Egypt, which heavily relies on Nile for its survival, has not been pleased ever since Ethiopia decided to build Africa’s biggest dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), fearing that its share of Nile will greatly diminish and will put its national interest at risk. As a result, its response has mainly been very hostile, threatening Ethiopia that it will use force to stop the dam. But Ethiopia has not budged to such threat and has even diverted Nile’s natural path recently to facilitate the dam’s completion.
Ethiopia is the source of the Nile. 85% of the Nile water leaves from Ethiopia. But it has not been able to fully utilize this river until now. By building GERD, Ethiopia aims to generate electricity for both domestic consumption and export to neighboring countries, including Sudan and Egypt. It plans to minimize the negative impacts of the dam on the downstream countries and provide them with cheap electricity, dependent on goodwill. Ethiopia is confident that the dam poses no threat to both Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt, on the other hand, together with Sudan, has exclusively benefited from Nile. In fact, a colonial-era treaty grants it 87% usage of the water, which Ethiopia considers invalid due to its anachronistic nature and unfairness.
Ethiopia demands equitable share of the Nile. So far, it has used diplomacy as a means to bring Egypt and Sudan to the negotiation table. While Sudan supports the construction of GERD, Egypt has chosen aggression and bullying to pressure Ethiopia’s government, though it is slowly moderating its tone now.
Egypt’s hostility may be a product of these two reasons:
1. Egypt does not trust Ethiopia.
Egypt and Ethiopia have a troubling past, the former trying to destabilize the latter whenever possible in order to maintain regional hegemony and unlimited access to Nile.
In the 1800s, Egypt, under Ottoman Empire, and Ethiopia had fought more than once because of Egypt’s desire to invade Ethiopia, make it an Islamic state, and have absolute control over Nile. But the less trained and armed Ethiopian army had obliterated its Egyptian counterpart, mostly trained by American and British mercenaries. As a result, Egypt’s adventure to conquer Ethiopia had been a failure. However, the historical confrontations have made the two countries mistrust each other.
Another reason, Egypt does not trust Ethiopia because of the latter’s friendship with Israel. One of the rumors Egyptian media have been busy spreading lately: Israel is covertly involved in the Nile dam project, which is untrue, and can be seen as an insult to Ethiopia as it underestimates Ethiopia’s capability and desire to develop.
2. Superiority complex.
Egypt underestimates Ethiopia for racial, economic & military reasons. Some Egyptian hardliners assume that because Ethiopia is economically poor, politically unstable, and black, it cannot defeat “superior Egypt” whose heavily armed military (thanks to American aid and Middle Eastern ties) is no match for Ethiopia’s army, which also receives aid from the US, but not as substantial as its adversary. Due to this misconception, Egyptian politicians were caught on camera last Monday, advising President Mursi that Egypt must sabotage Ethiopia’s infrastructures and back rebels that fight the government. What Egypt needs to understand is that military power is no match for willpower, and that Ethiopia has never succumbed easily to foreign intimidation. Italy and historical Egypt itself are witnesses since neither achieved major success from invading Ethiopia, but a humiliating defeat.
The way forward for both Egypt and Ethiopia is serious dialogue and negotiation. Egypt needs to accept the fact Ethiopia has equal right over Nile. Once that fact is established, the rest can be resolved through roundtable discussions. And since Ethiopia was not part of the colonial-era treaty, it has every right to demand for new treaty that recognizes its right for equitable share of the river. An access to Nile that is based on Mutual Benefit can help the two nations cooperate and develop together. War cannot be a solution to Nile politics since both countries will suffer the consequences.
Furthermore, Egypt has to start trusting Ethiopia and not let conspiracy theories guide it. Ethiopia will not benefit from unstable, unhappy Egypt. As neighbors, the two can only trust each other to move forward.
Not to mention that condescending remarks, underestimating and bullying Ethiopia will only increase the tension and negativity in the region. Sabotage, too, whether direct or indirect, will only exacerbate the conflict.
Ethiopia and Egypt ought to embrace compromise and conflict resolution so they both can share nature’s gift fairly, i.e, win-win solution. As Ethiopia develops, it will need sustainable energy to maintain its growth and it will use its natural resources to meet its energy needs. No country, including Egypt, has right to stop it from developing, fighting poverty and food insecurity. Since Ethiopia recognizes Egypt’s dependence on Nile, it cannot have a policy that negatively impacts its neighbor and causes regional chaos.
Here is a great article that fairly looks at the Ethiopia-Egypt dispute: Regarding the Dam.
The writer, an honest Egyptian, argues that Egypt needs to work with Ethiopia constructively and acknowledge Ethiopians, too, have rights to use Nile.
I recommend that Egyptian youth communicate with Ethiopian youth, especially via social media—that way we both will understand each other better and recognize each other’s rights, needs, fears and concerns.
Lastly, here is former PM of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, briefing the parliament about GERD’s impact, benefit, cost, sources of fear, and the strategies Egypt has been using to block Ethiopia from utilizing Nile and why it cannot succeed, but, instead, what it could do to be part of this historic project: