Sisi and The Nile Basin Reset

This post is part of a long-running series on the Nile Basin. For more information see the dedicated page.

By Patrick Keys

If you haven’t been paying attention to Egyptian politics the last few years, here’s a sum-up: President Mubarak was overthrown, Egypt’s interim leadership engaged in some saber-rattling, prospects for Nile basin diplomacy eased with a joint technical committee, and after the coup that overthrew the elected-president Mohamed Morsi, Egypt finds itself in the “el-Sisi Era”.

Given that Egypt has experienced four acting leaders in as many years, you could be forgiven for thinking that the present state of affairs in the Nile Basin is just as evanescent as any period previously. However, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, the current President of Egypt, has staying power that few of his political forebears had, save perhaps Mubarak. Other blogs, news articles, and analysis pieces have devoted ample word count to the political dynamics surrounding the first year of rule by el-Sisi, and why he is likely to stay in power, while Morsi was not. Thus, I’ll not go into that here. Suffice it to say that people much better versed in the politics and cultural fluctuations of the region have come to this conclusion and I trust those folks.

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From EBC broadcast of Sisi’s visit to Ethiopia

The big story in the last few months has been the apparent reset by el-Sisi and downstream nations, primarily with Sudan and Ethiopia. After the aggressive rhetoric of Morsi which was motivated by his desire to convince Egyptians he was a powerful leader, el-Sisi has engaged in detante with Ethiopia and Sudan.

In this post I argue that el-Sisi’s reset in the Nile Basin could set the stage for meaningful diplomatic negotiations regarding the future of the Nile River, such that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) becomes part of a regional effort towards regional prosperity.

What is the latest on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?

Recently, the leaders of the three largest Nile nations, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, engaged in a productive meeting about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, i.e. the GERD. The proceedings of this meeting and the talking points that were distilled by ministers in follow-up interviews, demonstrate that the three big downstream riparians are ready to negotiate and cooperate.

The GERD has continued its construction unabated, despite the questionable finance schemes of compelled-purchases of government-backed bonds to help fund the dam. The latest specs for the dam and reservoir suggest it will generate (at its annual peak) 6,000 MW of electricity, will have a storage capacity of 79 cubic kilometers (or 64 million acre-feet), which is about equal to the annual flow of the Nile River at the Sudanese-Egyptian border. Likewise, the dam will serve as a bridge across the Blue Nile, which is currently nearly impossible except for foot traffic (see below).

New cable suspension bridge on Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Photo taken by Kenneth Frantz, (C) 2009

Social and environmental concerns remain largely up in the air, as far as many NGOs are concerned. The resettlement of significant numbers of local Ethiopians (with estimates ranging from 5,000 to as many as 20,000) has led to concerns about human rights and fair compensation. Other social issues include potential malarial illness increases, changes in livelihoods for farmers along the Blue Nile river, and distribution of the economic and resource benefits generated by the reservoir.

With an estimated July 2017 start date for dam operations, I expect that we’ll see political and diplomatic activity increase as Egypt and Sudan jockey for influence over the dam operations to ensure that their interests are considered during the decision-making about filling the reservoir.

What does el-Sisi bring to the table?

Broadly speaking, el-Sisi is more popular than any of his predecessors, and he’s likely to stick around. He’s read the writing on the wall, and sees that hostility-for-show is not a sustainable strategy, and that if he’s interested in the long-term its better to be on the right side of history.

Secretary Kerry bids farewell to then General Fatah el Sisi

In this case, it means aligning himself with other nations that recognize (a) the GERD will proceed regardless of Egyptian rhetoric, (b) its good for Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, and any other nation that can benefit from increased economic productivity, and (c) being perceived as diplomatic and cultivating peace regionally, enhances his local, regional, and international credibility as President.

What is the Nile Basin Reset?

The increase in diplomatic and cooperative language is a major shift from the language of hostility and jingoism that was indicative of Morsi’s presidency. In this way, the political tone of the Nile Basin has been reset, in part by the change in Egyptian leadership, and thus negotiations may now move along a different trajectory. As an example of this change, el-Sisi addressed the Ethiopian parliament highlighting the case for cooperation and shared use of the Nile River.

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From EBC broadcast of Sisi’s visit to Ethiopia

In the coming weeks, ministers from throughout the Nile Basin Initiative member-nations will meet to discuss and potentially sign the Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA) which would likely supersede existing legal frameworks (especially if Sudan and Egypt sign-on).

Security experts have suggested that the participation of Egypt and Sudan in the CFA is inevitable given that there are already sufficient signatories to force Egypt and Sudan’s participation. I disagree that Egypt and Sudan will participate due to coercion, but rather they see that the GERD is rapidly being completed, and that meaningful obstruction of the GERD would increasingly be seen internationally as an hostile, offensive act, rather than a reactive, self-defensive act.

The prospect of achieving all the signatures on the Entebbe Agreement may have never been as likely as it is now.

What next?

  • Despite the recent violence and coup in upper-basin Burundi, a sense of good will and peaceful negotiation has moved to the fore in the lower basin states. Given that these nations depend on the Nile more so than any upper basin state this is for the best. The efficacy of the Nile Basin Initiative and the Comprehensive Framework Agreement were questionable when Egypt (the biggest Nile-user by volume), and Sudan were less-than-totally-onboard. Now, with all the hand-shaking and open channels of dialogue, the Nile Basin Initiative could finally start making some real progress.
  • A key next step to watch for is whether and how Egypt gets involved with the Nile Basin Initiative. Its possible that they could circumvent the bureaucracy of that organization to establish more direct two-way or three-way links with its Nile neighbors, Ethiopia and Sudan. This would be to the detriment of the upper basin nations in deciding the fate of the Nile. Furthermore, any agreement that gets made by less than all of the riparians risks having the same issue 50 years from now, as the colonial-era agreement of 1959. Conversely, part of the reason that the 1959 agreement is so contentious is that Ethiopia is not included, even though most of the Nile River proper that flows into Egypt comes from Blue Nile waters, that originate almost exclusively within Ethiopia.
  • As much as evidence of conflict and disagreement, there are many key signs that we can look for that would indicate cooperation and joint-management, beyond the scope of politics and high-level ministerial negotiations. Particularly, given that a primary purpose of the GERD is to generate electricity, the transmission lines must be built that would get the electricity to both Addis Ababa and Khartoum. The construction of this expanded regional power grid will require mid-level, technocratic cooperation, akin to the mid-level technocratic cooperation that takes place between Israel and Jordan, via the Beit Zera diversion.
Blue Nile river. Photo by Marc Veraart (Copyright, some rights reserved
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