Thursday, February 10

Not just a river in Egypt

Egypt was a gift of the Nile.

Herodotus, 4th century B.C.

NASA’s Earth Observatory has some fascinating pictures taken from space. This section of the Nile near Luxor shows just a sliver of green in the day and a thin ribbon of light at night. Beyond that is nothing but the desert, perhaps marked by a few oases. Even though the floods have been controlled by the Aswan High Dam, the Nile has remained at the core of the Egyptian national consciousness. It is clear that Egypt is the Nile.

Nile Watershed

The Nile, however, is more than Egypt.
The Nile is the world's longest river, and an estimated 123 million people [only about 70 million of them in Egypt] depend on the Nile waters for survival. The river originates from two distinct geographical zones, the basins of the White and Blue Niles. The source of the White Nile is in the Great or Equatorial Lakes Region, and is also fed by the Bahr-el-Jebel water system to the north and east of the Nile-Congo Rivers divide.

Its catchment area includes the riparian states of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Congo/Zaire, Kenya and Sudan. The Blue Nile originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and Eretria, as do the other major tributaries of the Nile, the Atbara and the Sobat. About 85% of the Nile's waters originate in Ethiopia and Eretria, while the majority of the river's water is used in the Sudan and Egypt.
This post will look at Egypt and Ethiopia, among other nations that are dependent on the Nile and its promise - and the potential for conflict.

We should state at the outset that it would be a monstrous crime for anyone to deny Egypt any part of the Nile that could harm her. No one sane wants to do so anyway and there is little chance that any actors on the world would let that happen - but Egypt does tend to look at the matter in those terms. To a degree it makes sense - one must look at another’s potential for harm as much as their motives.

But ... Egypt does have a long history of acting against Ethiopian interests on this issue that the reality of any Nile dispute can not justify and that can cause equal Ethiopian passion about not only equitable distribution of the Nile but also about Ethiopia’s national survival. In addition, although the religion card will inevitably get played in this issue, it should have no place here. There are tens of millions of Ethiopian Muslims and Egyptian Christians who have been vital parts of both nations today and throughout any historical interactions.

the past

After the mysteries of its origins were no longer a source of wonder, unreasonable fears arose of what upper riparian nations could do to the Nile were common - as though given a place to stand in Ethiopia, someone could use a spigot big enough to shut the Nile off or divert it. Reality could certainly not credit those fears.

Ethiopian and Egyptian civilizations have had contact for thousands of years but it was after the advent of the Ottoman Empire that Egyptian government looked upriver and down the Red Sea with a strategic vision of their own ’Ethiopian Question’. The rather distant Nile threat has been used over countless centuries when invading Ethiopia for the sake of Imperial conquest (sometimes using the convenient banner of Islam) or simply to keep Ethiopia as fragmented and weak as possible .

Indeed fighting Egypt or the Ottoman rulers of Egypt has been one of the constants of Ethiopian history and the principal reason after about the 7th century that Ethiopia lost contact with the Middle East and Europe. Ethiopian Emperors have occasionally used the empty threat of the Nile to bargain on behalf of Egypt’s Coptic community (which for almost one thousand five hundred years until the 1950s sent Ethiopia her archbishops).

According to this article “Egypt and the Hydro-Politics of the Blue Nile River”
especially in the 18th and 19th century, Egypt's invasion and final conquest of the Sudan was largely motivated by its desire to secure control over the entire Nile system. Muhammed Ali (1769-1849), for instance, felt that the security and prosperity of Egypt could only be assured fully by extending conquests to those Ethiopian provinces from which Egypt received its great reserves of water. The objective of such a conquest was designed to impose Egypt's will on Ethiopia, and either to occupy it or to force it to give up the Lake Tana area.

Hence, the conquest of the Sudan in 1820 served as a stepping-stone to the increased appearance of Egyptian soldiers in the western frontiers of Ethiopia, and to the subsequent Egyptian occupation of Kasala in 1834, Metema in 1838, Massawa in 1846, Kunama in 1869, and Harar in 1875. Khedive Ismail (1863-1879), too, wanted to make the Nile an Egyptian river by annexing to Egypt all the geographical areas of the basin. To that end, the Swiss adventurer Werner Munzinger (1832-1875), who served him, had remarked: "Ethiopia with a disciplined administration and army, and a friend of the European powers, is a danger for Egypt. Egypt must either take over Ethiopia and Islamize it, or retain it in anarchy and misery."

The decision was made to conquer Ethiopia. However, Khedive Ismail lived to regret that decision. The series of military expeditions which he launched in 1875 and 1876, resulted in ignominious defeats for Egypt. Between November 14, 1875, and November 16, 1875, more than 2,500 Egyptian soldiers were routed at the Battle of Gundet. Similarly, from March 7, 1876, to March 9, 1876, some 12,000 Egyptian soldiers were annihilated at the Battle of Gura.

It may be interesting to note that two American military officers, Colonels William MacEntyre Dye (1831-1904) and Loring William Wing (1816-1886), who fought on the Unionist [actually Confederate] side in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and who were recruited by the Egyptians along with six other American soldiers, participated in the Egyptian military campaigns against Ethiopia. In the same year, the expedition led by Munzinger was decimated in northeastern Ethiopia by the Afars. Munzinger himself was killed. Yet, despite the enormous debacle, Egyptian raids against Ethiopia still continued. The raids were eventually brought to a temporary halt only when Britain occupied Egypt in 1882.
Other sources and significantly the survivor’s memoirs say that the Americans were Confederates exiled by the Yankee victory in the American Civil War.

the more recent past

Actually, it probably wasn’t until the late 19th century or so that mankind even had the elementary means to dream of any such gargantuan construction job not to mention doing it. Even modern Egypt was led to fear that imagined potential along with the more viable issue of the waters being siphoned off elsewhere. According to the Inventory of Conflict and Environment (ICE) from American University conflict with Sudan was caused as well.
In 1929, the Nile Waters Agreement was concluded through an exchange of notes between the British High Commission in Cairo [Egypt was a sort of semi-colony at the time] and the Egyptian government. The agreement heavily favored Egypt's "historic rights" allocating for Egyptian use 48 bcm per year, only 4 bcm for the Sudan, and leaving 32 bcm per year unallocated.
Especially after Sudanese independence in 1956 a revision was asked for by Sudan. Planning for the Aswan Dam in Egypt prompted. Sudan to withdraw its support of the colonial era agreement and Egypt ended up moving troops to the Sudanese border.
In November 1958, there was a military takeover in Sudan and the establishment of a regime more open to negotiation with the Egyptian government. Within a year, the two countries re-negotiated the 1929 agreement and developed the 1959 Agreement between the Republic of the Sudan and the United Arab Republic.

The new agreement set Egypt's share of Nile waters at 55.5 bcm per year and allocated to the Sudan's an allotment of 18.5 bcm per year. Other riparians were not included in this agreement. Favorable relations between the two continued until the ouster of Sudanese President Nimeiri, and relations further deteriorated in 1989 as the Islamic fundamentalist regime unilaterally abolished the cooperation agreements and began supporting anti-Egyptian forces in its territory.
In 1979 Wondimu Tilahun from Addis Ababa University expressed Ethiopia’s ongoing frustration with the Nile issue and Egypt when he wrote ‘Egypt’s Imperial Aspirations over Lake Tana and the Blue Nile’ (no link available) he states “The great danger of unutilized rivers to Ethiopia is that it creates an insane desire on the part of her neighbors [Egypt and Sudan] to see to it that she will never attain the capacity to utilize these rivers.”

Egypt, of course, has acted characteristically against Ethiopian interest by supporting separatist groups in Eritrea from the 1950s on and also backed Somalia during the attempted Somali conquest of Eastern Ethiopia in 1977. As we shall see Ethiopian regimes such as the Dergue have also cooperated with those Egyptian aims by contriving to keep Ethiopia weak, poor, divided by ethnicity and riven by failed ideologies.

After Ethiopia became a Soviet puppet state - especially after the Camp David Accords and the Soviet expulsion from Egypt, Soviet animus towards Egypt was expressed in the most concrete threat to date, that of a large Soviet project on the Nile. This was not for the sake of Ethiopian leverage over Egypt, however. Aside from the guaranteed dead end of Soviet inspired social and economic policies in and of themselves, the Soviets wanted Ethiopia to retain the weakness and confusion that allowed her to fall into and stay in the Soviet Empire.

After establishing peace with Israel in 1979, Sadat turned his attention south and said that in the future only the Nile would be a reason for Egypt to go to war. According to the authoritative “The Cross and the River” by Haggai Erlich, 1987 was the time that very modern Egyptian concerns about the Nile grew acute. After three years of drought in Ethiopia, the water level in Lake Nasser was so low Egypt feared a disaster.

Some accommodations were made between Mubarak and Mengistu’s government after 1987 but nothing much ever came of it. Ethiopia was too embroiled in the Dergue’s bloody ethnic and ideological wars and its general reign of destruction to do anything controversial on the Nile - or any good anywhere else. Egypt continued to aid rebel groups bent on overthrowing Mengistu.

ICE continues about similiar circumstances in Sudan “In recent years, disputes between Egypt and the Sudan have been more overtly political and less about water, in part because the Sudan's civil strife has halted significant development in this country.”
In October 1991, Egyptian Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi remarked in al Ahram that his country would not hesitate to use force to defend its control of the Nile River, and predicted that future Middle East wars could result from water scarcity issues. He said, "I do not actually expect an impending control of the Nile River by a foreign country, but we consider it a possibility and are planning our military strategy accordingly.”
Of late Egypt has been taking even more of a share of Nile water than the 1959 treaty with Sudan granted it. Meanwhile, the drainage area of the Nile in Ethiopia needs irrigation more desperately than ever before. Ethiopia has started some small scale projects on tributaries to the Nile but has been frustrated by Egyptian refusal to attend to her concerns so that international cooperation may be more forthcoming. Increasingly other riparian states like Uganda and Kenya have expressed greater concern on these issues as well.

So ... the stage is set for rumours of war

Ethiopian frustration with the state of affairs including Egypt’s use of ever more of the Nile’s waters for thirsty new projects to turn parts of the desert green, brought about this statement from the Prime Minister.
"While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia - who are the source of 85% of that water - are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves. And we are being forced to beg for food every year," he says.

Mr Meles says he is becoming increasingly angry at Egypt's long running objections to requests from other Nile basin nations to use the river's waters for major irrigation projects.

And he warns that his government, along with those of Kenya, Uganda Tanzania - who share the White Nile with Egypt - will no longer be intimidated by past threats, principally by the late President Anwar Sadat, to use force to maintain its grip on the Nile.

"I think it is an open secret that the Egyptians have troops that are specialised in jungle warfare. Egypt is not known for its jungles. So if these troops are trained in jungle warfare, they are probably trained to fight in the jungles of the East African countries," Mr Meles says.

"And from time to time Egyptian presidents have threatened countries with military action if they move. While I cannot completely discount the sabre-rattling I do not think it is a feasible option. If Egypt were to plan to stop Ethiopia from utilising the Nile waters it would have to occupy Ethiopia and no country on earth has done that in the past."
As we have seen it is no surprise that Egypt is very jealous of the Nile and that it takes all measures to assure that others use less of it and are not in a position to use more. The PM’s complaints are accurate but however sympathetic we may be to his sentiments, his projection of the future is in error.

There will be never be an armed conflict no matter what happens precisely because Egypt is already getting what it wants and because Ethiopia‘s CURRENT options are limited beyond protest. We will try to examine these dispassionately even though they are unpleasant.

Beyond some small projects on tributaries of the Nile, international financing has not been forthcoming for Ethiopia to do more, presumably because of Egyptian influence in international and banking circles and her refusal to discuss the issue.

Egypt maybe a high debtor nation but the size of her debts may actually give her some influence because at some point the threat of default or late payment comes to equal that of denying future credit. In addition, her economy and per capita GNP are over ten times larger than Ethiopia‘s.

The influence of the Arab world, even excluding the massive effect of petrodollars, also weighs heavily in Egypt’s favor. Whatever differences they have with each other, helping Egypt out on the Nile issue comes naturally and represents a great source of power arrayed against Ethiopia.

These economic issues also translate to monetary reserves that are higher beyond compare in Egypt along with an ability to receive forgiveness, loans and grants from banks, Arab and other nations.

Appeals to the world are of dubious value because in most world capitals or the U.N. where there is concern with strategic issues, Egypt weighs more heavily because of the Suez Canal, Oil, the War on Terror, Secularism vs. Fundamentalism, Nuclear Proliferation, Iran, Iraq, Israel and a host of other reasons.

It is realistic to foresee Security Council and General Assembly votes (if the issue is allowed to get that far) where no one, including the other upper Nile riparian states support Ethiopia.

If Ethiopia pushes ahead somehow despite these obstacles, desirable international contractors would hesitate to offend the combined commercial and strategic influence of most other countries. At some point enough pressure on Djibouti, Port Sudan, Berbera and Mombasa would effectively block Ethiopia from trade in relevant materials or even restrict trade altogether.

If Egypt actually came to consider the possibility of using force it would never have to occupy a single meter of Ethiopian soil. Air power from a base in any of Ethiopia’s neighbors to the north, east, west or across the Red Sea (some more willing than others) would be sufficient to attack construction sites and more importantly to isolate the northern Ethiopian road network.

Over 25 years of importing more than $25 billion dollars of some of the most sophisticated Western armaments available including hundreds of F-16s along with hundreds of other fighters including Mirages and rebuilt Soviet aircraft has put Egyptian airpower in an advantageous position.

Those jungle trained soldiers may be there for an emergency, but more likely they just help to justify Egypt’s oversized war machine to its people who really have no potential enemies beyond the remote chance of a border skirmish with Khadafi’s Libya.

So what then must be done in the FUTURE?

Discussing the possiblity of war over the Nile is for the express purpose of bringing attention to Ethiopia’s desparate situation and perhaps to play to Ethiopian nationalism in competition with government critics.

During the Ethio-Eritrean war there were similar martial appeals to unity and when sports heroes are welcomed home there are similar appeals to nationalism. We doubt Ethiopians take this at all seriously at this point because the principle of governance has been to divide and rule and suppress national sentiment.

The critical matter that is raised by this issue is how to make Ethiopia speak with a voice that will be heard backed up by influence, economic resources and the option to act independently far before conflict becomes an issue. Egypt would have to fairly negotiate with such an Ethiopia and enough of the world community would take her seriously and back her up as well.

Tragically, as we mentioned earlier, successive Ethiopian governments have fully cooperated with the Egyptian aims of keeping their own country‘s potential crippled by treating their own people as the enemy and their own country as occupied territory.

Decades of ruinous ideological, ethnic, regional wars and policies have placed Ethiopia in this tragic position. Successive Ethiopian governments have preferred to see Ethiopia weak, poor and divided rather than take the risk of allowing for enterprise, unity and dynamism that could someday threaten their power. Those choices, including a preference for dependence on aid and dreams of massive aid rather that economic growth at home were quite consciously made.

Sure, Egypt and the issues of the Nile are a grave threat to the national interest but unless there is reform of Ethiopian governance, Egypt can just lay back and watch with satisfaction that Ethiopia’s government is serving its purposes for free.

The Egyptian government is reliably looking out for Egyptian interests, who is really looking out for Ethiopia's long term interests?

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