In a humiliating example of self-inflicted electronic bugging, last week a live broadcast television microphone in Egyptian President Muhammed Morsi's Cairo office caught the president and Egypt's most senior political leaders plotting sneak attacks on the upstream Nile's biggest dam builder, Ethiopia.
No denial on the Nile. When an audience of millions overhears pious Egyptian Islamists and well-heeled Egyptian liberals mull classic covert warfare options -- such as having Ethiopian rebels sabotage Ethiopia's new Blue Nile dams or deploying shady political agents to agitate in Addis Ababa -- the usual diplomatic salve, plausible denial, isn't an option.
In point of fact, the Egyptian government's initial embarrassment has given way to hard-edged declaration. Egyptians will fight Ethiopia for every drop of Nile River water!
For politically fractured and factionalized Egypt, war talk is a unifying tonic and a distraction from Egypt's endless miseries. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government has simply failed to address the enormous economic and social problems afflicting Egypt.
Solving embedded societal ills requires a national unity of purpose. Morsi has been a national divider. His sharia-based constitution delighted Muslim Brothers but dismayed Egypt's liberals. His attempt to invoke emergency rule (reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak) splintered Egypt's Arab Spring revolutionary front. Muslim moderates joined with secular liberals and demanded he resign.
But Nile water sustains all Egyptians. The trite adage, "Egypt is the Nile," is true. From Aswan north to Alexandria on the Mediterranean Sea, the green band bordering the great river is home to 90 percent of Egypt's population.
Morsi needs a route to national reconciliation. The Nile Water War (temporarily) solves Egypt's broken puzzle: Us Downstream Egyptians versus Them Upstream Ethiopians.
But Ethiopia's dams did not suddenly appear. For two decades every nation in east Africa has known Ethiopia intended to build several large hydro-electric dams and become Africa's biggest power exporter.
Ethiopia has been waging a steady diplomatic campaign asserting its rights to Nile water. Ethiopia's case is as passionately essential as Egypt's. One word defines the basic case: famine. Water in reservoirs is a hedge against famines induced by drought. Electrical power sums Ethiopia's expanded case.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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