A new trend seems to have begun between the leaders of the two long overdue rival countries – Ethiopia and Egypt. For the teacher-turned-diplomat-turned-head of state, Hailemariam Desalegn, of Ethiopia, and for the military general-turned-chief executive of the Egyptian government, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meeting as a sideline to international events has become the new mechanism to stir the talks over the shared treasures of the Nile. Ever since el-Sisi came to power, in Egypt’s third attempt to form a stable government after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, international events have started to serve as platforms of gathering high-level momentum towards negotiations on the use of the Nile waters.
In a matter of months, Hailemariam and el-Sisi have met three times on the sides of international events. The latest was their talks on the side of the United Nations Climate Change Summit, gathered by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and held in New York, United States, last week. Surely, this new trend will mark the start of a new cost effective diplomacy between the two historic archrivals.
It is not only the framework of the talks that has changed, though, but the pace, tone, intermediate outcomes and focus of the talks over the use of the waters of the longest river in the world.
For centuries, the Nile has been plagued by Egypt’s fixation on what it claims to be its “historic right” over the Nile, and Ethiopia’s rather half-hearted push towards a fairer utilisation of the waters. This dynamic equilibrium has been emboldened by Egypt’s visible political hegemony over riparian nations, which itself is underpinned by its importance in the foreign policy books of the West and Arab nations, its capital intensive military capability, a very subtle diplomatic manoeuvring and a thriving economy. Of course, Ethiopia’s fragile political and economic standing, partly contributed to by the numerous proxy forces that Egypt buys to ensure it continues as long as possible, has played its own role in the biased equilibrium of the waters.
Legitimising Egypt’s position were the colonial era agreements, which made the whole issue of the Nile a scramble for resources. Egypt’s show was, therefore, all about destabilising Ethiopia, scaring it away from asking its inalienable rights for development through exhibiting both hard and soft power and maintaining the status quo over the Nile.
Ethiopia began warming-up to change the game in the aftermath of the 1959 agreement, whereby Sudan and Egypt did their own arithmetic over the waters, without accounting for Ethiopia. Haileselassie’s regime took the genius move of approaching the issue in a more technical way and explored the opportunities through the support of the United States Department of Reclamation (USDR). In a move that came following the ending of the anointment of Ethiopian Bishops from Cairo, the feudalist regime managed to bring about technical solutions to Ethiopia’s inferior position over the Nile, including building the largest dam in the nation – the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
But it took almost half a century before upshots of the change started to appear. None other than the government under the leadership of the ruling EPRDFites created the necessary political and economic stability to push the agenda of equitable use of the Nile forwards. Both the extractive feudalist regime of Haileselassie and its successor, the military dictatorship, the Dergue, were unable to push the agenda forward, largely because of their internal instability and incessant external traits, some of them fuelled by Egypt.