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Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on September 3, 2018. (Andy Wong/AFP)
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) shakes hands with Chinese president Xi Jinping during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in Beijing on September 3, 2018. (Andy Wong/AFP)

Egypt’s El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company and China’s Dongfeng Motors have signed a deal for electric car production in Egypt. An agreement was signed on June 18, stipulating that El Nasr will produce 25,000 electric vehicles annually.

Not only is this a boon for Chinese car manufacturing, which according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers saw a 42 percent decline in the first quarter of 2020, but it also revives Nasr after the company shuttered its production plant in 2009.

 

Strategic Relations

This marks yet another expansion of China’s growing footprint in Egypt. Economic and political relations between the two nations go back to 1956, when Egypt formally recognized the communist government of the People’s Republic of China, making it the first Arab and African nation to do so. Since the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s succeeding presidents Mohammed Morsi and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi have made foreign relations with China a top priority.

For China, Egypt’s strategic location and its ownership of the Suez Canal make it an important ally as it expands its Belt and Road Initiative.

 

GERD
A view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction, in a photograph taken near Guba, Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile in July, when the rainy season starts, but it has not yet reached a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan downriver. Egypt fears it would reduce its water supply, and Sudan warned on Wednesday that the filling of the GERD without an agreement between the three countries would pose a risk to its own dams. Sudan is especially concerned about Roseires Dam near the Ethiopian border, which plays an important role in supplying the country with water and hydroelectric power.

 

The latest round of negotiations also failed to produce a compromise

 

Consultations have been ongoing between the three countries, with input from the World Bank and the United States. Most issues have been resolved, but the remaining bones of contention are the fill rate of the 74 billion cubic meter reservoir and the long-term operation of the dam.

The latest round of negotiations, by videoconference, also failed to produce a compromise. On June 19, Egypt requested the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene to resolve the dispute with Ethiopia, after which Sudan sent a letter to the UNSC expressing its concern over the filling of the dam without a signed agreement. The UNSC will discuss the issue on Monday, June 29.

And the African Union’s Executive Council will hold an emergency video meeting on Friday, June 26, to discuss the dispute in response to a call from South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chairman of the African Union.

 

In October 2017, Egyptian security forces arrested LGBT activist Sarah Hegazy for raising the rainbow flag at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Egypt.
Egyptian security forces arrested Sarah Hegazi in October 2017 for raising the rainbow flag, a symbol of the LGBTQ community, at a Mashrou’ Leila concert in Cairo. (Photo via Twitter)

On Sunday, June 14, thirty-year-old queer feminist Sarah Hegazi took her own life in exile in Canada.

A short letter attributed to Sarah, written in Arabic, circulated on social media days after her death. The letter read: “To my siblings—I tried to survive and I failed, forgive me. To my friends—the experience was harsh and I am too weak to resist it, forgive me. To the world—you were cruel to a great extent, but I forgive.”

Three years ago, Sarah had attended a concert in Cairo featuring a Lebanese band, Mashrou’ Leila, whose lead singer is openly gay. Filled with joy at the event, Sarah waved the rainbow flag, a symbol of pride used by LGBTQ movements around the world.

Little did she know that it would forever change the course of her life.

About a week after the concert, Egyptian authorities arrested and imprisoned Sarah on charges of “being part of a banned group that aims to interfere with the constitution.” They also arrested several other concertgoers based on their real or perceived sexual orientation. Sarah was released on bail after being imprisoned for three months.

Sarah, an Egyptian national, was a self-proclaimed lesbian and feminist. She was an activist for both causes long before the Mashrou’ Leila concert.

Sarah also identified as a communist and became involved with the Spring Socialist Network once in Canada. In Egypt, she was fired from her job for her political views. In her articles, Sarah openly discussed her opposition to Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a former military general, who took over the Arab world’s most populous country in 2013.

In prison, Sarah was tortured by members of the Egyptian police and subjected to solitary confinement during detention. Authorities also encouraged female inmates to torment her.

“I have not forgotten the injustice which dug a black hole into the soul and left it bleeding, a hole which the doctors have not yet been able to heal,” Sarah said in an article published in 2018 with independent online newspaper Mada Masr.

“I became afraid of everyone. Even after my release, I was still afraid of everyone, of my family and of friends and of the street. Fear took the lead,” Sarah wrote.

Sarah’s story has ignited an awareness that cannot be stopped around the world. She has brought focus to the maltreatment and abuse of the LGBTQ community in Egypt and the Middle East.

The trauma that minority communities face is often reflected in higher death and suicide rates resulting from both mental and physical illnesses. Many people underestimate the harmful impact of bullying and hate speech. Such hate is even more detrimental when supported and endorsed by the state, which is the case of Egypt and many countries across the Arab world.

In her 2018 article for Mada Masr, Sarah openly discussed that she was struck with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after the persecution that she faced for simply waving a symbol of queer pride.

She developed severe anxiety and panic attacks. Eventually, she was forced to leave Egypt out of fear of being arrested again. While in exile, Sarah’s mother passed away in Egypt, adding to her grief and trauma.

To face such persecution is one thing, but to live with painful memories that haunt you is another. Sarah wrote that she lived in terror, stuttered when she spoke, and even had trouble being around people or speaking in the media. She had also attempted suicide twice.

 

“We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.” — Hamed Sinno

 

Her death has opened the door to a much larger discussion on Egypt and across the Middle East. For far too long, Egyptian authorities have stifled and threatened the lives of minorities, vibrant and creative youth, women, and members of the LGBTQ community.

“That is what trauma does to the body. That is what hate does to the body,” Hamed Sinno, the lead singer of Mashrou’ Leila, said in response to Sarah’s death.

“The thought that someone can leave a society that keeps trying to kill them, and still carry that society inside them, still be moved to taking their own lives, chills me to the bone, as I reflect on my own exile, and the exile of the people I love,” the New York-based singer-songwriter wrote. “We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs.”

The band also paid tribute to Sarah on their official Twitter account.

In Egypt, homosexuality is not explicitly outlawed in jurisprudence, but detention and charges are still made on the basis of laws combatting “debauchery” and prostitution.

Some of the kindest souls and brightest minds of Egypt and the Arab world have been sent into self-imposed exile due to such vague interpretations of the law that allow for oppression, violence, and intimidation.

Sarah’s tragic death has shed light once again on these repressive crackdowns and the persecution of women and the LGBTQ community in Egypt. It is also another reminder that “Egypt is not a country we live in but a country that lives within us,” as Pope Shenouda III once said.

 

Reem Abdellatif is an Egyptian international freelance journalist and editor. She writes about women’s economic empowerment, environmental awareness, energy, business news, travel, and geopolitics.

 

Abiy - Alburhan
Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed (left) and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, then chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Military Council and now chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, photographed in Khartoum on June 7, 2019. (AFP)

Sudan and Ethiopia have both condemned cross-border incursions by Ethiopian militiamen and soldiers last week, and have called for a truce and an amicable solution to the border tensions.

On May 27 and 28, Ethiopian bandits launched cross-border raids on the Sudanese villages of Mashre El Fursan and Barakat Nourein, witnesses told Radio Dabanga. A Sudanese army captain was killed in the skirmishes, and several soldiers and civilians were wounded.

Such raids and occupation of farmland are not uncommon in the border region of El Gedaref state, especially during the harvest season, but this time the gunmen were supported by hundreds of Ethiopian soldiers, according to Brigadier General Amer El Hasan, a spokesperson for the Sudanese Armed Forces.

Sudan summoned the Ethiopian embassy’s chargé d’affaires over the attacks, and in response the Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs said there was “no honorable reason for the two countries to descend into hostility”.

 

Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties

 

It is imperative for Khartoum and Addis Abbas to reach a peaceful resolution to the issue amid the ongoing fraught negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. If Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt fail to reach an agreement before July—when Ethiopia has said it will begin to fill the dam with or without the consent of the other parties—it might lead to a dangerous instability in the region.

 

 

Lina Attalah
Lina Attalah is editor in chief at the independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr. (https://afteegypt.org)

 

A well-known Egyptian journalist, Lina Attalah, was arrested on Sunday by security forces while interviewing the mother of a political prisoner outside Cairo’s Tora Prison. Attalah is editor in chief of one of Egypt’s last few independent media outlets, Mada Masr, in a country whose leadership under President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has seen a dramatic curtailing of media freedoms.

 

She is not the first journalist to face intimidation and harassment.

 

Attalah was later ordered released on bail of about US$126 after news of her arrest spread on social media, prompting widespread condemnation of her detention.

She is not the first journalist to face intimidation and harassment. In December 2019, twenty-two journalists were arrested for reporting on protests demanding el-Sisi’s removal from power, the largest wave of arrests since 2014. Egyptian authorities justify these arrests by accusing the journalists in question of promoting “fake news”, misusing social media, or supporting terrorist groups.

 

Wide-Ranging Anti-Terrorism Law

Egypt’s continual struggle with terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere became the pretext for a highly controversial anti-terrorism law passed in 2015, whose broad definition of terrorism allowed the government to impose hefty fines on any media publication that allegedly issues “false” reports on counter-terrorism or military operations.

Media-freedom activists in Egypt characterized the law as draconian and expressed fears that it would shut down smaller news outlets or invite self-censorship. In February this year, an amendment to this law removed mentions of satellite TV channels, radio stations, and social media accounts from the definition of terrorism acts, a decision viewed with skepticism and derided as a “charade” by lawyers and free-speech advocates. They argue the law still gives enough leeway to the state to designate journalists it disapproves of as terrorists or being responsible for incitement to terrorist acts.

 

 

Abiy With Sudanese Delegation
Ethiopan prime minister Abiy Ahmed welcomes the Sudanese delegation to Addis Ababa.

 

A Sudanese ministerial delegation sat down with Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed in Addis Ababa over the weekend to discuss the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and border security concerns. The delegation follows a phone conversation between Abiy and Sudanese prime minister Abdallah Hamdok on May 12, when the latter urged his Ethiopian counterpart to agree to a tripartite deal between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt before beginning the filling process.

The GERD fulfills a decades-long Ethiopian dream to harness the power of the Nile River to meet the country’s ballooning energy needs for its 109 million-strong population. Egypt, however, is concerned that a hasty filling of the dam could lower the Nile’s water level and jeopardize its agricultural industry, with Sudan fearing the dam will exacerbate issues of water shortages.

 

Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.

 

A day after Hamdok’s call to Abyi, Sudan announced it would not sign a partial deal due to a lack of technical and legal articles in the agreement, which Ethiopia has criticized as an undue burden. Filling of the dam is set to begin on July 17.

 

Other Matters on the Agenda

Outside of discussions on the GERD, the Sudanese delegation and Ethiopia discussed issues of trade, mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing attacks between Sudanese farmers and Ethiopian militias in Sudan’s eastern Gedaref Governorate. Ethiopian forces recently occupied parts of this governorate, threatening to reignite a border dispute that was resolved in 2003 after Ethiopia formally returned the territory to Sudan.

 

 

Undersea Cable

 

A multinational consortium of telecommunications companies—including Facebook, China Mobile International, MTN Global Connect, Telecom Egypt, and Vodafone—announced the construction of a new undersea fiber-optic cable that will connect sixteen African countries, Europe, and the Middle East. Named 2Africa, the 37,000 kilometer-long communications cable is scheduled to go live in 2023 or 2024.

 

Africans pay some of the highest data rates in the world.

 

In March, two undersea cables serving Africa experienced breakages that drastically reduced Internet connectivity for days as repairs were made. The addition of 2Africa will help improve Internet access for millions of Africans, and mitigate disruptions should other cables experience failures in the future. Such disruptions are not only frustrating for Africans, who pay some of the highest data rates in the world, but also have a negative impact on the African economy.

A 2017 report by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) concluded that intentional Internet shutdowns in twelve countries between 2015 and 2017 cost sub-Saharan Africa more than US$237 million. Unforeseen connectivity disruptions naturally can have far greater negative impact on national and regional economies.

 

On February 25, 2020, Egypt’s long-time former president Hosni Mubarak passed away at the age of ninety-one. He was buried in Cairo with full military honors. Forced to step down in 2011 after ruling Egypt for thirty years, Mubarak faced multiple charges and spent time in prison, but in 2017, he was acquitted of most of these charges and released. The military funeral captured two key characteristics of Hosni Mubarak, the man and his life: his close connection to the military, and his high relevance to Egypt’s recent history.   

 

A Military Man

Mubarak served as an Egyptian Air Force officer and rose through the ranks to become commander of the Air Force and deputy minister of defense in 1972. His rise coincided with a pivotal event in the Middle East: the Ramadan War, known elsewhere as the Yom Kippur War of 1973. The war began when, in a surprise attack, about 200 Egyptian fighter planes simultaneously bombed Israeli positions and military installations beyond the Bar Lev Line, hitting nearly 90 percent of their targets. Mubarak, who was instrumental in planning the attack and flew a fighter jet himself, became a national hero. The next year he was promoted to air chief marshal in recognition of his military successes.

Over the years, however, relatives of former Air Force commanders have questioned whether his role was as central to the campaign as claimed or whether history was altered to make his star shine brighter. Either way, for Mubarak the war reaffirmed his strong standing in the military, and for Egypt it solidified the linkages between the military and politics.

 

Propelled to Highest Office

Mubarak was serving as vice president when, in October 1981, President Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated by an Islamist extremist. Mubarak was lightly wounded in the spray of bullets and grenade fragments that killed Sadat, having sat to his right on the viewing stand at a military parade in Cairo. Without time to recuperate, Mubarak was elevated to the presidency. He needed to assess the scope of the rebellion in the military and make a quick decision about the future of the country’s relationship with Israel. He ended up serving as president of Egypt for thirty years. Despite early hopes of reform in the post-Sadat years, Mubarak’s unremarkable authoritarianism ultimately determined his legacy.

The strategy for Mubarak’s reign was shaped by a number of key themes: anti-Islamism, Western support, Israeli placation, and economic reforms. Despite some early reformist success, his regime invokes memories of a stunted society laden with hard security practices, intimidating governance, and a surveillance state environment. In addition, he assured Israel and the United States that he would stick to the Camp David Accords, the peace agreements that, for a while, alienated Egypt from the Arab world. In his early years in power, Mubarak expanded the Egyptian State Security Investigations Service and the Central Security Forces. This heavy focus on strengthening the security apparatus reflects his personal history and resulting mindset: the experience of seeing Sadat assassinated right next to him and his deep conviction of the importance of the military in political affairs led to his strong focus on security. Both in making strategic national decisions and in day-to-day politics, Mubarak would rather solicit advice from his security chiefs than from civil advisers or senior officials. His security apparatus was given extensive powers: Amnesty International described violations of human rights by the security forces in Egypt as “systematic”.

Another feature of the Mubarak regime that became more and more prevalent over the years was economic gain for the inner circle. Corruption became endemic while Mubarak was in office, and he and his family amassed a fortune.

An authoritarian system based on a strongman is not easily replaced, and so, despite discontent with Mubarak’s rule, there was no clear successor or plan to manage a post-Mubarak era. Many believed he was grooming his son Gamal to take over, but the young Mubarak did not enjoy popular support. In 2011, millions of people took to the streets to protest against the system of favoritism and oppression. Ultimately, Hosni Mubarak lost the backing of the elite, and the military, who did not protect him because they considered his rule to be increasingly tailored toward a family dynasty, and in his final speeches, was unable to satisfy the protestors’ demands. 

The 2011 popular uprisings were led by a generation of Egyptians who were no longer willing to engage with the regime’s carrot-and-stick approach to governance. Mubarak would release thousands of political prisoners and lift restrictions on freedom of speech, but exert control by continually extending emergency laws—laws that simultaneously worked to suppress the growth of Islamism and to quash any legitimate political opposition. Mubarak’s loyal secret police, who had the power to clamp down on those who challenged the regime, patrolled the cities. This approach enabled him to survey the field and prepare his regime for any potential challengers, demonstrating that any hopes of democratic reform were off the cards.

 

Following Mubarak's death, this Egyptian is holding a photo from him into the camera.
An Egyptian man is holding a photo of Mubarak during his funeral


His Legacy

In stark contrast to the optimistic atmosphere during the 2011 uprisings, nine years later the harsh reality of Cairo 2020 reflects an air of hopelessness. Egypt’s youth have come to terms with their pyrrhic victory. Having unseated the country’s longest-serving dictator, their hopes and dreams of liberty and economic prosperity remain unattained after dismantling an authoritarian government, they are now under the rule of a no less oppressive rule of General Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi.

Mubarak’s legacy can be interpreted as one of “relativism”, his major success being “stability”. Some Egyptians were disillusioned after the stunted success of the 2011 uprisings. Others have exhibited some form of nostalgia—especially those who were close to Hosni Mubarak—and yearned for a comparatively more “merciful” regime. Under Sisi, Egypt has turned into a totalitarian society. The country currently has seventy thousand political prisoners, and freedom of speech is non-existent. Mubarak had ample opportunity to build institutions that did not depend solely on his rule, institutions that could have served Egypt well today to withstand the assault of Sisi’s quasi-totalitarianism; yet Mubarak focused on regional peace which he achieved, but at cost of deep decay to his own society.

 

Sofia Patel is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies at King's College London. Her research focuses on terrorism and counterterrorism, and she holds a master’s degree in Middle Eastern politics. Twitter: @laramimi

Another round of talks is taking place in Washington, D.C. about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in the Blue Nile, this time to reach agreement on the rules for filling rates and operating procedures for the dam. Tripartite talks being brokered by the US and the World Bank between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been ongoing, but Ethiopia will not be attending the latest meeting, announced Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s special envoy, Hailemariam Desalegn, on February 25; instead, Abiy wishes to sign the deal only after Ethiopian general elections on August 29.

 

Why It Matters

In Ethiopia’s absence in Washington, D.C., it’s doubtful the deal will get signed. The construction of the dam is a long-held dream of Ethiopian authorities, as Africa’s second-most populous country is also one of the least electrified. Before talks began, threats of military action were issued between Egypt and Ethiopia, raising fears of a regional conflict breaking out that would dramatically destabilize the Horn of Africa.

A successful diplomatic resolution of this dispute will serve as a critical model to emulate for future disputes between nations over water rights. Climate change has already jeopardized steady access to water across the continent and is expected to get worse as dry seasons grow longer and droughts become more frequent, raising the specter of future resource conflicts over dwindling water supplies.

 

A Week Is a Long Time in Politics

Desalegn’s announcement that Ethiopia will skip the talks in Washington, D.C., came after he met with the head of Sudan’s transitional Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, on February 25, two days before the scheduled Washington meeting. 

Desalegn had met with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo on February 22, but a source within the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation told The East African that they had no prior warning of Ethiopia’s decision to miss the next round of discussions. 

Yasser Abbas, Sudan’s minister of irrigation and water resources, has said that the draft deal submitted by the US and the World Bank resolves the vast majority of the issues between Ethiopia and Egypt. Egypt was worried the dam could threaten water access if Ethiopia filled the GERD reservoir too quickly, whereas Ethiopia wants a shorter timeframe to fill so it can deliver on its energy promises to its people.

 

https://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/news/africa/Ethiopia-Nile-dam-talks/4552902-5470504-w73lwm/index.html

GERD
Construction workers work at night at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet, as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP)

 

The so-called Arab Spring that took place throughout 2011 created unforeseen ripple effects well beyond the post-colonial Arab-majority nation-states where the uprisings took place. While Cairo was busy recovering from large-scale protests that deposed the late Hosni Mubarak and still drenched in the spirit of revolution, the Ethiopian government, led by its then prime minister, the late Meles Zenawi, quietly took advantage of the Cairene chaos.  A few short months after the tumult in Egypt, the Meles government began work on a grandiose, long-desired hydroelectric infrastructure project. It would be known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, as it is often referred to in the technocratic speak of negotiators and would become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent.

Egypt’s ability to project power within the region was greatly weakened after the end of the Mubarak era. Less than six months after Mubarak's fall, Sudan, wedged between Egypt’s south and Ethiopia's west, was cleaved in two after the establishment of South Sudan as a sovereign republic in July 2011. These status quo disrupting shifts combined with the calcified policies of the continuous isolation of Eritrea and the deep reluctance of the international community to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state all meant that Ethiopia’s position within the region was steadily strengthening. In light of these developments, its comparative stability in the East African context was being perceived as a valuable asset by extra-regional actors including China, Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

 

"The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter"

 

The time had come for Ethiopia to make a massive leap in its modernization while its distracted neighbors were unable to forcefully act to stop it, if only by default. A great deal of Egypt’s negotiating leverage had relied upon dusty agreements from 1929 and 1959 that failed to include an independent, then dynastic Ethiopia. For this simple reason, the modern Ethiopian state claims it needn’t abide by either the 1929 or 1959 agreements. These antiquated pacts favored Egypt in terms of the Nile’s allocation, with Sudan as a junior partner, but as Egyptian negotiators have been citing them, Ethiopia has been busy creating unstoppable facts on the ground. In 1999 Ethiopia would finally be included in a much broader post-colonial pact called the Nile Basin Initiative, which was meant to be a cooperative framework for the 21st century that would benefit all of the signatory states. But in 2010 the Mubarak regime stalled its participation in the initiative over wording that it feared empowered upstream states and could reduce its own allocation which Cairo perceives as nothing short of a fundamental, national right. 

The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter in the process. Ethiopia’s aspiration to become a renewable resource hydropower giant is a quite vulnerable prospect, however, as it must factor in consistent climatic variables in a wider region prone to drought and with massive variations in annual rainfall. The further it flows downstream from its source the more polluted the river becomes with ever-increasing wastewater generated by a booming Nile Basin population and rubbish often choking it in urban centers.

 

Opposing Interests

 

"Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland"

 

At the crux of the disagreement is how rapidly a massive reservoir will be filled, and the ways in which the speed of the filling will affect Egypt’s already strained agricultural sector and polluted drinking water source. In recent months, the White House has been attempting to mediate the deep riparian rift over the rate at which the GERD reservoir will be filled with little demonstrable success. While the US administration has inserted itself into the Blue Nile dispute partly because it has hard power security interests in both Egypt and Ethiopia, it also wants to undermine Chinese ambitions in Africa writ large when possible. 

Since 2011, a rotating cast of Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland. For years, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders have been at loggerheads as the former’s need for water security has been portrayed as irreconcilable with the latter’s desire for energy security. Both nations are African population behemoths, with Egypt’s having reached 100 million earlier this month, and Ethiopia’s estimated at being between 109 million and 112 million. When the 1929 and 1959 agreements were signed, the Nile Basin was a far less populated region with relatively stable climactic conditions. Neither is true today.

The political leadership of both states must contend with a massive youth bulge in their surging demographics. Neither government wants a return to the mass protest movements that have shaken Cairo and the Oromia Region to their respective cores in recent years. Until now, Egypt’s protestors have been mostly a mix of urbane millennials and savvy Islamists confined largely to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. A major disruption in the irrigation of the Nile Valley risks further disenfranchising the fellaheen, the agrarian peasantry that power the country’s breadbasket economy. As the dire case with the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai demonstrates, containing antigovernment activity in rural Egypt is a far more difficult task than quashing demonstrations in the center of a major city with heavy-handed security forces. This is not a scenario the government of Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi will risk or tolerate, as the Egyptian strongman brooks no dissent among his countrymen. Therefore the Sisi government views the GERD as an existential threat not just to Egypt’s agricultural economy, but also to its security from the very population it is meant to serve. 

 

A Different Approach

 

 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

 

Meanwhile, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took a polar approach to his Egyptian counterpart by containing activism in Ethiopia more broadly by instituting democratic reforms with correlating promises of demonstrable progress, which rolled the country back from the brink of internal conflict. Therefore, Ethiopia is determined to complete the GERD as central tenet of its long-sought path to progress whose narrative is to gradually emancipate its people from severe poverty. 

Both leaders are cognizant of the fact that the protest movements brought about the regime changes in their societies, and can quickly be reconstituted should they fail to deliver on issues of national stability in the case of Egypt and a more open society in the case of Ethiopia. 

Often-fraught negotiations over the GERD have limited the debate to one of national sovereignty when the inherently intertwined nature of transborder riparian issues likely requires a supranational solution. The enormous cost of the project, estimated at between US$4 billion and 5 billion depending on sources, is being shouldered by the Ethiopian public at large, so the GERD’s completion is perceived as both a matter of national prestige and a necessary return on the nation’s collective investment. Addis Ababa has thus far funded the construction through selling bonds to citizens as well as foreign entities, including the Djiboutian government. Abiy’s government is therefore under internal and external pressure to deliver results on the immense dam which is said to be 70% complete at the time of this writing to which his country has tied its future. 

 

The Third Party

 

"Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia"

Starting at Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region in the northwest of the country, the river rises at the Blue Nile Falls just downstream and winds south and then west to the Benishangul–Gumuz Region along Sudan’s eastern border. Sudan has been a de facto pivot state in the tense talks between its neighbors, as it initially sided with Egypt in the dispute but later made a calculated move in line with the Ethiopian vision for power and progress in the greater Nile Basin. As Cairo and Addis Ababa have acted solely in their own interests, decision makers in Khartoum have been caught in the middle in terms of both physical geography and diplomacy. 

Despite Sudan’s long-standing cultural, linguistic, and political ties to regional hegemon Egypt, as the GERD has come closer to a finished reality the Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia. Much of the media coverage of the GERD project has framed it as a primarily bilateral dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan featuring almost as a downstream bystander transit country for the Nile Valley and Nile Delta’s agricultural irrigation supply. The pessimism over the GERD controversy has been in an almost exclusively Egyptian context in terms of media coverage, but there are in fact many questions with regard to Sudan’s fate and its own highly fissiparous internecine dynamics. 

As the GERD’s construction steams ahead, Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year after having ruled the country for some thirty years.  Blue Nile State in the southeast of the country had been the scene of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of the al-Bashir regime. The SPLM-N in particular rejected the top-down implementation of sharia law upon the multi-confessional populace of Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which were not included in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. After years of battling the SAF, the SPLM-N split into two factions in 2017 after an internal leadership fragmentation over the idea of a right to self-determination for the two war torn states. This fissure has greatly complicated the creation of a formal peace settlement with Sudan’s transitional government, known as the Sovereign Council. In the wake of al-Bashir’s ouster, the fighters along the Blue Nile have far less reason to continue their armed struggle. Thus the Sovereign Council is involved in separate negotiations with the two SPLM-N factions while dealing with the transnational issues of Nile Basin water rights. For Sudan, the Blue Nile is not only a hydrological artery but also an eponymous region that is synonymous with internal strife where the Sovereign Council is in no position to manage more needless violence between the SAF and either of the SPLM-N factions. 

 

Toward a Balancing of Interests

A common reality for all three countries is that the GERD is now a hard reality. In all the years of often tense talks, Ethiopia has continued to build while Egypt has gone from threatened anger to today’s more resigned reality. Whatever the outcome of a future tripartite agreement, it will ultimately be about how the Egyptians and Sudanese cope with Ethiopia in control of the flow of the fabled waters that have shaped the course of Nilotic history and culture for millennia. 

Once the GERD project began, authorities in Cairo and Addis Ababa too often struck an adversarial tone that characterized the Nile’s future as a zero-sum game rather than abide by a cooperative mechanism that would work to the benefit of both of their vastly underserved populations. Today, power, in every sense of the word, lay with the upstream countries. Uganda has been cutting deals with China for it to build hydroelectric dams along the White Nile and its tributaries without much concern for downstream sensitivities.

From national pride in Ethiopia to concern in Sudan to dread and sabre-rattling in Egypt, the hydrological mega project has increasingly been seen as an inevitability by the three parties. Contrary to the bellicose rhetoric by Sisi and Abiy alluding to the potential for armed conflict, these larger-than-life leaders are more likely to move forward in the far blander name of state stability after so much sustained volatility that has swept across the entire region for close to a decade. 

 

Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood

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Jul 12, 2020