Egypt’s war of the waters

Sonia Farid

Published: Updated:

For the past year, Egyptians have been jokingly providing evidence on how the president brings bad luck wherever he goes. They do this by listing a series of human tragedies and natural disasters that took place in countries he visited, whether during or right after the visit. The joke went so viral that Russian media reportedly linked Mursi’s visit to the earthquake that hit the Kuril Islands while the president was in Moscow and one newspaper even wrote: “It is no joke that Mursi brings bad luck.”

Egypt, argued initiators of the theory, has had the lion’s share of the bad luck that, according to them, started from the blackout that took place when he was taking the oath and continued with the countless catastrophes that have been relentlessly hitting the country one after the other. Then came Ethiopia’s decision to divert the course of the Blue Nile and to complete the construction the Renaissance Dam, which was announced immediately following the president’s meeting with the Ethiopian prime minister in Addis Ababa to dispel all doubts about his supernatural ability to attract calamities both at home and abroad.

Egyptians do like to joke and are the best to make fun of their misfortunes and this has for long been believed to be one of the few reasons they are able to survive

Sonia Farid

Egyptians do like to joke and are the best to make fun of their misfortunes and this has for long been believed to be one of the few reasons they are able to survive. My absolute rejection of superstition and my absolute belief that political crises, like earthquakes, have a scientific explanation aside, let me point out that we have long passed the sarcasm phase and that choosing one single person or party to lay the blame on all but solves the problem.

The incompetence, to say the least, of the current regime is nonnegotiable and there is a long list of miserable failures that bear witness to that, this list is actually much longer than the one produced by the bad luck camp. However, it is important to bear in mind that the construction of the dam is only a symbolic manifestation of the fiasco that is the Egyptian government, yet is not in any way a direct result of any of its numerous flaws. Contrary to what many believe, Ethiopia did not announce the construction of the Renaissance Dam following the president’s visit, but rather the diversion of the Blue Nile as one of the steps required to complete the project, made public in 2011. Therefore, it was neither the president’s lousy management skills nor even his paranormal powers that inspired Ethiopia to make a decision that is bound to have a drastic impact on Egypt’s share of the Nile’s waters. The current government, in fact, inherited the Nile Basin file from the former regime and with its stark inability and/or reluctance to deal with even the most basic of local problems, it was not expected to take any action in such a major strategic ordeal. This was simply translated into Ethiopia’s announcement and its timing, both seeming to convey, in the most embarrassing manner, the deterioration of Egypt’s influence in Africa. A gesture as simple as sending the Ethiopian minister of mining to receive the Egyptian president would be enough to illustrate what has become of the continent’s one time leader, champion, and role model.

Egypt’s once lofty position

During the Nasser era, also referred to as Pan-African Nasserism, names of freedom fighters turned heads of state like Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, and Julius Nyerere among others were known to every Egyptian with Egypt’s 1952 revolution and 1956 nationalization of the Suez Canal becoming a source of inspiration for independence movements across the continent and with its president offering unconditional support to the then nascent governments and equally unconditional protection to the unfortunate among his fellow leaders. Respect for the country’s position and gratitude for its president’s dedication to the cause made it impossible at the time for any African country to deliberately embark on any action that was to inflict direct and severe harm on Egypt, let alone one that infringes upon its almost only source of life; the River Nile. It was this peculiar mixture wise foreign policy and genuine human solidarity that deservedly bestowed on Egypt this soft power over an entire continent and created an unwritten agreement that obliged each country to respect the national interests of its allies.

Sadat’s approach was different, but was nonetheless effective. When talk started about Ethiopia’s intention to build dams on the Blue Nile, he simply responded, “we depend upon the Nile 100 per cent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war.” Sadat was in no way endeared to African leaders like Nasser was, but he was feared and that was apparently enough to consider the case closed. Mubarak took a totally new path when an attempt on his life in Addis Ababa made him decide to snub Ethiopia and give up on Africa altogether and soon after the remnants of respect disappeared, so did apprehensions of a military intervention. It was not long before Egypt was neither feared nor endeared. Proof of this is when the 1929 agreement that regulates Nile water shares was discovered to be “colonial” and when the Nile Basin Initiative, which allows the construction of dams along the river, was established and when riparian states simply declared they are sick of taking Egypt’s permission with every project they start on the Nile.

The Nile’s waters

Ethiopia, obviously like the rest of the Nile Basin states, did not find in the post-revolution regime a potential ally or an equal partner simply because it has taken the country into an even deeper abyss than that created by Mubarak. Through the Blue Nile announcement, Ethiopia made a clear statement that Egypt’s role as a regional power is now history. The regime did a very good job at proving this assumption true as was made clear in its reaction to the announcement that sent panic waves across Egypt and triggered strong protests on the part of the opposition. While experts explained that the Blue Nile supplies Egypt with 60 percent of its share from the river and that building dams on it is bound to reduce its annual 55.5 billion cubic meters, the minister of irrigation was optimistically saying that Egypt has enough water for now so there is no need to worry, adding that the Nile will keep flowing no matter what. However, experts warned that even without the dam Egypt will have needed an additional 21 billion cubic meters by 2050 to cover the needs of a growing population, so the dam is bound to speed up the crisis and increase the needed amounts. In light of the situation, Islamist politicians talked about an Israeli conspiracy to starve Egyptians to death.

And while there are no scientific doubts about the drastic reduction of Egypt’s water share following the operation of the dam, the president declares he is “sure” that the water will actually “increase!” And he advises us to pray to God.

We will indeed pray to God, but Mursi needs to be careful what he wishes for from now on because I so much doubt he is aware of what we will all pray for!


Sonia Farid, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. She is a translator, editor, and political activist. Her social work focuses on political awareness and women’s rights and her writing interests include society, politics, and security in Egypt. She took part in a number of local and international conferences and published several academic papers. She can be reached at soniafarid@gmail.com

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