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  • February 9, 2013

    Into the Fray: Egypt: A doomed nation?


      Looking out across the vastness of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it is difficult to see why Ethiopia is known as a land plagued by horrific droughts. – BBC, “Nile restrictions anger Ethiopia,” February 3, 2005

      Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war. – Egyptian president Anwar Sadat – cited in “The Waters Of Life,” Time, April 23, 2006.

      While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara into something green, we in Ethiopia – which is the source of 85 percent of that water – are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves… and forced to beg for food every year. – Ethiopia’s late prime minister Meles Zenawi, February 3, 2005.

    The Greek historian Herodotus (c.484- 425 BCE) is credited with designating Egypt “The Gift of the Nile.” Today, tens of millions of Egyptians might consider the epithet “gift” singularly misplaced.

    Writing on the wall?

    The recent unrest that has raged across Egypt has once again thrust the country into the center of international attention. Indeed, there is a growing realization that the gap between the challenges facing the country and its ability to meet them – in even a minimally adequate fashion – is widening, perhaps irretrievably, making a humanitarian catastrophe of staggering proportions evermore likely.

    Of course, Egypt has been teetering on the brink of political and societal collapse for a quite some time now – well before the advent of the “Arab Spring” – another curiously inapt misnomer.

    For example, in a remarkably prescient essay, “Is Egypt stable?,” in the Middle East Quarterly (Vol. 14, 3, 2009), Prof. Aladdin Elaasar diagnosed virtually all the socioeconomic ills and political dysfunctionalities that were to lead to the ousting of the Mubarak regime, the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its inimical posture toward Israel, almost two years before their occurrence.

    Point of inflection?

    As desperate as the situation was in pre-revolution Egypt, January 2011 still comprises a downward “point of inflection,” marking a dramatic acceleration in the degradation of the parameters of Egypt’s society and in the performance of its economy.

    For example, just before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the country’s foreign reserves stood at $36 billion. According to figures released this week by Egypt’s central bank, the foreign currency reserves fell this January to $13.61b., from $15.01b. in December, dropping by 10% in a month.

    These figures signify a decline of a total of $23b. in reserves over the past two years, wiping out well over half of the nation’s reserves.

    Already late last year the central bank warned that levels hovering around $15b. constituted a “critical minimum,” barely enough to cover three months’ worth of imports.

    This recent decline has been accompanied by weeks of political violence, which have driven off foreign investors and tourists, both key foreign currency earners for Egypt.

    Around 12% of Egyptians are normally employed in the tourist industry. According to The Washington Post (December 22, 2012), Egypt’s revolution and ensuing unrest have caused a decline in the number of visitors to the country of about 37%, while revenues have fallen by 30% compared to 2010.

    Impossible impasse

    The figures cast further doubt on Egypt’s ability to qualify for a badly needed $4.8b. loan from the IMF that would shore up investor confidence and enable loans requested from other lenders.

    The political turmoil has also made it considerably more difficult for President Mohamed Morsi to institute unpopular austerity measures such as raising taxes and cutting subsidies which are prerequisites for obtaining the IMF loan. It is doubtful whether his government will carry out such measures before parliamentary elections, due to be held in the coming months.

    Egypt has long been plagued by dire poverty and dramatic income disparities. Nearly half the population lives at or below the $2- a-day poverty line, and is dependent on government subsidies for basic commodities.

    Accordingly, Morsi is thought to be shying away from undertaking any steps that may inflame further violence and risk losing even more support for his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.

    To make matters worse, Egypt recently had its international credit rating cut to “junk” level (Bloomberg, December 24), with even further downgrades looming ahead, making the possibility of raising further desperately needed funds even more remote–and more expensive. In addition, the value of the Egyptian pound has fallen rapidly, raising the price on imports for an increasingly impoverished public.

    Precarious hydrological predicament

    As precarious as Egypt’s political and socioeconomic position is, there lurk, arguably, even greater threats to its future.

    These pertain partly to nature and partly to the developmental ambitions – and imperatives – of its upstream co-riparian states that comprise the Nile basin and through whose territory the river flows.

    Eleven co-riparians share the Nile, which in addition to Egypt are Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and South Sudan – with combined populations of almost 450 million.

    A glance at a satellite photograph will illustrate how dependent life in Egypt is on the river. It will reveal that the country is made up of yellow, uninhabited desert cut by a thin line of green along the course of the Nile as virtually the only place that can sustain human existence. As one involved UN representative remarked, “All of Egyptian life is based on the Nile. Without it there is nothing.”

    The Nile provides around 85% of Egypt’s water today, and according to some estimates, demand will outstrip all current sources of supply within several years.

    Any reduction in availability of the Nile waters would have catastrophic consequences for the country.

    Increasingly untenable monopoly

    Before reaching Egypt, the Nile is fed by the relatively constant-flowing White Nile which originates in Central Africa; and the highly volatile and seasonal Blue Nile and Atbarah rivers, which arise in the Ethiopian highlands.

    The White Nile contributes roughly 15 to 20% of the annual flow of the river, while approximately 75 to 85% is provided by the Blue Nile (60 to 70%) and the Atbarah (around 15%), mainly in the rainy season (January to June).

    Up to now, Cairo has invoked the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement signed by it with Great Britain (as the colonial power of the time representing the upstream riparians Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

    According to this agreement, the Nile waters were to be allotted between Egypt (48 billion cubic meters annually) and Sudan (4 billion cu.m). The agreement also stipulated that no work would be undertaken on the Nile, or its tributaries, that would reduce the volume of water reaching Egypt. Likewise, it gave Egypt the right to inspect, investigate and monitor the flow of Nile water into and out of upstream riparian countries along the entire length of the river.

    Ethiopia, which was not under colonial rule and thus not party to the agreement, also gave an undertaking not to impede the flow of rivers in its territory without the agreement of Great Britain and Sudan.

    With Sudanese independence in 1956, and the commencement of construction of the Aswan Dam, the division of the estimated 84 billion cu.m. flow of the Nile was renegotiated bilaterally between Egypt and Sudan, resulting in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement.

    The agreement reset Egypt’s annual share at 55.5, and Sudan’s at 18.5 billion cu.m., allowing 10 billion cu.m. for evaporation. It did not, however, relate to the needs of the other co-riparians. Indeed, Egypt’s position was that all previous prohibitions stipulated in the 1929 agreement continued to apply.

    Growing upstream discontent

    Until now, it has backed up this position with coercive diplomacy and bellicose declarations, including overt threats of military action.

    The effects of Egypt’s conduct have been devastating for Ethiopia in terms of drought and famine – despite its abundance of water.

    The perversity of the situation in which Ethiopia is the source of 85% of the Nile’s flow, but is virtually prohibited from its use by a country that contributes nothing, is reflected in the introductory excerpts above.

    It is, thus, not surprising that growing discontent is brewing upstream. As the Los Angeles Times reported recently (November 11), in a piece titled “The Nile, Egypt’s lifeline… comes under threat”: “Lately upstream counties, notably Ethiopia, no longer feel bound by colonial-era agreements on water rights and are moving to siphon away larger shares of water for electricity, irrigation and business to meet demands of burgeoning populations.”

    It is in this context that the ongoing socioeconomic and political strife must be viewed – for it is eminently plausible to surmise that a visibly weakened Egypt and its domestically distracted government will be significantly less able to deter “recalcitrant” riparians from new and previously prohibited hydrological initiatives.

    An ascendant Ethiopia

    In many ways, the Ethiopian economy is the diametric converse of the Egyptian one.

    With a population larger that Egypt’s – approaching 90 million – the country has been undergoing an impressive boom.

    In a glowing report on the country’s economic achievements, the Word Bank reported: “Over the past decade, the Ethiopian economy has been growing at twice the rate of the Africa region, averaging, 10.6% GDP growth per year between 2004 and 2011.”

    In its newly launched Ethiopia Economic Update, the bank “attributes this impressive economic growth mainly to agricultural modernization, the development of new export sectors, strong global commodity demand, and government-led development investments.”

    It is against the backdrop of a burgeoning Ethiopian vitality and a sagging, decaying Egypt that an emerging conflict over the water resources of Nile should be seen.

    A strategic game-changer?

    In what could be one the most far-reaching strategic game-changers in the region, Ethiopia has, in defiance Egyptian protests, undertaken a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile, near the Sudanese border.

    The centerpiece of the project has been named the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which on completion will be the one of the largest dams in the world and Africa’s largest hydroelectric project.

    Ethiopians have been reticent in providing details as to the downstream impact of the dam, but have repeatedly reassured the Egyptians that they will not be adversely affected. As the dam is planned for hydroelectric generation only and not large-scale irrigation, they claim that the flow to downstream Sudan and Egypt will be largely undiminished.

    This has done little to allay Egyptian concerns, and there are persistent rumors, denied by Cairo, that it has converted an airfield near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border for military use. Of particular concern is the effect on the flow during the extended period needed to fill the dam.

    Indeed, it is difficult to believe that the dam will have no impact on the river flow.

    Other large dams, such as Turkey’s Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates and Egypt’s own Aswan Dam, have resulted in considerable constriction of downstream flows.

    Admittedly, these dams were intended for large-scale irrigation and not limited to hydroelectric power generation.

    But given the exigencies of maintaining its rapidly growing population, estimated to outstrip Egypt’s by almost 30 million in 2025, one would have to be more than naïve to believe that any government in Addis Ababa could long resist making use of such a massive available supply of water to enhance the welfare and nutrition of its people.

    Putting Palestinian problem in proportion

    While the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a major reason for concern, Egypt has many other water-related worries. For if the Blue Nile project goes ahead, this may embolden other upstream riparians, notably Kenya, that are champing at the bit to discard the fetters of colonial era prohibitions and undertake their own projects.

    As one Kenyan MP once put it: “Kenyans are today importing agricultural produce from Egypt as a result of their use of the Nile water. Why shouldn’t we use the same water to grow fruits in our country?” Why, indeed!

    Then, of course, there is the problem of the entire Nile Delta subsiding, and the emerging need to evacuate and relocate millions. But that requires another essay.

    Still, it does help put the Palestinian issue in perspective, doesn’t it?

    Martin Sherman ( is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies.

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  • Posted by Ted Belman @ 9:43 am | 21 Comments »

    21 Comments to Into the Fray: Egypt: A doomed nation?

    1. Andrew says:

      Fascinating article. I remember not so long ago reading that in the future, all wars will be fought over water.

    2. Wallax says:

      Very informative. Thanks to Martin Sherman.

    3. Nate says:

      Did not know that Ethiopia’s problems are mainly down to Egypt hogging the water, was always led to believe that the horrific droughts either just happened due to the civil war or due to cyclical climatic changes.

      Hope Ethiopia and other countries along the Nile give Egypt and Sudan the finger, they can both eat islam for all I care.

    4. Bert says:

      Access to water as well as to oil can be a source of conflict anywhere in the world. Advanced energy technologies already exist that can cheaply desalinate the oceans and eliminate conflicts over water and also increase the food supply in the process. However the global energy barons oppose competition and prefer to preserve the dominance of coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power. The U.S. government has long been active in suppressing any inventor with breakthrough energy technologies. See Naturally, the media and congress are complicit in keeping the public misinformed while billions are squandered on second class energy technologies in order to create the illusion of progress.

    5. ArnoldHarris says:

      These considerations, of mountain-based peoples that control the water supplies of the downstream societies, are key reasons why Israel should develop and keep the friendliest military, political and economic relationships with Ethiopia to the southwest and Kurdistan to the northeast. One day, those relationships will help smash the Arab power in southeast Asia and the Egyptian power in northeast Africa. And when Egypt decays, it will be far easier for Israel to retake, annex and start populating the Sinai peninsula.

      Arnold Harris
      Mount Horeb WI

    6. Bernard Ross says:

      Interesting how desert and drought seem synonymous with arabs and Islam. If egypt hadn’t spent so much resource and energy on jew hating they would probably have had the help of the Israelis and been further ahead. Continued egyptian and muslim hostility may bring in place new alliances. After all, there are already many ethiopians in Israel, and there was Solomon and Sheba. Israel has much to offer the africans who have been dominated by the arabs and muslims. Seems like the wrong country to give F-16’s.

    7. the phoenix says:

      Bert Said:

      billions are squandered on second class energy technologies in order to create the illusion of progress.

      how do you spell solyndra?

    8. the phoenix says:

      Bernard Ross Said:

      After all, there are already many ethiopians in Israel,

      read stephen spector’s operation solomon (the swift majestic and INCREDIBLE israeli airlift of over 14,000 [THOUSAND!!!] ethiopian jews to israel in a day and a half !!)

      THIS is the part that KILLS me:
      there is almost NOTHING that we (jews) cannot achieve ince we set our minds to it…
      our efforts should be to make sure that ALL JEWS have a well aligned mind that says

    9. retired says:

      @ Arnold Harris:
      Arnold,that day may be closer than most people think!
      The elite establishment of Central Banksters,Energy Lords,& Wall Street embezzlers is being crushed under a mountain of leveraged debt.Their only hope is Monetization (creating vast amounts of new fiat money).In the is called “Financial Repression”.Central Banks around the world are doing the same thing,currency wars will ensue.The price inflation will be terrible,modern nations will be hit hard.3RD world nations in the Middle East,Egypt among others,will be destroyed.From North Africa in the west to Pakistan in the east the Moslem world will sink into chaos & starvation.The only Arab survivors will be the Oil States!

    10. Laura says:

      Good for Ethiopia. F*** the egyptians.

    11. Bernard Ross says:

      the phoenix Said:

      (the swift majestic and INCREDIBLE israeli airlift of over 14,000 [THOUSAND!!!] ethiopian jews to israel in a day and a half !!

      Israel is an expert in transferring populations, especially Jews. Hopefully, in the future, we will see this expertise for swiftness occur with the hostile enemy population currently squatting in Israel.

    12. the phoenix says:

      Then, of course, there is the problem of the entire Nile Delta subsiding, and the emerging need to evacuate and relocate millions.

      Why bother?

    13. yamit82 says:

      The biblical borders of the Promised Land (Nile to the Euphrates) is beginning to look like a potential possibility based on what is now happening in the ME. All that’s missing is the Jews getting with the program. :(

    14. Bernard Ross says:

      yamit82 Said:

      a potential possibility based on what is now happening in the ME.

      How do you figure that, and why the frowny face? Isn’t it a good possibility?

    15. the phoenix says:

      @ Bernard Ross:

      why the frowny face? Isn’t it a good possibility?

      The Jews are NOT with the program (yet).

    16. Jerry G says:

      Sorry, but I can’t feel sorry for the Egyptians or any of the Arabs and Muslims in the neighborhood. The more their troubles the better it is for Israel as long as they are unable to attack Israel militarily. This is G-d’s punishment for their treatment of the Jews. Let Israel thrive and prosper and the hell with the Arabs.

    17. catarin says:

      Does anyone know why Egypt is not growing grain any more, and when did they stop? We know from the Torah that during Joseph’s reign as Pharaoh’s adviser, he got this job when he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream as being seven years of fat years and seven years of lean years, so they stored as much grain as possible during the fat years to hold them through the lean years. So why aren’t they growing many things?

      Does Egypt have anything that could be mined?

      What do they need to do to bring peace to the land so tourists can return to see the archaeology? If I were Morsi I’d do this immediately as the tourist structure is basically in place.

    18. the phoenix says:

      @ catarin:

      What do they need to do to bring peace to the land so tourists can return to see the archaeology? If I were Morsi I’d do this immediately

      There is a slight problem catarin…

      And that is only the tip of the iceberg….
      According to these subhuman musloids…. EVERYTHING that a tourist would come to see , is according to them jahiliyya and thus, must be destroyed…
      Remember the destruction of the Buddhas of bamiyan?
      Once all these archeological treasures are gone, why would a tourist go to this accursed land? For the sand? for the camels? for the unwashed people?

    19. steven l says:

      He misread “Allah” and since, his people are punished until they all recant.
      That why the majority is poor illiterate ignorant, fed with hate. Their situation appears HOPELESS. Just darkness.

    20. steven l says:

      @ Nate:
      The Brits were responsible. They used to control the area.