Egypt on Two Fronts: An Egyptian View on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Libyan Crisis
Egypt, a veritable regional power, is facing two pressing challenges in the international arena. The first challenge to Egypt is an existential one, related to the core issue of water, emerging from Ethiopia's insistence on completing the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river. This egregiously strikes the wall on the 'right to life' of the Egyptian people. The second challenge, of protecting one’s own frontier, is the threat to Egypt’s national security from Turkish backed terrorist militias in next door Libya.
The last-minute negotiations Sudan had called for on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam failed, despite progress on technical issues, since the essence of the dispute remained. At the heart of the problem is Ethiopia's insistence that control of the mouth of the Blue Nile is an internal matter subject to its sovereignty. International law disagrees, holding that all lower riparian countries (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) have equal rights and no country has the right to consume water to the detriment of other nations.
Accordingly, talking about the feasibility of any further negotiations with Ethiopia becomes a waste of time, as long as Ethiopia remains unwilling to strike a balance enshrined in international law between the rights of national sovereignty and partnership with other countries along the Nile. This fundamental disagreement harms the water interests of other countries such as Egypt, and not only threatens its national security but causes an "existential" crisis.
Ethiopia is convinced that it is in a better position to negotiate after Egypt signed the Declaration of Principles agreement before resolving technical matters, and Ethiopia has pitched this to the world that it is building a democratic system focusing on development and progress but needs the GERD to achieve this. Ethiopia has also succeeded in obtaining the sympathy of a number of African American representatives in the United States, especially after accusing Egypt of being a ‘colonial’ country which wishes to prevent Ethiopia from developing and progressing since it aspires to a position of regional hegemony.
Ethiopia will partially fill the dam (5 billion cubic meters) by the end of August 2020. Due to their not completing the construction of the central part of the dam, this will not affect Egypt as much as it being interpreted as a challenge and ring real alarm bells. The real threat will be at the beginning of next year when Ethiopia will fill the dam completely, which would entail catapulting Egypt into a real water poverty crisis by constricting the flow of the Nile.
Egyptian President Al-Sisi’s speech and the Parliament’s vote on authorising a possible military intervention in Libya last week sparked a discussion among large segments of the Egyptian public away from the drums of war that some have encouraged, a war for which he knows that he will not pay the price. Egypt seems all set to intervene militarily in Libya, facing critical threats from Turkish backed militias. However, another question was asked: Will Egypt prioritize the Libyan crisis over Ethiopia? Will the strong language used by the Turkish backed Al-Wefaq government misplace Egyptian priorities? I do not think that the threats posed by Turkish President Erdogan and the Turkish backed extremist groups in Libya will mean Egypt will ignore the existential crisis posed by the GERD.
It is more than possible that Egypt’s hardening strategy in Libya intends to send a message to Ethiopia, showing that Egypt will take steps by force if necessary. This is provided that Egypt is not involved in a comprehensive long-term war with Turkey, which is something we do not expect, given that the ceiling of Egyptian intervention remains the cities of Sirte and Al-Jafra, which Turkey intends to storm to control the Oil Crescent regions in eastern Libya.
President Al-Sisi's speech was not a declaration of war on Turkey, nor would it mean controlling Libya, but rather an attempt to establish new red lines for the rules of the game which were based on regional and international support to both sides of the conflict without direct intervention. Turkey changed the rules of the game when it brought terrorist militias from Syria to Libya and sought to establish military bases in Libya. In addition to this, there has been Turkish talk about the occupation of the oil and gas regions in eastern Libya.
Egypt's success in stopping Turkish penetration of Libya without significant losses or getting involved in an all-out war will mean a strong message of deterrence to the Ethiopians. This thought gains further traction since many powers want to limit Erdogan in Libya, such as Russia and France, and even the U.S. does not want to extend his influence; While Italy, which Turkey tried to embrace , will not go too far, especially if it means supporting the Turkish streak at the expense of Italy’s relationship with the European Union.
Some of these countries will support any Egyptian military intervention in Libya, others will oppose it. Those who oppose it will not welcome any Egyptian military action, even if limited, against Ethiopia, nor Egypt's role in making Ethiopia understand the correctness and efficiency of its choices, whether by the example of Egyptian limited military intervention in Libya or intense diplomatic and political moves to push Ethiopia to review its position on the severe damage to Egypt's existential interests in the Nile, and to understand the necessity of surgical force in the event of political solutions failing. Indeed, it is an undesirable option for Egypt, but Ethiopian intransigence may turn it into a necessary one.
(Ahmed Younes is from Cairo, Egypt and graduated with degrees in International Relations and Economics from the George Washington University in Washington D.C. in 2017. Ahmed is currently an analyst with the World Bank Group covering regulatory reform, access to finance for small & medium enterprises and political/macroeconomic credit risk).