The new constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt, approved in January 2014, states, in four articles, the rights and duties of the state and of the citizens about the Suez Canal, the environment and natural resources, and the Nile.
These articles have a political and strategic meaning in the current domestic security situation, dominated by rising tensions between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, and a catastrophic economic situation, heightened by the environmental and international context of Egypt and of the Nile riparian countries.
To understand the political and strategic situation of Egypt, today and during the twenty years to come we must consider the context of its current national sustainability crisis (Valantin, Egypt, climate change and the long resource civil warfare, 2014) and of the emergence of new African actors.
Security, sustainability and legitimacy
The new Egyptian constitution clearly links the articles about the Suez Canal and the Nile River, both having to be “protected by the State”. The same principles are applied to the environment and the natural resources, to the point, in the article 46, that:
“The state is committed to taking the necessary measures to preserve it [the environment], avoid harming it, rationally use its natural resources to ensure that sustainable development is achieved, and guarantee the rights of future generations thereto.”
This reveals the state of mind of the Egyptian political and military authorities, which understand that their country has entered a new era. In this era, the legitimacy of the state, and thus the consensus or the resistance it inspires, is defined, following Weber, by the way it protects the basic conditions upon which rests the social and biological life of the population from new global environmental, economic and political risks (Max Weber, The three types of legitimate rule, 1958; James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency, 2005).
Those basic conditions are food, especially bread, water, and energy (Valantin, ibid). These requirements are turning into a strategic challenge for Egypt, because, paradoxically, of the dawning economic development and demographic explosion of the other Nilotic countries.
Egyptian instability as a subsistence crisis
The revolt against Hosni Mubarak took place in 2011, followed in 2012 by the election of Mohamed Morsi as president, who thus brought the Egyptian government under domination of the Muslim Brotherhood (Georges Corm, Le Proche-Orient éclaté, 2013). Rapidly, in July 2013, popular protests spearheaded by the Tamarod movement with support from the military brought about Morsi’s demise.
Actually, this process of deep political instability began in 2008, with violent food riots in Cairo, which started the delegitimization of Hosni Mubarak, President since 1980 (Krista Mahr, “Bread is life: food and protest in Egypt“, Time Magazine, January 31, 2011).
The huge 2008 spike in oil prices triggered these food riots, which affected Africa, Asia and South America (Michael Klare, The Coming Global Explosion, 2013). In 2010 and 2011, wheat and meat prices rose by almost 20%.
Then, in 2010, the wheat and paddy rice prices were impacted when the Russian, American, Canadian and Australian crops were deeply affected by extreme weather events (drought, heat waves, wild fires, heavy rains…) (Werrell and Femia, ed., The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013). Furthermore, in 2011 a long drought in Western China led Beijing to purchase large stocks of wheat on the international market, which led to a new rise in food prices (Werrell and Femia, ibid).
Knowing that Egypt is the world largest importer of wheat, when 40% of the Egyptian population live mainly on bread and rice, this global situation was especially troublesome in Egypt, because bread is the only staple between the 32 millions of the poorest Egyptian people and individual and collective hunger (David P. Goldman, “Wheat at record is the worst thing that could happen to Egypt“, Gatestone Institute, July 20, 2012).
Food security concerns are a powerful undercurrent for the different political forms of unrest, from protests and riots to bombings and urban, rural and Sinai attacks and combats between the police and military forces and violent armed groups since 2011 (Ilan Berman, “In Egypt, Rethinking the Revolution“, Forbes, 7 February, 2013).
As a result, insuring food security means, basically, preventing the emergence of collective violence and political instability (Shadia Nasralla and Shamine Saleh, “Egypt food supplies Shake Up sees officials deferred to prosecutor“, Reuters, 24 February 2014).
Sharing the Nile?
Furthermore, the subsistence insecurity is aggravated by new strategic tensions about the Nile River. As the principal source of water for Egypt, the Nile has a fundamental function for the daily biological life of each and every Egyptian, for agriculture, which produces half of the wheat consumed, and for industry.
Egypt receives 55 billions of cubic meters from the Nile water, equivalent to two-thirds of its flow (Robert Twigger, Red Nile, 2013). The Egyptian Nile has been regulated since 1970 by the gigantic Aswan Dam and used for hydropower generation.
However, this “life support system” is questioned by South Sudan and Ethiopia and the politics of the Nile Basin: before merging in Khartoum in Sudan, and becoming the Nile River, the Blue Nile takes its source and runs through Ethiopia while a long portion of the White Nile runs through South Sudan (Michael Klare, Resource Wars, 2002).
Ethiopia knows a major demographic growth (65 578 000 in 2000, 82 950 000 in 2010), combined with an impressive economic take off with almost 10% growth per year, as it has become an African “workshop”for the Chinese industry (Franck Galland, Le Grand Jeu, Chroniques géopolitiques de l’eau, 2014).
Ethiopia thus needs to use a larger share of the Nile water for its population, its developing economy and its agriculture. Consequently, it plans to build the “Great Renaissance Dam” and the work started in 2012 (Reuters, Aaron Masho, “Ethiopia Diverts Nile for Huge $ 4.7 billions Hydro Dam“, May 28, 2013). South Sudan faces analogous demographic and agricultural needs (Ayah Aman, “Egypt tries to woo South Sudan in Nile water dispute“, Al Monitor, March 31, 2014).
Hence, Cairo fears an important decrease in the river flow, at a moment of great need for its own agricultural and energy demands (Peter Heinlein, Egypt fears Diversion of Nile Waters for a New Dam, Voice of America, 29 May 2013).
The new international and environmental conditions are now the very substance of the Egyptian domestic politics of national security.
The Egyptian government is now confronted with the prospect of facing the combination of food, water and energy insecurity (Valantin, 2014) in a time of prolonged political unrest and dire financial crisis. In other terms, the new international and environmental conditions are now the very substance of the Egyptian domestic politics of national security.
So, the successful new development of Ethiopia becomes a source of hydro competition with Egypt, which fears for its own development.
A new “axis of inter-dependency”?
In fact, the massive problems of Egypt are turning into a paradoxical political capital. This emerges when, in August-September 2013, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait decided to support the new government after it ousted President Morsi and militarily repressed the Muslim Brotherhood (AFP, Saudi Arabia says Arabs ready to cover cuts in Western aid to Egypt, Al Arabiya, 19 August 2013).
This aid was a diversified package equivalent to 14 billion USD, 4 of them given as oil, and offered a few days after the US threatened to freeze its annual 1,5 billion USD aid to Egypt, (Terry Atlas, Obama has reasons to maintain aid, Bloomberg News, 16 Aug. 2013). The funds helped urgently buy wheat, after months of absence on the international market, which had created a growing tension on the bread market, certainly a major cause of collective anger against the Morsi government (Reuters, Egypt has less than 2 months imported wheat, says ex-minister, Al Arabiya, 11 July 2013).
The aid demonstrates that, to other Middle Eastern countries, the heightening of instability in Egypt further increases its political importance.
This move from Saudi Arabia did help to restore the short-term sustainability of the Egyptian society. It was motivated by the will of oil-rich Arab countries to prevent the rise of politico-religious extremism, which would have been a strong blow to regional security (Dr Theodore Karasik, Gulf States take a time out from rift, Al Arabiya, 20 April 2014) given the major importance of Egypt in the Arab world.
In the same time, despite the tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt raised by the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and leading the Egyptian authorities to adopt a very martial tone, a related international dialogue was started. It is difficult to see how Egypt could afford to go to war with Ethiopia and South Sudan, while being almost bankrupted (Ben W. Heineman jr, General’s Sissi greatest enemy: The Egyptian Economy, The Atlantic, March 27, 2014).
Furthermore, Russia and China, allies and partners of the Nile River riparian countries, and major players in the Middle East, are involved in the negotiations (Daily News Egypt, China gives Egypt 24.7 million non refundable grant, December 16, 2013; Middle East Briefing, Egypt and Ethiopia, rising tensions, 24 February 2014).
Egypt is looking for an international decision, or will be forced to work with the other regional actors to define a common governance of the Nile Basin (UPI, Battle of the Nile: Egypt, Ethiopia clash over mega-dam, February 7, 2014).
In fact, the complex politico-environmental-strategic situation of Egypt reveals how water, food, climate and energy conditions create a new African-Arab community of interdependency, linking Egypt, the Horn of Africa, the Great Lakes region and the Middle East, in the context of the African and Middle Eastern dimensions of the Russia-China relationship.
In other words, the legitimacy of the Egyptian government rests upon its ability to combine security and sustainability at the national level, as is written in the new Constitution, while working with Nilotic and Middle Eastern countries, which are changing and, for some, developing quite quickly, without forgetting the crucial global context.
It now remains to be seen how Egypt is going to adapt, or not, to climate change, the common challenge it will face with Africa and the Middle East, and how that will cause either a rift or a new solidarity for common forms of adaptation and resilience.
To be (soon) continued.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin leads the environment and security division at The Red (Team) Analysis Society.