It was 30 years ago that former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak had left the Ethiopian airport to attend an African summit, when he was almost killed minutes after arrival. Since then, Egypt’s African relations were never the same.
Looking back at one year of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in power, Egypt’s restored active relations with other African states would be considered one of the major strokes. On 23 March, the Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese heads of states were photographed holding hands, having signed a “good will” agreement over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Hosni Mubarak’s last minister of irrigation, Nasr ElDeen Allam took Daily News Egypt on a quick tour through the history of Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, up until reaching the dam agreement.
Why did former Egyptian president Sadat threaten to militarily intervene in Ethiopia?
It was a threat of war. The Ethiopian president had threatened to build a dam on the Blue Nile. Sadat reached the point where he said we would rather go die in Ethiopia [defending water security] instead of dying in Egypt.
Was this military threat a good strategy to deal with the situation?
Matters cannot be judged in a shallow way. Sadat was a liberal, while the Ethiopian president was a socialist. The Soviet Union was on the verge of death. Such international powers came into play, so it was difficult to judge the situation back then.
However, mirrored in this situation is Ethiopia’s constant individual action when it comes to building dams without consulting with downstream countries, which incites Egypt to hinder Ethiopia in order to protect its people, since it is the only source of water. At times, Egypt threatens, at others the country negotiates with Ethiopia. What is important is the result. Sadat stopped the dam back then.
How were Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia before the assassination attempt against Hosni Mubarak in 1995?
Since the time of the pharaohs, our relations with Ethiopia have been all about competing powers over the horn of Africa. Relations are shaped around a power struggle, not a military one, between the two largest powers in the African region over who gets more influence and the higher political status both regionally and internationally. Up until the 25 January Revolution, Egypt had the upper hand.
What ramifications did the assassination attempt have on bilateral relations?
The assassination attempt had an extremely negative effect on the Egyptian-Ethiopian relations. Mubarak stopped attending African summits, over which Egypt lost a great leading role in the African continent. Even though prime ministers or foreign ministers might have attended, Mubarak being absent from sideline meetings, where intimate talks take place for negotiations and deals, had a grave effect on Egypt’s status in Africa.
How did Egypt come to have more power in the region?
Although they were on halt after the 2011 revolution, Egypt plays a role in Arab, Middle Eastern and African affairs. Ethiopia only has a role in African relations. Egypt also has a more ancient civilisation, and more soft power, such as developmental and services’ advances. But the ordeal Egypt has been suffering from in the aftermath of 2011 left internal and external affairs weakened.
When did the struggle transform into an economic one over water, instead of for power?
Water control and building dams is a tool for more power. Allowing less water to reach Egypt is a point for Ethiopia. The struggle is shaped politically, economically and even societal in the strategic balance.
Whose side is the international balance of powers on currently?
It is on Ethiopia’s side, at least since the 25 January Revolution. Egypt closing up on its internal affairs, the lack of political leadership while there is a huge competition over ruling, and crushing economic and security crises all affected Egypt’s worth and ability to act. At the same time, Ethiopia is internally stable, is given $2bn in aid per year, and is supported by enemy states like Turkey and Israel, and other countries we do not know about.
How are the bilateral relations nowadays, with the building of the GERD?
For three or four years we have been pandering to Ethiopia and carrying them on our shoulders around Cairo while the harmful GERD is being built.
Why did Egypt sign the agreement with Ethiopia and Sudan if the GERD is harmful?
Because the dam was already built. It was a reality that Egypt had to face. Ethiopia only discussed scientific studies on the effects of the GERD after it started building the dam.
Why didn’t Egypt take a stance before the GERD became a reality?
Under the rule of the SCAF, Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and interim president Adly Mansour Egypt was a fragile state. Ethiopia took advantage of this period. The issue was not dealt with appropriately with any statesmanship. Egypt is now trying, but it is difficult. There are matters that can be fixed after the weakening of Egypt, and there are matters that cannot be fixed. The GERD is one of those which can never be reverted.
Is the current political leadership sufficient?
Egypt is regaining its strength. Al-Sisi cannot repair the four-year damage in just one. He is burdened with a range of internal and external issues. A lot of players in his team are not sufficient and need to be replaced, but there are no alternatives.
What do you think of the GERD agreement?
The agreement does not end the conflict. It was a move for political scores. There are no real attempts to solve the root of the problem. The suspension of technical consultations is proof of this. What the arrangement achieved is securing another presidency term for Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, and increasing the election chances for the ruling party in Ethiopia, while Ethiopia’s intransigence with Egypt also increased. Egypt accomplished zero achievements. This agreement must be followed by bold steps.
One of the articles of the agreement talks about harm. What kind of procedures can Egypt take in case of such perceived harm?
The article discusses harm in water usage. But the kind of harm is undefined. Egypt uses the Nile water for drinking, industry and agriculture. More than 30bn cubic metres of water are needed for 8m feddans of agricultural land. GERD would allow 20bn cubic metres, and as such Egypt should boost its efficiency. The article should have been about water allocation instead. The minimised amount of water is the real harm, and in this sense Egypt and Ethiopia disagree over the reference data. The part about procedures is comic. An article in the agreement stipulates that on disagreement, heads of states are to hold negotiations. This is the ultimate procedure.
What is the solution for the water issue in your opinion?
I suggested building the GERD over two phases, and that the dam should be 110 metres instead of 140. The first phase would be constructing 30 metres, followed by a 10 year cessation. Throughout these 10 years Egypt should build a system which compensates for the shortage of water. The started but never completed Jonglei Canal project to divert water through the Sudd wetlands of South Sudan so as to deliver more water downstream to Sudan and Egypt (around 4bn cubic meters of water would be provided to Egypt) could be implemented while Ethiopia recovers financially from the first phase. After that, Ethiopia can finish building the dam. I presented this project to President Al-Sisi and all specialised authorities, but no one listens.