Water Politics and the basics of Statecraft

As if being the President of a nation that has just emerged from a nearly uninterrupted period of autocratic rule with 40% of the nation below the poverty line and an Armed Forces who spent 30 years trying to remove you wasn’t hard enough? For those who are lost, I am of course referring to Mohammed Morsi, the current president of Egypt.

The story of The Muslim Brotherhood’s performance in government since the start of the Arab Spring may be about the only real consolation for the ex-Mubarak era officials, but the recent crisis with Ethiopia is one where few Egyptian’s would want to gloat about. Again you may be asking what I am talking about….

The Renaissance Dam project which was unanimously approved by the Ethiopian government today marks the beginning of a $4.7 Billion project to divert the course of the Blue Nile. The members of the Upper Nile states say that the project, which will generate 6,000MW of energy (10 times the current usage in Ethiopia), will be good for regional economies and that delaying water into the Egyptian part of the Nile will in fact improve water flow over the year and reduce water loss through evaporation. Needless to say the Egyptians don’t seem to be persuaded.

In fact, the Egyptian government is so upset and uncertain about how to react that the most senior members of government have even been suggesting directly bombing the dam, arming rebels in the country and a wide plethora of malicious acts against another Sovereign nation.

But how do we know this I hear you ask? Well for that thank the wonderful media relations staff of the Muslim Brotherhood who decided, at late notice, to broadcast the discussions of a high level meeting of senior Egyptian members of government…and not tell them it was being broadcast…..I’m genuinely serious  (See the following link.)

Now admittedly this could be a lot worse for Morsi.

1. He personally didn’t agree with violence whilst being broadcast and

2. The country they threatened is Ethiopia….

As you can see the list of good points in this scenario is fairly thin on the ground, so I am going to boldly suggest a few points here to President Morsi on basic statecraft:

  1. It is always easier to stop something from happening if you get involved before it begins. Egypt could have offered to send its own assistants to help structurally survey the sight and in return for help on the project they could use the leverage to negotiate the water they get. Failing that they could simply have galvanised the international community by calling for a moratorium to the project on the grounds of a required Environmental survey along the length of the Blue Nile. Both of these options now would be difficult at best to implement.
  2. If your character and credibility is questioned by the comments of an individual, distance is a powerful thing. Statements of intent also help and firing the individuals (even if they didn’t know and thought it was a free forum) sends a message of good faith to try the negotiation tactic once again.
  3. Exerting power through soft means: economic, quiet words with friends in the diplomatic community, leaning on organisations with influence, is often far more effective than threatening to drop a bomb. As one of the largest and wealthiest states in Africa with a significant amount of military capability (important for the development of the AU) and a leader for many in the Muslim and Arab world (not to mention their leading role in the Non Aligned Movement), Egypt has tremendous soft power leverage and again this should have been exercised earlier in the projects lifespan.
  4. Divide and Conquer. It is an age old, tried and tested technique, but with the water from the Nile being so vital to the survival of the states along the Blue Nile delta, it would seem that the failure to break-away some of the 7 nations who agreed to the Dam deal with the Ethiopian government is the sign of pretty poor statecraft.

So now we wait and see the outcome of the latest debacle. Will Morsi recover and be able to offer a compromise that at least publically spares him face with the Egyptian people or will he be humiliated in front of the entire nation (as well as humiliating the Brotherhood on the global stage)….or will the Egyptians carry out a military response and what would the consequences of that be……well ok admittedly consequences  in a truly lightning and exciting manor may be difficult for Ethiopia in this particular context, but at least politically the fall-out could have wide-ranging implications for Egypt’s standing both internationally and at home.

All of this however simply underscores a more fundamental point though which is that when the chips are down it appears, at least in Egypt, that having water in your rivers is more important than electricity to charge your iPod.  


One thought on “Water Politics and the basics of Statecraft

  1. Pingback: ‘The View From Lawrence Street’ by Christopher Jackson | The Vintage Magazine – Save the Best for Last

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