Blood is (not always) thicker than water

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Egypt’s two presidential candidates must contend with an Ethiopian dam which could reduce the amount of precious water Egypt currently gets from the Nile.

As Egypt and Ethiopia will tell you, having the oldest diplomatic ties in Africa, 87 years, does not necessarily make for best of buddies. For there is a huge water problem which has thrown the relationship into much troubled waters. The matter has reached near crisis proportions, forcing itself as a major campaign issue that Egypt’s two presidential candidates are wading in.

To recap, two colonial-era treaties signed in 1929 and 1959 which gave Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters suddenly turned on their heads when Ethiopia, citing a growing population in need of more water, decided a year ago to unilaterally begin diverting the Blue Nile to build what will be Africa’s largest dam. So far, Ethiopia says that there will be no change in the amount of water reaching Egypt, but the Egyptians do not quite believe it and are afraid that their share will be affected, since the Ethiopians will slow the flow of the river in order to fill the dam which will not be full before 2017. Egypt, almost totally dependent on the river, considers the issue a matter of national security, that the very basis of their existence is being threatened.

Enter the candidates for Egypt’s top job. What will they do with Ethiopia and its Grand Renaissance Dam? The front-runner Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi says there is no choice but to find a solution with Ethiopia and that both countries should understand the interests of the other. Al-Sisi has made it clear that the people of Egypt will not give away “a drop of water” from the Nile.

Last year, Hamdeen Sabahi warned that Egypt could close the Suez Canal to ships from countries that are helping Ethiopia build its dam, including Italy, the US and Israel, which he claimed are providing the dam’s financing. If matters escalate, Sabahi warned, “A drop of water would exceed a drop of blood in value”.

These days, Sabahi has watered down his fiery bombast to calls for a summit meeting of Nile Basin countries, and forming an organisation for cooperation in electricity and water projects, while at the same time persevering Egypt’s historic rights to the Nile.

For the record, shortly before his removal in July last year, Egypt’s former president Mohamed Morsi warned that all options were being considered to stop the dam. Not to be outdone in the blood-water prose association, Morsi waxed lyrical: “We will defend each drop of Nile water with our blood if necessary”. Morsi had good reason to be incensed. Ethiopia’s decision to go ahead with the dam came only days after his state visit to the country, a big slap in the Islamist’s face.

Egypt’s current policy seems in line with that of outgoing president Adli Mansour who has said Egypt has no plans to go to war with Ethiopia. This, despite a tense meeting between Mansour and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the sidelines of an Afro-Arab summit in Kuwait late last year when the two differed on who was to go to who for the meeting. The issue was resolved when the leaders agreed to meet halfway – in a corridor.

Ethiopia’s rejection of a proposal that would guarantee Egypt the rights to most of the River Nile’s water, and its decision to pay for the dam itself, spurning an offer from Cairo for help financing the project, thus ensuring it controls the construction of the Renaissance, means Addis Ababa will not back down. Nor is it rattled that Egypt might take the dispute to the UN.

Such defiance could be matched by an image of strength as portrayed by military man Al-Sisi.

Addis Ababa has, however, enticed Cairo with electricity it says the dam will generate. Electricity shortages in Egypt have resulted in increasingly recurrent power cuts nationwide. But the electricity that Renaissance will provide – enough to light up New York – will probably not allay public anxiety over its construction. Altogether, 96 percent of Egypt’s 90 million population lives along the Nile and 95 percent of Egypt’s water resources depend on the river which has forever remained the main source of Egypt’s water.

In the past, Egyptians united in wars with Israel and football games against Algeria. Now, water has become another patriotic glue, and the candidates will milk the issue for all it’s worth to bolster their election campaigns. He who eventually reaches the presidential palace will most likely continue to employ the dam as a rallying card which is badly needed in a severely fractious nation, polarised by the toppling of two sitting presidents in three years.

 Alaa Abdel-Ghani is an affiliate professor, Faculty of Journalism, American University in Cairo.