For Egypt's New Government, a New Direction on the Nile

There have been incremental, but important changes in Egypt’s foreign policy in Africa since the protests that caused former President Hosni Mubarak to resign in February. One of the most important and often overlooked changes is its willingness to negotiate with the Nile Basin states over the terms of the 1929 and 1959 Nile Treaties. This new policy shows that Egypt’s new government has cast a more realistic and non-confrontational approach with the other Nile Basin countries which will benefit Egypt, allow the upstream countries to pursue projects on the river, and significantly decrease the chances of conflict over usage of the Nile’s waters.

Under Mubarak, Egypt’s foreign policy became more about preventing initiatives rather than problem solving or pushing forward any new ideas. Exactly how static did it get? A recent Wikileaks cable notes that former Foreign Minister Ahmed Abu al-Gheit, while exercising on a treadmill, told an Egyptian diplomat that Egypt would prevent any and all Qatari initiatives, especially in Sudan, even those from which it could benefit.

Abu al-Gheit noted during his workout session that Egypt would not allow for meddling in its backyard, which included Sudan and the Nile river generally. Egypt’s response to any change in the status quo of the Nile river was met with one word: war. The reason for Egypt’s insistence on its share of the Nile is simple: Along with Sudan, it receives the largest share of 87% of the Nile river’s water for usage. This did not sit well with upstream countries that could potentially use the Nile’s waters, and they tried to negotiate a new agreement with Egypt. After 13 years of fruitless negotiations, five countries, led by Ethiopia, signed the Nile River Basin Agreement in 2010, which was rejected by Sudan and Egypt.

Egypt, being the furthest downstream country, could not afford to simply balk at this new threat. Consequently, the former regime fell back on familiar tactics; threats, bribes and meetings. However, none of these succeeded. This year, Egypt’s ability to stall was being further diminished. In March 2011, Burundi signed onto the Nile River Basin Agreement, and many analysts believe the soon-to-be South Sudan, which will split its water quota with North Sudan, will also join the upstream countries.

Further complicating matters, South Korea, China, Saudi Arabia and India are buying enormous tracts of land along the Nile for consumption of various goods in those respective countries. Now no longer a regional issue, Egypt’s opponents have powerful backers.

Fortunately, the new Egyptian government has taken a different approach. Egypt has started investments worth over USD1 billion in Ethiopia, long seen as the main backer of the new agreement and Mubarak’s foe. Egypt’s new Prime Minister acknowledged that Ethiopia has a right to build a large hydroelectric dam in his visit there, which was previously a huge point of contention between the two countries. Relations have improved so much, that the Nile Basin signatories agreed to delay ratifying the new Nile initiative until after elections are held in Egypt. 

After years of stagnation, Egypt’s African foreign policy is finally moving in the right direction. Rather than relying on threats, initiating dialogue and development is delivering the results Mubarak was not able to deliver. Ultimately, Egypt will have to give up some of its water rights, but its new approach will pay dividends in its new positive relations with the other Nile Basin countries and the future of the Nile.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons