March 10, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5671

After Reaching A Dead End In Talks Over Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egyptian Media Ponders Diplomatic, Military Alternatives In Nile Water Crisis

March 10, 2014
Egypt, Africa, Ethiopia | Special Dispatch No. 5671


In late May 2013, Ethiopia announced it was diverting the Blue Nile as part of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project to produce electricity – a plan that would negatively impact Egypt's share of Nile water. The announcement was a slap in the face to then -Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, coming as it did just after his return home from an official visit to Ethiopia, and in complete disregard of the role of the tripartite Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese technical committee appointed specifically to investigate the proposed dam's effects on Egypt and Sudan and to submit its recommendations.[1] Following Mursi's ouster, the problem was inherited by the current Egyptian regime, which attempted to deal with it by diplomatic means. However, a series of meetings in Khartoum among the technical committee member countries' water ministers failed, as did February 11, 2014 talks in Addis Ababa between Egypt's and Ethiopia's water ministers.[2]

The main dispute is between Egypt, which wants to either dissuade Ethiopia from building the dam or persuade it to change its plans in order to limit the damage to Egyptian interests, and Ethiopia, which is adhering to its original plan and claiming that the dam will have no negative impact on Egypt. Sudan, for its part, supports the construction of the dam.[3]

Furthermore, according to Egyptian media, Turkey and Qatar, whose relations with Egypt have been strained since Mursi's ouster,[4] have been encouraging Ethiopia to continue with its plan at the expense of Egyptian interests,[5] especially in light of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's visit to Ethiopia in early February 2014. It has also been hinted in the Egyptian media that Israel had a hand in encouraging the construction of the dam.[6]

In January 2014, Egypt withdrew from the talks with Ethiopia and Sudan, and announced that it would use diplomatic and political means to maintain, and even increase, its water share.[7] Ethiopia, for its part, stated that it would continue construction on the dam despite the suspension of negotiations; it added that the project was more than 30% complete and that the construction would take another three years. In response, Egyptian Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Muhammad 'Abd Al-Muttalib said that Egypt would not sit idly by, and stressed that Egypt supports the dam project on condition that its water security is not impacted, and that Ethiopia must halt construction pending completion of the necessary technical research. This would ensure that Egypt and Sudan would not be harmed by the dam, for example by flooding in the event the dam collapses due to engineering problems.[8]

After the failure of recent talks in Addis Ababa, senior Egyptian sources said that Egypt would escalate its measures against Ethiopia in "unexpected" ways but provided no further details.[9]

Following a visit to Russia, where he was discussing a possible future arms deal, the dam dispute, and possible Russian mediation between Egypt and Ethiopia on the dam issue, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmi said that the crisis could be resolved and that the Nile could meet the water demands of all its countries. However, he added: "If we cannot reach understandings as soon as possible and before it is too late, Egypt will find itself unable to relinquish its water security, and everyone should be ready to deal with the consequences of an undesirable regional crisis."[10]

Ethiopian Army officials said on February 17, 2014, on the occasion of that country's Army Day, that the military was prepared "to pay the price to protect the Renaissance Dam project," since it was "a national project and one of the Ethiopian people's most important achievements."[11] Let it be noted that, on February 27, 2014, the Ethiopian and Sudanese chiefs of staffs, in the presence of both countries' defense ministers, signed the protocol of an agreement to establish joint forces to protect their common border.[12]

Egyptian press columnists have suggested several ways Egypt could deal with the crisis, such as appealing to international elements including the UN, the UN Security Council, and the International Criminal Court and appealing to the Arab League with a demand for a unified Arab position against the dam and a withdrawal of investments by Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries from Ethiopia. Increasingly, articles are discussing a military option against Ethiopia. This report will survey the bilateral dispute via excerpts from the Egyptian press outlining the alternatives for contending with the crisis.

Background: The Egyptian-Ethiopian Dispute Over The Dam's Construction

Egypt wants to preserve its historic rights to the Nile waters on the basis of a 1929 agreement signed with the British High Commissioner dividing the river's waters between Egypt and Sudan, with Egypt receiving rights to the lion's share as well as the right to veto any future projects that could impact that share. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed another agreement for dividing the water, allowing the construction of Egypt's Aswan Dam. These agreements all preceded the independence of the rest of the Nile Basin countries – DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Eritrea, and Sudan – and after they gained their independence, they also demanded a share of the water; to Egypt's chagrin, they also consider all past agreements null and void.

In 1999, in an attempt to reach an international agreement on the distribution of the Nile waters, encouraged by the World Bank, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was proposed, which included decade-long talks between the nine Nile Basin countries and Eritrea as an observer. Ultimately half of the countries withdrew from the initiative and in 2010 established the Entebbe agreement, AKA the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (NCFA), to the chagrin of Egypt and Sudan. The agreement was signed by Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi and it unilaterally eliminated Egypt's 1959 veto rights and enabled the establishment of joint projects and a new authority to supervise the river.

Renaissance Dam: Ethiopia quenches its thirst and pisses on Egypt (Source:, Sudan, January 6, 2013)

In 2011, Ethiopia began construction on the Renaissance hydroelectric dam, which will be Africa's largest, and one of the world's 10 largest dams. In response, Egypt, Sudan, and the rest of the Nile Basin countries established a team of experts to investigate the implications of the construction, examine the plans, and suggest possible solutions for the Nile water crisis. However, before the experts submitted their recommendations, Ethiopia exploited the internal instability in Egypt following the ouster of the Mubarak regime, and in May 2013 announced a temporary diversion of the Blue Nile waters for construction work.[13] All Egypt's efforts to stop construction failed and negotiations between it and Ethiopia and Sudan reached a dead end. Sudan, for its part, turned its back on Egypt after Mursi's ouster and began supporting Ethiopia after it was promised preferential access to the dam's output.[14]

Diplomatic Alternatives

Appealing To International Bodies

Egyptian columnists suggested various alternatives to deal with the real threat to Egypt's water share. Al-Wafd columnist Hazem Hashem wrote: "Egypt has no choice but to act alone to preserve its water interests, since our closest ally in this crisis – sister Sudan – has chosen to serve its own personal interest and receive some electricity once the Ethiopian dam is complete, as Ethiopia promised it before the tripartite talks began... I am convinced that any Egyptian and Ethiopian talks with others are a waste of time, and are tactically exploited by Ethiopia to determine facts on the ground as it desires. Therefore, an international Egyptian move is the only way to stop Ethiopia... Egypt should submit a legal memo to the UN over Ethiopia's unilateral behavior in constructing the dam without prior notice and contrary to international laws..."[15]

Al-Ahram columnist 'Atiyya 'Issawi wrote: "After the end of negotiations, Egypt has no choice but to turn to the International Court of Justice or the Security Council to ensure the historic rights to the Nile waters after agreeing with Ethiopia to refer the matter to the courts..."[16]

"Coming soon to Egypt due to the Renaissance Dam" (Source: Al-Fajr, Egypt, May 29, 2013)

Pressuring Countries Invested In Ethiopia

Another columnist for Al-Ahram, Farouk Gouida, wrote: "Once again talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam have failed. Now it is clear that Ethiopia does not want negotiations and does not strive for them, but rather continues to construct the dam with no consideration of any joint interests. Ethiopia is now acting as though it exclusively owns the Nile... In light of this situation, so long as direct talks are unhelpful, Egypt has no choice but to use other methods. First, it needs to escalate the situation on the international level, so that international elements take part in pressuring Ethiopia... There is no choice but to establish an international panel of experts to examine the dam and define its risks and implications for Egypt and Sudan. There is also the Arab League. The Gulf states, [which invest] capital in Ethiopia, could play a part in this crisis. China also has large-scale investments in Ethiopia. We we need international pressure on all fronts as long as Ethiopia adheres to its positions..."[17]

In this context, it should be noted that Saudi Arabia seems inclined to support Egypt. A February 23, 2014 editorial in the official Saudi daily Al-Riyadh states: "The Arabs must stand behind Egypt in international circles in order to preserve its rights. This includes threatening a political and economic boycott of countries funding or constructing the dam..." The editorial adds that, if it was Israel whose water share was threatened, this country might have used its nuclear weapons or destroyed the dam's foundations before its construction. It states further: "Egypt is not [a punching bag]. It continues to use peaceful methods and to develop its relations with African nations, but in a crucial situation such as this, one does not conduct oneself according to emotions. We hope an arrangement is reached following the logic of interests and without pushing for more tension."[18]

Use Of Force

The Egyptian People Would Rather Die Defending The Nile Waters Than Die Of Thirst

Al-Ahram and Al-Watan columnist Makram Muhammad Ahmad wrote that Egypt has many alternatives, from appealing to the UN to "a rush south by 90 million Egyptians facing the threat of starvation and thirst, in order to defend a noble civilization, the world's most [ancient] civilization, which is in danger of extinction due to the arbitrary positions of Ethiopia, which controls 86% of Egypt's water sources, insists on suffocating life in Egypt, and refuses to provide even minimal guarantees for [Egypt's] water rights... Will Ethiopia reverse its positions before it is too late and before there is a clash that has no justification and that no one desires or is eager for, especially when there may be solutions that require only joint efforts and good intentions?!"[19]

In another article in Al-Ahram, Farouk Gouida wrote: "Half of the Egyptians would rather die defending the Nile waters than [die] of thirst... The issue of the Nile water is not an Egyptian-Ethiopian issue, but rather an international one that threatens both peoples. For years the West has been discussing the next water war. The biggest danger to the world is the eruption of such wars. Imagine what could happen if European countries, for example, denied each other river water... Would Ethiopia have denied water to Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, or the other Nile Basin countries[?] Had this happened, the African tribes would have conquered Addis Ababa.

"The decision-makers in Ethiopia have not yet understood the gravity of Egyptians finding the Nile dry, and what 90 million Egyptians would do before dying of thirst on the banks of the river that is their entire lives..."[20]

Al-Ahram Editor: Hope Ethiopia Does Not Push Matters Towards Aggression

The new editor of Al-Ahram, Ahmad Al-Sayyed Al-Naggar, wrote in one of his first articles as editor: "Egypt, which gave absolute preference to friendly negotiations with a sister country in the Nile Basin, could find itself forced to use all options to protect its life if Ethiopia continues to ignore its and Sudan's rights and their demands regarding the Renaissance Dam... The legitimacy to defend the homeland and the people's right to life supersedes all else... It should be clear to Ethiopia and all Nile Basin countries that every drop of Egypt's Nile water share means life in Egypt. Therefore, Egypt cannot afford to relinquish even a single drop, and it will use all means at its disposal to peacefully preserve its rights. We hope Ethiopia does not push matters in aggressive or non-peaceful directions..."[21]

Cartoons in Al-Ahram: On the right: Ethiopia shuts its ears to calls against the dam construction. On the left, with anti-Semitic innuendo: "This is not the story of the dam, but the story of those behind the dam" (Source: Al-Ahram, Egypt, February 23, 2014)

Editor of October Weekly: Demand That The Security Council Authorize Egypt To Use Force Against Ethiopia

The editor of the Egyptian weekly October, Ahmed Shaheen, wrote: "The age of empires is gone forever... These violations by Ethiopia could result in a life or death choice. If we reach that point, life is the only option. We will never agree to die of thirst or hunger, or to withdraw from our position under duress, whatever the price... We must quickly fight the Ethiopian imperialist dreams in the following way:

"First, we must threaten to turn to the International Court of Justice and [other] international institutions, including the UN. If several Security Council resolutions have been made based on Chapter VII of the UN Charter, then it is our right to defend Egypt's existence with a similar resolution that permits the use of force, if negotiations reach a dead end.[22] If the West has invaded countries and killed millions on the suspicion of the existence of weapons of [mass] destruction or [because of] a worthless international terrorist organization that it created itself, then Egypt has the right to relentlessly defend its existence and future generations... The Egyptian move should rely on international legitimacy and a resolution authorizing the use of force to defend one of the world's noblest civilizations and some 100 million Egyptians who are threatened with extinction by another country..."[23]

Illustration accompanying Shaheen's article: Ethiopia's imperialist ambitions in Africa (October, Egypt, January 26, 2014)

Columnist: Egypt Is On Brink Of War

In an article titled "Here Comes The Water War," Al-Wafd columnist 'Abbas Al-Trabili wrote: "We [Egyptians] talk and they [the Ethiopians] keep working. What do we do if suddenly the dam becomes a reality?... Egypt is very close to a real war, and the government is resting on its laurels. This proves that Ethiopia is engaged in a multiparty plot to harm Egypt together with several other countries, with America's sponsorship and blessing. We are fully entitled to defend our right to life by protecting our Nile water share. This means that Ethiopia is pushing Egypt towards a measure that could result in war in all its forms, including military measures. Must they drag Egypt into all-out war, as happened in Yemen, while it is currently fighting a war for its identity[?] Many are conspiring against us. We must think a thousand times before using force, lest the conspirators manage to thwart the current Egyptian revolution for the benefit of both the Muslim Brotherhood and America, because the one who stands to gain the most is Israel..."[24]

Al-Masri Al-Yawm headline: "Relentless War Between Addis Ababa And Cairo" (Source: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, February 24, 2014)




[1] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), May 28. 2013.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 7, 2014; Al-Dustour Al-Asly (Egypt), February 11, 2014.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), January 30, 2014.

[5] Al-Ahram Al-Arabi (Egypt), January 27, 2014; Al-Ahram, Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), February 3, 2014.

[6] The following articles allude to behind-the-scenes Israeli intervention in the dispute: Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), May 29, 2013; Al-Watan (Egypt), May 30, 2013; Roz Al-Yousef (Egypt), June 1, 2013; Al-Wafd (Egypt), June 3, 2013; Al-Misriyyoun (Egypt), February 23, 2014.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 8, 2014.

[8] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 12, 2014.

[9] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 12, 2014.

[10] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 19, 2014.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), February 18, 2014.

[12],, February 27, 2014.

[13] Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt), June 6, 2013.

[14] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series Report No. 165, Rising Tensions over the Nile River Basin, February 27, 2004; and MEMRI TV Clip #3857 – Egyptian Blooper: Politicians, Unaware They Are Live on Air, Threaten Ethiopia over Dam Construction, June 3, 2013.

[15] Al-Wafd (Egypt), January 28, 2014.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 20, 2014.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 29, 2014.

[18] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 23, 2014.

[19] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 6, 2014.

[20] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 19, 2014.

[21] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 17, 2014.

[22] According to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the Security Council is the only UN body that is authorized, in the case of "any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression," to level sanctions on a certain country and even authorize the use of force against it "to maintain or restore international peace and security." An example of this is Resolution 665 (August 1990), which authorized use of force to enforce the sanctions levelled on Iraq in Resolutions 660 and 661 following its invasion of Kuwait. This resolution brought about the first Gulf War., November 13, 2010.

[23] October (Egypt), January 26, 2014.

[24] Al-Wafd (Egypt), February 16, 2014.

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