• Gashaw Ayferam Endaylalu

The Pitfalls of Egypt’s Securitization of the GERD

The GERD negotiations have so far been unsuccessful largely because of Egypt’s insistence on securitization.

Nature endowed Ethiopia with abundant water resources, making it a hydro-geological power, and earning it a reputation as the “water-tower” of the region[1]. Despite this endowment, however, the country was a late-comer to erecting hydraulic infrastructures for controlling water and making optimal use of this vital resource. In contrast, Egypt, a riparian nation not blessed with such resources, and totally dependent on the acquiescence and inaction of upstream Ethiopia, has constructed dams and installed water tunnels which have enabled it to benefit immensely from the bounty of the Nile for millennia. Largely thanks to the machinations of Great Britain, its former colonial master, Egypt has enjoyed hydro-hegemony in the region for a long time. During its long occupation of Egypt, Great Britain saw to it that Egypt’s age-old demand for the unimpeded flow of the Nile would continue to be honored indefinitely. This strategy was born out of the calculus that “the power that controlled Ethiopia controlled the Nile Valley…; the power that controlled the Nile Valley controlled Egypt's Suez Canal; and the power that controlled the Suez Canal, controlled the world[2]”. Thus, this outdated, colonial-era arrangement vested unparalleled hegemony over the region in Egypt, while restricting upper-Nile nations, like Ethiopia, to minimal utilization of the very rivers whose top-soil-engorged waters they carry to the riparian nations.

Going back even prior to the days of British colonial rule in northeast Africa, however, Ethiopia has been strenuous in contesting Egypt’s malign hydro-hegemony and resisting its statesmen’s insistence that this inequitable status-quo be treated as an inviolable line-in-the-sand. Such a stance, however, did not constrain Ethiopian rulers at different times in the recent past from aspiring to tap the Nile for hydro-electric power and irrigation purposes. Indeed, such an agenda was the shared top priority of the last three successive Ethiopian regimes[3], but they were up against formidable road-blocks which constrained their ability to bring such a project to fruition: lack of funds, protracted internal and external conflicts, acute shortage of qualified personnel to implement a project of this magnitude, as well as lack of continuity in the consultative work of foreign experts[4]. Despite such setbacks, however, the three successive Ethiopian regimes of Emperor Haile Selassie, Col. Mengistu Hailemariam, and PM Meles Zenawi continued to nurture the vision of building a hydraulic infrastructure aimed at ‘fighting poverty,’ until the post-1990’s geopolitical change made it possible for Ethiopia to become an apparent changer of the regional status-quo. This led to the start of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, a project which promised to usher in a new era of agricultural and industrial development in the region.

Predictably, the advent of this ambitious project was met with the hostility of the riparian nations, which saw to it that no international body would finance its construction, obliging Ethiopia to rely entirely on its own resources to make the vision a reality. Even then, the project has been caught in the crossfires between competing perspectives: Egypt regards the GERD as an existential security threat[5]. Its securitization approach to the project, which is fueled by a deep sense of entitlement and monopolism, does not recognize the Nile as a shared hydrological resource, but as a national-security and geopolitical issue [6]. Added to this is the doctrine of ‘prior use,’ the notion of absolute dependency-- due to the alleged dearth of alternative sources of water in Egypt--and the overriding importance attached to the principle of ‘not causing significant harm’. In short, Egypt has chosen to frame the GERD as a threat not only to its entitlement to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, as per the 1959 bilateral agreement, but also to a fabricated identity which is based on the alleged symbiosis between Egypt and the Nile. In contrast to the zero-sum-game overtones of Egypt’s policy, Ethiopia offers a different perspective, based on de-securitization. The bedrock of this approach is the recognition that the Nile is a trans-boundary river which should be utilized on the basis of regional solidarity, cooperation and equitable use of a shared resource. In short, Ethiopia views the GERD as a benefit-sharing project, with not only national, but also wider regional and global significance, whereas, as was sated above, Egypt sees this project as an existential threat.

After pondering such diametrically opposed positions, this writer set out to examine the validity of Egypt’s securitization approach to the GERD project, and came to the conclusion that its view of the GERD as a water-security threat to Egypt is based on a hyperbolic, fabricated allegation, and that the project is neither a perceived nor an actual threat. Indeed, this author posits that the securitization of the GERD by Egypt is based on a fictitious threat that amounts to both historicide and legacide. The author further contends that the real rationale behind Egypt’s characterization of the project as an existential threat is, in fact, a pre-emptive strike against the GERD’s perceived potential for changing the balance power in the region to Egypt’s detriment.

From the Technical GERD to the Securitized GERD

The GERD negotiations have so far been unsuccessful largely because of Egypt’s insistence on securitization. On a superficial level, the dispute over the project appears to be on the Dam’s potential downstream impact, the reservoir’s filling strategy and timing, and the overall technical aspects of its design. In reality, however, the dispute is not about water alone but about geopolitical hegemonic-rivalry, an exaggeration of the risks posed by this Dam to downstream countries, and an unscientific discourse on a guarantee of ‘water security’. Egypt’s gambit is a desperate attempt to resuscitate the dying quasi-hegemonic status-quo it has enjoyed for so long. On the other hand, for Ethiopia, the project is a means for creating a new, level-playing-field, and a win-win approach, based on equitable use and cooperation.

The geopolitical reality of the region is such that the Nile, most of whose water originates in Ethiopia, fortuitously made Egypt--a nation devoid of indigenous rivers of its own--a downstream hydro-hegemon. Even then, neither the colonial-era Nile treaties--to which Ethiopia was not privy--nor the Aswan High Dam, would have been conceivable had it not been for the critical role that Great Britain and the USSR, respectively, played in bolstering Egypt’s contention that its interests superseded those of all the other Nile Basin nations. The alleged geopolitical interest of great powers, specifically that of Great Britain, a perennial thorn in Ethiopia’s flesh, has created a pair of paradoxes.

The first paradox concerns the fact that the Nile is a rare example of downstream hegemony. In the vast majority of cases involving trans-boundary rivers, upstream countries are hydro-hegemon, since, by dint of being the source of, and major contributor to, the water, they are allowed to utilize whatever amount they deem necessary, with only discretionary regard for the needs of downstream nations. This has been the case with regard to, for example, Turkey’s control over the Tigris and Euphrates, China’s control over the Mekong, and the U.S.’ control over the Colorado River. In the case of the Nile, however, the situation has been reversed, since Ethiopia, the net contributor of water to the Blue Nile, is denied any tangible use of the river by Egypt, the net beneficiary of, but zero contributor to, the river.

Second, given the fact that downstream countries are victims of their geographical location, they have the burden of working hard at appeasing, and extracting meaningful concessions from, the upstream nations, while upstream countries have no obligation to accede to those demands in toto. Here again, the reverse has been the case in the Nile Basin: By regionalizing, and internationalizing the fabricated security threat which the GERD allegedly poses, and by touting its entitlement to Nile waters in perpetuity, Egypt is using this ploy as a last-ditch effort to prolong its fading regional hegemony.

Securitization is about how a securitizing actor frames a problem of normal politics to legitimize an extraordinary measure it contemplates taking against the socially constructed threat. It is a socially constructed threat, since securitization by itself is an intersubjective process, and its success largely hinges on the acceptance of the securitization speech act by the audience. In other words, Egypt's framing of the GERD as an existential water-security threat is neither perceived nor actual; it is not scientifically verified or legally supported. It is part of the historicism strategy of Egypt, since it considers the Nile waters as a matter of life and death, as well as a security and geopolitical issue. By securitizing the GERD as an existential threat, Egypt is trying to perpetuate a ‘no-dam-construction’ sanction against upstream Ethiopia indefinitely. It bears pointing out that Egypt’s stance is in direct contrast to Ethiopia’s posture: Even though Egypt’s securitization policy is intended to spare not even a drop of water for Ethiopia—even though its water comprises 86% of the Nile’s water—Ethiopia, in a neighborly spirit, invited the downstream counties for trilateral talks, so as to assure them that the benefits of the GERD would not be confined to Ethiopia alone but would accrue to neighboring countries as well. It is also worth underscoring that Ethiopia’s stance is unprecedented, not only in the history of the Nile, but also in the annals of trans-boundary watercourses. Sadly, the negotiations remain stalled because what has been tabled for multilateral talks so far has not been the technical GERD, but the securitized/politicized GERD.

At each stage of the negotiations to date, Egyptian negotiators have gone out of their way to make ‘water security’ the red-line which they insist cannot be crossed in any final settlement of the issue. By this mechanism, Egyptian political leaders have created confusion and ambiguity among their own citizens, as well as distorting the real state of affairs in reports prepared for the consumption of the international community. It can, thus, be argued that Egypt's negotiation strategy is not based on the mutually beneficial principle of give-and-take, but on a win-lose strategy, in which one of the negotiators comes to the negotiation table determined ‘not to give a drop of water.’ In effect, Egypt’s policy not only securitizes Nile waters through the ‘speech act,’ but it also changes the identity of the Nile, from being African to being Arab. Moreover, by invoking the principle of ‘prior use,’ Egypt denies the trans-boundary nature of the Nile. Finally, in the eyes of the country’s leaders, the GERD is a threat not only to Egypt’s a priori entitlement to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, based on the non-binding 1959 bilateral agreement, but also to its identity, which is based on the ‘inseparable’ nature of the Nile and Egypt. This, however, is a contentious narrative, smacking of historicide and legacide, as explained below.

First, this narrative is tantamount to historicide, since Egypt's opposition to the GERD is based on a mis-representation of its civilization as ‘the fortunate geographical marriage of the Nile and Egypt’, thereby treating the Nile and Egypt as a historically inseparable entity. Using Herodotus' variously interpreted observation, that “Egypt is the gift of the Nile”, Egyptian negotiators have contended that “if Egypt is the Nile's gift, then the Nile is a gift to Egypt”. This is historicide, because the Nile is not, and will not be, the sole gift and the ‘sacred husband’ of Egypt alone. The reality is that the Nile is in a polygamous, geographical, and legal ‘marriage’ with eleven riparian nations. Egypt’s narrative also commits legacide, in the sense that Egypt's opposition to the GERD is not based on legal grounds, or on scientific evidence; rather, it is based on the outdated and outrageous colonial-era bilateral agreements of 1929 and 1959, which created the phantom ‘status-quo’ touted as being sacrosanct by Egypt. Thus, the Egyptian claim of the GERD as a security threat for Egypt is devoid of any solid foundation.

[1]Imeru Tamrat and Yacob Arsano1 (2005). Ethiopia and the Eastern Nile Basin. Aquatic Science, 67, pp.15 – 27 [2]Teferi Mekonnen (2004). The Blue Nile Issue: A History of Hydro-politics, 1884-1974. Master’s Thesis, Addis Ababa University, Addis Abba: Ethiopia. [3]Waterbury, John (2002). The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. New Haven: Yale University Press [4] Cascão, Ana Elisa (2009). Changing Power Relations in the Nile River Basin: Unilateralism vs. Cooperation? Water Alternatives 2(2), Pp. 245‐268 [5] Nasef, Omar (2016). Egyptian National Security as Told by the Nile. The Century Foundation, pp. 1-14 [6] Deconinck, Stefan (2009). Security as a threat to development: the geopolitics of water scarcity in the Nile Riverbasin. Focus Paper, Royal High Institute for Defence, Brussels – Belgium. Gashaw Ayferam Endaylalu is a PhD student in Political Science at Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. He currently works at the Institute of Strategic Affairs, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as an international relations and diplomatic researcher.

The article represents the author’s viewpoint. Horn Africa Insight will correct clear factual errors. You can contact the author at