Egypt’s Economy, the Nile Waters, Libya and the Military

If the Egyptian military has had a strategy entirely of its own apart from its concern over its economic pre-eminence within Egypt, it is securing Egypt’s borders as well as the waters of the Nile.

If Egypt has had a ‘cold peace’ with Israel, this has not been entirely the result of public emotion over the undemocratic nature of the treaties signed at Camp David. It is also due to the fact that the Egyptian military has continued to view Israel as Egypt’s main enemy. This was despite Mubarak’s cosy business relationship with the Israeli leadership. Irrespective of the prodding by the US to reconfigure its positions on the ground, the Egyptian military has insisted on keeping a structure that assumes that Israel may attack at any time: hence the ‘cold peace’. If everybody is wondering why when the Libyan Justice Minister and close confidant of Ghaddafi defected to the rebellion and then visited Egypt for help in structuring an offensive against Ghaddafi the Egyptian military refused, it is for this reason. The greatest danger in this period of instability is perceived as the possibility of a re-invasion of Sinai by Israel. Reconfiguring Egypt troop positions in this period was inconceivable. On the other hand, Mustapha Abdul Jalil did get what he wanted because it was the Egyptian military which pressured the Arab League to vote for a no fly zone (with the help of the US of course).

Which brings us to the matter of the Nile waters and the Mubarak era: Mubarak was funding a massive irrigation project in the North Sinai desert called the North Sinai Agricultural Development Project ( NSADP) which was going forward despite the severe warnings from an environmental impact study. Since 1987 this project had been diverting Nile water to agricultural development plots west of the Suez Canal. This water was supplied through two tunnels under the Suez Canal. When in 1996 Mubarak announced the opening of a third tunnel, it became clear that a final leg of the project would bring Nile water to just south of the North Sinai town of El Arish, only 40 km away from the border of the Gaza Strip at Rafah. There have been rumours, given the study of Israeli water expert Elisha Kally 1974 aimed at bringing Nile water to Israel, that the ultimate goal of the project was precisely this. Given Mubarak’s ‘ultra-cheap gas’ deal with Israel, it is not conceivable that a similar water deal might have been dreamt up by the corrupt regime of Mubarak for personal gain – at a massive cost for Egypt and indeed for Africa.

So what was Mubarak’s Nile water policy. How could he think that he could suddenly divert water not just to the desert of Sinai but ultimately to Israel? In respect of the lower Nile countries – he simply threatened them with military action if they interfered in any way with the current arrangement where Egypt uses 75% of the Nile water (55.5 billion cubic meters of water per annum), compared with 11% for Sudan and 1% for Ethiopia, and the remaining 13% amongst Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, and Uganda. Already Mubarak’s Tushka project in Southern Egypt was a huge drain on the river’s water. Perhaps Mubarak hoped that he and Israel could put together a punitive force which would blow these countries up if Israel received a share of the water. Certainly the US would never be able to object to such an ‘alliance’. This isn’t clear though – it is speculative.

But what is clear is that when the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA) amongst the countries south of the Sudan was proposed on April 13, 2010, DR Congo and Burundi didn’t sign the document like the others on May 14th. It was reported by AP on 12/07/2010 – 2:57 p.m. GMT that local Burundi newspapers carried allegations of the bribing of Burundi officials by Egypt. It is isn’t clear why DR Congo didn’t sign, but assuming similar reasons couldn’t be far off the truth. Burundi Minister Degratias N’Duimana has been on record saying that Egypt has regularly used divide and rule tactics, leveraging off the Burundi Muslim community to achieve its aims of reducing water consumption in the country.

As of 03/03/2011 – after the departure of Mubarak – Burundi has now signed the agreement, which involves a plan for a new dam in Ethiopia and various projects throughout the other countries. The current Assistant Foreign Minister for Foreign Affairs for Egypt – Mona Omar – has stated a new policy that eschews the violence and manipulation that was Mubarak’s principal modus operandi and instead embraces negotiation and compromise. This blog carried a piece earlier regarding Farouk el-Baz’s ‘superhighway’ built partially to use desert aquifers as a source of water. It is unlikely and unwise to consider such aquifers to be a panacea in respect of Egypt water needs. Nile water may also be needed for this project.

Thus it is vital that the statement by Mona Omar should be expanded into a full-blown policy of economic development, free trade and free movement of capital and labour between all Nile countries in order to achieve economic balance all along the Nile and afford opportunities for Egyptians in African countries that have existing underutilised potential, while giving the Nilotic peoples all the opportunity of exploiting Egypt’s strategic location as well as its other commercial resources. The Egyptian military would also then be freed from the potential liability of having to plan for ridiculous potential punitive measures in deepest Africa. It would seem that from Egypt’s long term perspective that the end of the Mubarak era could not have come at a more crucial time in the country’s history.



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