Egypt has traversed long distances to find some comfort in on-going construction of Ethiopia’s Nile dam

11 Nov

The Egyptian delegation during the fifth joint Egyptian-Ethiopian Committee (Credit: Al-Ahram Weekly)


By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

When I read Monday evening (Nov. 10) the one-paragraph story on Addis Fortune, titled The Construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam Will Cause No Harm to Egypt, attributed to Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, I was not certain how to take it. After all, it is just a quote from Addis Zemen, the Amharic daily, where TPLF-owned Ethiopian papers are given to promoting the Front’s propaganda, instead of writing information the people can read.

In the circumstances, I tried to go through some Egyptian papers to learn more as to what transpired during the Egyptian foreign minister’s press conference in Addis Abeba. Not surprisingly, I did not exactly get that sense that Addis Zemen is said to have written in Amharic, as has its English translation appeared in Addis Fortune.

That said, for me, key in what Foreign Minister Shukri has said is that his efforts with Ethiopian officials is geared “to regain the warmth and depth of the bilateral relationship so that [both countries] can respond to meeting the challenges that both peoples face and also their aspirations for development and a common future”; this is as Al-Ahram Weekly has put it. While it does not say much in terms of substance, what characterizes outcome of the discussions between the two countries – reading it from the Egyptian side as interpreted by their paper – it is their commitment to abide by what was agreed “between president Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in June during the African Summit in Equatorial Guinea.”

Generally, of late there has been improved communication between Ethiopia and Egypt. Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri is also personable and with mental presence, because of which he always has his eyes on the ball – characteristic of a real diplomat – consistent with his background his last posting being ambassador at large and previous to that envoy in Washington D.C. under Mubarak.

Him as foreign minister, Egypt has reposed lot of confidence in outcome of the forthcoming report by an expert committee to be submitted in five months time; its members, Mr. Shukri acknowledges, include “capable international experts”, according to Ahram Online. As sign of his country’s confidence in the committee, he told the media that if harmful or negative comments are made by the committee, “Ethiopia and Sudan must remove them … It doesn’t necessarily mean the construction must be overturned but may relate to the way it is operated.”

No matter how Egypt wanted to cast its actions, one needs to appreciate how far it has come, the transformation of which the foreign minister attributes to Egypt normalizing “its relations with its international partners after a difficult period of transition.”

“Doubting Thomas is not in hell

Over the years, I have followed with keen interest the difficulty of negotiating with Egypt. Usually what has been agreed upon at one point comes back with a different interpretation, or Egypt often took the liberty of giving it cold shoulder because of one ‘esoteric’ reason of its own or another.

My skepticism of what I read in Addis Fortune/Addis Zemen rather was encouraged by that usual fluidity of Egyptian position regarding the Nile River, which of late as the minister indicated, must have been dictated by the instability power has experienced in this one of the few oldest states in the world.

To the extent possible, I have been a student of Egypt’s interests in the Nile River and the relations Cairo has had with the Basin countries. I also had a good sense of how the Mubarak regime endlessly kept the Nile Basin countries dancing under the umbrella of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) for over 12 years, the processes and final outcomes linked, as it were, to a moving target. In fact, in the Nile Basin negotiations, along with the Sudan, in the latter years Cairo managed to stick in its national policy on the inseparability of the Nile River and Egypt’s security, which made all negotiations senseless.

I must confess, despite enormous efforts to understand, I could not get my head around why the Sudan became fellow traveller in that journey along with the Sudan. This has left me with a sense of the Sudan under ICC-indictee Al-Bashir reducing itself to a position of lower self-esteem the people of the Sudan did not deserve. Certainly, there would come time when Khartoum would also abandon Ethiopia the day the TPLF is forced to pack up and disappear from the picture – if at all Mr. Bashir survives the anger of his own people.

To come back to the point, the only thing that broke Cairo’s colonial policies on the Nile and toward Africa was the Nile Basin Initiative Framework Agreement. Its elaboration aimed at creating a permanent legal and institutional framework – like the Mekong on the Nile – preferably with Egypt or without it.

With the Framework’s adoption in 2010 by six like-minded countries, there is no doubt that Egypt was served its first tonic to sense its own bad policies. While in reality the Framework Agreement did not make any difference, on account of the the very countries that had signed the agreement did not want to ratify it because of direct and indirect pressure from Egypt and its allies in the West and Arab countries. Eventually, all the same it had shown Egypt that the Nile Basin countries also could exercise their rights.

What the press conference by the Egyptian foreign minister and the turnaround by Cairo is an ultimate push that was administered by Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam, forcing Egypt to see the future realistically.

In stating this and when I see the TPLF people patting their own shoulders, I am constantly reminded of a situation I can hardly forget from 2009, a time when in a similar manner the relations between Ethiopia and Egypt seemed transformed, at least, for an instant.

This was following the visit to Addis Abeba in December 2009 of Mubarak’s most respected and effective Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif. In its January 7 – 13, 2010 issue, Al-Ahram Weekly described it as “historic 48-hour visit [.] widely acclaimed as a landmark in economic relations between Egypt and Ethiopia.”

Tough luck, Mr. Nazif is presently in Cairo serving three-year prison sentence for “practicing nepotism, obtaining gifts from press organisations, and abusing his position to amass LE65 million [$9.1 mil] in private assets that include property and shares in telecommunications and automobile companies…”

On the Ethiopian side, his visit aroused an anticipation of improved relations with Egypt, although Egypt since 1958 had presided over the breakup of Ethiopia, disparate forces, including Gamal Abdul Nasser’s regime united by a determination of the young Wafd party which in the 1890s notionally redefined greater part of Ethiopia as part of Egypt’s Nile Valley and a Muslim nation, as discussed in may article Aida, Verdi’s opera, stands out as reminder of the on-going Nile dilemma.

That shut out of the present, in December 2009 Ethiopia longed for a breakthrough out of mercurially hostile and frosty relations between the two countries, which has been characterized by mutual suspicion. In total loyalty to his assignment from Mubarak, former Prime Minister Nazif during his visit was given to repeating again and again that he had come to Ethiopia “to enhance trade and investment ties between the two countries.”

True, 120 businesspersons had accompanied him, 90 of whom had already visited the country a month earlier. Therefore, it gave credibility to his claim. Nonetheless, not as many members of the business delegation became investors in Ethiopia. From my corner, Mr Nazif’s repetition and emphasis on trade and economic cooperation at every opportunity left me with a sense and sympathy for a powerful person; he was addressing his gallery in Cairo, i.e., possibly repeatedly reminding Mubarak and others nothing about the Nile was discussed in Ethiopia – a presidential preserve and mechanism for demonstration of power.

At the time, aware of the criticisms on the Ethiopian side – mostly the diaspora – some of whom resent any undertaking with Egypt before the Nile question was resolved, Meles seized a moment of the press conference to state that it would be “a huge mistake to choose not to engage Egypt on other matters until the Nile question is resolved.” All the same, like his successors today, he seized the opportunity to reassure Mr. Nazif, according to a press release by the Ethiopian foreign ministry, of Ethiopia’s “readiness to address the issue of the Nile on the basis of a win-win result for the mutual benefit of all the peoples and countries of the Nile Basin.”

History repeating itself and in keeping with the strongman Egyptian tradition, President El-Sisi also quieted the so many discordant noises to break another barrier between the two countries. One hopes that the lesson Egypt must derive from this is a recognition that it is just one of the ten nations of the Nile Basin, not a leader or decider for the nine.

What did Ethiopia get in return in 2009?

Frankly speaking, what I read on Al-Ahram of January 13, 2010: Eyeing Abyssinia: Egypt stakes out a special place in Ethiopia incensed me. I had made my reaction known in an article I wrote at the time. I strongly felt that the story was spinned by the Egyptian foreign ministry, implying that there were some investments dangled in front of poor Ethiopians dying to benefit from Egyptian investments, while partly in a state-owned media implying the two countries had agreed on something else that was not made public.

In that article, Egypt was also portrayed as dogooder, where it is the master with special powers to dispense favors determining who could build dam or not on the Nile:

    “Egypt , for instance, is now officially sympathetic to Ethiopia’s determination to construct three medium sized dams on the Blue Nile, the primary source of Egypt’s water, to generate electricity for industrial purposes. Ethiopia, a country of 85 million people, mostly youngsters under the age of 20, has recently embarked on a course of rapid industrialisation. It desperately needs increased water consumption for its manufacturing, agricultural and domestic use projected to soar during this decade. Ethiopia, it appears, has finally managed to persuade Cairo that Ethiopia’s plans are designed neither to start a trade war nor imperil the future of bilateral relations between Egypt and Ethiopia.

    “Ethiopia has no intention of circumventing the will of Egypt by building the new dams. Instead, Ethiopian officials explained that they wish to interest Egyptian investors into putting their money into such ventures. Egyptian officials readily resolved to accede to Ethiopia’s wishes albeit conditionally. “We have agreed to the offer as long as it doesn’t affect Egypt’s Nile water quota,” Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Allam told reporters in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.”

That is why in September, I wrote The many doors of Egypt’s diplomacy: Irrigation minister’s deal on GERD under scrutiny by foreign minister. Egypt kept for many years so many faces – interest in negotiations, accumulation of Russian weapons, etc., threats of war and peace.

That sounded just as the Mubarak era, Even Morsi played that game, talking war and peace in the same breath.

In August, things became clearer and for the first time Egypt ended its keeping, not only Ethiopia, but also the entire world guessing whether there would be water war on the Nile. Irrigation Minister Hossam El-Moghazi told the Egyptian media on August 27, 2014 that 85 percent of Egypt’s problems regarding Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Dam have been solved at the fourth round of the talks in Khartoum.

Now it seems things are brightening up for both countries. Seeing from this distant, Egypt and Ethiopia are not going to war and it is proper to be happy about it.

On the part of Ethiopia, the joy is welcome since it has in its hand now the title deed on the Nile for which efforts have been exerted by three governments.

I resent the TPLF regime for so many things. Two things are unforgivable: firstly, its hunger for an exclusive TPLF glory, while the title deed on the Nile (the dam on the Blue Nile) is a product into which three successive governments have made important contributions. Secondly, while Ethiopians languish in the dark, every dam that has come into existence has not brought light to Ethiopians.

The TPLF regime is on a drive to collect foreign exchange selling electricity to neighboring countries. This cannot be justified, how much forex crunch there is. Why should Ethiopians be penalized, when TPLF officials are building skyscrapers on monies taken from public banks and lands expropriated from helpless people?

Keep in mind that everything that goes up also comes down. There could be rainless days, periods of drought, which might anger Egyptians, no matter what is agreed upon now!

Even at a time when water, food, shelter shortage and darkness assail Ethiopians, harpling the usual propaganda of the TPLF, State Minister Abraham Tekeste was in election mode to tell the nation on November 10, 2014 that Ethiopia has made huge gains and improvements in providing basic services to the people!

When would the TPLF learn that empty propaganda can no longer carry the day going forward?

Related article:

    The many doors of Egypt’s diplomacy: Irrigation minister’s deal on GERD under scrutiny by foreign minister

    Signs of changing postures on the Nile River: Egypt girds itself to defend Ethiopia’s Blue NIle dam

    Egypt’s Russian-made satellite to monitor construction of Ethiopia’s Blue Nile dam

    Former official faults Egypt’s indecisiveness for present impasse on Blue Nile Dam; forms Nile NGO

    Morsy’s sins now include Nile conspiracy with Ethiopia

    Is Ethiopia’s rendezvous with history really arriving, or are we in some fantasy?


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