While Ethiopia has threatened to mobilize its 105 million citizens in the event that Egypt puts up obstacles to the building of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD, or the Renaissance Dam), the recent hostilities that broke out were between Ethiopia and Sudan, not Ethiopia and Egypt.
The concept of the Renaissance Dam, which would revolutionize energy and water delivery in Ethiopia, goes back decades, but despite the involvement of multiple Egyptian administrations, it has not moved forward. Egypt, which is heavily dependent on the Nile for its agriculture-based economy, cannot afford severe water shortages. Should the GERD be constructed, as much as 17% of Egypt’s arable land could be damaged. Over time, that figure could potentially rise to 51%, which would destroy the Egyptian economy and displace as many as 30 million Egyptians (just under a third of its total population).
Ethiopia insists on starting construction in July 2020 with a completion target in three years. Cairo is willing to accept a compromise in which Ethiopia pushes off the starting date and slows down construction to seven years, which would give the Egyptian economy time to adjust (though it will still suffer water shortages and other challenges). US-brokered talks failed to break this impasse; in fact, at one point, Ethiopia walked out of the negotiations.
The backstory of this conflict is complex. Ethiopia has been committed to the decision to construct the “Nahda” Dam since approximately 2000. Attempts were made several times to break ground, but Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak interfered with the process and it went nowhere. In fact, as Wikileaks eventually revealed, the Egyptian government went so far as to bomb the dam’s site before construction began. When the Muslim Brotherhood came to power in 2012, however, President Muhammad Morsi was open to the project and proceeded with negotiations.
Then-Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah el-Sisi exposed the secret meetings at which Morsi was negotiating this issue. Sudan’s Omar Bashir was also an Islamist, and both regimes were supported by Turkey and Qatar — as was Ethiopia, which benefited greatly from Qatari funding. Egypt was eventually forced to face the issue on both the political and military levels. According to sources, measures were taken to ensure that Egypt would not be overwhelmed in the long run.
The capacity of the Nahda Dam is 74 billion cubic meters. The water storage capacity in Egypt was expanded to 177 billion cubic meters to encompass the High Dam, Lake Nasser, and the Aswan Reservoir, exceeding the potential effect of the Nahda Dam by more than 100 billion cubic meters. In theory, this means the initial three years of construction would not take a catastrophic toll on Egypt. The military’s engineering corps was used to accomplish:
- Toshka expansion (lakes comprising excess water around the Aswan Reservoir).
- Lake Nasser expansion.
- Rehabilitation of the Aswan Reservoir.
- Rehabilitation of the Sarabium Siphon Project to deliver water to Sinai.
- Compensation for the shortage of electricity caused by the High Dam.
- Creation of the largest solar cell stations established by NASA.
- Establishment of windmill stations to generate electricity.
Despite these efforts, the situation was complicated by several political factors.
First, Qatar brought the Gulf Crisis to Africa. It has essentially been paying off the Ethiopian government to make contrarian demands, deliver aggressive rhetoric, and remain immune to diplomatic outreach. Doha is doing this in retaliation for the boycott imposed by the Anti-Terrorism Quartet, which includes Egypt. This kind of interference serves Qatar’s foreign policy agenda, which is to destabilize anti-Islamist states and advance its own influence in regional affairs.
As a result, Ethiopia has made provocative comments and taken steps that appear designed to lure Egypt into the trap of a military confrontation, possibly something along the lines of another attack on the dam’s construction site. Populist media attacks by pro-Muslim Brotherhood outlets and Al Jazeera aim to rile the Egyptian street into demanding drastic solutions. Similarly, Qatar has tried in the past to exacerbate tensions between Egypt and Sudan by playing up news of Egypt’s alleged construction of a military base in South Sudan at a time of conflict and sensitivities between Khartoum and Juba.
Second, Qatar has worked to sow tensions in Egypt (especially among ordinary Egyptians) by spreading rumors that Israel funded the construction of the Nahda Dam and installed its own air defense systems to protect it, implying a veiled threat to Egypt. The Israeli embassy has denied these reports, but the PR damage has already been done and conspiracy theories are flying. These rumors have even greater power given Israel’s growing contacts with Qatar and Doha’s agreement to fund Hamas in exchange for quiet on Gaza’s borders. Egypt (like other anti-Islamist Arab states) considers Hamas a bitter enemy and finds this arrangement puzzling, especially after the important diplomatic role Cairo has played in easing tensions with Gaza.
Israel’s close trade relations with Turkey, despite their political tensions, likewise contribute to confusion. Many Egyptians and others at odds with Ankara and Doha believe Israel to be allied with both states against the Anti-Terrorism Quartet, which complicates Israel’s political maneuvering and diplomatic outreach. Furthermore, in 2016, Al Jazeera aired clips of Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly expressing support for the dam. Despite general distrust of the Qatari state-funded mouthpiece and awareness of Doha’s information warfare/foreign policy media branch, which is known to fabricate news and manipulate media, Egyptians nevertheless came to believe that these rumors prove that Israel is siding with Ethiopia at Egypt’s expense.
Israel seems oblivious to the importance of the Gulf Crisis to most inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa. It has spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with the Palestinian issue, which has come to matter less and less to the average resident of the Quartet countries. The problem of Qatari propaganda that distorts facts and harms Arab perceptions of Israel has not been addressed by Jerusalem.
Israel is in a difficult position, as it is torn between two developing alliances. On the one hand, it values its strong links, trade, and energy opportunities with Ethiopia, which Israel backed militarily during conflicts with Eritrea and which was an ally during the period of the periphery policy against hostile Sunni Muslim states. But on the other hand, Israel places great stock in its increasingly warm alliance with Egypt, which recently invited Israel to join the East Med Gas Forum and with whom Jerusalem has upgraded its gas trade ties.
For Egypt, the dam issue, while sensitive, is but one of many serious challenges it is facing at the moment. These include Gaza border issues, the threat of ISIS and other terrorists in Sinai, and Turkey’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Qaeda-supported and affiliated Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. Syrian mercenaries in Libya are battling Egypt’s ally, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, on Egypt’s border. On top of all that, Turkey’s illegal gas drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean poses yet another threat.
Another contributing problem is the failure of the US in its role as mediator. From the moment Egypt asked the US to intervene, Washington has taken a lukewarm, passive position, ignoring the problem of third-party interference and Ethiopia’s unreasonable and intransigent demands, threats, and walkouts. A more creative approach would have had the US take a big-picture view of the situation, which will also affect neighboring countries that can benefit from the dam and attract investors into energy and other essential fields for Ethiopia and later Sudan. (Gulf investors have purchased a great deal of livestock, but have not put much thought toward addressing the issues Ethiopia claims would be solved by the dam.) Many possible alternative options were never proposed or even considered. Had they been put forward, the political conflict over the Nahda Dam could have been avoided.
For now, Egypt has taken the initiative by engaging in an assertive political rapprochement with Sudan, which is now more closely aligned with the Anti-Terrorism Quartet and whose military is closely connected to President Sisi. This engagement involved a recent military encounter with Ethiopians over border issues related to tensions over the dam. Ethiopian militias, likely with Qatari and Turkish prodding, tried to prevent another party’s water from reaching Sudan. A threat to the security and water supplies of Sudan, which has no water reserves or dams of its own, represents a threat to Egypt’s national security.
If the US and Israel play it smart, they can play an important role in dispelling myths and lowering tensions over a political crisis that is partly manufactured. They can utilize their regional contacts and their economic and trade acumen to provide a broad network of win-win opportunities for all involved. With some coordination and forethought, they can join forces to prevent the looming threat of a global crisis and mass migration from Egypt and Sudan.
Irina Tsukerman is a human rights and national security attorney based in New York. She has written extensively on geopolitics and US foreign policy for a variety of American, Israeli, and other international publications.
A version of this article was originally published by the BESA Center.
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