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A $5 bn dam project in Ethiopia shows how Egypt is falling off the world stage

The fallout over the dam on the border with Sudan is a case in point. It exposes Egypt’s mismanagement of the crisis, an out-of-touch foreign policy, and an unprecedented disrespect from Sisi towards his diplomats and other civilian aides

Ahmed Aboudouh
Saturday 26 October 2019 11:37 BST
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Donald Trump shakes hands with Egypt President El-Sisi and pledges support to his regime

Rain was unmerciful to Egypt this week. People shared footage on social media showing cars, shops, roads and tunnels submerged by floodwater.

One bird’s eye view photo showed Cairo as it turned into a “big garage”, with roads blocked, people missing their flights and chaos taking its grip on the capital – up to 11 people died in dramatic incidents around the country.

The total failure to deal with heavy but expected rain – which leaves the authorities completely paralysed every year – reflects an ageing state, with infrastructure left for decades in decay, and political leadership with no vision or a strategy, either domestically or abroad.

The “Egypt first” placards, scattered on both sides of the main roads and bridges in Cairo, defines Egypt’s quandary. President Abdelfattah el-Sisi is a populist leader. With Trump-style isolationism and zero interest in forming a clear and comprehensive foreign policy, Egypt’s position on the world stage has completely passed out of sight.

The major row between Egypt and Ethiopia over a $5 bn dam project on the Blue Nile is a case in point. It exposes Egypt’s mismanagement of the crisis, an out-of-touch foreign policy, and an unprecedented disrespect from Sisi, who came from the military, towards his diplomats and other civilian aides.

Egypt is worried that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, under construction near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, will restrict supplies of already scarce Nile waters on which it is almost entirely dependent. After years of three-way talks with Ethiopia and Sudan, efforts to reach a pact on conditions for operating the dam and filling the reservoir behind it have been exhausted.

Now the US and Russia have decided to step in to mediate. Trump’s administration rushed to invite the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia for a meeting in Washington. Putin too seems worried about an imminent conflict which could rock the African Horn for years.

If this round of talks breaks down, war between Egypt and Ethiopia, which have a combined population of 215 million people, might be inevitable.

This potential escalation shouldn’t be surprising. The Noble Prize winner and Ethiopia's prime minister Abiy Ahmed has warned this week that if the need arises to go to war with Egypt over the dam project, his country “could ready millions of people”.

For Egyptians, this heated Ethiopian rhetoric was unimaginable 10 years ago. Egypt has historically maintained its position as a feared power in Africa, and Africa in turn was perceived in Cairo as a huge sphere of influence and a backbone for its traditional clout in the Middle East. Now Egypt under Sisi looks increasingly shrivelled.

The Egyptian president blames the latest row, and the state’s very conspicuous vulnerability in Africa and elsewhere, on the January 2011 uprising. He says the Arab Spring drained Egypt’s power and prestige abroad, and crippled its ability to respond to threats. But it has been almost nine years since the turmoil and his government seems to be profiting from living in a period of a delusional equilibrium, despite plunging their nation into weakness and even paralysation after rainfall.

Egypt’s presence in nearby chaos is almost nil. On the other side of the Red Sea, where Egypt’s closest Gulf allies are engaged in a fierce cold war with Iran, the Yemen war and deadly riots in Iraq, Egypt’s presence is almost invisible. On the eastern shores on the Mediterranean, Syria is being pummelled with a bloody and long civil war, and Turkey, Iran, Russia and Israel are doing what they please, while Lebanon is going through a popular uprising that could potentially change the regional order. In the Palestinian Territories, there is no sign of success of the Egyptian efforts to oversee a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah to end their 13 year-conflict.

Egyptian officials seem busy elsewhere. They are very keen on propping up Libyan general Khalifa Haftar who is bogged down in a protracted campaign to capture the capital of Tripoli from his Islamists rivals.

Ethiopia, however, has been strategic. In Sudan, while Egypt was busy finding a way out for ex-dictator Omar al-Bashir after the recent and successful uprising that ended his 30 year-rule, Ethiopia has gained a free ticket of influence in the country through mediating a political settlement between the military and civilian activists.

Conflict and strategy in the Middle East is increasingly due to lack of water. Pure water shortage in the region has been the source of agony over the last two decades. In Iraq and Syria, the Turkish dam-building spree on both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers deepened the lack of resources necessary for any foreseeable and sustainable development in those countries, intensified internal immigration, and set both on a bloody track of conflict.

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Now, after a Wednesday meeting between Abiy Ahmed and Abdelfattah el-Sisi, the tedious technical talks, which have been going on for years, will be resumed. By gaining more time to finish building the dam, Ethiopia seems ready to take Egypt for a free ride, and Sisi looks increasingly out of options.

This is a life or death matter for the Egyptians. The average per capita water use in Egypt is going down to an historical 500 cubic meters per year. The devastating fallout after the dam is built is expected to have a ripple effect throughout Egypt’s population of over 100 million and within the Middle East at large.

Egypt seems in desperate need to unblock its sewage drains if it is to avoid the next round of heavy rain. And its foreign policy, which has been in limbo for decades, needs to be rebuilt if it is to win the struggle over its survival with Ethiopia – and Sisi doesn’t seem to have the answer.

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