More on Egyptian Rhetoric over the Renaissance Dam
Getachew Mequanent June 14, 2013
There has been a lot of talk about the politics and diplomacy of building the Hedase (Renaissance) Dam on the Nile River. I am here to add my voice to the debate. Overall one understands the concern of Egyptians about the use of the Nile waters by upstream nations, but it has become frustrating that they remain little sympathetic to the development struggles of black Africans. And this has to do with history. According to the California-based think tank the Pacific Institute, when a French expedition located the headwaters of the White Nile in 1898, the British, who had interests in downstream colonial territories (Egypt and Sudan), became so alarmed that they had to negotiate a settlement (on water use) with the French. This incident also “dramatized Egypt’s vulnerable dependence on the Nile, and fixed the attitude of Egyptian policy-makers ever since”.
The Egyptians used this kind of colonial legacy to develop a policy narrative dictating that Egypt have the right to use 70% of the Nile waters, and that any attempt by upstream nations to divert the waters for any purpose would be considered as an act of aggression against them. In an anticipation of development ambitions by Ethiopia, successive governments in Cairo would initiate political destabilization strategies and lobbying international financial institutions not to lend money to Ethiopia. They also created a myth that specially trained Egyptian commandos could be able to storm and destroy any dam structure build over the Nile River.
A large section of the literate in Egyptian society, including intellectuals and military elites, know quite well that times have changed. Previously Egypt was escorted by the US as a Middle East ally, receiving the second largest American foreign aid next to Israel. Today Egypt is an Islamic state with the growing influence of the salafists who embrace an anti-Infidel (Christian) political ideology, making Egypt a lost cause for American foreign policy. Second, since the death of Pan-Arabism in the 1990 (when many Arab nations sided with America to kick the late Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait), the Egyptian influence in the region has declined. Qatar and other nations have emerged as regional leaders. Third, the political crisis at home has divided Egyptian society and sent the economy in downward spiral. Fourth, upstream riparian states are growing in economic, political and military strength. Finally, the thinking from the international community is that, while hydroelectric dams have the potential to alter local and regional ecosystems, they remain the best alternative sources of clean energy. Egyptian leaders should therefore embrace the latest thinking in regional cooperation for peaceful and sustainable development. During an Al-Jazeera TV panel discussion, Bereket Simon conveyed this message clearly.
Normally heated rhetoric in national capitals elsewhere would have received the attention of world powers, especially when a Muslim state unleashes rhetoric of aggression. There has been a near complete silence by the international community other than reports by few media outlets and the recent AU statement. This may tell us that there is some policy thinking going on or there are other priories such as the crisis in Syria. International opinion favours Ethiopia. After all, Ethiopia is seen by many in the international community as a symbol of failure of development in the 20th century (famine, war, refugees, etc.) and whose progresses in social and economic development is closely watched. The late Meles Zenawi has also left powerful friends in London and Washington who supported his vision of development. There are still pro-Egyptian forces in the international arena, but they no longer hold high moral ground. Egyptians may eventually find themselves isolated and this can convince them to engage in peaceful and constructive dialogue, instead of war rhetoric.
Until the election of President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt was ruled by big military men who had a reputation for public display of military posture, including fighting Zionism. The current rhetoric in Cairo could be a reflection of this political culture and I am sure that Ethiopian government officials had anticipated it. The Ethiopian government has actually handled the issues very well through peaceful diplomacy to try to appease public fear in Egypt and opening the dam’s project plan for inspection by a panel of experts. Military conflict is unlikely - Egyptian generals are well education to calculate risks. In the event that war breaks out, Ethiopia must have mobilized and deployed all military assets to defend against an Egyptian attack.