The Grand Renaissance Dam & the Egyptian crisis


At the beginning of the week, Egypt’s new military-backed cabinet made clear that it plans to play an assertive role in regional politics, urging Ethiopia to take part in further talks over the Nile dam project. Egypt’s interim Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy, discussed the dam on the telephone with Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom. These were the first such talks since Mohammed Morsi was ousted.

There has also been a change in the rhetoric from Egyptian officials, who at one stage said they were willing to defend their entitlement to Nile waters “by any means”. They now say they are ready to co-operate with Ethiopia for the “common good” of both countries.

For its part, Ethiopia repeatedly asserted that the construction of the GRD will never stop for a minute saying the dam will not significantly affect downstream countries.

Capital talked to Dr Yacob Arsano, a lecturer at Addis Ababa University’s Department of Political Science and International Relations.  He spoke about the significance of the Co-operative Framework Agreement of the Grand Renaissance Dam and the current Egyptian crisis.

Capital: How can Ethiopia prove its historical and natural right to use the Nile water?
Dr. Yacob Arsano: Ethiopia has never accepted exclusive rights of Egypt on the Nile. By the same token, Ethiopia has always maintained her sovereign rights over the water resources of the Nile within her territory. There are numerous instances of this happening during the past several decades.
Capital: What is the significance of the newly ratified framework agreement by the parliament?
Dr. Yacob: Ethiopia’s ratifying the Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA) confirms the sovereign right of the country over the shared waters of the Nile. It does not establish new rights for Ethiopia on the waters of the Nile. It is an expression of Ethiopia’s sovereign will to recognise equitable and reasonable use of the water resources by all riparian nations of the Nile. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s ratification of CFA is a political expression of the country of not recognizing any previous agreements that deny rights to Ethiopia or other riparian nations of the Nile.
Capital: How significant is the signing of an agreement between South Sudan and the other riparian countries?
Dr. Yacob: First of all, South Sudan is a new Nile basin state which has opted to express its national interest by joining the upstream countries in signing the agreement which was adopted and signed prior to the declaration of independence of the Republic of South Sudan. It is in Ethiopia’s particular interest that one more country in the Nile basin has chosen alliance with Ethiopia and other upstream countries in the basin. I have no doubt whatsoever that decision may be, it is in the best interest of South Sudan itself.
Capital: What is the impact of Sudan’s support for Ethiopia, when it comes to the Grand Renaissance Dam project?
Dr. Yacob: Sudan’s supporting of the framework is expected, and it is not a big deal. This is because Sudan has not benefited from sharing the water while it was with Egypt; this is because Egypt has taken the lion’s share as per the Colonial Agreement between the two countries (Egypt and Sudan), excluding Ethiopia and other upstream countries.  So, to promote its national interest, Sudan has to be with Ethiopia, rather than Egypt. If Sudan collaborates with Egypt, it won’t benefit them. Hence, Sudan’s support for the Agreement framework shall benefit Sudan itself. This has also its own constructive advantage for Ethiopia to implement her program.
Capital: How do you see Egypt’s response on the study conducted by experts on the GRD?
Dr. Yacob: The International Panel of Experts (IPoE) with three members each from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan together with four internationally employed independent experts reviewed if there would be a negative impact on the two downstream countries as a result of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The findings of the IPoE do not prove any appreciable harm on the downstream countries. The Panel recommends that mitigation of any possible impacts is to be addressed by future collaborative study by the three countries. There have been hasty and negative statements from the Egyptian side against the findings of the Panel when the report was submitted to the three governments. But the ToR of the review panel prescribes that the findings of the IPoE should be deliberated by the three governments. I would believe that this step will be taken up whether Egypt is happy or not with the findings and the recommendations.
Capital: What is the likely impact of the Egyptian crisis on the Ethiopian GRD project?
Dr. Yacob: I do not see any direct impact of the current Egyptian crisis on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam. The construction of the dam started some two years ago. The construction of the dam is proceeding because it is an Ethiopian project which is carried out in Ethiopia. There should not be a direct link between the current crisis in Egypt and the construction of the dam in Ethiopia. As the Ethiopian dam does not have any appreciable harm on Egypt it is not a convenient political agenda for the opposing political forces in Egypt. But it is in Ethiopia’s best interest that there is peace in Egypt and neighboring countries.
Capital: Do you believe the removal of President Morsi amounts to a military coup?
Dr. Yacob: Yes, it was a military coup that took place.  But it is not an ordinary type of military coup as it took place in a unique political circumstances of Egypt: 1) There was a widespread anger and opposition against President Morsi and Freedom and Justice Party; 2) Millions signed petition demanding Morsi to resign; 3) Millions went out to the streets allover Egypt demanding Morsi to step down; 4) Morsi was accused by the motley opposition for partiality and partisanship ignoring the interest of the country and favoring his Islamist party; 5) There was widespread protest against the worsening economic situation in the country and weakening foreign relations of the country; 6) Loud expression of the opposition against Morsi’s and his party’s determination to make Egypt an Islamist state; 7) The military advised Morsi to handle the eminent political crisis by involving the representatives of opposing interests; 8) The military, worried about the worsening political crisis in Egypt, gave a 48 hr ultimatum to Morsi to work on political solution for the nation’s crisis or step down; 9) Nothing changed in the attitude or action of the President.
Then, the military declared the removal of Morsi’s government from power and announced an establishment of an interim government headed by civilian president pending an election in six month time. The above circumstances in Egypt are unique developments for the overthrow of the president whose capacity of governing the country went below handling crisis or maintaining peace. During the final days of Morsi, Egypt was not any more governable under the President and his Islamist party.
Capital: Would you interpret the live TV broadcast of discussions between President Morsi and his cabinet about the GRD as an attempt to exert influence over the Ethiopian government?
Dr. Yacob: It has been reported that the meeting convened by former president Morsi went live ‘unintentionally’. Anything can be guessed as to why that happened. Given Egypt’s jittery behaviour about the GRD, I would think Ethiopia should not expect a supportive response from Cairo. If the transmission was aimed to make Ethiopia quit construction of the dam, then Cairo failed to achieve any impact on Ethiopia in their favour. It was an amateurish exercise without skillful calculation.
Capital: You said that Egypt knew two years ago that work on the GRD had started, but its aggressive position with regard to water diversion was only adopted recently. Do you agree with suggestions that it was a move to divert attention from President Morsi’s domestic troubles?
Dr. Yacob: Egypt knew all along during the last two years that the dam was under construction. They should also know that the so called diversion of the flow of the river is a temporary one, and does not in any way obstruct the flow of the water. It is only a necessary civil engineering procedure to make the river bed free for excavation and construction of the dam structure. It seems that the Egyptian Government is trying a political capital out of it for its own domestic political consumption.
Capital: What do you see as the cause of the present unrest in Egypt? How can Egypt solve its crisis; And what in your opinion should the Egyptian Government do to address it?
Dr. Yacob: The present political crisis in Egypt has been caused by a power struggle between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood on one side and secular political groups on the other.
I trust that the Egyptian politicians will be wise enough to work together to resolve the current political crisis in the best interest of the Egyptian people and the nation. I wish Egyptian politicians will hold realistic grounds on their national politics as well as on the Nile question.
The Egyptian political crisis is still hot. The country has a tough time to resolve the crisis amicably. The elected government proved to be inept in the eyes of the Egyptian multitude who took to the street. The military came in to mediate the situation by taking over the state power “temporarily”. The military in turn met resistance from the supporters of the deposed government. The issue is to avoid an Islamist state in Egypt. If the promised constitutional reform addresses this and if the scheme is supported by a majority of the Egyptian public then the country will have a chance for a non-theocratic national political system.
Capital:  How do you see future relations between Egypt and Ethiopia – and the impact of the GRD project on those relations?
Dr. Yacob: The Grand Renaissance Dam has been designed first and foremost to benefit Ethiopia. But Egypt and Sudan will also benefit from the construction of the dam. Egypt should maximise on the potential benefits from this dam and other future dams upstream within Ethiopia.
The 1959 colonial era agreement of the Nile river between Egypt and Sudan, excluding Ethiopia, was signed before all upper riparian countries gained independence. Those countries all gained independence soon after the agreement was signed – Tanzania in 1961, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi in 1962 and Kenya in 1963. The 1959 agreement gave the biggest share of Nile waters to Egypt – an annual total of 55.5 billion cubic metres. Sudan was entitled to 18.5 billion cubic metres, from the river’s total annual flow of 85 billion cubic meters. This year, the Ethiopian parliament ratified a new agreement that revises the fair distribution and use of Nile waters among riparian countries, under the Nile Basin Initiative.
Egypt has made it clear that it is unhappy with the new agreement, which gives far more power to Ethiopia, compared with the 1959 agreement, to use Nile waters in construction and other forms of development. Cairo demonstrated that it opposed the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam.
Egypt’s economy is struggling to recover from more than two years of political unrest. Its problems were made worse during President Morsi’s leadership, as his government was unwilling to compromise and work with other parties and factions, which was seen as a factor in his downfall. Government debt is rising, cash reserves are being rapidly run down and unemployment and inflation are rising steadily.