CAIRO — While the political situation in Egypt seems to be heading toward relative stability after the new cabinet took the oath of office, the issue of the Nile has returned to the government’s agenda as an external challenge threatening national security. A delegation of senior Egyptian diplomats, including Africa expert Ambassador Mona Omar, traveled to a number of African states, starting with Ethiopia, to explain Egypt’s position and improve its image following the recent coup and overthrow of deposed president Mohammed Morsi. Coordination meetings were also held between the ministers of foreign affairs and irrigation to make progress on the political and technical levels toward a solution to the problem.
The new government is trying to address the crisis with Ethiopia regarding the Renaissance Dam on the political and technical levels by completing technical studies and gathering data on the dam which the tripartite committee did not finish. Egypt is also holding negotiations on the international, regional and bilateral levels in order to highlight any potential damage or shortage threatening Cairo's historical share, as noted by the new Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohammed Abdel Matlab in a conversation with Al-Monitor.
A key technical source in the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation told Al-Monitor, “Action on the issue of the Nile was relatively slow in the past two weeks, especially when it comes to the Egyptian stance on the Renaissance Dam. Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have came to a halt until the dust settles in Egypt.”
Last month, presiding over a technical, political and legal delegation during his visit to Addis Ababa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed Kamel Amr held negotiations with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. During these negotiations, they agreed to hold a series of talks aimed at finding a compromise to placate Egyptian fears regarding the construction of the Renaissance Dam. However, the recent events prevented Cairo from hosting a meeting with the Ethiopian and Sudanese water ministers.
A diplomatic source told Al-Monitor that in regional negotiations with the upstream countries, the Egyptian attempts to reach a solution over the Entebbe agreement or to convince the countries involved to renegotiate the points of contention were an exercise in futility. The source affirmed that Egypt still has some negotiating cards to play.
Despite Egyptian endeavors to re-launch negotiations over the Entebbe agreement, the Ethiopian and Ugandan parliaments have ratified it and refuse to return to the negotiation phase. Instead, they called on Egypt and Sudan to join the agreement.
A security and intelligence source informed about the Nile issue told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is adopting all possible means to halt any move that would hurt its water interests in the Nile. Strenuous efforts are being exerted with the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan to convince them not to join or sign the agreement.”
The Nile issue was one of the first files to be addressed by Mohamed ElBaradei, interim deputy president for international affairs. ElBaradei held an “unannounced” meeting to discuss the crisis of the Nile waters, the mechanisms to be adopted and the steps that would be taken in regard to this issue.
A diplomatic source who took part in the meeting told Al-Monitor, “The necessity of completing the data of the Renaissance Dam and conducting accurate studies was agreed upon. The meeting came up with three conclusions: first, the impossibility of resorting to international arbitration; second, the non-compliance ... of the past regimes, represented by arrogance and condescending attitudes toward the upstream countries in addition to acknowledging the fact that some policies were wrong; [and] third, the acceptance of the option of cooperating on the basis of building new power-generating dams according to international high-tech standards and making sure that there will be no damage. Additionally, Egypt will call on halting the construction of the dam for the time being until a mutual solution is reached.”
The source continued that Egypt “will be able to contain the crisis with Ethiopia, especially given that a number of Egyptian politicians who are known for their competence are at the forefront of the scene.”
There are reports that the previous government had taken actions to restructure the technical and political aspects of the Nile waters in Egypt. It shuffled the administration of the matter away from the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and attributed it to a national council directly affiliated with the presidency.
The recent political changes in Egypt that followed Morsi's ouster have raised the ire of some African countries that deemed the action of Defense Minister Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi a military coup. The African Union suspended Egypt from all activities following what they described as a coup against democracy, a measure customarily taken with African countries that go against the democratic approach.
Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, former minister of water resources and irrigation and a candidate for the presidency of the National Water Council, told Al-Monitor, “The African Union’s position will not affect the course of negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia with respect to the dam.” He added that the current problem is the “lack of a clear vision and purpose on the part of the Egyptian negotiator ... as we do not know what to negotiate. Should we ask to stop the dam and complete the studies, or accept the current situation and opt for not damaging Egypt's historical share of the Nile water?”
Egypt gets an annual quota estimated at 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile in accordance with the 1959 agreement signed with Sudan, whereby Sudan gets 18.5 billion cubic meters. This distribution is rejected by the rest of the Nile's headwater states, which believe that Egypt gets the lion's share of the water, despite the allegations of Egyptian officials and experts who complain that this share is insufficient for Egypt's internal needs, as the country depends on the Nile waters for 90% of its water needs.
Adel Nabhan, a political researcher interested in African affairs, warned of further tensions in the Nile Basin. “Should the same negotiating track continue and the current situation remain, tension will go on, especially with Ethiopia’s completion of nearly 25% of the construction of the dam, which shows that there is no disturbance on the part of Ethiopia, be it at the level of the dam construction or the Framework Convention. Add to this Egypt’s preoccupation with its domestic affairs and the negative mental image that has crafted Egypt's vision of Africa and the upstream countries, after the famous National Congress that was broadcast before the isolation of President Mohammed Morsi. This makes rapprochement between Egypt and Ethiopia in particular as well as other African countries, including South Sudan, even harder.”
Nabhan explained that Egypt’s relationship with South Sudan is different from that with Ethiopia. Therefore, the size and implications of the tension will not be the same in the two cases. This is reflected by South Sudan's delay in signing the Framework Convention and openly declaring its support for the construction of the dam.
Nabhan ruled out a military solution as an option due to internal crises and the lack of regional or international support for such a solution. Additionally, such an option would only further complicate the situation. Nabhan expected the acceptance of the idea of the dam while seeking to reduce the risks to Egypt.
He said if this scenario were to come to fruition, it would reduce the tension relatively, but he pointed out that the Framework Convention, including its three contentious articles — one about water security, one about giving prior notification and one about the need for consensus — may represent a broader and larger reason for tension that will last for a long time.
Abdelrahman Youssef is an Egyptian journalist specializing in religious issues and political affairs. He has written for publications including Al-Shorouk, Al-Youm Al-Sabea, Al-Watan, Egypt Independent and Egypt Daily News, as well as for news organizations outside of Egypt such as the Lebanese Al-Akhbar and Reuters. On Twitter: @Abdoyoussef