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Obstacles to Justice in the Ethio-Egyptian Nile Dispute

The recent construction and filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile has erupted in disputes between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbor—Egypt. These dispute have led to everything from Tik Tok battles and malicious hacking to failed diplomatic talks, bomb threats, and the mysterious murder of the GERD’s chief engineer. However, a cursory review of the dam’s limited impact reveals that the conflict has little to do with water. What, then, can explain the atmosphere of vitriol in this African affair?

To understand the current status of Ethio-Egyptian relations and discern how justice can be achieved, it helps to review the historical events informing each nation’s view of the Nile and their relationship to each other. Understanding these factors is a vital component of “working together internationally to strengthen our mutual understanding of justice and our common commitment to serve God and neighbors in public life,” as James Skillen writes in Christians Organizing for Political Service.

For Egypt, the Nile is central to its national identity and religion. Since Egypt is 90 percent desert, 96 percent of its population lives along the Nile. Without its seasonal flooding and silt deposits, Egypt would be uninhabitable. Naturally, the river was revered as “the giver of life” and “the saviour of all Egypt,” and even worshipped in ancient Egyptian religion. As Terje Oestigaard writes in Water, Culture and Identity: Comparing Past and Present Traditions in the Nile Basin Region, the Nile is also intertwined with the Coptic Church. For them, the flooding of the Nile is a religious holiday and Jesus’ refuge from Herod along the banks of the Nile in Matthew 2:12-15, which is commemorated with pilgrimages to the river. Muslim rulers who came to power in 639 AD co-opted the Copts’ Nile celebrations, praising Allah in traditional Nile flooding events. When the Nile failed to flood, Egypt fasted, prayed, and even sent messages to the Nile in the name of Allah. Credit for, and control over, the Nile had to be attributed to Allah–anything else was “intolerable.”

Unlike Egypt, Ethiopia has hardly been defined or unified by the Nile historically. The Blue Nile, a tributary supplying 86 percent of the Nile’s overall flow, originates from Ethiopia’s heavy rainfall. However, the Nile has largely divided and disadvantaged Ethiopians, stripping Ethiopia of its soil’s nutrients, killing livestock and people, and diverting water downstream with its powerful flow. Referred to as Gihon in ancient times, the Nile river is called Abbai in today’s Ethiopia. In The Cross and the River: Ethiopia, Egypt, and the Nile, Haggai Erlich points out that Ethiopia’s primary cultural and historical identity since the 4th century is not the Nile but is “first and foremost Christian.” Ethiopia’s rock-hewn churches from the 13th century are still intact, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. As in Egypt, the river imbued Ethiopia’s Christian Church with legitimacy.

Knowing the nations’ separate relationships with the Nile, it is easier to understand that one reason for the breakdown of trust between them is the historical exploitation of religion on both sides. The Ethiopian Church once subscribed to a narrative in which the Virgin Mary bestowed power over the Nile to the Ethiopian King Dawit. As such, during a famine lasting from 1066 to 1072 AD, Egypt’s Khalif sent “valuable gifts to the Ethiopian king who, he thought, was withholding the water.” The Ethiopians continued to accept tribute, allowing Egypt to believe they had the power to divert the Nile. This continued to impact Egypt’s perception of Ethiopia and the Nile for centuries to come. During times when Egypt’s government persecuted Christians, all Ethiopia had to do was threaten to divert the Nile and Egyptian Copts would be spared. Conversely, as Erlich’s article, “Identity and Church: Ethiopian–Egyptian Dialogue” details, Egypt’s Coptic patriarch had the sole authority of appointing Ethiopian bishops from 400 to 1959 AD, but frequently withheld religious leaders from Ethiopia during times of hostility. Ethiopia’s attempts to expand its influence by Christianizing surrounding regions were stifled by Egypt’s abuse of religious power.

Another reason why relations between the two nations have collapsed is Egypt’s historical hegemony over the Nile protected via decades of proxy war. The Nile lacks a clear legal framework, but “the two principles of international law that govern the utilization of trans-boundary water resources are those of ‘equity’ and ‘no significant harm.’” Egypt rejects both. Since “Egyptians were the first to use the Nile,” the argument goes, “the Nile, from beginning to end, is the property of Egypt.” Although it is unclear whether the first users of the Nile were Arabs at all, Egypt has defended its hegemony over the Nile by intentionally destabilizing Ethiopia. As one Swiss explorer from the 19th century serving the Egyptian government noted, “Ethiopia with a disciplined administration and army, and a friend of the European powers, is a danger for Egypt. Egypt must either take over Ethiopia and Islamize it, or retain it in anarchy and misery.” This logic has characterized Egypt’s strategy for the past few centuries.

Egypt’s 1820 conquest of Sudan to secure control over the Nile system was a stepping stone to numerous occupations of Ethiopian provinces in 1834, 1838, 1846, and 1869. During the administration that the Swiss explorer worked under, from 1875 to 1876, Egypt launched multiple military expeditions resulting in “ignominious defeat,” even after hiring ex-Confederate officers from the US to lead the invasions. In the 20th century, from 1964 to 1978, Egypt supplied Somalia with millions of dollars worth of “military training and weapons” to “prevent Ethiopia from achieving stability,” even offering Egyptian troops to help accomplish this goal. After public opinion in Eritrea prompted its reunification with Ethiopia, Egypt began broadcasting radio programs urging Eritreans to consider where their true loyalties lie, funded Muslim Eritreans’ enrollment in Egyptian universities, and established an Eritrean Liberation Front office in Cairo, commencing a Muslim-Christian conflict. The 30-year war “contributed strongly to political instability, economic decline, and social turmoil,” killing thousands of East Africans and diverting Ethiopia’s attention away from development on the Blue Nile.

This proxy war has continued until the current day, as Egypt advances on “several fronts in its campaign to isolate Ethiopia: through Somalia; through Sudan; through its sponsorships via a number of channels of Ethiopian Islamist and other opposition movements (including the Oromo Liberation Front: OLF); and via Eritrea.” Now facing attacks from the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian government must turn its attention away from the GERD to quell ethnic violence. A former US diplomat commented, “I would like to think Egypt is a responsible enough actor to realize that fragmentation of Ethiopia is fundamentally so damaging to regional security.” And yet, evidence of Egypt’s disregard for regional security continues to surface. As recently as November 2020, reports of Egyptian officials training South Sudanese troops 20 kilometers away from the Ethiopian border have raised alarm, suggesting preparation for continued conflict with Ethiopia.

The GERD is yet another manifestation of Ethiopia and Egypt’s age-old struggle over the Nile. Despite Egypt lobbying international donors to prevent foreign loans from being issued to Ethiopia for three generations of leaders, the GERD was funded by Ethiopians at home and abroad. Unwittingly, Egypt caused the Ethiopian diaspora to contribute to the project. Scholars have noted that diasporas tend to harbor stronger sentiments against historical enemies, magnifying conflicts concerning their homeland.

With religion, historical proxy war, and the diaspora at play, it is easy to understand the erosion of relations between Ethiopia and Egypt. Christian persecution, toxic nationalism, legitimate sovereignty, and historical pride are at the heart of the issue. However, under all the interlocking factors lies the potential for hundreds of thousands of Africans to receive electricity, irrigation, poverty reduction, and food security from equitable water shares through self-funded development. Whether this can be achieved without Egypt’s cooperation remains to be seen, but will the international community continue to look the other way as justice is subverted? Skillen calls onlookers of international affairs to see “[through] the eyes of persecuted Christians” to transcend arbitrary national boundaries, so that justice can be achieved. If one thing is clear from the Ethiopian-Egyptian dispute, everything from drinking water to history interconnects us.