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Securitizing Nile, Egypt’s GERD strategy

May 15, 2023

By: Zelalem Demissie

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Addis Ababa, May 15, 2013 (Walta) – For a very long time in memory, Egypt has been the principal hegemon state in the Nile Basin, exploiting the Nile’s water as it will.

Egyptians often refer to an unfounded identity based on a 4th-century legend that claimed Egypt to be the gift of the Nile. Besides, Egypt has for centuries aggressively pursued a policy of controlling the Nile while doing everything in its power to prohibit upstream countries from utilizing the Nile’s waters.

It even tried military means to control the river in its entirety. Notably, in the 19th century, Egypt went to the extent of attempting to annex the sources of the Blue Nile and incorporating Ethiopia under its rule. To the dismay of the Egyptians, all the military maneuvers ended in humiliating defeats at the hands of the Ethiopians.

Egypt’s policy towards the Nile, however, remained unaltered. Apparently, successive ‘agreements’, especially colonial ones, provided Egypt with absolute rights to utilize the waters while prohibiting upstream countries from doing so. These agreements, in addition, enabled Egypt to effectively maintain what it calls a ‘historic right’.

This status quo remained unchallenged until Ethiopia, which contributes 86% of the Nile’s waters, announced that it had decided to construct Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), on the Blue Nile, writes Mahemud Tekuya, a law expert at McGeorge School of Law, USA.

The fact is, even before Ethiopia’s announcement of its decision to construct a dam on the Blue Nile (Abay), Egypt considered Ethiopia a threat that needed to remain in perpetual misery and discord. Expectedly, Egypt outright opposed the project, declaring that it would significantly affect their interests.

Ethiopia did not begin a significant Nile project until 2011, which seems to have encouraged Egypt’s denial.

Such is the case when more than 60 percent of Ethiopians still live without electricity, while Egyptians enjoy 100 percent access to electricity.

The Nile River influences how Egyptian foreign policy decision-makers think, given that 95% of their population lives outside the basin. Generally, Egyptian foreign policy is based on securing the majority of the Nile River using any available alternative, regardless of whether it was suggested by the British or any other party, say Segni and Zerihun, Ethiopian Nile experts.

Even so, “since the project began, the Ethiopian government has been transparent in declaring the technical aspects of the construction. Assurance was also given to the upper riparian states that the project, essentially a non-consumptive one, would cause no significant harm. In this regard, a tripartite committee has been deliberating on the project at various levels since 2012”, wrote Drs. Samuel Berhanu and Yohannes Eneyew for the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

This is unprecedented for Ethiopia to be at the same time the net contributor of the Nile waters and, to heed Egypt’s demands, a downstream country with zero contribution. It is an astounding paradox. In the majority of cases involving trans-boundary Rivers, writes Gashaw Ayferam for the Horn Africa Insight (2020), upstream countries are hydro-hegemons; they mostly disregard the needs of downstream countries and utilize any amount of water they deem necessary for their own cause.

This has been the case with Turkey controlling the Tigris and Euphrates; Syria or Iraq are not the hegemons.

It was China that built as many and as large hydropower stations on the Mekong River—not Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, or just Vietnam.

By the same token, the U.S. does what it wants on the Colorado River, not Mexico.

Be that as it may, it does not discourage Egypt, a downstream country that enjoys hydrohegemony regardless of its zero contribution, from viewing the GERD as an existential security threat.

In fact, Egypt doubled down, along with feet-dragging and smokescreen negotiations, on the alternative strategies it employed for centuries to discourage Ethiopia from realizing the GERD project.

Hoping to continue with its complete control of the Nile waters, it carried on making threats to use force, engaged countless hours in activities that undermined the sovereignty of riparian states, especially Ethiopia, to prevent it from spending its resources on harnessing the Blue Nile, and more.

This entails one of Egypt’s long-held strategies: the securitization of the Nile waters. For Egypt, any planned project, such as that of the GERD, is an existential security threat. In other words, fueled by its ‘Natural Right’ political rhetoric and deep-seated sense of entitlement to solely monopolize the water resource, any project on the Nile for Egypt is perceived as a national-security threat.

Securitization is about how a securitizing actor frames a problem of normal politics to legitimize an extraordinary measure it contemplates taking against a socially constructed threat. And by framing the GERD as an existential water-security threat, Egypt aims to perpetuate a ‘no-dam-construction’ sanction against Ethiopia indefinitely, writes Gashaw.

Nonetheless, many argue that the securitization of the Nile River by Egypt is more of a political process than one of survival. For instance, discussed in Segni and Zerihun’s piece was the fact that agriculture, which takes 86% of the available water, accounts for only 14% of Egypt’s GDP, and Egypt imports 50% of its food consumption annually.

That is why, at each stage of the negotiations so far, Egyptian negotiators have emphasized that Egypt’s water security constitutes a “red line that cannot be crossed.” To this end, in addition to blatant verbal threats against Ethiopia, Egypt has gone so far as to pursue what it called a “charm offensive” throughout Nile riparian countries.

A case in point is that, following the overthrow of Sudan’s longtime ruler, Omar Al-Bashir, in 2019, Egypt exploited the troubled transitional government in Sudan and had it turn against the interests of Ethiopia and, worse, the interests of the Sudanese people.

Following, particularly the start of GERD filling in 2020, Egypt has been speaking with two mouths: one using its own and two using that of Sudan. The two countries even had a ‘synchronized’ rejection of what they labeled ‘Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the GERD’.

In an apparent move to pressurize Ethiopia and at a time when Ethiopia was dealing with its internal security issues, Egypt and Sudan jointly conducted massive military exercises round after round. These exercises and drills even had lexicons: “Nile Eagles-1” and “Nile Eagles-2,” as well as the “Guardians of the Nile” joint military drills.

In the meantime, the Egyptian grand plan of executing its plans through Sudan has, it seems, already faced setbacks as Sudan is currently at war with itself.

On top of its maneuvers in Sudan, Egypt went on to sign military, intelligence, and economic cooperation agreements with countries such as Burundi, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda, all Nile riparian countries. This is a natural course of action between independent and sovereign nations, and the signings are not illegal. But intentions matter in establishing cooperation of this nature. It definitely matters to Ethiopia. The issue of the GERD and the Nile has now become, therefore, as much a security matter for Ethiopia as it is for Egypt.

Of course, there was time when Egyptian diplomatic establishment thought they had won a big prize upon signing a defense cooperation pact with Kenya. Surely, they must have thought they could exploit the almost nonexistent water dispute between Ethiopia and Kenya.

The epitome of Egyptian greed, especially after the start of GERD filling, was its futuristic, sinister plan to lobby Djibouti into chocking Ethiopia, a landlocked country that relies almost entirely on Djibouti for its imports and exports. In the first visit by an Egyptian sitting president since 1977, El-Sisi traveled to Djibouti to ‘discuss the GERD dispute’, according to Egyptian media outlets. Ironic!

Egypt’s securitization of the Nile waters illustrates its negotiation strategy of win-lose, not win-win. Egypt will never be ready to give even a ‘drop of water’. We would like to remind readers that Egypt is the source of zero percent of the Nile’s waters.



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