Egyptian officials expressed their disagreement with Ethiopia since it started building the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. That frustration kept gaining in intensity and it has now reached the level of mutual military threats. So can external mediation stop the escalation?
As a desert country, Egypt relies on the Nile for its drinking water, agriculture, industry, transport, etc. Because of the Pharaonic civilization and subsequent strong political systems that appeared in Egypt over centuries, the Nile is often seen by outsiders as an Egyptian property. Moreover, Egypt exploited the Nile exhaustively, as exemplified by building the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. However, the river is shared with eleven countries, and one of its major tributaries -the Blue Nile- originates in Ethiopia and crosses Sudan. Yet Ethiopia and Sudan spent decades fighting political instability, foreign intervention and internal dissent, which decreased their ability to use the Nile the way Egypt did.
But while Sudan could not get over its problems, Ethiopia has been living an economic boom since the 1990s, which also resulted in demographic explosion. Consequently, the country’s leadership turned to the Nile: mastering nature would increase Ethiopia’s economic and diplomatic power. So when Egypt seemed in a position of weakness, i.e. during the transition and crisis of 2011-2013, Addis Ababa jumped at the opportunity to hasten the work on its Renaissance Dam. Egypt reacted by calling for dialogue at moments, and by sending threatening messages at other moments, but the threats reached their climax in recent months.
This situation is a reminder of the importance of strong multilateral institutions. Such escalation should have been monitored by the United Nations (UN) or the African Union. Egypt should not be the dictating force on the Nile, but Ethiopia cannot do as it pleases. And the current threats could have been contained by a peace process as well as mediation efforts that would offer both sides guarantees and advantages. Moreover, the hegemonic power which in the past would replace -or undermine- the UN, i.e. the United States of America (US), is withdrawing from the global stage. It is here that Russia is carving a place for itself.
Moscow’s relationship with Ethiopia and Egypt follows a similar trend: the Soviet Union was at some point an ally, but the two countries then joined the US axis, especially after the end of the Cold War. Since 2013, Egypt is trying to get closer to Russia again. And Ethiopia, which feels the burden of another power, China, is also looking for new partners. Russia is therefore well placed to be the mediator and the new ally, using its historic connections, military and nuclear industry, and good relations with all sides. Furthermore, the issue between Cairo and Addis Ababa did not reach a point of no return, as it is only rhetorical at this point. Additionally, both countries have their share of social and economic problems and would prefer avoiding war.
The October Sochi meetings between the Russian, Ethiopian and Egyptian leaderships, if they lead to agreements about the use of the Nile water, would improve the future of the nations of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. They could also consolidate Russia’s role as a global mediator, which it started building through the Astana Process regarding Syria. Finally, if successful, such action would give Moscow a symbolic aura it needs as it attempts to reenter Africa.