Media spotlight: Meddling with the Nile is a red line Egyptian media pundits still debate the validity of Ethiopia's dam, ignoring wider issues of water scarcity

With or without the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a high-stakes hydroelectric project that has fueled mistrust between officials in Egypt and fellow Nile Basin countries since its inception seven years ago, Egypt faces issues related to water scarcity. But instead of assessing the country’s water consumption, thinking of ways to limit waste and securing alternative sources of clean water, Egyptian officials have been busy pushing for further studies on the dam, which is already 63 percent complete.

The Nile ties Egypt economically and environmentally to its African neighbors, and the war of words between officials is based on survival as much as it is a futile demonstration of realpolitik. On November 11 and 12, representatives from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt met for the 17th time to officially discuss the dam project, the 14th session since they agreed that a French consultancy firm would spearhead a technical report to evaluate its potential impact. Reactions from Egyptian officials have been rife with patriotism and emotion, which is emblematic of the prominence of the river in everyday life.

The bulk of Egypt’s population has historically resided in the Nile Delta region, and today the majority of its 95 million inhabitants live and work in those overcrowded 22,000 square kilometers, many relying on the world’s longest river as their lifesource. The Nile also holds heavy symbolic importance for many Egyptians, featuring prominently on ancient papyri and playing a historic role in rituals surrounding life and death.

Despite the prevalence of jokes and popular folklore surrounding the river, Egyptian singer Sherine Abdel Wahab recently faced a backlash from fans, and a couple of lawsuits, after making a flippant comment about the possible health hazards of drinking from the Nile when asked to perform her emotive song “Have you drunk from the Nile?” in the UAE.

This incident cannot be read in isolation; humor has been increasingly vilified by Egyptian authorities in recent months amid a wider move to eradicate criticality. That a pop icon singing a nationalistic song was widely criticized because of a perceived deviation from patriotism is telling of our current reality.

The dam project has also elicited fiery reactions from television hosts and newspaper commentators, with several Egyptian media pundits debating the project as though it is still on the drawing board — speculating on what the deadlock in negotiations might mean, asking who is to blame for such misfortune and debating Egypt’s right to seek counsel from the United Nations on the matter. The initial anger eventually appeared to wane (except that of Moataz Matar, a vocal opponent of the military-led ouster of Mohamed Morsi), particularly after President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi appeared nonchalant about the issue during an address to open a fish farm in Kafr el-Sheikh on November 18.

In his attempt to quell concerns, Sisi referred to Ethiopia and Sudan as “our brothers.” He went on: “From the start, we were in agreement about the importance of development projects, but we’re talking about the life or death of a people. The Nile water is God’s creation, not anyone else’s.”

Newspaper headlines on both November 13 and 14 reported that the Egyptian Parliament was demanding that Cabinet members take a more active role in the conflict, with the privately owned Al-Dostour newspaper quoting an official state source as saying that Sisi would intervene as part of the government’s plan to exert more “political pressure.”

In response to calls for greater intervention, which were also echoed by Egyptian television hosts, Sisi said, “I cannot grant you something that isn’t mine. This water does not belong to me. It belongs to you.” This somewhat corny gesture shifted the responsibility for addressing water security onto Egypt’s prime minister and the speaker of the house, whom Sisi called “the voice of Egyptians.”

Instead of clearly outlining the government’s next steps, amid indications of possible water shortages, Sisi blamed Egyptian farmers living in the Delta for abusing their supply of water, and for growing rice despite government restrictions. He omitted to mention the impact of the state’s megaprojects in the desert on Egypt’s already high water consumption rates, or whether or not the industrial waste produced by these projects is spilling into the water stream. It was a move reminiscent of the government’s focus on household electrical consumption, instead of businesses or industry, as the reason for recent power shortages.

On the November 13 episode of Al Hayat Al Youm (Life Today), which broadcasts on privately owned channel Al-Hayat, Tamer Amin was critical of the ongoing meetings concerning the dam. “They need a whole year to agree on one piece of paper? In engineering, one plus one equals two. They’re giving us the runaround until the dam becomes a fait accompli.” Despite the fact that construction of the dam started in 2011, he said that Ethiopia has been “procrastinating” and “distracting” Egypt. Amin then spoke to Hussein Imam, an Irrigation Ministry spokesperson who defended the government in a telephone interview. Imam told viewers that Egypt had agreed to the establishment of the tripartite committee “out of a keenness to remain flexible.”

Defending the role of Egyptian officials in negotiations continued elsewhere. In a four-part opinion piece in privately owned newspaper Youm7 that seemed to offer no new information, Youssef Ayoub underlined Egypt’s “flexibility,” adding that reactions to the dam project were “realistic and calculated” after negotiations became “bogged down” by technicalities.

On November 13, CBC’s Lamis al-Hadidi spoke briefly to the head of the Nile Basin studies department at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Hany Raslan, on Hona al-Assema (Here’s the Capital), after which she said, “We’re talking about Egyptians’ water. I think there needs to be a high-level political decision regarding the GERD. Negotiations have continuously failed over the last two years.” Describing Egypt as “well-behaved” when handling the matter, Hadidi didn’t hold back on blaming Ethiopia. “They’ve had us go around in circles,” she said, suggesting that “other parties” refuse to power on amicably, so Egypt should “not stay silent” either.

Several reports in both state and privately owned newspapers seemed to echo a desire by Egyptian officials to downplay tensions after the Sudanese foreign minister claimed Egypt owes Sudan water it has benefitted from over the years due to Sudan’s limited absorptive capacity. Opinion writers have differed as to how much Sudan, a long-time ally, is to blame for not considering the repercussions of the dam on Egypt. An article penned by Abbas al-Tarabiliy in privately owned daily Al-Masry Al-Youm voiced disappointment that Sudan did not consider Egypt as it should have for “old times’ sake.” But in a subsequent op-ed in the same newspaper, columnist Soliman Gouda suggested that Egypt had failed to properly consider its neighbor.

On the matter of seeking international arbitration, Hadidi spoke to international law professor Mosaed Abdel Aty, who said Egypt should resort to the United Nations Security Council, “the body that holds the utmost power to iron out the conflict,” and urged officials to document “this Ethiopian violation.” Abdel Aty added that, while Egypt is supportive of development projects in other countries, meddling with the Nile “is crossing a red line.”

At the onset of this debate, prominent cartoonist Doaa al-Adl, who is often critical of Egypt’s authorities, depicted officials’ responses to the impending crisis as tortoise-like, while prolific journalist and political analyst Abdallah al-Sinawi said he wasn’t surprised by the prolonged negotiations. He used his opinion column in privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk, titled “Critical Scenarios,” to focus on the steps Egypt could take to address the issue of water security after the dam is complete.

Egypt understandably wants to maintain some degree of economic advantage over its African neighbors, but further negotiations over its historically large water share and the GERD may also mean officials need to be prepared to discuss a long list of incompetencies and issues they are either not willing to debate, or don’t have solutions to, such as: population growth, pollution, inefficient irrigation and the lack of proper treatment plants countrywide. Government officials need to consider the dam issue not just as one of resources, but as a matter of managing those resources.

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Heba El-Sherif