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Will the New Egypt Play a Greater Role in Africa?

March 22, 2011
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The Nile is central to the life of Egypt. But it is an African river, a fact Egypt must deal with.

Egypt has long downplayed its location in Africa in favor of emphasizing its connections with the Arab world. But a recent report says the new Egyptian state may get more involved in Africa as it seeks to protect its share of the Nile River.

Back in 2006, one of the teams in my International Studies capstone course “Issues in the Middle East” wrote a policy analysis on Egypt’s water crisis, which they described thus:

[E]xtreme population growth and corresponding rise in demand, combined with decreasing supply due to environmental degradation, pollution and desertification will lead Egypt to a point where there will not be enough water to support the basic needs of its people or economy.

This blog post in honor of World Water Week

More recently, the conditions described in the student’s report have been exacerbated by worries that the Nile countries in sub-Saharan Africa will vitiate the treaty made back in 1929 (when most of that part of Africa was under British rule) that gives the lion’s share of the water to Egypt.

In 1999 under the auspices of the World Bank, the nine countries that share the river Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda,
Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda formed the Nile Basin Initiative to “achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.”

The NBI did not change the water allocation regulations from the 1929  treaty, and the southern countries have been growing restive at having to ask Egypt’s permission every time they wanted to divert any water from the Nile, for irrigation, for instance. So last year, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania signed a Cooperative Framework Agreement to seek more water from the River Nile. Although this move has been opposed by by Egypt and Sudan in the strongest possible language (Mubarak said the Nile was one of the few issues over which Egypt would go to war), Burundi and the DRC have said they will also sign.

Concerns over the Nile continue in spite of the uprisings. An article in the UAE newspaper Al-Khaleej reported Mar. 18:

An official Egyptian diplomatic source stressed that the issue of Nile water for Egypt is not prone to bargains and it is unacceptable for any country of the Nile source to touch on the Egyptian rights, because Egypt is actually suffering from a water shortage unlike all the basin countries.

According to the article in Al Khaleej, Nilotic countries seeking development assistance will be able to turn to Egypt for resources and expertise. As parliament and civil society come to play a new role in society, Egypt will be able to play a stronger role in Africa, the source told Al Khaleej.

The source called for a larger role for civil society organizations and the new parliament after its elections in order to support the official Egyptian role in Africa as well as the Nile basin countries. He said that Egypt currently enjoys a good reputation in the world and we must take advantage of that and all the parts of the Egyptian people must unite in order to achieve a quick return to Africa. … The increase of the influence must be achieved through increasing the Egyptian participation on all levels in finding solutions to all the problems that the continent is suffering from. In other words, there must be a strong Egyptian role that must be restored when it comes to all the problems on the continent.

Al Khaleej‘s source said he hoped that the first visit of the Egyptian president after his election will be paid to an African country.

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