems to have ignored Egypt’s age-old policy of “historical water share”, because I assume Ethiopia never agreed on that. Plus, recognition of “historical rights” renders any cooperation pointless since it practically means all to Egypt and none for the rest. [Ethiopia, which is the source for about 85% of the Nile waters, has always rejected Egypt’s claim for “historical rights” as it is based on colonial treaties Ethiopia was excluded from. The colonial treaties allocated the waters to only two of the ten riparian states. Instead Ethiopia promotes a policy of “equitable share”].  

Hence, as a religious consumer of news reports on the issue, I see no ground to confuse the DoP with “water share” and nothing in the alleged remark to cause alarm. After all Ethiopia made countless remarks emphasizing no-halt to the construction of the dam, respect for the DoP agreement and its rejection of the “historical share” claim.

However, instead of clarifying that to the media, the Egyptian foreign ministry found it convenient to join the manufactured frenzy and got into the “calming down” business. The ministry apparently requested Ethiopia a clarification and according to its own website, got a response that “Ethiopia is committed to the DoP agreement”. That line, in my opinion, appears plausible.

When the story reached the Egyptian media though, the statement got altered to “Ethiopia assured it is committed to Egypt’s share of Nile waters”. The origin of this misinterpretation is yet unclear. Either the media willfully misinterpreted the clarification or the foreign ministry misinterpreted it for them.

On another follow-up report, Egypt’s foreign ministry spokesperson Ahmed Abu Zeid claimed to have gotten a clarification from the Ethiopian government spokesperson that “Ethiopia respects Egypt’s water share.” I highly doubt the spokesperson made a 180 on an official position. On the other hand, the contradiction between the verbal and published statements of Egyptian foreign ministry casts doubt on their integrity. The track record of Egyptians on the issue doesn’t let one to give them the benefit of the doubt.

We can inquire whether the media or the Egyptian foreign minister is the one playing with words. But I don’t think it matters since Egyptian government and media are known to finish each other’s sentences. The whole frenzy reeks of being manufactured.

Suspicious Frenzy

I’m of the opinion that there is not much of confusion among Egyptian media and officials on the agreed principles and the position differences of the two countries. Hence, I find it hard to take the frenzy as a result of an honest mistake or misquoting. Even more, the foreign ministry’s enthusiasm to indulge in this drama (and even add to the confusion) adds to my suspicion.

In my opinion, the root of the drama is Egypt’s refusal to part with the colonial era policy it held for long. One consistent tradition of Egyptian media and the government is playing fast and loose with facts and misinterpreting everything until it fits their interpretation. I assume Egyptian foreign ministry tried to exploit this manufactured frenzy to extract some kind of note suggesting Ethiopia’s recognition of its “historical right” claim. After all, not a week passes without Egyptian officials or media demanding for Ethiopia’s recognition of it. Hence, I see this as a continuation of that tradition. I suppose, failing to extract a letter of their wishes, the foreign ministry and media went on asserting their illusions anyway.

Commentators of the Nile issue has on several occasions advised the government of Egypt to stop keeping the public in the bubble of “historical rights”, to tell the people of Egypt that the era of colonial agreements gave way to the era of “equitable sharing” and quit the media spins that add no positive value in the outcome of the Nile sharing or the dam. Repetition of lies as if they are facts only entrenches old claims into Egyptian psyche and merely serve as a cause for future conflict, not cooperation. We can safely assume Ethiopia is not committed to colonial water shares, neither last week or in this one.

That’s just not happening.


Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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