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  1. The unwritten policy of Egypt on the Nile

    By Mesay Kirubel

    Recently, I was watching news on the the current dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia on the filling of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam and the frustration on the Ethiopian side about the behavior of the Egyptian Government. I decided to write this article to shed some light on the issue. If there is one thing that could explain the behavior of the Egyptian government in its current dispute with Ethiopia, it is the age-old Egyptian policy on the Blue Nile waters which it has been pursuing for centuries. Knowledge of this policy helps us to understand the position and the behavior of Egypt and to find ways of approaching and dealing with the country to negotiate a fair share on the Nile waters. I strongly believe that the behavior of Egypt on the Nile emanates from its prolonged policy of no concession to Ethiopia on the use of the Nile water resources.

    I have been following the Nile issue since the time when Ethiopia planned to build a big dam on the Blue Nile. Ever since, Ethiopia has been working on constructive engagement with Egypt and the Sudan on the equitable and fair use of the Nile waters. Ethiopia has gone great lengths to convince Egypt and the Sudan on Ethiopia’s need to use the Blue Nile water for hydro electric generation to supply much needed electricity to areas of the country where there is currently no electricity. I believe that the failure of Ethiopia’s more than two decade’s long advocacy on the Blue Nile is largely due to Egypt’s unchanging policy on the Nile.
    In recent years, Egypt has frustrated Ethiopian officials and the Ethiopian people at large. By continuously refusing to concede to Ethiopia’s right for a fair share of the Nile resources, Egypt is desperately hoping to gain concession even at the 11th hour. In my opinion, Egypt’s policy of no concession to Ethiopia regarding its rights to use the Nile for the Grand Renaissance Dam, or any other potential project in the future, is a manifestation of Egypt’s policy of No Concession under any circumstance. Ironically, Egypt is looking for concessions from Ethiopia which would help it legally protect the status quo for the foreseeable future as it has been doing it for a long time using colonial era international agreements to which Ethiopia was not a signatory.

    The foreign minister of Ethiopia, Geddu Andargachew, seems to have grasped Egypt’s mood and behavior and its unwillingness to sign a deal with Ethiopia. The foreign minister noted that Egypt always comes to the negotiation table with no concession while at the same time seeking concession from the Ethiopian side. This unwillingness to negotiate with an open mind in a give and take fashion is a reflection of Egypt’s No concession policy.

    It should be abundantly clear to Egyptians and their Arab league and western supporters that the old colonial treaty which gave Egypt and the Sudan the exclusive right on the use of the Nile water is no longer acceptable in the 21 century. Today, Ethiopia is in a position to make use of its water resources within its borders without asking permission from external powers. Ethiopia’s policy of filling its dam irrespective of whether a deal is signed with Egypt and the Sudan or not is a right policy given the unpredictability and belligerence of Egypt. If Ethiopia could start filling its dam soon, it would change the game and would force Egypt to concede to Ethiopia. The goal of the Ethiopian side should be to force Egypt to concede by accepting Ethiopia’s right to fill its dam and start generating electricity even before a deal is signed.

    Moreover, Ethiopia’s concession should be made based on empirical evidence of the current flow of the Nile to Egypt measured by the comparative flow of water, both before and after the start of operation of the dam. As such, any such concession given to Egypt and the Sudan based on historical data on the Nile flow to Egypt could cost Ethiopia a lot. It is also very important for the Ethiopian side to recognize that any concession given to Egypt should be reciprocal, meaning Egypt also has to recognize the natural rights of Ethiopia for a fair share of the Nile Waters and that such a mutual concession should be the corner stone of the cooperation among all the participating countries. As such any concession given to Egypt should be matched by a reciprocal concession on the Egyptian side. I suggest that Ethiopia should refrain from giving any untimely and unilateral concession under pressure by Egypt. Ethiopia should rather be able to withstand any Egyptian or Sudanese pressure as it may lead to unwise move by the Ethiopian government which could cost the country dearly in the long-term.

    If however, Ethiopia wants to concede and decides to sign a deal with Egypt and the Sudan before it starts to fill the dam, it gives away its advantage to Egypt because Egypt will have the legal backing to force Ethiopia to abide by its decision in future negotiations. This could make Ethiopia lose the potential to use the Nile water to the extent possible. In short, any concession Ethiopia is willing to give away to downstream countries, mainly to Egypt and the Sudan, should consider the position of the Egyptian side and the need for securing mutual concession on both sides. When trying to end the current stalemate with Egypt and the Sudan, Ethiopia should consider both its short term and long-term goals on the use of the Nile waters. Such an undertaking should be based on normative understanding of what is essentially a fair share of the Nile waters.

    What could be done if Egypt resorts to the use of force to stop Ethiopia from filling the dam? In the unlikely scenario in which Egypt wants to use force to bend Ethiopia’s decision, the latter should be ready to defend its sovereignty and its interests on the Bule Nile. Ethiopia should recognize that only a hard and skillful bargain could help it win in this dispute, as the Egyptian side is determined to maintain the status quo. If Egypt decides to use violence to force Ethiopia to concede, it will stand to lose the most in the confrontation and will only make the situation worse.

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