In the 5th century BC, the great historian and traveller Herodotus said that Egypt is the gift of the River Nile. Four hundred years later the Roman poet Tibullus venerated the Nile, saying: "Along thy bank, not any prayer is made to Jove for fruitful showers. On thee, they call!"
In the twentieth century, Egypt's "Prince of Poets", Ahmed Shawqi, wrote: "The Nile is negus, nice and brownish. Its colour is a wonder, gold, and marble. Its arghul within its hand, lauding its lord. The life of our country, O God increase it."
When Mohammed Abdel Wahhab chanted the poem in the movie The White Rose in 1933, the Egyptians were angry and objected to Shawqi's attempt to attribute the great River Nile to the negus, a title of the King of Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia. Shawqi reassured the Egyptian people by explaining that the word negus is from the Amharic language, and he used it to convey the meaning that the Nile is king because of the great and glorious role it plays in the life of Egypt.
A lot of Nile water has flowed by since then, and today the ruler is ruled by Ethiopia. When Shawqi described the Nile as king Egypt was powerful, with geographic dominance extending into Africa. This was especially so during the era of President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who supported revolutions across the continent with weapons and funds. Under Nasser, Cairo was an incubator of African revolutions.
The famed Al-Azhar University sent educational and religious missions across Africa, as well as cultural delegations. The African-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organisation (AAPSO) was established in 1957 to become one of the branches of the Bandung Conference, which is a Cairo-based international NGO promoting national liberation and solidarity between Third World peoples. The organisation was headed by prominent and culturally significant Egyptian personalities, who played an important role in strengthening the friendship between Egypt and African countries, such as the former Minister of Culture, writer Youssef El Sebai, the great writer Abdel Rahman El-Sharkawy and Ahmed Hamroush.
This all happened during the Cold War when the world was divided into two camps: the Eastern Bloc led by the Soviet Union; and the West led by the United States. Egypt was closer to the Soviets. Nevertheless, as Egypt moved gradually towards the US, its role in the Horn of Africa started to decline. It has disappeared totally for the past 30 years, while Cairo's active participation in African summits also diminished slowly, especially after the 1995 assassination attempt against former President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa.
Thirty years of arrogance and maintaining its distance from Africa have had consequences for Egypt, the effects of which we can see today. Egypt has basically left Africa willingly, despite all the gains it made there. The vacuum it left behind has been filled by China from the east, replacing the old Soviet Union in the continent; Italy from the north; and Zionist Israel infiltrating deep within Africa post-Oslo. Most of the African countries which refrained from establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in support of the Palestinians started to shift towards normalisation with the occupation state following the signing of the treaty in 1993, as they could not be more loyal to the cause than its own advocates in the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
Egypt is no longer the state that Africans knew, and Ethiopia, from where 85 per cent of the Nile's water comes, is no longer Cairo's ally. Emperor Haile Selassie, who used to bow down to kiss the hand of the Pope of Alexandria, Abba Kyrillos, is gone, as is President Mengistu Haile Mariam, and the Communists took power in 1974 amid a policy change in Egypt and the leap it made towards the West.
The current issue between Egypt and Ethiopia focuses on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, but it is simply another episode in a series of events that began four decades ago, in which Egypt is paying the price of the decline of its status regionally and internationally. The world has changed, but we refused to see and recognise the shift.
The idea of building the dam is not new; it has been the Ethiopian dream for more than half a century. In 1956, American engineers working in the US Bureau of Reclamation conducted a comprehensive survey of the Blue Nile to determine the most appropriate places to build a gigantic dam during the rule of Haile Selassie. The US and the World Bank were supposed to finance the project, but it was suspended following the military coup in 1974 and the collapse of the Ethiopian Empire under military rulers supported by the Soviet Union.
This happened mainly because Ethiopia was a poor state lacking the financial resources to build the dam. Egypt was the main country downstream and the most prominent power in the Nile Basin. Its Western allies would not allow a pro-Soviet state to control the Nile through a huge dam funded by Moscow.
The ambitions of the Ethiopians remain, though, as does their enthusiasm for controlling the Nile; they believe that it is their right to exploit "their" water resources. Hence the Renaissance Dam was kept on the agenda, even though Ethiopia constructed several other dams. It is, quite simply, Project X, as it was known in political circles, one of the few issues that can unite the Ethiopian people torn apart by racial, ethnic, and sectarian conflicts.
Egypt holds on to the 1929 and 1959 treaties that regulate the use of the Nile water and prevent the external financing of dams in the Nile Basin. Under these agreements, Cairo had the right to veto any project that might threaten its water share and rights. That is why the efforts of successive Ethiopian governments to seek funding for the dam failed, to the point that Addis Ababa had to blame Egypt openly for putting pressure on international investors to refrain from getting involved, claiming that it was illegal, but since when has politics been about what is legal and what is not?
For more than twenty years of negotiations Egypt has never paid attention to the demands of the upstream countries and was never bothered by the fact that feasibility studies were being conducted by them. Ethiopia's position was clear from the beginning, but we Egyptians tend to deceive ourselves, which means that, absurdly, such talks are still being held today. From one failure to another, our issue has become as futile as the Palestinians' negotiations with the settler-colonial entity.
The world changed but we refused to see it; we refused to acknowledge this change even to ourselves, and it was only natural for countries to change too, just like Ethiopia. Addis Ababa used to complain about the political and economic influence backed by international and regional relations that gave Egypt the upper hand in the Nile Basin and impede the construction of the Renaissance Dam. The situation is now largely reversed, as international capital has been poured into Ethiopia, which has seized the opportunity to build the dam, despite the riparian countries' opposition. Egypt and Sudan both feel that they will lose out on their share of water from the Nile, with untold damage to their people and economy.
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said recently that 79 per cent of the dam has already been built. The first phase of filling the reservoir behind the dam started last August during one of the seemingly endless rounds of negotiations with Sudan and Egypt. Addis Ababa insists in a wondrously challenging tone, that the second phase will go ahead as scheduled in July.
"No force on earth will prevent us from building and filling our dam," Ethiopia has declared. "We have the right to build it and we cannot join an agreement that would deprive us of our current and inevitably legitimate rights to use the River Nile."
These are not empty statements for consumption by local media in the war of words in which Egypt has claimed that "The waters of the Nile are a red line" and "All options are possible." They reveal Ethiopia's confidence in its position, knowing that it has the support of international and regional powers urging them to finish the dam.
It is not hard to guess which powers they are; just look at the size of the investments made, for example, by China in projects related to the dam. According to international news agencies, China agreed on a loan of $1.2 billion in 2013 to finance the delivery of hydro-electricity supplies from the dam to Ethiopia's main cities, and another $1.8 billion loan was advanced in 2019 to purchase the turbines needed for the dam.
The US, meanwhile, is trying to compete with Chinese influence, and boosted the Ethiopian economy by giving the green light for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to lend Ethiopia $2.9 billion in 2019, despite the fact that an international decision was issued to stop financing the dam in 2014 in light of the ongoing dispute. However, after Egypt signed the 2015 Khartoum Document — the terms of which are not yet known — international finance poured in, and the US decided in March last year to invest another $5 billion in the project.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to get involved. Abu Dhabi offered Ethiopia deposits and investments worth $3 billion in June 2018 and sponsored the reconciliation agreement between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which saw Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed becoming a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 2019.
The question now is what will Cairo do about this dangerous challenge it faces from major countries, which it considers to be its friends and allies but which stand with Ethiopia in a project that will deprive Egypt of more than 20 per cent of its share of water from the Nile. No country stands ready to actually exert pressure on Addis Ababa to make concessions and heal the rift with Cairo.
Moreover, a former Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources has made a shocking revelation. "Egypt did not stand in the way of building the Renaissance Dam," said Dr Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam. "Egypt agreed and candidly signed the Declaration of Principles in March 2015, and did not object to the size of the storage or to the fact that the stored quantity will be taken from Egypt's share."
The Nile has been "negus" for thousands of years; Egypt loved it and it loved Egypt, but love alone is not enough. Our ancestors respected, glorified, and fought for the river, but will the grandchildren who dump their waste and sewage into the great river ever fight for it? Is the Nile still king in Egypt? God alone knows.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.