Is Egypt in Crisis — Yet?
Is Egypt in Crisis — Yet?
The ongoing civil war in Libya has reached a critical juncture and Ethiopia looks poised to begin filling the reservoir of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without a water-sharing agreement in place with Sudan and Egypt. The fulcrum connecting these otherwise unrelated conflicts is Egypt. How Egypt decides to respond to the challenges it faces in Libya and with Ethiopia will have implications for the geopolitical dynamic of the Mediterranean and for global supply chains.
Egypt looks like a very large country on a map. Most of Egypt’s territory, however, is desert. 95 percent of Egypt’s population lives within a few miles of the Nile River. Imagine 100 million people living in an area roughly the size of the American state of Maryland (population 6 million), surrounded on all sides by desert, and astride one of the most important chokepoints for global trade in the world. That is Egypt in a nutshell.
Herodotus, the Greek father of history, traveled to Egypt in the 5th century BCE. After returning from his trip, he famously observed that “Egypt is an acquired country, the gift of the river.” The Pharaohs have come and gone, hieroglyphs have yielded to Arabic script, and yet Herodotus’ observation of the Nile’s importance is as true today as it was then. Today, Egypt gets roughly 85 percent of its water from the Nile River, whose consistent annual flooding cycle enabled the rise of one of antiquity’s first and most splendid human civilizations millennia ago.
Now, Ethiopia is threatening to build a dam (the GERD) on the Nile River’s main tributary (the Blue Nile) and the nightmare scenario that has plagued Egyptian strategic planners for centuries is nigh. Truth be told, Egypt was already living through a slow-moving nightmare. Damming the Nile River gave Cairo control over its waters, but it has also conspired with climate change in recent decades to threaten Egypt’s future: parts of the Nile Delta are sinking even as the Mediterranean’s sea level is rising. Irrespective of any decision made in Addis Ababa, Egypt faced a looming water crisis.
Ethiopia’s decision to begin filling the GERD without a water-sharing agreement in place with Egypt, however, threatens to hasten the crisis’ coming. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat warned Ethiopia in 1979 that the Egyptian people “will not wait to die of thirst in Egypt” but would go to Ethiopia and “die there.” Listen closely to Egyptian officials or follow Egyptians on social media and it is possible to sense Sadat’s combination of fear, defiance, and resolve to prevent Ethiopia from cutting Egypt off from its source. This is not a garden variety diplomatic spat or war of words. Egypt has already called for the UN Security Council to intervene to prevent Ethiopia from moving forward, and if that fails, Egypt is unlikely to stop there.
Ethiopia, however, is not going to pause or change its plans for Egypt. Ethiopia, the source of 85 percent of the Nile River’s water, currently dams exactly 0 percent of that water for itself. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has made the GERD his own personal version of Gamel Abdel Nasser’s Aswan High Dam and has made hydroelectric power the key part of the Ethiopian government’s plan to achieve universal Ethiopian access to electricity by 2030 (which 70 percent of Ethiopians currently live without). Ethiopia also has little historical reason to feel guilty about or generous towards Egypt, which with the help of the British Empire secured a sweetheart deal that ignored Ethiopia’s interests and gave Egypt de facto control over the Nile’s waters for over a century.
What will Egypt do when its diplomatic efforts fail? Will it rely on the international community to intervene and exert enough pressure on Ethiopia to change its plans? Will it threaten to block access to the Suez Canal (through which 13 percent of global trade traverses each year) unless the international community heeds Egypt’s demands? Will it utilize that shiny military that President Abdel Fateh el-Sisi has spent so much time modernizing in recent years to attack Ethiopia directly? Or will it depend on proxies or covert means with sufficient plausible deniability to avert a direct conflict while still at least stalling Ethiopia’s plans until it can convince the world to intervene, or else wait for Ethiopia’s fragile political balance to fracture? Egypt has relatively few options left in dealing with an existential threat to its future and none of them are good.
And then there is Libya. Libya has been in chaos since Western powers removed Moammar Gaddafi from power without a decent plan at what would replace him. Libya’s civil war is almost a decade old, but in recent months, the violence has intensified because global players are becoming even more involved. Egypt, along with Russia, France, and the United Arab Emirates, supports the Libyan National Army (LNA). Turkey meanwhile supports the Government of National Accord (GNA). Egypt and Turkey have had a testy relationship ever since the Egyptian military deposed democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi in a coup d’état and replaced him with el-Sisi.
Turkey is a rising Mediterranean power – and it has opportunistically identified Libya as critical to its future plans. Turkey is planning at least two permanent military bases in Libya. Last December, Turkey also signed a maritime boundary delimitation agreement with the GNA that would create a shared Turkish-Libyan maritime zone that divides one half the Mediterranean from the other. No wonder Egypt has called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League, ordered the Egyptian Army to maintain a state of high military readiness, and announced its own political initiative to end the Libyan conflict. Just as Ethiopia threatens the Nile River, Turkey is de facto threatening the Suez Canal and the balance of power in the Mediterranean in general.
Egypt can take some solace in the fact that Turkey’s moves are upsetting other major Mediterranean powers, most recently France, but the Turkish-backed GNA is still winning the war despite France’s objections and Russia’s military support of LNA forces. Egypt should also feel threatened by Turkey’s desire to improve relations with Ethiopia, to expand its power in the Horn of Africa (Turkey has a military base in Somalia and a desire to increase Turkey’s presence in Djibouti), and to secure Turkish interests in Iraq and Syria (which Egypt vociferously condemned last Thursday).
In short, Egypt’s back is against the wall. Cairo has difficult decisions to make in the weeks and months ahead that will have important implications not just for Egypt’s future, but for the future of the entire Mediterranean region, which is looking as volatile a geopolitical environment as the South China Sea.