Egypt, Ethiopia, and religion in the Nile dam dispute

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia
7 min read
06 July, 2021
In-depth: As the Nile dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia heats up, religious leaders in both countries are weighing in. Whilst this development risks increasing tensions, it also presents opportunities for dialogue.

As the United Nations marked World Environment Day in early June, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar made an interesting speech about sharing water resources.

Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, Sunni Islam's highest authority, explained that they’re a “common collective property”, and to change this status is to usurp a right of God.

States or people who “tyrannise” such resources, he continued, are “unjust aggressors” who ought to be stopped by the international community.

"The dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and downstream countries who still haven't reached an agreement on how the Nile will be shared among them"

Though the grand imam spoke abstractly and did not mention Ethiopia by name, his remarks almost certainly were made with an eye on Addis Ababa’s bid to begin the second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which began on Monday.

Responding to the Ethiopian move, Egypt’s irrigation minister said it was "a violation of international laws and norms that regulate projects built on the shared basins of international rivers," saying Cairo rejected this “unilateral measure”.

The dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and downstream countries who still haven’t reached an agreement on how the Nile will be shared among them.

Sudan had recently reaffirmed its rejection of Ethiopia’s proposal to begin the second filling, describing it as a security threat, whilst Cairo has deepened its military cooperation with Khartoum and Ethiopia’s other neighbours.

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019
A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on 26 December 2019. [Getty]

Just last week, in what appeared to be a response to Egyptian and Sudanese posturing, an Ethiopian general told Russia Today’s Arabic service that Ethiopia is ready for a “military solution to the issue of the Renaissance Dam, and [that] Egypt will not be able to destroy it.”

This rhetoric is an indicator of just how serious the Nile dam issue is to all these countries, so the blurring of politics and religion shouldn’t come as a surprise in the case of Al-Azhar, says Dalia Fahmy, an associate professor at Long Island University who focuses on politics and religion in Egypt.

“This is not the first time that the religious establishment has been co-opted by the state,” Fahmy tells The New Arab. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s presidency “Al-Azhar has been repeatedly used as a mode of soft power by the Egyptian State.”

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This has led to a decrease in the influence of Al-Azhar across the Arab and Muslim world, Fahmy explains, which was clear both from the lack of coverage of his speech and its negligible impact. But his words weren’t ignored in Ethiopia.

Recognising the significance of the decision by al-Tayeb to intervene on this issue, Ethiopia’s Grand Mufti Haji Omar Idris hit back shortly after, reaffirming the Islamic credentials of his country and the legitimacy of its right to utilise the Nile.

This is the land of the Najashi, Mufti Haji Omar Idris said, the ancient Ethiopian king who gave refuge to Prophet Muhammad’s companions who fled the persecution of Mecca, encouraging the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar to review the GERD issue. 

"That religious leaders speak to this demonstrates that this dam is much more than just a source of hydroelectric power, but it's also a source of unity and a new story for Ethiopia"

This isn’t the first time Mufti Haji Omar Idris has defended his country’s project to dam the Nile. When former US president Donald Trump said Egypt could “blow up” the dam, he condemned Trump’s remarks as unacceptable. 

Earlier this year he also spoke about the importance of the dam to supercharge Ethiopia’s development agenda. The lack of access to good electricity causes “tremendous pain” he said, forcing people to live in “abject poverty and darkness”.

“It's painful to see our people living in such conditions in the 21st century when our country is rich in natural resources which could generate or guarantee a life of prosperity to every citizen,” he said.

What was noteworthy in his speech was that he also made an Islamic case for Ethiopia’s right to use the Nile, arguing the exact opposite of Sheikh al-Tayeb, saying that the country from which a river originates initially has priority in its use.

ethiopia dam gerd
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. [Getty]

The decision by the Grand Mufti to comment on the GERD issue captures the general feeling of Ethiopians - whether Muslim or Christian - and has become something people rally around, says Mohammed Girma, a visiting lecturer at Roehampton University and scholar of religion in Ethiopia.

“That religious leaders speak to this demonstrates that this dam is much more than just a source of hydroelectric power, but it's also a source of unity and a new story for Ethiopia, so it has an obvious physical dimension but also a metaphysical one too,” Girma tells The New Arab

The fact that it attracts religious leaders, he explains, isn’t the most interesting development, however. GERD has also begun ushering in a shift in Ethiopian religious discourse, changing the way the sacred and secular relate to each other in the country. 

There was a clear demarcation between the two realms previously, Girma says, but now “that duality is breaking down. Religious leaders no longer neglect the material in favour of the spiritual”.

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“When Ethiopia was a more religious country, it was more lenient in its willingness to negotiate with Egypt and more willing to just let the issue go,” Girma continues. This is linked to Ethiopia’s prior reliance on Egypt for its Abunas, the heads of its powerful Orthodox Church, creating a symbiotic relationship between Ethiopia and Egypt.

“We used to rely spiritually on Egypt because historically they used to send us the heads of the churches from Alexandria, and Egypt relies on Ethiopia for water, life and survival,” Girma said.

The Nile is a critical part of the identity of the Coptic Church in Egypt, regularly featuring in prayers made by church clergymen. Earlier in June, images began circulating of Pope Tawadros II blessing the Nile. 

"Whilst religion has been a vital part of the diplomatic toolkit of both countries throughout their dispute over the Nile, the religious clout of both countries presents risks as well as opportunities"

Pope Tawadros II, Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church, attempted to tap into some of this residual influence when he appealed to Ethiopia’s leaders on the basis of a common ‘Africanness’. He more recently declared his support for the efforts of the Egyptian government to find a solution that protects the water rights of Egyptians and Sudanese. 

The Coptic church previously played an indirect role lobbying Ethiopian public opinion and religious leaders but in doing so it also leaned overtly on the side of Egypt. 

“This is another example of how the politicisation of religion has led Egypt to lose very important soft power,” Dalia Fahmy tells The New Arab.

When Ethiopia broke with the Coptic Church in Egypt in 1959 it became “spiritually self-sufficient” Girma says, and “Ethiopians began to explore ways to improve their material conditions more purposefully and intentionally”.

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This break coincided with a drive to begin developing and modernising Ethiopia, which Girma believes has reached its culmination with the Nile dam, despite the more complicated relationship the Ethiopian church has with its government following recent criticism of the government’s war in Tigray. 

“For the society to have a coherent understanding of development, faith leaders are playing a role,” says Girma.

Whilst religion has been a vital part of the diplomatic toolkit of both countries throughout their dispute over the Nile, the religious clout of both countries presents risks as well as opportunities.

"If religious leaders from both sides come together and try to create a different narrative about how to fairly share this water this would create a platform for a different kind of conversation"

“If religious leaders from both sides come together and try to create a different narrative about how to fairly share this water this would create a platform for a different kind of conversation,” Girma says.

Religion is a double-edged sword, however. “Religion can be a danger if it legitimises toxic narratives coming from either side of the Nile, which would create more and more tension and animosity.”

“Egypt and Ethiopia are connected by this order of creation forever because they cannot be separated, whatever the condition of the relations between the countries.” 

Faisal Ali is an Istanbul based multimedia journalist. He writes about East African politics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @fromadic92