Off-table preoccupations of the Egyptian government Over the GERD

  • PDF

By Bereket Gebru

Feb 25, 2014

The former Egyptian Minister of Irrigation and current Arab Water Council President, Dr Mahmoud Abuzeid, bluntly put in a recent interview with Al-Ahram Al-Arabi website that water talks could take as long as twenty years citing two decade long discussions between India and Pakistan. Responding to whether discussion with Ethiopia would be fruitful considering there is no mutual trust between the two sides, he stated that the problem in this case is that Ethiopia has not halted the construction of the dam in account of discussions with Egypt.  

Though this comes as an outright admission of their intents, Egyptians have time and again demonstrated their effort to keep the discussions lingering without a tangible result. Their repeated postponement of participation in the tripartite discussions over the recommendations of the panel of experts along with their unreasonable demands that stand as yet another reason for the termination of ongoing discussions are all evidence of their desire to see Ethiopia take a break from building the dam.

The Egyptian calls to have some more researches carried out and the demands to have the project reduced to about a quarter of what it is at the moment all target the suspension of construction activities of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

A new wide ranging campaign that has recently been launched by Egypt further accentuates their desperate attempt not to face the reality that the Nile is not just theirs. The campaign is a multi-pronged set of propaganda, diplomacy and political undertakings that range from smear campaigns against the GERD to diplomatic and political moves aimed at slowing down the economic growth in Ethiopia.

Propaganda against the GERD

One of the most notable activities Egyptians have vastly embarked on is the mythological proportioned fear mongering of the GERD. The Egyptians use experts and political figures that get more than ample air coverage through the media to inculcate the belief that the GERD is the monster jeopardizing Egyptian existence as a nation. Such reports usually target the Egyptian public as well as other Arab nations.

One of such reports is the ridiculous announcement that the completion of the GERD would put the Aswan dam out of commission for up to two years. Various reports indicated that the 54th anniversary of the Jan. 9 celebration of the construction of the Aswan dam was marked with fear of the dangerous effects that the GERD would have on the operations of the Aswan and overall concerns over water shortages because of the Ethiopian project.

Excerpts from an article on the programs to celebrate the event read:

“The Egyptian press substituted its hosting of surviving Aswan Dam builders and broadcasts of patriotic songs about its construction with discussions of the Renaissance Dam crisis and its deleterious effects on Egypt’s water supply, as well as its repercussions for the electricity output of the Aswan Dam. An emergency meeting of the Egyptian National Defense Council was convened under the leadership of interim President Adly Mansour to discuss the implications of the crisis and ways to minimize the Ethiopian dam’s negative effects on Egypt.

The various warnings by experts about the dangers of the new Ethiopian dam have begun to cause panic among Egyptians, to the point of belief that the Aswan Dam will collapse once the Renaissance is completed. Alaa al-Zawahiri, a member of the Egyptian National Panel of Experts studying the effects of the Renaissance Dam, believes as much. In many press and television interviews, Zawahiri has said that Ethiopia’s construction of a dam able to hold 74 billion cubic meters of water was a catastrophe for Egypt, which would wind up losing 60% of its agricultural land. He added that a possible collapse of the Renaissance Dam could lead to the collapse of the Aswan Dam, in effect devastating all of Egypt.”

By sensationalizing the GERD as the “evil”, the Egyptian government seems intent on gathering the disappointed public around a common issue. With strong opposition directed at the incumbent for what is widely perceived by Egyptians as a coup against a legitimate leader who came to power through the first free and fair election in the country’s history along with claims that the military has hijacked the popular revolution, it is only rational that those in power look for issues potentially capable of cooling the popular fury and launch a strong propaganda campaign around it.

Considering the Egyptian public has always been wary of projects upstream, the propaganda has served their suspicion that upstream countries have finally pulled the monster in their nightmares come alive in the form of the GERD. With the opposition going as strong as ever, though, no one can blame the public for not seeing through the supposed elaborate plan by those in power.

That does not, however, mean that the government has relented from exploring methods that would derive the public into shocks and fury that are way stronger than those directed at them. The recent claim by the Antiquities ministry that the completion of the GERD would pose Egyptian historical heritage sites danger is yet another one of the extreme length the Egyptian authorities are going to demonize the GERD and rally people behind them.

Better yet, the latest warnings by the Egyptians government that the GERD once more can potentially have deteriorating effects on historical sites in the middle east – especially on sites in the holly cities of Saudi Arabia – are a loud call out to Saudis and the whole Arab world to join them in their quest to denounce Ethiopia while helping their case to cling to power at the same time.

Diplomatic and Economic Moves against the GERD

Egyptian media have recently reported that the Minister of Irrigation, Dr. Mohammad Abdul Mutallib, has heralded his government’s next move concerning matters with Ethiopia over the GERD after the talks in Addis Ababa failed. According to the reports, Ethiopian stubbornness in repeatedly shunning ideas put forward by the Egyptians has left the latter frustrated leading to their resort for international activities geared towards meeting their objectives.

The amazing thing is that what has been described as the Ethiopian stubbornness in repeatedly shunning Egyptian alternatives refers to Ethiopia’s refusal to agree on the Egyptian proposal of temporarily or permanently suspending the construction of the GERD. After the failure of the Addis talks, Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy, Alemayehu Tegenu, stated that the reason for yet another missed chance for understanding is that the Egyptians asked for the construction of the dam to be suspended.

Although the Egyptians are striving to create an image that depicts them as reasonable, patient and forthcoming for a potential mutual understanding, the reality lies much farther than their claim. The world has witnessed their government officials, individually and collectively, openly threaten to attack the dam and Ethiopia. They have deliberated on arming opposition groups in Ethiopia, sending an elite force that would attack the dam, and embarking on anything that would put Ethiopia in harm’s way long before the failed talks in Addis in which they lined up irrational demands.

With all that set out of the way, the Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohammad Mutallib has the audacity to present his government’s move as one taken with a calm and planned mentality. He further mentioned in his interview that his recent visit to Italy was the beginning of his government’s international endeavors towards mitigating the problems supposedly posed by the GERD.

This is an open admission of the fact that the Egyptians did not wait to see if the Addis talks would work before they went on to the “campaign” as the trip to Italy came before the talks in Addis. Various reports have indicated that the trip by the Egyptian official intended to appease the Italian government into pressurizing Salini Construction, the company constructing the GERD, towards terminating its contract. The same reports further state that the response from the Italian government was not quite what the Egyptians wanted to hear.

Considering the wide ranging “hard hitting and unexpected” measures the Egyptians have claimed to embark on, moves such as this one that do not even consider the interests of nations of contracted organizations stand on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Another one of such diplomatic moves by the Egyptians includes their visit to Germany. In line with the Egyptian Irrigation Minister’s claim of addressing European donor countries and civil society organizations, Germany has become yet another of the destinations in Egypt’s ill-fated search for calls capable of suspending the construction of the GERD.

With the desired solution still eluding them, the Egyptians have also turned to China. Reports from Arab media outlets show that the Egyptians have asked China to refrain from providing Financial and technical support to Ethiopia in its efforts to build the GERD. Once again, Egypt has proven itself as a foe rather than an ally to Ethiopia when it comes to the utilization of the Nile waters.

The former Egyptian Irrigation Minister and current Arab Water Council President, Dr Muhamoud Abuzeid, recently disclosed during an interview with Al Ahram Al-Arabi website that Qatar along with the U.S and Israel are donors in support of the GERD. Although admitting that the Egyptian government does not have substantiating evidence of financial and technical support from these countries to the GERD, Dr Muhamoud has said that close relations of these countries coupled with Ethiopia’s capacity to keep the construction going is indicative of tacit support.

The former Egyptian Minister further went on to say that his country has a problem with financial support to Ethiopia. Accordingly, he disclosed, the government has been holding discussions with international banks, donor countries and countries like the U.S, China, Italy and Japan that invest in Ethiopia. He also stated that the government is also working towards convincing Arab countries, especially the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, to cut their trade and investments with Ethiopia.

By working on slowing down international investment and trade to Ethiopia, the Egyptians plan on straining the former’s economy into becoming more stagnant and unable to shoulder a mega project like the GERD. Egyptian complaints of Ethiopia still working on the project even during times of discussion between the two countries imply that the former needs the project to be at least temporarily suspended. With Egyptians working hard not only against the GERD but also the whole of Ethiopia, relenting on the construction of the dam would only give them the time they desperately need to pose whatever hardship they can gather around from all corners of the world.

Military threats against the GERD and Ethiopia            

The Egyptian government has very bluntly been throwing military threats against the GERD and Ethiopia in several occasions. From the infamous televised discussions of the country’s politicians on possible military moves against the dam and Ethiopia to speeches by government officials that the options for military engagement are open, the Egyptians have made their intentions clear as far as military action is concerned.

In a recent interview with Al-Monitor, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdul Muttalib said, “Egypt will endeavor on all levels to foil this threat against the Aswan Dam and its water quota.”

Although highly linked with recent ailing relations with the U.S, the $3 billion worth arms contract with Russia still shows the country’s untimely need to strengthen its military capability. With the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia tipped as the countries financing the deal, Egypt has resorted to beefing up its military might at a time when the economic problems in the country are as chronic as they could get.  

Some reports cite Russian defense sources as saying that the sides signed contracts for the delivery of MiG-29M/M2 Fulcrum fighter jets, air defense missile complexes, Mi-35 helicopters, coastal anti-ship complexes, light weapons and ammunition.

With bold actions echoing Egypt’s intent to use off-table mechanisms to force Ethiopia into suspending the construction of the dam, Ethiopia should consider no action too far-fetched to prepare oneself against. Especially with Egypt announcing a campaign to work towards the achievement of its demands through other means, Ethiopia should keep the construction of the dam going.