Is Egypt today truly unable to safeguard its national security and protect its vital interests? Has the efficiency of Egyptian diplomacy and government authorities decreased not only in defending Egypt’s security and interests in the Middle East, but also in the crucial Nile basin? Are we witnessing a major moment of decline in Egypt’s role in its Middle Eastern and African environments? Is it true that the region now looks at Egypt as any other state, no longer qualified to exercise power and leadership though Egyptian officials have long praised its prestigious history in such matters? These questions are being asked amidst the intense crisis of the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework and its serious repercussions on the distribution of Nile water and Egypt’s share of it.
During the last few years, Egypt’s diplomacy has proven inefficient and even powerless on several occasions in the Middle East with the occupation of Iraq, the increasing power of Iran and the growing role of Turkey in the region, Israel’s war on Lebanon, internal Palestinian strife, Hamas’ isolation in Gaza as well as Israel’s attacks and siege on Gaza, and recurrent demonstrations in front of Egyptian embassies in Arab capitals. In the minds and public debates of Egyptian citizens, it has become clear that Egypt’s role in the region is declining and that it is no longer a great authority that is feared (or at least heard) on Middle Eastern issues and conflicts.
Egyptian diplomacy has never looked as weak as it did during the crisis of the Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework. After the failure of the last collective round of negotiations in Sharm El-Sheikh and with disregard towards the potentially negative implications of their actions, five upstream countries signed an agreement ignoring Egypt’s and Sudan’s historical rights to the river’s water, international conventions in effect for several decades that distribute water shares, and opposition voices in Cairo and Khartoum threatening a strong response. Egyptian diplomatic and government authorities suddenly woke up (at least from an outside perspective) after this new disaster to take an official stance. The government’s approach mitigated the situation by belittling the agreement and highlighting that it is not binding and only represents the position of a small minority of countries of the Nile. As it became clear that most countries of the Nile basin adopted the agreement, granting it true regional momentum, Egypt changed its official position, called upon countries of the basin to return to the negotiations table, and sent delegations to some capitals in the region to restart dialogue. Upstream countries seemed to adopt various positions ranging from extreme reserve to contempt and disregard (a few days ago, an Egyptian newspaper published a story on the refusal of the Kenyan president to list the agreement on the agenda of the Kenyan-Egyptian presidential summit, while Kenya was the last to sign the agreement).
What are the causes for such weak and inefficient Egyptian diplomacy, which in combination with waning power in the countries of the Nile basin has subjected Egypt’s interests and security to contempt? The first cause is the lack of an active and effective Egyptian role in the Nile basin and the limited economic, commercial, and cultural ties with its countries. In fact, when examining Egypt’s sharply declining role in Africa during the last few decades, inefficiency appears to be the rule rather than the exception.
The second cause is the adoption of Egyptian diplomacy characterized by a mixture of procrastination and bluffing when dealing with the distribution of Nile waters. This approach has long underestimated the important tendency of some upstream countries to ignore Egypt’s rights and has dealt lightly with the recurrent declarations of Ethiopian and Ugandan officials refusing the “takeover” of Egypt and Sudan on the Nile. When the agreement was signed, Egypt’s diplomacy acted as a post-disaster one by focusing on fast actions with no clear-cut strategy and dealing with consequences rather than causes – which unfortunately is a characteristic of weak, small states in times of crisis.
The third cause partly echoes Egypt’s weak role in the Middle East and on the African continent. Egypt’s leadership and cultural radiation are now in decline, and we no longer live in an era when Egypt is viewed as a model. Essentially, it is the era of the decline of Egypt’s soft power. Nasser’s Egypt amazed the African region by adopting causes of national liberation and fostering anti-colonization movements throughout the continent, joining the efforts of continental cooperation with the establishment of the Organization of Unity (currently know as the African Union), contributing to the development of state and society modernization projects in a number of African countries, and developing commercial and economic relations with them.
In the 1970s and 80s, Egypt managed to retain some of its leadership role in Africa. During the last two decades, however, it has distanced itself from Africa and countries of the Nile basin by de-prioritizing them within a foreign policy framework. As soon as the African neighborhood lost its fascination with Egypt’s regional status, cultural precedents, and developmental role, ties with Cairo became governed by interests. It is now typical or rather natural for some countries of the Nile basin to oppose Egyptian interests that are contrary to their own, and in some parts of the continent Egypt is even considered a foreign country.
These complex elements and implications of Egypt’s predicament should be analyzed in depth, unlike the shallow treatment that has been given to them by some commentators and analysts. These superficial analyses are based either on conspiracy theories (for example, Israel’s role in the Nile basin and greater Africa), alleged hatred in some upstream countries for Egypt, or threats to use military force to preserve Egypt’s water security. In fact, the situation is much more complex. Dealing with the repercussions of the agreement successfully and effectively requires first and foremost a national confession from the Egyptian government and society admitting failure in managing the relationship with countries of the Nile basin and Africa. Second, Egyptian diplomacy needs to adopt a realistic approach towards countries of the Nile basin, seeking once again chances to balance between Egypt’s interests and the interests of the region. Third, there is no alternative to the revival of Egypt’s soft power and cultural influence, which are closely related to its transformation into a democratic state with a modern and just society serving as a model for the African region.