The Brewing Egypt-Ethiopia War is an International Security Threat

Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Dalia Ziada

It would be a delusion to assume that the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, over the building and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), has not, yet, escalated into a state of war. Egypt and Ethiopia have already been engaged in war-level conflicts, since Ethiopia announced its intention to build the dam on the upstream of the Blue Nile, in 2009. Although, it is not a traditional war, in the form of deploying tanks and fighter jets against each other; it may get to the point soon. Should a military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia erupts, it will not only affect the security of Africa but also the security of the Middle East and the stability of Europe.

The failed negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, in Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa, in early April, was the latest in a long list of failed negotiations, that has been going on for ten years. After returning from Kinshasa, the Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources declared that Egypt will not waste more time on negotiating with Ethiopia. In fact, Ethiopia has never committed to any of the outcomes of the dozens of negotiations that took place over the past decade. Instead, Ethiopia used the negotiations as an excuse to prevent Egypt from requesting the intervention of the international community, especially the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to force Ethiopia sign an internationally recognized agreement that protects Egypt’s share in the water resources of the Nile River.

The dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt started to shape in April 2011, when Ethiopia unilaterally took the decision to build the GERD, regardless of its serious effects on livelihood in other Nile Basin countries, especially downstream countries; Egypt and Sudan. At that time, the Egyptian military was pre-occupied with preserving state structure against the chaotic aftermath of the Arab Spring revolution that overthrew Mubarak’s regime. Since the 1970s, Ethiopia has always dreamt about building a huge dam on the Blue Nile. However, the coherence and leading role of Egypt in the Middle East and Africa has always deterred Ethiopia from taking real steps towards building the dam. Despite its domestic troubles, during the extreme political transitions that took place in 2011-2014, Egypt got engaged in a diplomatic war with Ethiopia, ranging from friendly appeals, and diplomatic calls for negotiations, up to direct and indirect threats of launching war.

In public, Ethiopia justifies building the dam by the government’s need to generate electricity for more than 65% of the population. But, behind that, the Ethiopians believe that they own the water of the Nile, because “God make it spring in their land.” Accordingly, they believe that they can hold the Nile water behind a dam and sell it to other countries, the same way Arab Gulf countries are selling oil and petroleum resources extracted from their lands. These completely illogical and illegitimate claims by Ethiopians of owning the waters of the Nile, are the real concern for Egypt.

The Nile represents more than 90% of water resources in Egypt. Actually, the Nile represents more than a drinking water resource for Egypt. The entire Egyptian civilization, that depends on agriculture, is built on banks of the Nile River. Drying the river, or allowing Ethiopia to control the downstream via a dam at the spring spot, means death to Egyptians. Therefore, Egypt insists on signing a binding agreement with Ethiopia, in compliance with the international law, that prevents Ethiopia from any future attempt to control the river from naturally flowing down towards the Mediterranean, through Egypt. Up till this moment, and after a decade of negotiations, Ethiopia is still refusing to sign such an agreement. 

In the past three months, amidst a state of silence and indifference by the international community, Egypt has been taking actual steps towards validating the option of going to war with Ethiopia if it continues to ignore Egypt’s water security concerns. The huge gap between Egypt’s and Ethiopia’s military capabilities makes Egypt in a much better position, should a war erupt. Also, the rising armed conflicts between Ethiopia and its immediate neighbors, Sudan and Eritrea, over border territories, enhances Egypt’s strategic position on any potential armed conflict with Ethiopia. In mid-March, the Egyptian President sent a clear warning to Ethiopia that “if negotiations fail, all other options are open for Egypt to take, including options that may threaten the security and stability of the region.”

In March, Egypt signed a military cooperation agreement with Sudan that allows the two countries to join forces in face of regional threats. On the same month, Egypt and Sudan conducted a number of joint military exercises at Merwoe military base, in southern Sudan, close to Ethiopia’s GERD. Meanwhile, the Egyptian Minister of Defense and Army’s Joint Chief of Staff supervised military exercises in Egypt’s southern strategic zone. In early April, Egypt signed a military agreement with Uganda, wherein the White Nile springs, to exchange intelligence information on sensitive regional issues. In a recent meeting with the Egyptian Parliament’s Committee on African Affairs, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs said, last week, that Egypt will soon be in contact with Eritrea for convening similar agreements.

While the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia is escalating to a war threshold, the international community is playing deaf, mute, and blind. The United States, which mediated in the conflict under the Trump Administration, withdrew itself from the negotiations under the Biden Administration. China, which is the biggest investor in Ethiopia’s operational capital, has declined Egypt’s requests to pressure Ethiopia to sign the agreement with Egypt. China has a similar conflict with neighbor countries over the Mekong River, wherein it adopts a position similar to Ethiopia’s position on the Nile River. Egypt, also, approached its military ally Russia to help with mobilizing UNSC to intervene as a mediator and force Ethiopia to sign an agreement that guarantees Egypt and Sudan shares in the Nile. However, in a recent visit to Cairo, the Russian Foreign Minister said that he appreciates the criticality of the GERD issue for Egypt, but thinks that “it is an African matter that should be solved through the African Union.” Unfortunately, the African Union, which has been mediating between Egypt and Ethiopia for years has not succeeded in moving things in the right direction.

The international community is committing a huge mistake by believing that the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD is a regional rivalry that may not affect the western world.  The recent escalation of the diplomatic conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia may reach a point that threatens the security and stability of Africa, and consequently echo some damaging effects into Europe. Egypt’s national security and stability is essential for the security and stability of the Middle East, Africa, and the Mediterranean. In that sense, the international community has a responsibility to pro-actively intervene to prevent Ethiopia from continuing with filling the dam, before signing a binding agreement that guarantees the rights of downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, in the water resources of the Nile River.

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