Millennium Post

A grand dam that felled Morsi

The bloodletting in Egypt, which was triggered by the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi on
3 July, has foreshadowed its deeper ecological roots. Egypt cannot get past its present turmoil, at least in the long run, without spotlighting and comprehending its sub-surface causes. Commentators, for their wilful neglect or blissful ignorance, tend to cast the Egyptian conflict as an imbalance in civil-military relations. Although ecological dimensions of this conflict predate its present incarnation, they have been one of the major sticking points that deepened the divide between what observers saw as Morsi’s growingly autocratic-theocratic regime and its secular antithesis in Egypt’s all-powerful military. Nonetheless, the real wedge between the two, came shrouded in Ethiopia’s public announcement on

28 May that it was diverting a portion of the Nile, the world’s longest river, for constructing what it exuberantly named as the ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.’ This multibillion-dollar project is billed to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making Ethiopia the lighthouse of northeast Africa and bringing it out of the long and dark shadows of poverty.

Ecological divide between Morsi and the military
Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who deposed Morsi to become Egypt’s de facto ruler, told in an extensive interview on 3 August that President Morsi was ignoring the military’s advice on Ethiopia. This was a fatal mistake as the Egyptian defence establishment views the Nile and its uninterrupted flow to Egypt as the ‘national strategic interest.’ In its reckoning, any decline in Egypt’s share of Nile water is, as one observer put it, the ‘existential threat,’ and ‘non-negotiable.’ Morsi’s insouciant attitude to the urgency of securing Egypt’s historical right to Nile water made the military wary of him. He didn’t do much to calm its concerns beyond serving up occasional broadsides.

Impulsive and ill-thought-out, these broadsides had rather shaken the military’s faith in the president and his ability to bring his leadership to bear on a rising chorus of demand by upstream countries for reapportioning the Nile, which means a cut in Egypt’s share of the waters. Five upstream riparian states – Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda – have already signed an accord and have it ratified by their respective parliaments to strip Egypt of its veto power against any water development project on the Nile. In June, Ethiopian parliament signed off on this accord, and stamped its approval for continuing with the Renaissance Dam that is located on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border.   

Morsi tries to make amends
In his apparent bid to appease the military, Morsi convened a meeting on 3 June in his Presidential Palace of leaders of all political persuasions to discuss a report on the impact of diverting Nile water by Ethiopia. The report was delivered to him a day earlier on 2 June. The meeting was to formulate a response to Ethiopia’s unilateral move. Attendees at the meeting thought aloud some unsavory choices to take the sting out of Ethiopian public daring that galled most Egyptians. The range of choices they went through included an airstrike on the construction site of the Renaissance Dam, guerilla sabotage, or even destabilising the Ethiopian government. At this stage of discussions, President and his guests were reminded by their minders that their deliberations were going live on television. But, by then, the horse had already bolted the barn door. Ethiopia reacted sternly and swiftly to these deliberations with a demarche to the Egyptian envoy in Addis Ababa to have his government explain what transpired at the meeting.

Humbled and infuriated, Morsi set aside diplomatic niceties and warned Ethiopia on 11 June that ‘all options are open,’ a reference to the air strike, guerrilla sabotage, or destabilising the government. This ‘in your face aggression’ was supposedly a cutting message for Ethiopia, but the way it rolled off Morsi’s tongue left Egypt and its military embarrassingly on the defensive. A military spokesperson attempted to turn down the temperature saying that Ethiopia’s announced diversion of the Nile ‘is not a military issue at this stage.’ Military strategists found even this calming attempt fraught with dire implications of its own. Dissatisfied, Addis Ababa openly questioned the sanity of Egyptian leaders. On 13 June, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn declared the threat of war unfounded unless Egyptian leaders ‘go mad.’  The same day, Ethiopian parliament unanimously green-lighted the Renaissance Dam, and rejected Egypt’s power to veto damming or diverting of Nile water.
Startled by the worsening situation, the military rushed the Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, a holdover from the Mubarak era who was retained in the Morsi government, to douse the flames of diplomatic conflagration kindled by President’s inept remarks. Minister Amr cajoled his hosts by disassociating his government from the President’s utterances that he found irrational and ill-thought-out. ‘Some pronouncements were made in the heat of the moment because of emotions.
They are behind us,’ he told a news conference in Addis Ababa with his Ethiopian counterpart Tedros Adhanom by his side. While welcoming Egypt’s willingness to move on, Ethiopia refused to suspend construction work on the Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia’s defiance can be explained by its ecological advantage as the point of origin of the Nile’s largest tributary – Blue Nile. Blue Nile is one of the two largest tributaries that feed into the Nile. It originates in the highlands of Ethiopia and meets White Nile, the second largest tributary to the Nile, in the Sudan to become the river Nile.        

Ecological conflicts, if left untended, can have lethal consequences both within and between nations. The case of Egypt amplifies this lethality in a symbiotic relationship between the domestic and foreign tropes of its continuing conflict that most observers have cast as a civil-military spat. When 30 million Egyptians, failed by an anemic economy, took to the streets in protest against an autocratic regime, Morsi was left with nothing to offer but smell conspiracies. His rivals abroad challenged him on an even bigger issue of reapportioning the Nile, and here too he failed to bring them around to his position.

This is how a failed political economy made way to a failed political ecology, which each are organically bound. Political ecology will further strain the political economy as demands on ever dwindling water resources grow in intensity, making the Nile one of the hotly contested rivers.
On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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