The Nile River conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia still appears to be at an impasse. But even if an agreement is reached on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt will be on the losing side. For decades, Cairo had opposed any expansion of the water infrastructure on the upper reaches of the river. However, the country was unable to prevent dam construction in Ethiopia. Such dams are particularly dangerous from an Egyptian perspective because over 85 percent of Egyptian Nile water comes from the Ethiopian highlands. Recently, Addis Ababa even started filling the reservoir without coordinating with Cairo.
The strategy of several Egyptian governments to impose their own demands through open or hidden threats and to internationalise the conflict was not very successful. On the contrary: the repeated threats have largely shattered trust between Addis Ababa and Cairo, which is not likely to foster a long-term settlement of the conflict if such a settlement materialises.
The conflict with Ethiopia clearly shows that Egypt’s projection of power has failed. Under President Anwar Sadat, Cairo had already warned of war if Egypt’s water supply was put at risk by upstream riparian states. Presidents Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi also did not rule out military action. Only under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has this war rhetoric been abandoned; he recently explicitly ruled out the possibility of taking up arms.
What at first glance looks like a positive de-escalation is in fact a recognition of reality. At no time did Egypt have a military option in the Nile conflict, and it still does not have one today. Due to the distance between the two countries, only an airstrike would have been a realistic military option to stop the dam’s construction, especially in the early years. However, the Egyptian Air Force does not have the operating radius for such an intervention.
This is all the more remarkable as Cairo has spent billions of US dollars on new weapons systems in recent years, including substantial purchases for the air force. However, Egypt does not have an air-to-air refuelling capability through tanker aircraft, which significantly limits the air force’s range beyond national borders. In addition, the country has no military bases in its southern neighbourhood that could be used to carry out such attacks.
The Nile conflict, however, is also a defeat for Egypt’s policy of alliances. Under President al-Sisi, the country has aggressively diversified its foreign relations, which previously focused on the United States and Europe. It has entered into a close economic and security partnership with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It also has strengthened its relations with the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Additionally, it has expanded its long-standing security partnership with its neighbour Israel.
This foreign-policy diversification has done little to help in the conflict with Ethiopia. The two Gulf monarchies maintain close economic relations with Addis Ababa, which they do not want to damage by unilaterally taking sides with Egypt. The same is true for China, which is involved in the expansion of the Ethiopian electricity infrastructure through contracts worth billions of US dollars. Russia, for its part, has no influence over the Ethiopian government and is trying to develop its own economic and political contacts with the country. Israel has supplied Ethiopia with the missile defence system that is now protecting the dam from air attacks.
However, Egypt’s diversification strategy likely has been detrimental to relations with its traditional partners, the United States and members of the European Union. It is striking that the Europeans, who for years tried to improve cooperation between the Nile Basin countries within the framework of the Nile Basin Initiative, showed little interest in the recent rounds of negotiations, especially in being a custodian for Egyptian interests.
Even more striking is the restraint of the US government. President Donald Trump has attempted to mediate, tending to support the Egyptian position. However, he has put hardly any political weight into solving the conflict. After the first phase of filling the reservoir, the United States withheld some bilateral aid to Ethiopia in early September 2020, likely at Egypt’s insistence. However, this late and half-hearted US intervention is unlikely to change much with regard to completing the dam and continuing to fill the reservoir.
Egypt’s recent inability to mobilise the US government to act in its interests is attributable not only to Washington, D.C.’s good relations with Addis Ababa, but also to the development of Cairo’s relations with Russia and China. Despite President Trump’s repeated expressions of sympathy for President al-Sisi, Egypt–US relations have deteriorated. Recently, Egypt’s purchase of Russian fighter jets irritated the United States. Washington will be unwilling to take sides with such an unstable partner, especially if there should be a change of government in November.
Egypt’s defeat in the Nile conflict will have repercussions both regionally and internally. Other states on the upper reaches of the Nile may be encouraged to expand their water infrastructure as well. Dam construction projects in Sudan, for example, could become a much greater foreign policy challenge for Cairo than GERD is. Therefore, Cairo may be tempted to increase its regional weight, for example by establishing military bases in its southern neighbourhood. Given the empty state coffers and the lack of support from friendly states, this would not be easy, and it would provoke the people of the Upper Nile to accelerate the expansion of their water infrastructure.
In Egypt, there could be growing public discontent with the political leadership. For decades, Egyptian governments have portrayed dam construction projects on the upstream riparian lands to be an existential threat to the country and an issue of national security, while at the same time emphasizing their own military superiority in the region. Ultimately, they have used this, besides the “war against terrorism” to justify the country’s high defense expenditure. For many Egyptians, it is incomprehensible that their government is now unable to assert itself in the conflict with Ethiopia. Should the water supply deteriorate in the medium and long term, this incomprehension could quickly turn into anger. In that case, it is unlikely to matter whether supply bottlenecks are due to dam construction on the upper reaches or to dilapidated domestic water infrastructure.