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Observing and Analyzing the New Egyptian-Ethiopian Accord with Cautious Optimism

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                      January 26, 2018

I am optimistic by nature, but given the jittery politics and unfathomable political discourse and diplomacy of the Egyptian leaders, I like to observe and analyze the recent meetings and subsequent agreement reached between Egypt and Ethiopia with cautious optimism.

There is no doubt that both sides, that is, the Ethiopian and Egyptian diplomats, were satisfied by the outcome of the three-day meeting (beginning January 16, 2018) and discussions wrought in an effort to iron out differences. After he returned home, the Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, for instance, told Ethiopian journalists that he was personally gratified with the agreements reached on various cooperative agendas; he underscored that both countries have agreed to cooperate in many sectors including agriculture, industry, health, education, and tourism. Beyond these sectors, both countries have also agreed to work together and create synergy in some (e.g. tourism) in sectors such as investment, mining, electricity, water resources, and culture.

As far as I am concerned, Egypt and Ethiopia will enormously benefit from the mutual agreement they have reached and signed, not only in the technical economic cooperation realm but also in the political and diplomatic spheres that could directly affect their respective policies and national securities. By this agreement, Ethiopia has managed to humanize (at least for now) the Egyptian leaders and compel them to abandon (remains to be seen) their previous interference in Ethiopian internal affairs by directly or indirectly supporting anti-Ethiopian movements in the Horn of Africa. Egypt also managed to get its water needs without any hindrance in spite of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that is going to withhold massive cubic meters of water.  

The Ethiopian delegation made it crystal clear to their Egyptian counterparts by meticulously explaining the water needs of Egypt vis-à-vis the total water capacity of the Nile; they reasoned, based on facts, that Egypt needs 4.5 billion cubic meter of water and that this need is guaranteed despite the construction of the GERD. On the other hand, the completion of the construction of the GERD will benefit Sudan because the country will not be inundated by annual flooding; that means, the flow of the Nile will be controlled, in which case it will be harnessed for irrigation and other purposes. This is true and it has been proved empirically by the experience of the Sudanese farmers on either side of the Atbara River; the Sudanese farmers indeed are extremely satisfied by the construction of the Tekezze River (the Atbara side in Ethiopia) because they no longer suffer from flooding that used to destroy their farms.

Moreover, the Ethiopian premier told the Egyptians that “this great river should not be for competition and/or contention” and I fully agree with him because the pernicious effect of cut throat competition would ultimately derail the worthwhile development projects in both countries. It is for the latter reason that I suggested sometime in 2013 that the two countries must resolve their differences and cooperate rather on many fronts, and this recommendation is not only logically sound but it is also positive and constructive; and the two countries have nothing to lose by cooperating but they could be losers if engaged in fierce competition.

The new Egyptian-Ethiopian accord is promising indeed, but is it going to be sustainable? I pose this question despite my gratification due to the constructive engagement of the Ethiopian and Egyptian diplomats and my gratitude to their relentless efforts. However, it is common knowledge that Egypt has abandoned previous agreements in the past. In fact, as Nawal Sayed observes, “the Ethiopian premier’s three-day visit comes in the framework of the joint Egyptian-Ethiopian Committee which was postponed several times since December.”1 It is for this apparent reason that I remain cautiously optimistic with respect to the newly restructured policies of both countries surrounding the Nile.   

My caution or circumspection (and by extension a presumed precaution on the part of the Ethiopian Government) has to do with the behavior of Egypt itself. Egypt persistently pursued the 1929 agreement on the Nile by which the country was granted 48 billion cubic meters (cm) of water and Sudan 4 billion out of roughly calculated 84 billion cm total water produced by the Nile; and by the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan, it was agreed upon that Egypt was to get 55 billion cm and Sudan 18.5 billion. Ethiopia, the major contributor of water was not included in this Agreement, and the water needs of the downstream or riparian states, namely Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Eritrea was not put into consideration either. These riparian states, except for Ethiopia, were not independent yet at the time the 1959 agreement was concluded, and Eritrea was joined to Ethiopia by a federation and had no independent status either.

Although the unfair utilization of the Nile (essentially monopolized by Egypt then) was contentious and subject to debate and controversy in academic circles, the real challenge to Egypt and Sudan came in 2010 when the Nile Basin Framework Agreement (aka the Entebbe Agreement) was signed by the riparian states. Egypt and Sudan, forgetting that the African states gathered at Entebbe are now independent and could have a fair share in the Nile, refused to sign, let alone ratify, the Framework Agreement. They adamantly viewed the Entebbe Agreement as an affront to their national interests and they preferred rather to cling to the 1929 and 1959 agreements.

Contrary to the position of Egypt and Sudan, however, these two countries countenanced another major challenge from Ethiopia when the government and people of the latter country (home of the Blue Nile) initiated and launched the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011. The GERD is an historic and unique grand project, not because of its great potential in its contribution to electricity (the main purpose of the Dam) but because the Ethiopian people have exhibited great determination to complete the GERD by either buying bonds or voluntarily paying from their salaries; in brief, the GERD is perhaps the only Ethiopian grand project that is financed by the Ethiopian Government and the Ethiopian people, and without any aid from foreign donors. The GERD is inexorable and the steadfastness of the Ethiopian people to complete this dam may have initially triggered nervousness among Egyptian leaders, and now perhaps compelled them to some sort of compromise with Ethiopia.

However, before the Egyptian leaders seriously considered an agreement on the Nile with Ethiopia, in June 2013 I contributed an article entitled “Egypt has no choice but to cooperate with Ethiopia on the issue of the Nile”, and I argued, in part, the following:

Contrary to opposing the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, Egypt is best advised to cooperate with Ethiopia and support the noble initiative Ethiopians have taken to tame and harness the Nile on their own turf. Moreover, Egypt is advised to invest on the construction of the Dam and benefit in return rather than venture on opposing the completion of the Grand Renaissance. By cooperating with the Government and people of Ethiopia, Egypt has nothing to lose but to gain. It is quite obvious that the ultimate resource of the Nile water is Ethiopia, because the Blue Nile (Black Nile as it is known in Ethiopia) contributes 80 to 90% of the water and 96% of alluvial soil of the Nile, and the country that benefits most from the ‘gift of the Nile’ is Egypt.2

In just two years after I wrote the above article, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed an agreement known as the Declaration of Principles, and a couple of months before the Declaration but somehow in anticipation to it, I came up with another article entitled “The Historic Ethiopian-Egyptian Renewed Diplomacy and Cooperation”, and reasoned as follows: I am gratified to witness the renewed Ethiopian-Egyptian diplomacy and cooperation after much turbulence, mistrust, and bellicose political climate that have gripped the two African nations for decades. To be sure, it was Egypt that had promoted animus belligerendi (a near war attitude) against Ethiopia since the days of Emperor Haile Selassie. Now thanks to the wise leadership of Field Marshal Abdel Fatah el-Sisi and the pragmatic vision of the Ethiopian people, Egypt has completely reversed its old policy and enhanced a friendly foreign policy toward Ethiopia. Ethiopia, on the other hand, had advanced a more reconciliatory and compromis d’arbitrage (resolving disputes peacefully) policy toward Egypt, but finally, so it looks, the Ethiopian patience paid off.3       

The Declaration, signed on March 23, 2015 included among other things ten principles and they are:

1.    Principle of cooperation

2.    Principle of Development, regional integration and sustainability

3.    Principle of not causing significant damage [in the use of the Nile]

4.    Principle of fair and appropriate use

5.    [The] Principle of the dam’s storage reservoir first filling, and dam cooperation policy

6.    [The] Principle of building trust

7.    [The] Principle of exchange of information and data

8.    [The] Principle of dam security

9.    [The] Principle of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the state

10.  [The] Principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes.4 

My article that underscored some gratification, however, as pointed out above, was written and posted two months before the Declaration, but somehow and perhaps by mere coincidence the piece anticipated the constructive contribution of the Declaration and there was no way, on my part, to critically examine the contents and/or drawbacks of the principles. But a year after the Declaration was signed some observers like Bayeh E. at Ambo University in Ethiopia have seen the disadvantages Ethiopia could encounter in regards to the essence of the Agreement. “The current agreement reaffirms the past colonial agreements,” says Bayeh, “in that it compromises the power of Ethiopia over the Dam, recognizes Egypt’s right on the management of the dam, vaguely obliges Ethiopia to give priority to downstream countries, and does not exclude the tributaries from the agreement. These cumulatively put Ethiopia at a disadvantageous position. The agreement consists of unfair, inequitable and unsustainable clauses that are disastrous for Ethiopia.”5      

At any rate, as pointed out earlier and notwithstanding the concerns of some Ethiopians with respect to the Declaration, Egypt has abandoned the signed Declaration of Principles and resorted rather to a more confrontational politics. However, Egypt was uneasy by the evolving of relations, ranging from good to excellent, between Ethiopia and Sudan coupled by the determination of the Ethiopian people to complete the dam. This reality on the ground has now compelled Egypt once more to come back to the negotiating table and reconsider its rejection syndrome. In point of fact, Egypt initiated a meeting with Ethiopia in order to resolve the Nile issue and cooperate on many development-oriented projects; hence the January 16, 2018 new Egyptian-Ethiopian agreement.

In all political controversy and diplomatic rancor, it is advisable for politicians to move slowly and cautiously, and also exhibit patience and fortitude; sometimes, it is preferable to wait and see and let history take its own course but not at the risk of losing out or ‘missing the boat’ as the maxim goes. Furthermore, it is advisable to wait for the dust to settle and subsequently take calculated measures. This is the nature of politics, especially in diplomacy, and it requires intelligence, vision, and farsightedness to correctly interpret complex political scenarios and/or phenomena. In light of this two-penny worth advice thus, I like to invoke Naguib Mahfuz (1911-2006), an Egyptian master of literature, for the sake of solidifying and strengthening the renewed Egyptian-Ethiopian relations in cooperation. In whatever context stated but what I found so relevant to the Egyptian-Ethiopian accord is Naguib Mahfuz’s simple and yet profound statement. He said, “As the tension eases, we must look in the direction of agriculture, industry, and education as our final goal,”6and that is what Egypt and Ethiopia are poised to accomplish now.

By way of concluding, it is of paramount importance and significance that both Ethiopia and Egypt, from here forward, focus on their common and mutual interests; the similarities of civilizations of antiquity that they have inherited; their potential leadership role in a continent that is staggering to stand on its feet and is attempting to uplift millions from poverty and moving toward middle-level income status. It is in this context that both Egypt and Ethiopia must implement and realize their bilateral agreement's). Both should completely depart from old colonial agreements that were superimposed on Africans and refrain from invoking old treaties that have already been circumvented by the clean slate doctrine, a reinvention of international law that grants (at least theoretically) states not to have an obligation to honor prior treaty rights. If both Egypt and Ethiopia pursue a much wiser, prudent, and sagacious political common agenda, there is no doubt that both could perform miracles.



1.    Nawal Sayed, “Report: Ethiopian PM’s Visit Boosts Bilateral Ties,” January 16, 2018

2.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “Egypt has no choice but to cooperate with Ethiopia on the issue of the Nile,” www.africanidea.org/Egypt_has_no_choice.html IDEA editorial, June 12, 2013

3.    Ghelawdewos Araia, “The Historic Ethiopian-Egyptian Renewed Diplomacy and Cooperation,” www.africanidea.org/Historic_Ethiopian_Egyptian_diplomacy.html June 12, 2015

4.    MENA and Ahram online, Monday, 23 March 2015

5.    Bayeh, E. “Agreements on Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Dam Project,”  Department of Civics and Ethical Studies, Ambo University, Ethiopia/Arts and Social Science Journal, April 13, 2016

6.    Naguib Mahfuz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, and some of his books include Palace of Desire, Sugar Street, and The Thief and the Dogs


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