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Will Egypt escape the 19th Century mindset and meet Ethiopia half-way

By Bayelegn Yergu
Tigrai Online April 24, 2013

"The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century." (Meles Zenawi – Nov. 2010)

Everyone who followed the Nile river politics knows that Egypt's Nile policy during the former President Hosini Mubarak was primarily based on military chauvinism and proxy war by assisting anti-peace elements.

The boastful claims of some Egyptian officials in the past that they will consider any use of Nile water as an act of war were obviously a psychological war if not a day dream. On the other-hand, the proxy war tactic appears to have worked for them in the past when Ethiopia's government was weaker and politically divided. But there is an expiry date to such tactics.

Meles indicated that the two methods are unsustainable in an interview with Reuters on November 2010. Meles said:

"I am not worried that the Egyptians will suddenly invade Ethiopia. Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story. I don't think the Egyptians will be any different and I think they know that."

"If we address the issues around which the rebel groups are mobilised then we can neutralise them and therefore make it impossible for the Egyptians to fish in troubled waters because there won't be any."

Ethiopia's aim, however, is not to deny Egypt the use of the Nile rivers, Meles quickly added. In fact, he hoped Egypt will take note of current reality and will be convinced that "as direct conflict will not work, and as the indirect approach is not as effective as it used to be, the only sane option [is] civil dialogue."

When Meles urged the need for “civil dialogue”, he was not saying it for media consumption. Ethiopia's commitment for “civil dialogue” is evidenced in the 10 years long consultations of Nile basin countries.

Ethiopian water officials and experts indefatigably took part in all studies, discussions and other necessary bilateral and multilateral talks with all Nile basin countries in a process that eventually delivered the Nile basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

However, when the time came to wrap-up the discussions with a legally binding agreement – the CFA, which would also serve as a ground future cooperation, the Egyptians were found to be unwilling making up all kinds of excuses.

Therefore, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania went on to sign the the Cooperative Framework Agreement on May 2010 and gave other countries one year to do the same. Kenya and Burundi followed in the subsequent months.

The question at the time among Ethiopians and other Nile basin countries is summed up in Meles' remark to Reuters:

"The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century."

The Hosini Mubarak era Nile policy of Egypt was stuck on the 19th century.

That is true not only by its preoccupation to handle relations through proxy-war. But also by its insistence on colonial era treaties and its wish to have exclusive rights on the Nile waters, denying about 200 million people living upstream their right to share this gift of nature.

Making Egypt the sole beneficiary of the Nile waters might have sounded a workable arrangement in the 19th century for the British colonials who were ruling most of the Nile basin countries.

The colonials had no concern about fairness. All they worried about was maintaining and expanding their cotton farms in Egypt, which they hoped to control through puppet governments indefinitely. (Of course, they did so until Pres. Gemal Nasir took power by coup in the 1950s).

The British colonialists did not care that they are sowing seeds of conflict in the Nile basin. May be they thought all the Nile basin countries will remain under their colony or perhaps they thought the upper-riparian countries  have plenty water and fertile soil to need Nile waters.

But that logic doesn't work anymore for several reasons. Even the westerners, including the British, have been advising for a cooperative use of the Nile waters. They funded the establishment and works of the regional forum “Nile Basin Initiative” which facilitated the preparation of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).

To the contrary, when both western and Nile basin countries applauded for the CFA ; Egypt's Nile policy was stuck in the outdated approach of the 19th century, citing colonial-era treaties that have little or no relevance to present day realities.

Sadly, those treaties are nothing but sugar-coating of the 19th century mind-set that prevailed during Mubarak era and still present among some Egyptian officials. A brief look into the colonial-era treaties would be useful  to appreciate the outdated mindset and the need for a new arrangement..

Egypt claims a legal right on the Nile waters based on the 1929 and 1955 agreements.

The 1929 agreement, which is of uncertain legal status, was made in the form of Exchange of Notes between the UK ambassador in Cairo and Egypt’s Prime Minister from 1925-1929. It is referred to as ‘Exchange of Notes Regarding the Use of Waters of the Nile for Irrigation Purposes, May 7, 1929, Egypt-Uk’, and it gives almost exclusive rights to Egypt.

Sudan contested the 1929 agreement when it attained its independence from UK, but later, in the 1955, signed an accord with Egypt that allocates 55.5 billion cubic meters of the Nile to Egypt and 18.5 billion to Sudan. Notice that the average annual discharge of the Nile river, measured at Aswan dam, Cairo, is 84 billion cubic meter.

The other former colonies colonies of U.K. – Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda declared the 1929 Nile Agreement non-binding following their independence from UK.

The rest upstream countries can not be linked to the 1929 agreement, as they were not part of British colony at the time of the agreement. Burundi, Rwanda and Congo were under Belgium mandate, while Ethiopia has never been colonized.

Egypt also raises the 1902 Treaty between Ethiopia and UK, on behalf of Sudan, signed by UK’s envoy, John Harrington, and Emperor Menelik in Addis Ababa on May 15/1902. Though the Treaty was on Ethio-Sudan border, its mentions the use of Nile River. Article III of the Treaty appears to preclude any use of the river in its english version, while the corresponding phrase in the Amharic language version refers to works that halt the flow of the water. The validity of the Treaty is also uder question since the Treaty has never been ratified by the British parliament and the Ethiopian Royal Court. Moreover, Emperor Haileselasie repudiated the Treaty altogether in 1942 on account of British recognition of Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.

The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement(CFA), On the other hand, is an outcome of inclusive, rational and professional consultations.

The Nile basin courtiers, except Eritrea and South Sudan, founded the Nile Basin Commission, later Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), in 1999, with funds from World Bank, aiming ‘to establish a diplomatic protocol for evaluating the fair use of the river for agricultural and energy projects’.

The Commission paved the way for the drafting the ‘Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement(CFA)’ for the equitable sharing of the Nile waters.

As one water expert eloquently elucidated: “Anchored in a Shared Vision ‘to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefits from, the common Nile Basin water resources’, the NBI has provided a convenient forum for the negotiation of a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to set up a permanent, inclusive legal and institutional framework. Negotiation of the CFA has, however, faced a serious impasse as a result of the introduction of the concept of ‘water security’. The introduction of this non-legal, indeterminate, and potentially disruptive concept is, indeed, a regrettable detour to a virtual blind-alley. The justifications for this fateful decision are totally unfounded and specious. The decision rather makes sense as an unwarranted move pushing into further obscurity the already intractable Nile waters question, at best, and a logical cul-de-sac in the decade-long negotiations which have arguably fallen prey to the hegemonic compliance-producing mechanism of ‘securitization’ sneaked in under the veil of ‘water security’, at worst. Resolution of the Nile waters question should thus first be extricated from the morass of ‘water security’ and then be sought nowhere but within the framework of international water law.”

Despite the resistance from Egypt (and the confused Sudan), the CFA was signed by six countries from May 2010 upto February 2011 (Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and Burundi). Though Congo didn't sign yet, it has  expressed its willingness.

Though the CFA gives one year time – until may 2011 – for Nile basin countries to sign, 6 of the 9 countries had signed the CFA by May 2011 (which is the minimum number of signatories needed for the ratification process can start).

However, there was no indication that Egypt and Sudan would sign by the time-frame. Even if they sign, the CFA doesn't give a water quota rather provides an arrangement for cooperative utilization of the river. Therefore, both the process of persuading them to sign and working-together after the signing will be a time-taking process as long as a 19th Century mind-set persists.

As Meles noted in early 2011 at a Hydro-Power Conference:

“Irrational is the position taken by some politicians in Egypt to oppose virtually every project in the Nile in upper riparian countries including hydropower projects that have no consumptive use of water and have beneficial impacts on all.”

Yet, Ethiopia's economic transformation shan't be hostage of an out-dated mind-set. And, Ethiopia has no legal obligation to sit and wait indefinitely praying that Egypt develops a rational policy and approach for cooperation on the use of Nile waters.

Therefore, Ethiopia decided to embark on one of the major components of its Growth and Transformation Plan. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam project.

It was known that Egypt was resisting to sign the CFA and previously impeded Ethiopia from getting external funds for previous two dams (Tekeze dam & Tana Beles dam). On the other-hand, Ethiopia has became politically stable and regionally powerful to prevent external destabilization efforts and has became economically stronger to build dams without anyone's help and.

However, Ethiopia didn't abandon its commitment to cooperation and principles of good neighborhood. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam project was planned with such constructive and rational spirit of brotherhood.

Even when the Renaissance dam was launched on April 2, 2011, a historic day for Ethiopia, Meles's took time to urge old-fashioned Egyptian politicians to adopt a 21st century rational mind-set. He explained:

“The benefits that will accrue from the Dam will by no means be restricted to Ethiopia. They will clearly extend to all neighboring states, and particularly to the downstream Nile basin countries, to Sudan and Egypt.

The Dam will greatly reduce the problems of silt and sediment that consistently affect dams in Egypt and Sudan. This has been a particularly acute problem at Sudan’s Fosseiries dam which has been experienced reduction in output.

When the Renaissance Dam becomes operational, communities all along the riverbanks and surrounding areas, particularly in Sudan, will be permanently relieved from centuries of flooding. These countries will have the opportunity to obtain increased power supplies at competitive prices.

The Renaissance Dam will increase the amount of water resources available, reducing the wastage from evaporation which has been a serious problem in these countries. It will in fact ensure a steady year-round flow of the Nile. This, in turn, should have the potential to amicably resolve the differences which currently exist among riparian states over the issue of equitable utilization of the resource of the Nile water.”

If Egypt could escape from 19th century mind-set and adopt a modern Nile, it will not only tolerate the dam but would have also wished to contribute for its construction. After explaining the Renaissance dam's benefit for Egypt and Sudan, Meles noted:

“on this calculation, Sudan might offer to cover 30 per cent and Egypt 20 per cent of the costs of the entire project. Unfortunately, the necessary climate for engagement, based on equitable and constructive self-interest, does not exist at the moment. Indeed, the current disposition is to make attempts to undercut Ethiopia’s efforts to secure funding to cover the cost of the project. We have, in fact, been forced to rely on our own savings alone to cover the expense.”

Shortly after Ethiopia started the Renaissance dam, Egyptian became interested in discussion. They sent a public diplomacy group full of young people, political parties and religious representatives to ask Ethiopia give  discussion a chance. They claimed the 19th century style Nile policy is gone with Pres. Hosini Mubarak. But they need time to elect a new government that has the authority to solve issues by discussion with Ethiopia.

Ethiopia had urged Egypt for constructive dialogue so many times in the past. But, still, Ethiopia believes dialogue and cooperation is the only way for peaceful neighborhood relations. Not only for peace and development, but also for optimal use of cross-border natural resources.

Therefore, Ethiopia gave Egypt time to elect a new government and sign the CFA. Moreover, Ethiopia invited Egypt and Sudan to form a joint experts panel that will assess the impact of the dam.

Egypt did not sign the CFA yet, but it is still taking part in the experts panel which is studying the dam's potential impact. And, relations between the two countries seem much better than it used to be. Recent news reports are about the International Panel on the Renaissance dam's meetings, about Egypt's invitation for Foreign Minister Tewodros, about visit by Egypt diplomacy institute to Addis, about Egyptian investors, and similar healthy matters.

However, now and then, we see signs that the 19th century mind-set.

Last September, when Meles Zenawi died, it seemed some "old styled" officials in Cairo thought that the new Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegne, his colleagues and the rest of the country will not be as  committed as Meles to continue building the dam.

Therefore they started sending alarm signals here and there.

Several unhelpful remarks were read from officials and experts, speaking anonymously and publicly, to Egyptian newspapers and others. It began in August when Meles was in Hospital.

Bikyanews reported at the time citing an unnamed Egyptian ministry of water and irrigation official that with the combination of Egypt’s new President Morsi and the potential of seeing a new leader in Ethiopia, they hoped the tension over Nile River water could be resolved. “I believe that there would be more maneuvering with a new leadership in Ethiopia because there would be the ability to communicate and not be seen as antagonistic”.

Then came the surprising remark on November, (reported on the LosAngels Times), that an adviser to the president [Morsi] quoted in Al Ahram Weekly said this of Morsi: "The man was shocked when he received a review about the state of ties we have with Nile basin countries. The previous regime should be tried for overlooking such a strategic interest."

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote a letter demanding clarification on the matter and its implication on the the two countries' relation.

The Egyptian Foreign Minister immediately affirmed that there is no change in policy, the remarks on media do not represent the government's position and that it will effort to mitigate media reporting that are unhelpful to state level cooperation and people-to-people relations.

The Egyptians seemed to have kept their words until recently.

Latest news stories and analyses suggest, however, some Egyptians are still stuck in the out-dated Mubarak-style way of doing things.

A senior official was recently heard saying that Egypt should use divide and rule by negotiating with Sudan and Ethiopia in one side and the rest of Nile basin countries on the other side. This is a failed approach that Mubarak tried to use so many times.

It was also reported that Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi had discussion with officials from the problem-child of east Africa, Eritrea, on 15/4/2013. The government of a post-revolution Egypt would be expected to advise Eritrea's officials to adopt constitutional democracy, to use peace-dialogue for solving their problems with Ethiopia and Djibouti and to stop meddling in Somalia’s internal affairs.

Sadly, that was not the case. The press release after President Morsi met Eritrean Presidential Advisor Yemane Gebreab and Foreign Minister Osman Saleh was about “coordinating stances toward on international issues”, though Eritrea is an outcast in the international community. It also indicated about “keenness on promoting trade with Eritrea“, as if Eritrea has a functioning economy.

The surprising part of the press release says that:

“The meeting tackled the file of Nile water along with discussing regional and international issues of mutual concern.....Morsi praised the Eritrean stance that supports the Egyptian historic rights in Nile water.”

This is what Mubarak used to do. And, it didn't stop Ethiopia from building Tana Beles dam and Tekeze dam.

On the other hand, If she is willing to engage based on equitable and constructive self-interest, Egypt has no reason to seek the support of any-other country. Ethiopia will be besides her with committed sprit of brotherhood.

This week I read from some media that an Egyptian official commented to the state-owned Al Ahram daily saying:

“Certain measures have to be followed to make sure that Ethiopia gets the water necessary for storage in the dam in line with Egypt’s consent and needs,”.

This is a disappointing remark. But I think we should not rush to conclusion. Egypt is still in the course of change. There is plenty chance it might manage to escape from Mubarak-era rhetoric that we have been seeing lately.

In the mean time, Ethiopia's olive branch should remain extended for a constructive cooperation in all areas of Nile basin issues. Of course, that is without stopping the Renaisance dam even for a single minute.

The question now is: Will Egypt ever be able Nile to escape the 19th Century mind-set and meet Ethiopia half-way?

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