Ethiopia: Egypt and the Nile politics

Addis Ababa (HAN) April 4, 2014- BY YEMANE NAGISH, Reporter. An Interview With Ambassador Ibrahim Idris is director-general of the trans-boundary resources directorate at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Prior to that he had a long and distinguished career as dean of the Law Faculty at the Addis Ababa University. On top of that he was also known to be a well-published scholar who later left for the US after winning the Fullbright Scholarship. Most importantly, Idris served as Ambassador in Cairo from 2006 to 2011. After being hit with the Arab Spring that swept across the Middle East and North Africa, Egypt is on way to crown its next president, the former chief of the Egyptian armed forces, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Yemane Nagish of The Reporter sat down with the Ambassador to explore the possible political direction the country might take and the implication for the Nile and the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Excerpts:

The Reporter: Going back in history, can we evaluate what the Nile meant for Presidents Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak?

Ambassador Ibrahim Idris: As far as I am concerned, the Nile has the same meaning for all three presidents. They all share one strong conviction: to cling onto the older water agreements that were signed on the River Nile. Among these agreements, the one signed in 1929 and 1959 are the most significant ones since these are the only ones that clearly talk about water share from the river. In the case of the first, the Egyptians signed favorable terms about this river since the British were the ones who signed the accord in the place of the upper riparian states, except Ethiopia, as they were the colonial overlords at that time. Whereas the 1959 agreement was also most preferred by Egyptians because the agreement gave 100 percent of the water to Egypt and Sudan. I think this desire to perpetuate the two agreements has been and is still shared by political leaders in Cairo.

But, how big is the Nile in the foreign policy of that country across the rule of the aforementioned leaders?

During my tenure there as a diplomat, I had a first-hand account of what the foreign policy of Egypt was. In that regard, I doubt that there could be a shift now or in the future leadership of Egypt. Even if one goes back to study their political history, especially during the era of those three leaders you have mentioned, the story is almost similar. The two most important agenda in Egyptian foreign policy direction are the issue of the Nile and the Middle East (the issue of Israel and the Palestine). I also observed that there is little debate on the subject of the Nile and that it is the least controversial issue in Egypt.

What about between the leadership and the general populace is there any difference of opinion?

Let me tell you one interesting fact. I remember that the general populace in Egypt had never been told that the bulk of this water is sourced from another country located to the south of theirs until very recently. More specifically, the talk of Ethiopia being a source of most of the Nile surfaced in Egypt after the meeting in Sharm al Sheik, where the riparian nations, with the exception of Egypt and Sudan, took a strong stance to ink the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that was later signed. It was a meeting that spanned 21 hours and in connection with the decision to ink the CFA rumors of Ethiopia being behind the decision of other riparian states to sign the agreement spread. And together with that, the Egyptian public for the first time learned about Ethiopia being the source of this water body.

Going back to that meeting (Sharm al Sheik meeting), how was the debate and position of the Egyptians?

Generally, the Egyptians argued strongly on three points. The first one was on how to pass decisions regarding the River Nile. The Egyptians insisted that any decision that is passed should be based on consensus rather than votes. You see, back then there were nine riparian countries taking part in the talks. Hence, if it was to be decided on votes it was clear that the upper riparian states would have the upper hand. But, a consensus would give each country, including Egypt, the right to veto any position taken by the riparian states. The other one was the protection of what they call water security and water use rights. What this entails is simply this: they wanted not only their old shares of the water to be protected but also the rights to continue using the water, which they have acquired and extended since old colonial agreements. You see, this meant that there was no point to negotiate on the issue anymore, and, of course, the upper riparian states categorically rejected it. The third one was to hold the right to give consent to any water-related development activity that is undertaken in the upper riparian nations. We were trying to reconcile these issues for 21 hours. The thing is that this position of the Egyptians was hardly new to the other riparian nations and since the Kinshasa meeting they were given time to present alternatives on which we could come to an understanding. But, they were insistent, and finally the seven nations had to take a step, which they did by agreeing to sign the accord in Entebbe.

But the discussion went on for ten years. Surely there must have been some progress during that time. Why did things revert back to square one after all these negotiations?

Basically, the Egyptians came to a decision in the end that the CFA should grant recognition to the older agreements that favor them. And this in effect meant nullifying the whole effort of negotiating and drafting a new agreement. Why would there be a CFA, if it was to recognize the older accords, which were unjust? This did not make any sense and finally the seven had to move on with signing the CFA.

How does the CFA compare with older water treaties?

Simply, we can consider that the older colonial agreements are documents signed between the two lower riparian countries and a colonial power, while the CFA is a document shared by six nations. So far, Ethiopia and Rwanda have ratified the document and ratification of the others is pending, but it will become a legal document far more powerful in the future. But, as it is at the moment, the CFA has greater value in terms of offering a viable and reasonable alternative to the Nile than the contorted and slanted treaties that Egypt wants to keep alive. Regarding the content, the CFA is far better than the old treaties since one, it offers a sustainable solution to the Nile as it recognizes the rights of lower riparian countries to use the water and that there is a proper framework for Egypt to negotiate her right should it decide to join the accord. Second, the CFA also offers a futuristic solution to the water share by considering the development and protection of the water share by all riparian nations. How can people who are forbidden from taking a sip be expected to develop and insure sustainability of the water resource? Mind you about one-third or 50 million of Ethiopians are touched by this water body and what kind of logic would there be to argue that these people shouldn’t see any benefit coming from this particular river.

How do you see the strategy of Egyptian leaders in the past and those in power today?

Although the overall spirit remains, the strategies do change according to various factors. I do believe that the overall dynamics surrounding the Nile have seen a marked shift between the time of the previous leaders and now. For one, the upper riparian states as a group have altered their previous ways to come together for a common interest; this would surely impact the strategists. Another is that these upper riparian nations’ political, economic and social conditions are changing, which have a bearing on the matter. Also, the internal condition in Egypt is something to consider. In this regard, I see the politicians of this generation using the Nile to divert attention from the real issues in their domestic political spheres.

Can we say that Ethiopia has now acquired the strength to withstand the age-long Egyptian tactic of working to cut the country’s external financing? Can we say this shift has, in fact, happened? How do you view recent Egyptian moves to internationalize the issue?

In short, I think the shift is there economically. It is easily visible in terms of our development projects undertaken without external assistance. In fact, the main project on the River Nile, GERD, itself has been built without any external assistance. Yet, following the recommendation of an international Panel of Experts, Egypt has embarked on a campaign to internationalize the dam. Personally, I do not understand the rationale behind this effort. Look, to begin with, what they are claiming has no legal basis in international law. There is no law that would tell the upper riparian nations to be a bystander while lower riparian nations exploit a resource that they all share. Egypt is saying that we should not touch a drop of the Nile but, of course, the upper riparian nations reject it; I do not see this campaign going anywhere. Rather, if at all their concern is real regarding, for instance, GERD, the sane thing to do is be included in the process of implementing the Panel’s recommendations and voice their problems appropriately. Apart from that, with Ethiopia saying the dam project is paid for from their own resources and other upper riparian nations doing the same tomorrow, what the outcome of this campaign could be is confusing.

Recent developments have shown that Egypt has included the stringiest positions in their constitution. Does it amount to anything?

For Ethiopia or the other riparian nations it would not make any difference if Egypt choses to articulate its position on the Nile anywhere; whether on their policy document or their constitution . For what it is worth, this move has contributed more to alienating Egypt from the rest of the riparian nations and has badly impacted any hope of working together in the future. What Article 44 proclaimed is the dogmatic historical water right statement; this has been and still is rejected by other nations. So, I say, it is to no effect.

But, we have seen at times some positive diplomatic developments between the two nations only to regress back to older war rhetoric and tension. Why such a fluctuation? And with Marshal Al Sisi’s prospectus to secure the presidency, what can be expected?

All I can understand from this is that the Egyptians are still not concerned with the technical matters and the impact of this dam. Rather I feel that they are using it for their own domestic political agenda. This is why they keep oscillating between peaceful negotiation and war rhetoric. As far as the ex-military man coming to power is concerned, I am afraid I have to say that I cannot see any significant change from what they are not doing now or before. You see, Egypt has a long history of being ruled by a military leader, this prospectus president was also part of the administration during the previous military eras, and hence I do not see why it should be unique this time around.

Finally, where do you think the political turmoil in Egypt is going? Are they out of the woods?

It is really difficult to predict where the situation is heading. But one thing is quite clear: the political leadership, instead of addressing matters domestically, has opted to externalize them. This, in part, entails keeping the public in constant fear by telling them a dam project in Ethiopia has endangered its water security. But, one would have to wait and see how things turn out

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