Denial is not a river in Egypt,” goes a running joke in psychiatrist circles. It certainly isn’t. Denial is Egypt’s response to the Nile Treaty. The Nile, on the other hand, is a river that flows through Africa. It is also a brand of Ugandan beer, but that’s beside the point. It gives life to Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt, a total of 420 million souls. Egypt and (Northern) Sudan represent just about one quarter of this population, yet they would claim nearly 90% of the Nile’s waters.

The Nile Water Agreement, granting Egypt the lion’s share (87%) of the Nile waters and veto power over upstream projects, is an obnoxious colonial relic whose aim was to pacify Egypt in order for Britain to advance her interests. It was signed by Britain – representing her East African territories – and Egypt in 1929 and amended in 1959 in favour of Sudan. It is an obsolete colonial-era treaty drafted by foreign powers with their own interests in mind.
The primary objective of the Nile Basin Initiative, launched in 1999 as a partnership of the Nile riparian states, is to develop the Nile Basin water resources in a sustainable and equitable way in order to ensure prosperity, security, and peace for all its peoples. For Egypt, the NBI was in effect akin to a government commission whose sole purpose is to obstruct rather than facilitate any solution and maintain the status quo.
Egypt’s intransigence in negotiations on the management of the Nile river basin waters prompted the “seed countries” to adopt the Nile Treaty which seeks to develop the resources of the Nile through a permanent Nile River Basin Commission. Five countries – Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya – have signed the treaty so far. The DR Congo, Burundi and Eritrea are mulling following suit. The treaty is vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan, who have said that they will sign only if it protects their current use and retains Egypt’s continued veto power over any new irrigation projects. How is that anything new?
The Egyptian government has always cited her “historic” rights to the Nile’s life-giving waters. But the rights of upstream riparian states predate and supersede those of Egypt. Upstream peoples depended on the Nile’s waters millennia before the first proto-Egyptians fled the encroaching Sahara and set foot in Kemet. And these original, pharaonic Egyptians, whose scions today still occupy the the length and breadth of the Nile, from the Luo of Lake Victoria to the Copts of the Nile Delta and all the Nilo-Saharan peoples in-between – Maasai, Kalenjin, Acoli, Dinka, etc. – have little genetic or cultural relation to the Arab invaders from the east.
The Egyptian government described Kenya’s intention to withdraw from the 1929 accord as an “act of war” and reserves the right to take whatever action necessary to defend her right to the waters of the Nile. Egyptian officialdom has made the threat of war before. Anwar Sadat declared that Egypt would not hesitate to go to war with anyone tampering with the Nile, a sentiment echoed by his successor, Hosni Mubarak.
As sub-Saharan Africa experiences a demographic boom, water security and agriculture become of paramount importance and upstream states demand new allocations of Nile water for their expanding populations, industrial capacity and agricultural growth. While the Source of the Nile is constantly ravaged by drought, Egypt and Sudan reap the full benefits of its water. In Egypt, vast commercial farms flourish and lush golf courses flank the river. If Egypt and Sudan do not sign the treaty they will not be bound by it. There are no allocations in the treaty. It’s about principles.
The world has changed a tad recently. Global financial institutions and bilateral donors are no longer the only viable options. Egypt has been using her diplomatic clout to lobby Western institutions to deny loans to any upstream nations wanting to invest in water-harvesting projects. But as the dominant investor in Africa, China has complicated matters and has given sub-Saharan Africa the confidence to promote its own interests without the fear of Western intervention.
The Egyptian government is plagued by a calamitous misapprehension of the social, political and economic complexities in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite its strategic importance, East Africa has been completely ignored by Egypt, which is oblivious to the changing balance of power and political context in East Africa.
Israel, however, is not. Avigdor “Bomb-the-High-Dam” Lieberman, Israeli foreign minister and leader of the ultra-right Yisrael Beitenu party, led a high-powered delegation to East Africa in September 2009. This was not a mission motivated by some obscure fondness for the African soul. The purpose of the mission was as much to compromise Egypt and keep her preoccupied with water security as it was to promote Israeli business interests. Kenya has adopted a very opportunistic diplomacy, with an aim to shifting donor reliance from traditional partners towards China, India and other emerging powers. Israel has read the script and reacted accordingly. Egypt, however, has not.
Israel – perhaps for reason of her own – is ready to share her experience in halting the desertification and turning the wilderness into arable land. Lieberman concluded several agreements through which Israel would finance and implement several massive water projects. This will require a more intensive utilisation of the waters of the Nile.
Israeli officials were also accompanied by arms dealers and manufacturers. Ethiopia holds strategic importance due to her proximity to Arab states and her position overlooking maritime routes to the Suez Canal. And Israel has been notably involved in training elite forces in Kenya. The point will not have been lost on would-be belligerents.
For all of Egypt’s sabre-rattling and diplomatic angling, the upstream riparian states clearly have no intention of backtracking on the Nile Treaty. It is up to Egypt and Sudan to join. It is obvious that Egypt is vitally reliant on the Nile and needs to develop a new strategy that is less concerned about maintaining regional hegemony. Egypt will have to accept the fact that the West will not indefinitely defend Egypt’s interests against East Africa, whose strategic importance is increasing by the day.
Greater effort should instead be invested in articulating a more equitable sharing of the river’s benefits. Egypt should start making concessions in exchange for guarantees instead of reverting to diplomatic blackmail and threats of jihad.
Egypt’s officialdom,” to quote Chege Mbitiru in the Daily Nation, “appears stuck in a pharaonic mindset.
  1. >Indeed how rightly you have captured this conundrum of affairs. Egypt offers no negotiated position, nor rationalisations for its illogical demands. A colleague in the Ethiopian Army recently soliloquized that the rest of us should conversely demand to share in the Sudan Oil pumped out to Billions of Dollars, in response to the argument that we have rainfall and Egypt doesn't. This arrogant myopia is informed of the past preferential categorisation by the West of Egypt, that served to get them to recognised Israel and break away from the Arab position on the return of the Palestinians in the Diaspora. The net result is that Egypt went to sleep, in all consideration, confortable under the American and European Diplomatic Shield. It is the reason that their President tyranises and brutalises all democratic pretentions of the State, and cannot in any manner differentiate himself from the despotic Saudi King or Saddam Hussein himself! The realisation that strategically the world has moved on from the Middle-East will sink in, and Egypt will rush to negotiate with the Riparian Nile States, but for the moment we must exist in the hot-air expressions of a slaver-nation to the lowly africa. She will take us as we offer ourselves,grumbling and shouting, but that is really all she can do.

  2. >Indeed, the matter is ad acta. Egypt has been caught napping and the rules of the game have changed. Still, Egypt cannot stand idly by. If they do not have a contingency plan as the flow gradually dwindles, there will be a devastating effect on the economy and population. The regime will not survive. With Islamic radicalism embedded in the raia, there is a danger of the emergence of a new, powerful Islamic Republic in the region. Reza Pahlavi learned the hard way. That would place Israel's balls snugly on the anvil, a scenario I'm sure they will have anticipated. It is easier for Egypt to deal with EA than with Israel.

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