Nile water; politics and religion

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Wed, 2022-02-16
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Photo: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Jasper Haesendonckx


Both Egypt and Ethiopia are deeply religious countries and thus it helps political authorities if they are able to canvas support of religious authorities.  The link between politics and religion is millennia old and well described in Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (2015). Alexander the Great and his entourage believed he was the son of God. Several Roman emperors who were believed to be worthy could be voted by the Senate into a state of divinity. Early Christians rejected this, but the apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, chapter 13, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.” The early church grew in numbers and emperor Constantine (reigned 306-337 AD) found this teaching beneficial to strengthen his own rule. He ended the persecution of Christians and made himself, with support of the church, God’s representative on earth.


Throughout the centuries rulers canvassed religious leaders to make them adopt beliefs that would suit their political agendas. Religious leaders in Judaism, Christianity and Islam became bound to their religious scriptures but these scriptures could be explained in different ways. Dutch Arabist Eildert Mulder calls the Muslim theologians of Egypt and Ethiopia in this context “academic acrobats,” (Trouw, February 4, 2022). They not only need to know their scriptures but also need to provide guidance in a host of issues such as rivers and dams.


The Azhar, Egypt’s prestigious institute of Islamic learning, recently published a book about the Nile. Egyptians call Egypt ‘a gift of the Nile.’ Mulder states that one can also describe the Nile as a gift from Ethiopia since two-thirds of all Nile Water comes from Ethiopia, just as the clay before the construction of the Assuan Highdam made Egypt such a fertile country.


Both Sudan and Egypt are strongly dependent on the water of the Nile and thus are deeply concerned about Ethiopia building their Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. During the reign of Mubārak the Ethiopians were deterred of building the dam but the Egyptian revolution or uprising of 2011 forced the Egyptian army to give all priority to domestic control. Ethiopians saw a chance to start building the dam. By the time president Muḥammad Mursī was removed in 2013 Egypt was no longer in a position to stop the dam from being built (see also the comments of an Egyptian Ambassador, Arab-West Report Paper 78, December 2020).


Negotiations took place but did not result in an agreement between both countries and thus they fight each other with threats, taunting, scoffing and theology. One sees a remarkable unity between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia in relation to their governments’ water policies, Mulder notes. Ethiopia suffers great draughts and wants to make a better use of its water, but this automatically means less water for Sudan and Egypt.


The shaykh al-Azhar claims that, according to Islamic law, the water of a river is not the property of the land of origin. The Mufti of Ethiopia, their highest Islamic authority, delved into a deep past and praised the Christian Ethiopian king in the days of the Prophet Muḥammad who provided asylum to Muslim refugees from the first hours. And thus, he concluded, Egypt should not fear Ethiopia.


Azhar fatwa expert Abbas Shuman [ʿAbbās Shūmān] answered the Ethiopian Mufti with a reference to Ethiopian general Abraha who attacked the Kaaba in Mecca in the year Prophet Muḥammad was born. He failed because birds bombarded his army with pebbles. Ali Gumma [ʿAlī Jumʿa] focused in his comments on Ethiopia’s policy to starve the rebellious region of Tigray and starvation is also for Egypt a real possibility if Ethiopia will substantially reduce the flow of Nile water to Egypt.


Mulder suspects that also arrogance is playing a role. The reputation of the Azhar in the Muslim world is far greater than that of the Ethiopian Mufti. This also applies to Christians. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, also known as the Tewahedo Church, was formed after Coptic Orthodox missionary activities in the 4th century AD and was considered a daughter church of the Egyptian church until 1959. Emperor Haile Selassie (ruling between 1930 and 1974) played a prominent role in improved education for the Ethiopian clergy which was a major step towards making the Ethiopian church independent from the Egyptian church. The two churches reached an agreement on 13 July 1948, that led to autocephaly for the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. In 1959 Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria crowned Basilios, in the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie, as the first Patriarch of Ethiopia. From this moment the Ethiopian Orthodox Patriarch could consecrate his own bishops and was de-facto independent.


Just as Muslims are divided along the lines of nationality so are Christians. Pope Tawadros II [Tawāḍrūs], head of the Coptic Orthodox Church supports Egypt’s struggle for water and so does his counterpart in Ethiopia support his government. Ethiopian and Egyptian Muslim and Christian leaders use theological arguments to support the stances of their respective political leaders but ultimately all realize it is not theology but overpopulation that makes the abundance of millennia of Nile water insufficient for today. In the past Ethiopia suffered of periodic draughts. Egypt is now turning to its gigantic fossil water reserves, but this will only postpone the draughts that Egypt can expect once the water supplies will turn to be insufficient.



February 16, 2022


Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report