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Egypt & Ethiopia – resource tensions or complementarity?

Egypt & Ethiopia – resource tensions or complementarity? Egypt and Ethiopia are undeniably two important middle powers in northeastern Africa with distinct identities. They have a long history of interactions that have varied between cooperation and contention.

Author: Michael B. BISHKU.

Egypt & Ethiopia: resource tensions or complementarity?

Egypt and Ethiopia are undeniably two important middle powers in northeastern Africa with distinct identities. They have a long history of interactions that have varied between cooperation and contention. Culturally, their respective populations share two religions – Coptic Christianity and Islam of the Sunni sect – while geographically, they share the resources of the Nile River Basin. These connections have facilitated mutually beneficial trade, but also have led to periodic confrontations or at the very least disputes.
Fluctuating borders and control of trade routes and resources led to conflict during the nineteenth century. As independent African states during the first half of the twentieth century before the period of decolonization, Egypt and Ethiopia cooperated in the process of modernization in the latter country. Since then, while the Ethiopian church achieved autocephaly, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, droughts and population growth have at times negatively affected bilateral relations. In recent years, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the lack of an agreement on a timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and on water release in the event of droughts has created a potentially dangerous situation in northeastern Africa.

Egypt & Ethiopia: resource tensions or complementarity? Introduction

Egypt and Ethiopia are undeniably two important middle powers with distinct identities located in northeastern Africa within the Nile River Basin area. Egypt is the most populated Arab state with a population of over 104 million, composed of 90% Muslim (predominantly Sunni) and 10% Christian, with a majority of the latter being Coptic Orthodox. Ethiopia is a multiethnic, multilingual country with the second largest population in SubSaharan Africa after Nigeria at just under 118 million, composed of approximately 44% Ethiopian Orthodox (Coptic), 31% Sunni Muslim, and the remainder predominantly other Christian sects and traditional faiths (World Bank, 2021). Approximately 95% of Egypt’s population lives within 20 kilometres of the Nile River and its delta and only 2.8% of its land is arable (CIA, World Factbook, “Egypt,” 2022). In 2021, annual rainfall in Egypt was just over 21 millimetres (or 0.8 inches), the lowest in Africa (Trading Economics, 2022). Approximately 80% of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas and is concentrated in the northern and middle parts of the country, while 15.2% of the land is arable (CIA, World Factbook, “Ethiopia,” 2022). In 2021, annual rainfall in Ethiopia was 927 millimetres or 36.5 inches (Trading Economics, 2022). As can be seen, both countries have sizable rural populations, with Egypt’s being more concentrated and more dependent upon the Nile as a source of water, especially for agriculture and, in recent decades, as an important source of electrical power. It accounts for 90 per cent of Egypt’s water needs. However, at the same time, Ethiopia has had a history of recurring droughts. While sharing the Nile River Basin is a commonality of geography, one of a social nature is Coptic Christianity, which originated in Egypt and became the state church of Ethiopia under that country’s monarchy.
The two countries have had a long history of interactions. In recent centuries, upon which this article will concentrate, that initially involved military conflicts as the respective territories under their rule, which fluctuated, bordered one another. Unlike many other territories in Africa, neither country became a European colony during the nineteenth century. However, both Egypt and Ethiopia did fall under the direct influence of European powers for periods of time. In the case of Egypt, which had become autonomous from the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century, Britain established a protectorate over that country, first informally and later formally from 1881-1922, and still had influence over certain issues in that country until 1936. In the case of Ethiopia, it was occupied by Italy, either in part or in full, from 1935-1941. Otherwise, Egypt and Ethiopia engaged in relations that have varied between cooperation and contention, given the nature of the world and regional politics at the time – including the Arab-Israeli conflict – and/or disputes over water usage in the Nile River Basin. Currently, the most important concern is how will the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) located on the Blue Nile – where about 85 per cent of the waters of the Nile originate – which began generating electricity in 2022, affect water flow to downstream neighbors, Sudan and Egypt.

Egyptian-Ethiopian relations: from earliest times to the present.

According to Ethiopian church tradition, the Coptic sect of Christianity was brought to Ethiopia by two Syrian boys who became slaves in the court of the King of Axum, Ella Amida, at the end of the third century C.E. When Ella Amida’s son, Ezanas, who converted to Christianity, came to power early in the fourth century, one of the slaves, who had been freed by the King’s mother travelled to visit the Patriarch in Alexandria, upon which he was appointed Bishop of Axum to further his evangelism (Marcus, 1994, p. 7). Axum thus became politically and religiously linked to Byzantine Egypt until the Arab conquest of that country during the mid-seventh century; afterwards, despite generally cordial relations with Egypt, both Muslim civil and Coptic religious authorities refused to allow the Ethiopian church the right to appoint its own metropolitan (archbishop) and bishops (Marcus, 1994, pp. 13-14).

The kingdom of Axum fell to the Zangwe dynasty in the tenth century, which subsequently in 1270 gave way to the last royal line of Ethiopia, the Solomonic dynasty under Emperor Yekuno Amlak from Shewa; in order to enhance legitimacy, he and his followers promoted a fictitious story about his descent from King Solomon and Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (known as Saba in Ethiopia). As Yekuno Amlak subsequently conquered Muslim-populated areas adjacent to Shewa, Mamluk authorities in Cairo refused to send a new bishop to Ethiopia (Marcus, 1994, p. 20). This form of leverage was possible until the Ethiopian Orthodox Church achieved autocephaly (their own patriarch) in 1959. Yet a successor of Yekuno Amlak, Amda Siyon, who quashed Muslim rebellions in Ethiopia and threatened to divert the waters of the Blue Nile in response to the persecution of Egyptian Copts, forced Mamluk authorities to restore a bishop to Ethiopia in 1337 (Marcus, 1994, pp. 21-22; Pankhurst, 1997, p. 40).

As mentioned earlier, during the nineteenth century, Egypt, autonomous from the Ottoman Empire, and Ethiopia came into conflict over the possession of territories on their common border. From 1769 to 1855, known as “the time of the princes,” powerless Ethiopian emperors were dependent upon provincial warlords. The Egyptian governor Muhammad Ali invaded the interior of Sudan in the early 1820s in search of slaves and gold, having earlier established control over the Red Sea ports of Suakin in Sudan and Massawa in Eritrea. During the campaign, his troops were pushed into gold-bearing areas claimed by Ethiopia. However, with having to conduct simultaneous military operations in Greece and Arabia, the Egyptian presence in Sudan was somewhat overextended, and the border area in Mordechai Abir’s words, became “a vast no man’s land … between the most forward posts of the Egyptians and what Ethiopian lords considered to be their territories” (Abir, p. 447) Fighting along this frontier continued on and off, and in May 1842, Muhammad Ali told the French consul-general in Egypt that “hostilities between the population of Ethiopia and the Egyptians were never serious,” but that military actions in the area disturbed the caravan trade and Egypt wanted to protect it (Abir, p. 447). By the end of 1848, the Egyptians were unable to defend the Red Sea coast and evacuated Massawa and surrounding areas. Yet as for the “undefined and contested border” between the two countries, “Rebels, highwaymen and malcontents of different sorts were using each side against the other” (Abir, p. 460).

The conflict would heat up again in the 1870s when Egypt was ruled by Khedive Ismail, Muhammad Ali’s grandson,
and Ethiopia by Emperor Yohannes IV (reigned 1871- 1889). In 1865, Egypt regained control of Massawa, and seven years later occupied lands between Massawa and Sudan. In 1875, the Egyptians captured the important trading center at Harar and consolidated their control over the Somali coast. However, despite having good relations with King Menelik of Shewa – who would later be crowned Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia in 1889 – the Egyptians were defeated handily by Emperor Yohannes’ forces, four times larger in number, at Gura, located in present-day Eritrea southeast of Asmara, in March 1876 (Yohannes, 1991, pp. 37-38; Marcus, 1994, pp. 74-75). The Egyptians would hold on to parts of Eritrea into the early 1880s when they abandoned Sudan, which fell under the control of the Mahdi, and Italy invaded Eritrea. In 1899, Britain set up the Anglo-Egyptian condominium in Sudan, which despite its name, was essentially run by the British governors-general until Sudan was granted independence in 1956. In May 1902, an Anglo-Ethiopian treaty was signed – the negotiation over which Egypt was not a participant and a treaty was never ratified by either the British Parliament or Ethiopia’s Crown Council – demarcating the Sudanese-Egyptian border (Hanna, 2019, p. 2902). Also, Emperor Menelik II agreed not to construct or allow it to be constructed and works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana or the Sabot [meaning the Sobat River, now located in South Sudan, but has tributaries originating in Ethiopia] which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of Sudan (Kendie, 1999, p. 146).

Meanwhile, Emperor Menelik II, who would rule Ethiopia until his death in 1913, instituted a process of modernizing
his country. Infrastructure was either improved or built anew in Addis Ababa; schools (which employed Egyptian teachers), hospitals and a government press as well as a national postal system – which also offered telephone and telegraphic service – and a bank were established. In March 1905, the last institution, known as the Bank of Abyssinia, was created as an affiliate of the National Bank of Egypt (Marcus, 1994, p. 107). This financial institution,
which issued bank notes and engaged in commercial banking was a fifty-year concession with shares in the operation owned by British, French and Italian groups, and conducted most transactions in Maria Theresa thalers, even though world banking was based on the gold standard. It began operations in Addis Ababa in February 1906. In 1930, Emperor Haile Selassie, who at one time was a member of the Board of Directors, nationalized the bank and provided adequate compensation to the shareholders. It was chartered as the Bank of Ethiopia in August 1931, with private shareholders participating in a joint-stock company, though operations were fully controlled by the Ethiopian government; however, the company was liquidated by the Italians in 1936 (Mauri, 2010, pp. 104-106, 108-110, and 114-115). When the Bank of Ethiopia was reopened in 1943, Egyptians were invited to provide technical assistance, in addition to Ethiopia’s Department of Mines, Coal, Customs, and Factory Management (Hanna, 2019, p. 2903). Besides the national bank, Menelik created a Ministry of Education with an Egyptian educator in charge until 1936 (Hanna, 2019, p. 2903).

Luckily, Ethiopia avoided participation in the First World War as all its European colonial neighbors were members of the Entente, though Menelik’s grandson, Emperor Iyasu V (reigned 1913-1916) flirted with the Ottoman Empire, a member of the Central Powers (Bishku, 2022, p.3); he was replaced by Menelik’s daughter Zewditu (reigned 1916- 1930), who was succeeded by Haile Selassie, though the latter, as heir apparent, wielded a certain amount of power over Ethiopia’s internal administration and foreign policy during Zewditu’s reign. Egypt, however, was pulled into the war effort, being forced to provide labor and commodities for the British army; Britain’s policies provoked nationalist fervor throughout the country following the war and forced the British to concede Egypt’s independence in 1922 with four reservations: 1) the maintenance of security for Imperial communications; 2) influence in defense matters; 3) protection of foreign interests and minorities in Egypt; and 4) administration of Sudan. In 1936, Egypt gained the right to make treaties with foreign countries, while the British relinquished their reservations withdrawing their military forces to the Suez Canal and allowing Egypt some influence over Sudanese affairs. The following year, Egypt joined the League of Nations.

Egypt and Ethiopia established formal diplomatic relations in 1927, with Egypt opening a consulate in Addis Ababa (Egypt, State Information Service, 2019). However, in 1924, one year after Ethiopia joined the League of Nations, an organization which Haile Selassie mistakenly believed would provide Ethiopia with adequate collective security, the heir apparent to the Ethiopian throne visited Egypt. His main goal was to meet with the Coptic patriarch and convince that official to have the current old bishop in Ethiopia (Matewos) be replaced with an Ethiopian upon his death – which happened in 1926 – and to allow his successors to appoint other bishops in Ethiopia, requests that were denied as was a demand to have the keys to the Jerusalem monastery of Deir alSultan at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Erlich, 2002, pp. 97-98); the first set of issues were eventually settled with autocephaly being granted in 1959, while the second issue, was decided by the Israeli government in favor of the Ethiopians in 1970 (“Deir es-Sultan Monastery’s,” 2018). Haile Selassie also visited the Delta Barrages, built during the mid-nineteenth century and repaired during the British occupation of Egypt to provide irrigation for agriculture (Erlich, 2002, p. 97).
In 1929, Egypt and Britain signed an agreement stipulating that “no irrigation or power works or measures are to be constructed or taken on the River Nile or its tributaries, or on the lakes from which it flows in so far as all these are in Sudan or in countries under British administration, which would entail prejudice to the interests of Egypt.”
As Ethiopia was never a British colony, once again restrictions did not apply to that country (Kendie, 1999, p. 147). Meanwhile, Egypt and Ethiopia engaged in trade with the former exporting food products, while importing coffee, fabrics and shoes (Hanna, 2019, p. 2903). In April 1935, just six months before Italy invaded Ethiopia, an Ethiopian delegation unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate a treaty of friendship with Egypt. The Italian legation in Cairo informed the Egyptian government that such would be regarded as “an unfriendly act towards Italy,” even though Egypt could not have taken such action until the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of August 1936. Yet it was the Italian invasion of Ethiopia that influenced Egypt and Britain to arrive at that agreement. While some Egyptians volunteered to fight against the Italians or to serve in Red Crescent medical teams on the battlefield, there was also a small segment of ultranationalists who disliked Ethiopia due to their perception of its treatment of Muslims in that country and/or the fact that Italy might pose a useful threat to eliminate all British influence in Egypt (Arielli, 2013, pp. 54-58).
In April 1942, Ethiopia demanded that Britain, which had established a military administration over Eritrea, turn over to its control of that territory based on historical and ethnic arguments and as a form of reparation for Italy’s aggression against Ethiopia. Egypt, for its part, submitted a memorandum to the victorious Allied countries in 1946 laying claim to Eritrea on historical and economic grounds, the latter due to the importance of the port of Massawa for the external trade of inland Sudan (Yohannes, 1991, pp. 73-76). In 1952, the United Nations under pressure from the United States, approved Eritrea being in a federation with pro-Western Ethiopia. Eritrea was to have autonomy on all matters except foreign affairs, defence and currency, but Ethiopia proceeded to weaken the territory’s status and character, including, in 1957, replacing Tigrinya and Arabic with Amharic as the official language. In 1962, Ethiopia annexed Eritrea, one year after conflict ensued with Egypt’s Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had overthrown the Egyptian monarchy ten years earlier, providing support to the Eritrean insurgents.
The Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF), established in July 1960, was dominated by Eritrean Muslims and had a military training base near Alexandria, Egypt (Erlich, 1994, pp. 130-133) until 1963 when the group moved to Syria. Beginning in 1962, Nasser concentrated on the war in Yemen against the royalist government there, the event which prompted Ethiopia to annex Eritrea (Erlich, 1994, p. 139). Also, the ELF base was closed so that Nasser could join host Haile Selassie in the opening ceremony for the Organization of African States’ (OAU) headquarters in Addis Ababa (Erlich, 2014, pp. 139-140). Yet the ELF’s inspiration had been formed when its leaders were in exile in Egypt as it “depicted the rebellion in Eritrea as part of a pan-Arab revolution and Ethiopia as a satellite of colonialism and Zionism.” Indeed, one of its founders, Ibrahim Sultan, stated the following at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964: “We the Eritreans are Arabs no less than the Palestinians. We fight against the Jews of Africa as personified by the emperor and his government – the offspring of Solomon, the Lion of Judah, just like the Palestinians fight against the Jews in Palestine” (Erlich, 2002, p. 147).
Yet when the Ethiopian emperor visited Cairo in June 1959, Nasser praised Haile Selassie, revealing that he met the emperor in 1940 as an army officer stationed in Khartoum and had admired him since then, while Haile Selassie “was less gracious,” but as Haggai Erlich points out the visit “highlighted the contradiction between the two leaders’ rhetoric and mutual suspicion in which each held the other” (Erlich, 1994, p. 137). Indeed, the suspicions had merit as Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement on water usage of the Nile in November 1959 with a unified approach to any consent for its use by other upstream riparian states, much to the displeasure of Ethiopia and all the latter countries (Shapland, 1997, p. 74). Also, Ethiopia was developing an alliance with Israel, which, as part of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was in rivalry with Egypt for influence in Africa. Although Ethiopia had abstained in the 1947 United Nations vote to partition Palestine and did not grant de jure recognition to Israel until 1961, it became part of Israel’s secret Peripheral Alliance, in 1958, which also included Turkey and Iran and whose purpose in Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s words was: “to stand up steadfastly to Soviet expansion through Nasser” (“Ben-Gurion to Eisenhower,” 1958). Israel established an embassy in Addis Ababa in 1962 and assisted Ethiopia in intelligence and security matters, but Haile Selassie kept the relationship very low-key even after Nasser died in 1970, and never opened up an embassy in Israel until it broke off relations in October 1973. Yet as late as December 1972, Haile Selassie “expressed sympathy for Israel in private and shared his fears with the Israeli ambassador [Hanan Aynor] that the Arabs would penetrate Central Africa and turn Islam into a subversive movement” (Erlich, 2014, p. 237). Also, before Ethiopia broke relations with Israel, in July 1973, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat, whom Haile Selassie had visited two years earlier and had built a trusting relationship with, tried unsuccessfully to get Syria and Libya to stop supporting the Eritreans while suggesting that Ethiopia should grant autonomy to Eritrea (Erlich, 2014, p. 250).
With the overthrow of Haile Selassie in September 1974 by the military, whose leadership was known as the Derg, and the increasing radicalization of that group, geopolitics in the region substantially changed. Mengistu Haile Mariam became its undisputed leader by 1977 and subsequently developed close ties with the Soviet bloc. Meanwhile, the ELF was challenged and superseded by the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF), which eventually led Eritrea to independence in 1993, while eventually abandoning Marxism and Arab nationalism. Egypt, during Sadat’s tenure, unlike other Arab states, did not get involved in the Eritrean conflict.
It did, however, develop an adversarial relationship with Mengistu’s regime in part by providing support to fellow Arab League member Somalia, which also developed close ties with the United States. During the Ogaden War of July 1977-March 1978 – which began with Mogadishu’s invasion of that Somali-populated province of Ethiopia, but ended with significant Soviet military assistance in the form of advisors and armaments as well as Cuban troops coordinating together with their Ethiopian counterparts to drive the Somalis back across the international border – Egypt sent Somalia, in the past well equipped by the Soviets, armaments worth US$30 million and expressed the concern that the Ethiopian revolution might spread to Sudan (Mekonnen, 2018, pp. 280-281). Mengistu accused Sadat of “fueling the invasion,” while Ethiopia’s government-controlled press compared the Egyptian leader to Khedive Ismail, who was defeated attempting to control the Nile Basin, as well as pointing out that Ethiopia could cut off the flow of the Blue Nile. (Erlich, 2002, pp. 166-167; Mekonnen, 2018, pp. 281-282). Following the war, in 1979, when Sadat proposed piping water from the Nile for irrigation in the northern Sinai, Mengistu threatened to retaliate by reducing the flow of
the Blue Nile; Sadat responded by issuing the following warning: “If Ethiopia takes any action to block our right to the Nile water, there will be no alternative for us but to use force” (Swain, 1997, p. 687).

Egypt & Ethiopia – resource tensions or complementarity

Sadat’s assassination facilitated better relations between the two countries. In 1983, Egypt’s ambassador to Ethiopia, Samir Ahmed, delivered a series of lectures at Addis Ababa University compiled in a book titled Egypt and Africa: on the Road to Cooperation, which in part emphasized: “the desire to put the historical thorny relations between Ethiopia and Egypt aside” (Mekonnen, 2018, pp. 287-288). Yet nothing was done to address matters concerning usage of the Nile River, and in 1988 Egypt blocked a loan from the African Development Bank that Ethiopia sought for the construction of the Tala Beles Project, which would take water from Lake Tana to the Beles River through a series of five dams to generate hydroelectric power and provide irrigation (Kendie, 1999, p. 158). Nevertheless, between 1981 and 1985, Egypt did propose scholarships to Ethiopians in the fields of agriculture, mass media, water engineering, nursing, maritime transit, industrial development and higher education as well as joint projects such as exhibitions and
workshops and invitations for Ethiopian officials to visit Egypt, but all offers were turned down. In 1984, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had been Sadat’s Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs and felt that Egypt’s greatest security threat came from the south, met with Mengistu twice as did Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ismat Abdel-Maguid once, thus facilitating a visit to Mengistu in Ethiopia by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) in July 1985; the two leaders got along well on a personal level (Erlich, 2002, p. 170). A few months before, a trade agreement was signed providing for Ethiopia to export agricultural products to Egypt, while Egypt would export processed industrial goods to Ethiopia, but no action was taken on implementation (Yihun, 2014, p. 77). Mubarak participated in the OAU summit in Addis Ababa in July 1986, and when there invited Mengistu to visit Egypt, while Egyptian Foreign Ministry officials apologized for Sadat’s supplying Somalia with weapons in the Ogaden War (Yihun, 2014, p. 78). Mengistu made an official visit to Egypt in April 1987, mostly because he was dissatisfied with financial assistance from the Soviet Union (Erlich, 2002, p. 176); during his time in Cairo, it was agreed to establish a Joint Ministerial Economic Commission, but the famine of 1983-1985 and a radical policy of resettlement in the countryside had alienated much of the population, while Mengistu was unable to defeat militarily the Tigrayans, who dominated the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), and the Eritreans of the EPLF; Mengistu’s days in power were numbered. By July 1993, with Mengistu gone from the scene having fled into exile in Zimbabwe in 1991, Mubarak and Ethiopia’s then-President (later prime minister from 1995 until his death in 2012) Meles Zenawi, who had been the leader of the victorious EPRDF, signed a treaty in which for the first time Egypt acknowledged Ethiopia’s right to share in the Nile Basin’s water, while both countries committed not to engage in any activity which might harm the interests of the other country. However, three years later, Ethiopia built two dams on the Blue Nile without consulting Egypt, while in 1997, Egypt began plans on the New Valley Project, a system of canals from Lake Nasser, created with the construction of the Aswan High Dam (1960-1970), to irrigate the Western Desert, without informing countries upriver (Lawson, 2016, p. 97-98). Writing in the mid-1990s, one knowledgeable observer noted “Given that Ethiopia is projected to have more people to feed by 2025 than Egypt, [this happened earlier than predicted] the Government is obviously going to maintain the nation’s sovereign right to develop all resources within its borders (Swain, 1997, p. 689). Yet in February 1999, in Dar-es-Salaam, representatives from nine countries – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – agreed on the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), whose purpose was “to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile basin water resources” (Tawfik, 2016, p.71).

Negotiations subsequently commenced for a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), but disagreements developed between Egypt and Sudan on one side and the upstream states on the other side over the wording of one proposed Article concerning the issue of water security. Egypt opposed a decision by a two-thirds majority vote unless such included downstream states; when six of the seven upstream countries involved in the NBI (all except the DRC) signed the CFA by February 2011, Egypt and Sudan froze their participation in the NBI (Tawfik, 2016, pp. 72-73). By then, Egypt was in the midst of the Arab Spring that forced Mubarak to resign from the presidency. However, back
in 2010, a high-level official close to Mubarak wrote in an email published by WikiLeaks: The only country that is not cooperating is Ethiopia. We are continuing … the diplomatic approach. Yes, we are discussing mlitary cooperation with Sudan. If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the [proposed] dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces into block/sabotage the dam (Abebe, 2014, p. 33).
In April 2011, Ethiopia announced the beginning of construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which had been in the planning stages for some time, about 40 kilometers east of the Sudanese border. It is the largest dam in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. Negotiations took place periodically beginning in 2013 between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Under Prime Ministers Hailemariam Desalegn (2012-2018) and Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia has claimed its “right to utilize one of its resources for national development under international law of equitable use of transboundary water bodies,” while Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has claimed its rights to water usage under previous international agreements (Maru, 2020). In 2015, the three countries signed a declaration of principles under which Egypt and Sudan agreed that Ethiopia had the right to develop GERD and that an agreement needed to be reached on a timetable for filling the dam’s reservoir and on water release in the event of droughts (Soliman, 2021; Mbaku, 2020); however, no such agreement was completed before the first filling of the dam’s reservoir in 2020 despite mediation attempts by the African Union and the United States.

Egypt & Ethiopia: resource tensions or complementarity? Conclusion.

Egypt and Ethiopia have a long history of interactions that have varied between cooperation and contention. Culturally, their respective populations share two religions, Coptic Christianity and Islam of the Sunni sect, while geographically they share the resources of the Nile River Basin. These connections have facilitated mutually beneficial trade, but also have led to periodic confrontations or at the very least disputes. Fluctuating borders and control of trade routes and resources led to conflict during the nineteenth century. During the first half the twentieth century, Egypt and Ethiopia, two of only three independent African states – Liberia being the other one – despite periodic cooperation, still faced political pressure from the European powers. Since then, while the Ethiopian church achieved autocephaly, the Cold War, the Arab-Israeli conflict, droughts and population growth have at times negatively affected bilateral relations and there is currently a dangerous deadlock over usage of the Nile waters.


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