Governing the Nile

A Thesis Exploring International Water Negotiations in Northeast Africa

1959 Treaty


In 1952, the nationalist Wafd party in Egypt lost their favor in the parliament and was swept out of office by the Free Officers.107 The new Arab nationalist leader, Colonel Gamal al-Nasser, expressed dissatisfaction with the current Nile sharing system between Egypt and Sudan. When Nasser assumed the presidency, Egypt’s water use was based on a previous agreement known as the 1929 Nile Waters Treaty.108 Britain was the sole author of the accord, deciding for itself how much water Anglo-Egypt needed (a lot) and how much their other satellite government in Sudan needed (a little). By the 1950s, however, the increase in demand for cash crops incentivized a revision of the thirty-year old treaty.109 Negotiations began in 1956 and succeeded by 1959, but only after a sudden change in Sudan’s government orientation. In this chapter, I investigate the 1959 Treaty to find a causal relationship between cooperation and the independent variables, state strength and government orientation.

From 1954 to 1958, talks were held in both Cairo and Khartoum. Sudan’s envoy tendered five requirements for a peaceful resolution:

  1. (a)  that the distribution of Nile’s waters was to be decided prior to any construction at Aswan;
  2. (b)  that Sudan has the unilateral right to develop any type of dam, embankment, canal, or hydro-operations post on the Nile or its tributaries;
  3. (c)  that the population living near the river at Wadi Half should receive “alternative livelihoods in some other place in the country” before Nasser raises the river level;
  4. (d)  that any costs necessary for displacing those people should be incurred by Egypt;
  5. (e)  and that Sudan should be allowed to continue plans on the Managil Extension of the Gezira Scheme.120

After deliberating, Egypt acquiesced to (b) and (d), but rejected any changes in distribution that reflected a percentage based system and not a fixed quota. Sudan’s thinking was that if the share ratio was based on population, then they would have the opportunity to receive 1/3 or the total Nile waters which was around 28 bcm—far more than their current usage at 4 bcm.121 Egypt countered the proposal with one of their own; the amount should be divided based on total population and water needs. Presumably, water requirements are constituted of agricultural and industrial needs. Nasser later rescinded the offer, and the proposal died.

After the negotiations failed, Egypt mobilized its army at the Sudan border, apparently to “protect territorial claims.”122 Responding in a tit-for-tat strategy, Sudan placed its forces alongside the border and increased the water capacity at Sennar in preparation for expansion. Then, Sudan asserted outright noncompliance with the 1929 Agreement. At this precarious time, Sudanese leader Abdullah faced a difficult election. The party leaders secretly wanted to oust him, so Abdullah persuaded the army’s senior officials to plot a coup d’état against the party. Although the intended outcome was to centralize power, the plan backfired after the military remained in control without Abdullah.123 The new regime headed by General Ibrahim Abboud “softened the Sudan stance” and agreed to diplomatic negotiations.124

Independent Variable Analysis 

When the independent variables are integrated, Egypt can be characterized as a strong hardliner from 1953-1958. Sudan’s makeup shifts from a weak hardliner to a weak softliner by 1958. In this section, I will elaborate on how both variables translate to preferences that affect the likelihood of cooperation.

During the first five years of negotiations in the 1959 Treaty, Egypt and Sudan had similar positions. As a strong hardliner, Egypt’s preferences were as follows (1 = first choice): (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) assume hostile relations; (3) return to the status quo; and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. During the same period, Ethiopia was a weak hardliner. Its preferences were: (1) receive many perks, concede little in return; (2) return to the status quo; (3) assume hostile relations, and (4) concede most issues, receive little benefits. Although there was variance in state strength, the similar orientations indicate that neither state was willing to concede issues. While Sudan’s weaker economy implied that status quo was preferred to war, the government was still resolute in gaining more rewards than Egypt.

In 1958, General Abboud’s softliner regime transformed Sudan’s diplomatic approach and created variance in both state strength and government orientation. Consequently, Sudan’s preferences changed to reflect a less assertive negotiating style. Instead of placing “concede most issues, receive fewer benefits” last, the softliners placed it in second place. Cooperation succeeded.



Filed under: The 1959 Treaty