A revolutionary Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Once again, negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as GERD, have been stymied. Since the January 25 revolution broke out eight years ago, Egyptian officials have occasionally pointed to the popular uprising as the reason Ethiopia took the daring decision to build the dam. In recent weeks, this finger-pointing has become much more explicit and become the sole talking point adopted by state-controlled media outlets and the government. 

In all honesty, I don’t want to slide into a defense of the revolution as a member of a kind of “January sect” — not because I am disowning it, but because I am proud of it. The revolution does not belong to a single group of activists who believed in it and identified with it. Rather, it was a social and a political project that will be marked as an important milestone in the history of Egypt’s democratic struggle. 

While Egypt’s revolution was blighted when it failed to immunize itself from being instrumentalized by tyrannical forces, it remains in the imagination an attempt to reorganize the relationship between state and society on a more rational and democratic basis and serves as an alternative path that can always be invoked when all safe passages to the future are shut down.

But what is the relationship between the dam and the revolution? 

The facts on the ground between the three countries have changed. Egypt’s stalled democratic position stands in stark contrast to the transitions that have happened in Sudan and Ethiopia over the last several years. Today, the leading position Cairo has often occupied in relation to the upstream countries — whether a byproduct of colonial mandate, its own misguided paternalism or in the example it set under the brighter days of the revolution — rings more untrue now than perhaps it ever has in the past. 

Rather than standing behind a policy of supremacy or accepting the revolution as a harbinger of doom, can we imagine a more equitable relationship between the three countries under the rubric of the January revolution?


How did the revolution become the harbinger of the water disaster? 

This is how the common story goes: Cairo’s relatively strong geopolitical position, which itself has been consolidated into a type of chauvinism to its “African” neighbors, has allowed it to prevent the construction of the dam and/or obstruct its financing over the course of previous political regimes. This position was established in the colonial era during Egypt’s monarchy in the early 20th century and was carried over into the national liberation movements of the 1950s and into the post-Camp David era of Egypt’s alliance with the United States and Israel. 

A century has passed, figures and regimes have changed, and yet Egypt’s foreign policy toward its southern neighbors remains rooted in this sense of “superiority.”

The January 25 revolution, however, has been accused of upsetting the balance of power which had historically granted Egypt this superiority and, by doing so, allowing an upstart Ethiopia to bring GERD to life.

The “Africa” that Egypt has often thought itself superior to, however, has been transforming. Many African nations have taken considerable steps toward democratic transition and just rule. 

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, has been acting as the face of a new Africa — an Africa that transcends “civil wars and marginalization” in favor of “democracy and development.” No one can underestimate the weight and influence of Abiy Ahmed in recent African affairs, as he previously ended a decades-long state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. He released political opponents from jail, initiated a process of institutional reform, and embraced an open and democratic discourse of governance. Economic indicators show that the Ethiopian economy has grown rapidly under Abiy’s term. And finally, his sponsorship of the agreement between the Transitional Military Council and the Freedom and Change Coalition to establish a sovereign council in Sudan was clear evidence of his growing influence, which culminated in his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize win. 

For Abiy, GERD is one of many fronts on which his country is fighting to reclaim recognition, undo the history of marginalization, and move on to a pioneering role. But it is not merely a symbolic struggle. On the one hand, GERD is the locus of an internal struggle inside Ethiopia. Abiy’s ability to execute the project smoothly would count as a decisive victory over his opponents. His government’s legitimacy depends on the completion and operation of the dam. On the other hand, the completion of the dam and the subsequent generation of electricity is expected to usher in high growth levels, which will turn Ethiopia into a site of special attention from funding agencies and global and regional investors. 

Egypt, however, has cast its lot on another bet.

In a meeting in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum in September, Egypt requested the involvement of a third-party mediator in order to reach “a fair and balanced” agreement. When Ethiopia refused, Egypt announced that negotiations had failed. 

The tension caused by Egypt’s announcement reverberated on a global scale, especially as Egypt called for the intervention of the United States. But this was not the first time that Egypt declared that negotiations had failed, for it had made the same announcement in April 2018. 

Put simply, Egypt is betting on the support of US President Donald Trump in the crisis with Ethiopia. And while it is a solid bet, given the Trump administration’s ability to blackmail and lobby on behalf of its allies, there remains a great deal of uncertainty regarding the extent of support that Egypt can receive from Trump. That bet depends on the special relationship between the two current regimes rather than Egypt’s historical geopolitical strength, and comes at a time when the Trump administration is facing major threats in an unstable geopolitical arena. 

The fate of a third-party mediation remains up in the air, with Abiy and Sisi planning to meet in Russia in the coming days on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit. 

This makes Sudan’s position all the more important. 

However, what Sudan’s Sovereign Council will do remains unclear. Omar al-Bashir had been swinging back and forth on the GERD issue, depending on the amount and the source of bribes he received from the Gulf and assurances from Egypt. But the new government has not yet formed a coherent position on the matter, for the council itself has contradictory interests and visions, given that it is composed of both civilian and military figures. What is likely to transpire is a struggle to strike a balance between carving out a new status worthy of the “new Sudan” without angering the Egyptian government. Sudan’s gravitation toward the former position — which would not only put an end to the historical dominance of Egypt and North Africa on the continent, but also push for renegotiating a more equitable water distribution along the Nile Basin beyond the Ethiopian dam — falls in line with Abiy’s vision. 


Dam negotiations under an imagined revolution 

Egypt was on the threshold of becoming a pioneering model in democratic transition, even if the first edition of the democracy that it tried to establish was fragile. Nonetheless, the impact of Egypt’s experience was significant enough to have established a new and more equitable chapter in its leading role in the region. However, the defeat of the January 25 revolution — which began with the Muslim Brotherhood’s sabotage then fully materialized at the hands of the regime that was established in the backdrop of the conflict in 2013 — spoiled this opportunity. In fact, the defeat rolled the country back into a spiral of authoritarianism and oppression, an endless state of emergency, and relentless violations of human rights. 

At the beginning of Sisi’s rule, Egypt’s position on the dam was not that bad, especially when compared with its position under Morsi, who had openly raised the prospect of military action against Ethiopia.

In March 2015, for instance, following a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed a declaration of principles, which commits the signatories to “the principle of cooperation based on mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law, as well as cooperation in understanding the water needs of upstream and downstream countries.” 

But shortly after that, Egypt slid into a series of sharp, consecutive setbacks. 

Despite Egypt’s demographic importance and its significant role in managing the conflict in Libya as well as the siege of Gaza, it lacks the necessary legitimacy to play a critical role in the crisis with Ethiopia. While distressed, the Egyptian government cannot wage a war to reassert its regional leadership and defend its national security. 

However, reaching an agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is not impossible. In a previous article, titled “Is It Impossible to Reach a Solution?”, I argued that it is not difficult to reach a deal on the dam. And in another article, I wrote about the recommendations given by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 2014 report on GERD, which emphasized that it is impossible to manage two mega-dams on a single waterway with the existing storage capacities — which exceed the amount of water flowing annually into the river — without a joint management of the dam-filling process. There has to be a public agreement to coordinate the operations of the two dams in a way that takes into account Egypt and Sudan’s water needs as well as the minimum level of water required to generate electricity from the Aswan High Dam, without compromising the water share needed to generate electricity by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

Simply put, a joint management of both the Aswan High Dam and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the solution. Joint management would provide opportunities to make decisions regarding water storage according to the amount of water flowing each year. There will be a chance to follow the impacts of the dam on downstream countries on a continuous basis and make decisions based on actual empirical observations (soil salinity, mud flow, etc.). This requires that all negotiating parties move beyond their polarizing, populist propaganda of claiming superiority, mobilizing public panic, and summoning international actors, especially as the global political system has failed to resolve similarly major conflicts.

This, in turn, will require a thorough and wide understanding of the regional and international political situation. And it will require a continued ability to persuade, influence, and obtain both local and global support. While Ethiopia indeed has some of these tools, the Egyptian regime severely lacks them. 

And here comes the question once again: Was the defeated January revolution an opportunity to cultivate these tools? Is it still a serious option that could lift Egypt out of its impasse and enable it to proactively deal with its internal and external crises? This question is not solely posed for the current regime, but for all the active political forces that still approach the dam crisis from an archaic, ineffective standpoint. Public outcries, warmongering, and invoking “Egypt’s superiority” do nothing but expose a frivolous show of aggression that carries no accountability whatsoever. 

Egypt needs to comprehensively reevaluate its internal priorities and choices first. Community partnership is essential to deal with the potential impacts of GERD. Monitoring soil salinity in agricultural lands with declining water flow, implementing new irrigation methods, diversifying crops, and persuading farmers to work on new lands with access to groundwater irrigation all require an ability to work with local communities and move beyond the skepticism and mistrust between state and society. More importantly, the matter will require the presence of elected local councils and a dynamic Parliament with a modicum of independence. 

Civil society needs to be able to breathe some air. The relevant stakeholders need to be part of the decision-making process. The global political order is so turbulent that it cannot guarantee immunity for select regimes, especially in the midst of such conflicts and divisions. The solution will not come through military escapades, but through rational, democratic paths to contain tensions and achieve some degree of community reconciliation and stability. Egypt cannot continue to be held enthralled to the duality of the emergency state and regional leader that shaped its governance for decades. There is no alternative other than a flexible, resilient democracy that can enable us to adequately respond to regional affairs and face the ongoing challenges. Otherwise, the price will be tragic. On the other hand, the “new Africa” should also not get too carried away with gambling on the influence of national pride, global recognition, and hunger for leadership. There will be no immunity except through prudence, good governance, and the principles of coexistence.

Akram Ismail 

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