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A Psychological look into Egypt’s stance on GERD


By AT Abera

AT Abera, a student of Political Science and International relations, political sociology, hydro politics and political psychology argues that the main hindrance to a balanced agreement on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) radiates from deeply rooted state-level psychological apprehensions. Responding to an Egyptian Political Psychoanalyst, Dr Azza Hashem, AT Abera in his article “A Psychological look into Egypt’s stance on GERD”, argues that Egypt’s sense of total ownership and exaggerated fear of loss to a total monopoly of the Nile has caused psychological ownership, psychological projection and state-level schizophrenia causing failure to the efforts to reach an agreement on the Ethiopian Dam.

A Psychological look into Egypt’s stance on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam (GERD)
An article by Dr Azza Hashem, one of Egypt’s Political Psychologists, titled Assuming ownership: A psychological look into Ethiopia’s stand on Renaissance Dam posted on egyptoday.com, argues that certain psychological dimensions governing the behaviour of Ethiopian negotiators is causing failure on the GERD negotiations.

I found the article worthy of note and response as it brought out some of the most outstanding psychological conditions of Egypt as a state, which by extension are predicaments reflected by Egyptian negotiators and by the majority of its elite.

Psychological ownership and zero-sum syndrome
It is common for states to psychologically experience a connection with various possessions. In some cases, possessions come to play such an overriding role in the state’s identity that they become, regardless of to whom they belong, part of the state.

As studies in political psychology would attest, a state claims an intangible or tangible heritage for many different reasons including for the simple reason that it has discovered it first or used it before everyone else. This is similar to children, who feel that they own a song simply because they started to sing it first and that no other child should be allowed to sing it. These feelings of ownership have important psychological and behavioural effects.

For Egypt, the fact that it has benefited from the bounties of the Nile before all other upstream riparian states gives it the right to deny fair share and command the Nile from its source. Especially in the last hundred years, this psychological ownership and hegemony have been consciously built into the psyche of Egyptians as a symbol of their nationalism and identity to promote the political interest of the state. Such an assertion leads to the delusion that the survival and dignity of the state is dependent on the Nile and that any erosion in the power to control it would have a combination of tangible and non-tangible repercussions that can cause shrinkage in the sense of self and even a state-level psychological nothingness that may lead to chaos, depression and decline.

Ethiopia’s determination to use the Nile waters is, therefore, seen with a great deal of anxiety in Egypt. The current generation of Egyptians and Egypt’s negotiators would find it near to impossible to overcome this cognitive and affective possessiveness and allow a logical conclusion to the negotiations on the GERD. For Egyptian negotiators, the mission, regardless of how unjust or hard, is to assert Egypt’s full ownership and control of the Nile. Therefore, any agreement that doesn’t include a clear and unambiguous indicator to Egypt’s hegemony and total control or that recognizes Ethiopia’s right to a share of the Nile waters will be construed as a total loss to Egypt, which is a classic zero-sum anomaly.

The Psychological projection puzzle
The most interesting psychological phenomenon in the Egyptian psyche is that, regardless of the clarity of the mission, the state is also fully aware of the unfairness of the demand to control an entire river to which Egypt doesn’t contribute a drop of water. The state is so fully aware of the immorality of the tactics of the Egyptian state to manipulate, destabilize, threaten, and undermine the capability of nine other riparian states to maintain an outdated and unjustifiable status quo.

Such a conflict between what is right and what the state wants to achieve leads to the creation of a defensive mechanism that helps the state including its institutions, policymakers, diplomats, and specifically the negotiators to coup with this moral debauchery. In political psychology, such a defence mechanism in which the state’s ego defends itself against such impulses or vices by denying their existence in itself while attributing them to other states is called psychological projection.

Not surprisingly, what was explained in Dr Azza’s article as a shortcoming of Ethiopian negotiators is a faithful mirror reflection of the characteristic features of the Egyptian State. Dr Azza, in her article, whitewashes Egypt from all the self-evident defects and projects them onto Ethiopia and Ethiopian negotiators.

Dr Azza argues that Egypt is willing to share the Nile while Ethiopia wishes to assert total monopoly. As a political psychoanalyst, I challenge Dr Azza, to guide readers to any official, unofficial, or scientifically proven Egyptian inclination indicating a genuine willingness to share the Nile waters with disenfranchised upper riparian states. I would also forward a challenge on the existence of any Ethiopian official statement claiming that Ethiopia wishes to control or monopolize the totality of its 86% contribution.

Consecutive Egyptian Presidents have affirmed that Egypt is not willing to negotiate on the Nile and will go to war to prevent others from using even a drop from the Nile waters. Egypt repealed negotiations on its monopoly and maintained exclusive veto over the use of the Nile waters. This attitude remains unchanged in the 21st century. The 2014 Egyptian constitution, article 44, declares that the state commits to maintaining Egypt’s “historic rights”, a euphemism for total control.

Partnership versus ownership is in effect the most troublesome difference between Ethiopia and Egypt respectively, which has prevented the two countries from reaching any deal on the Nile and most recently on the GERD. Egypt has indeed continued to be the undisputed owner of the Nile Waters utilizing and wasting over 55.5billion cubic meters of water annually. The ultimate goal of Egyptian negotiators is to assert this outdated notion of keeping it all at the expense of everyone else.

Looking into statements by former and current officials of Egypt including President Sisi, Minister Shoukri, and Minister Abdul Atti; they would over and again witness the unwavering position that Egypt will not share a single drop of water from its lion’s share. More recently, Egypt has in fact made it clear that its engagement with upper riparian states is focused not on maintaining its share but solely on increasing it.

While Egypt never consulted upper riparian states when it built megaprojects on the Nile including the Aswan High Dam, the Toshika and peace Canals; Ethiopia, out of goodwill and desire for good neighbourliness and African solidarity, invited Egypt and Sudan to discuss on the GERD.

Inversely, Ethiopia, the main contributor to the Nile waters, has in all forums and throughout its century-old engagement on the Nile proven that it has no intention to monopolize or cause significant harm to lower riparian states. It, however, maintains, like lower riparian states, its right to use the waters of the Nile abiding by accepted international norms and practices. Equitable and reasonable utilization of the Nile remains to be the pillar of Ethiopian hydro diplomacy and reaching an agreement, therefore, cannot be a prerequisite to fill the GERD reservoir.

State-level schizophrenia
State-level paranoid is diagnosed by some political scientist and is explained as a behaviour resembling that of a schizophrenic person. In international relations, such a condition results from exaggerated fear caused by insecurity about the intentions of other states.

With the filling and operation of the GERD eminent, Egypt remains unsure of the future of the status quo on the Nile. Although the owner of the dam, Ethiopia, can only rip the fruit of its hard work by releasing the water to produce electrical current and not by storing it in the lake; Egyptian media, official statements, and diplomatic communications frantically portray the image that the Ethiopian dam will drain the Nile to the extent that the people of Egypt will suffer biblical thirst and starvation. Such fear has prevented Egyptian negotiators and the entire state machinery to adapt to the rapidly changing status quo.

Egypt’s exaggerated fear of the aftermath is leading to faulty perceptions, inappropriate actions, and a sense of mental fragmentation which are common symptoms of schizophrenia. The condition is depriving Egypt of the natural essence of any negotiation- good faith, sombre exchange, and daring compromise. This psychological condition partly explains Egypt’s lack of focus and commitment to the trilateral negotiations, mixing escalation by seeking condemnations- bilaterally, at the Arab League and at the UN Security Council- while engaging in ongoing virtual negotiations.

Political psychoanalysts indicate that a state suffering from schizophrenia would commit themselves to stockpile arms, prepare for war and threaten states whom they perceive to be threats. This complex physiological condition forces Egypt to react in the most erratic and yet predictable manner. Egypt often “considers all options to assert Egypt’s right to the waters of the Nile” when discussing the GERD. Since the building of the dam had started in 2011, Ethiopia had to endure several and open calls for military action by Egyptian officials.

The interpretation of Dr Azaza and the entire Egyptian state machinery to Ethiopia’s defensive stance, against Egypt’s consistent political, diplomatic and military aggression, typical behaviour of Egypt, is a symptom of state-level schizophrenia. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, in his presentation to the House of People’s Representatives, simply gave a firm assurance that his Government is ready to defend the country and the people of Ethiopia against all threats and his remark had nothing to do with aggression.

The prospect
Egypt’s nationalism and self-identity is interwoven with its ability to control and monopolize the Nile River from source to mouth. The GERD, as the Egyptian letter to the Security Council, would attest, is a clear and present danger to this monopoly leading Egypt to manifest a combination of psychological conditions—psychological ownership and zero-sum syndrome, psychological projection and schizophrenia- that have effectively rendered any effort to arrive at a negotiated settlement a futile exercise.

Looking forward, once the first-filling of the GERD is complete, events will exhibit to Egypt that there is no impending biblical thirst or hunger and that GERD is not a weapon targeted at Egypt. Rather a source of cooperation and partnership. Such tangible evidence may extricate the exaggerated fear of material dispossession, encourage Egypt to look more inward with less projection, and more realistically engage with upstream countries. However, accepting the dawning reality that Egypt can’t continue to wholly control and possess the Nile may require years of state-level psychological adjustment.

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