Yesterday in Washington, officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met to discuss the ongoing conflict surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).  The talks ended with the predictable decision that there had to be even more talks – nothing has yet been resolved. 

The project will see Ethiopia build a gargantuan dam, at the cost of over $5.2 billion, on the Blue Nile, making it the largest hydroelectric power station on the African continent.

Ethiopia considers the dam as vital to providing water and electricity to its rapidly growing population, with much of the country without access to an adequate water supply. 

But the ramifications of the dam on Egypt are seen as being almost entirely negative.

Egypt’s population is already over 100 million, with it expected to hit over 120 million by 2030. Egypt fears that the dam will lead to a situation where their much-needed water supplies provided by the Nile is dramatically cut, with potentially catastrophic effects.

The Nile accounts for 88 percent of Egypt’s water supplies, but notwithstanding the great river being the veritable lifeblood of Egyptian civilisation for millennia, the country faces a situation where it is on the brink of what the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FOA) calls ‘absolute water scarcity,’ with water consumption expected to sink to less than 500 cubic meters per capita. 

None of the sums add up – Egypt stands on the brink of disaster, one way or the other. The situation regarding GERD underlines the fact that Egypt’s ‘strongman’ is presiding over the terminal weakening and decay of the country.

Terminal weakness

Of course, notwithstanding the narratives of Egyptian nationalism, Egypt has no divine right over the Nile. 

And this is a major part of the problem. The reality is that Egypt isn’t the power it once was and doesn’t enjoy what the great diplomat Tahseen Bashir once called a ‘special status’ over the Nile within Africa.

Though there’s no doubt that ordinary Egyptians need the Nile to survive, modern Egyptian hegemony over the Nile was born out of British imperialism.

Britain, during its occupation of Egypt, deemed the Egyptian cotton trade economically crucial to its Empire to share control of the Nile.

After the revolution of 1952 and the subsequent end of British imperialist domination of Egypt, the Nasser regime mostly inherited and attempted to shore up its imbalanced power over the Nile. This culminated in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, which was an agreement that included only Egypt and Sudan and which ratified the current status quo of Egypt receiving 55.5 billion cubic meters.

All other Nilotic countries were ignored – including Ethiopia.  It’s hardly a surprise then that the country refuses to recognise any such treaty and has gone ahead with GERD regardless. 

The reality that Egypt now faces is that it no longer has control of the Nile. The changing power relations were best summed up by Aly El Bahrawy, professor of hydraulics at Ain Shams University, who claimed that GERD is like, “somebody having control over a tap…if the Ethiopian people for some reason want to reduce the amount of water coming to Egypt, it would be a great problem.”

Now, that is an understatement. If Egypt faces a situation of absolute water scarcity, the ramifications will be food shortages that amount to deadly famine, massive civil unrest and the potential total failure of the state. 

Given Egypt’s infrastructure has been plundered for decades by the vampiric elites, it severely lacks the infrastructure to deal with even small fluctuations in its water supply.

If you look at it from this lens, it’s very easy to depict the Ethiopians as the antagonists in this conflict, but this has not come out of the blue. 

Egyptian leaders have known about this potentiality for decades. Indeed, it was Anwar Sadat that predicted that water was “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again.”s 

But instead of reacting to this reality by reaching out to other Nilotic countries in Africa, the Egyptian ruling forces have not merely buried their heads in the sand, but they have created a scenario where Ethiopia can act without any reverence to Egypt. 

It was under Mubarak that the country was fully transformed into what can only be described as an international free-for-all, with foreign corporations and global interests placed before the collective good of Egyptian society. 

What strength?

But it’s with a mixture of grotesque irony and genuine despair that one looks at Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the ‘Egypt First’ strongman, that we see a situation where almost everything in Egypt is up for grabs. 

The delusional bubble that surrounds the Sisi regime is one where the tyrant is depicted as a national saviour against “foreign Islamism,” but the reality is that at no point in post-colonial Egyptian history has there ever been a time when Egypt has ceded so much autonomy to foreign interests, mostly Saudi and the UAE.

It was under Sisi that the islands of Tiran and Sanafir (the name ‘Sanafir’, quite ironically, comes from the Coptic ‘Sanufri’ meaning ‘place of good profit’) were given away to Saudi Arabia. The fact that Saudi had given the coup regime $25 billion in just three years was, of course, a huge factor in this.

It’s under Sisi that a deal has been struck with the UAE’s Capital City Planners to build a ‘new administrative capital’ of Egypt for the super-rich. 

It was under Sisi that Egypt essentially relinquished its energy rights in the Eastern Mediterranean to the benefit of Greece, Israel and the Greek Cypriot Administration in exchange for political support for his regime. 

It’s under Sisi that swathes of the Sinai remain under the control of Daesh-allied militia forces, which has brutally exposed the limitations and weaknesses of the Egyptian Army. 

This is precisely what happens when a country is ruled by a kleptocracy that puts its own extremely narrow interests of personal profit and empowerment before the national interests of Egypt. It is the ruling elites that are running Egypt into the ground – regarding GERD, Egypt could only come at it from a position of weakness. 

Why would Ethiopia have any respect for a country that has no respect for itself? 

When Egypt demanded that Ethiopia guarantees 40 billion cubic meters of water is provided to the country yearly, Ethiopia flatly refused and counter-offered with 31 billion, which wouldn’t even come close to meeting Egypt’s needs. But the elephant in the room was the Sisi regime’s complete lack of leverage. At no point, despite extensive lobbying, has Ethiopia ceased construction on the dam. 

In the interests of millions of Egyptians, who already live in poverty and hardship, one hopes that reason prevails over the dam, but given Sisi’s track record, the real fear is what is being called a ‘deal of convenience.’

This would be a situation where the regime accepts the bare minimum to keep the water situation ticking over, but where social security of Egypt’s poorest demographics is once again sacrificed for the benefit of the elites.

But even Sisi might understand the inherent dangers in this. What’s for sure is the days of Egyptian hegemony over the Nile are over – the only way through this for Egypt is to develop a relationship with Ethiopia that is conditioned by mutual respect and good faith, as opposed to belligerence and chauvinism. 

Only then can the potential for genuinely unprecedented disaster in Egypt be averted – at least for now.