Gramsci on the Nile

Last week researchers, journalists and practitioners gathered in Addis Ababa for the workshop Mapping Nile controversies in the framework of the project Open Water Diplomacy Lab: Media, Science and Water Cooperation in the Nile basin. How do ideology, knowledge and popular culture shape narratives on transboundary water issues? Open Water Diplomacy Lab explores how techno-scientific controversies on the Nile are debated in mainstream media and social networks in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and how these narratives impact on international negotiations. The project aims at offering a space where water scientists, water journalists and water diplomats from different Nile countries can engage in a process of common learning, co-production and dissemination of knowledge. The main goal is to contribute to the emergence of shared Nile narratives going beyond mainstream “national interest” perspectives.

The project is implemented by UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education with Nile Basin Capacity Building Network, African Water Journalists Network, and University of WITS (Johannesburg). The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Global partnership for water and development” funds it.

From a theoretical perspective, this research aims at contributing to the vast debate on hydro-hegemony. This analytical framework has been developed and further refined by Mark Zeitoun, Jeroen Warner, Ana Cascao, and Naho Mirumachi in conversation with other scholars too. In order to move beyond the traditional but not fully accurate dichotomy between “water wars” and “water cooperation”, they draw on neo-Gramscian approaches studying hegemony in international relations. Thus hydro-hegemony is understood as the combination of three form of powers: material (including the geophysical position of the riparian state), bargaining (i.e. setting the international agenda) and ideational/discursive. In a recent article on Reconceptualizing hegemony, Filippo Menga suggests that “among the three forms of power, ideational power seems to be the most significant to both maintain and contest hegemony”. Gramsci’s notes offer inspiring analytical categories and notions that could be further mobilised to explore these issues. Which is the role of “traditional (i.e the clergy, the military, the state bureaucracy or the teachers) and organic intellectuals” or of “national-popular culture” in promoting and legitimising “hegemonic leadership”? How national hydro-hegemonic projects are linked to material and class interests and which is their impact on international negotiations? We are looking forward to continue the conversation!

As empirical contribution, in the upcoming months we will map how Nile issues have been communicated both in mainstream and social media in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, building on a methodology developed by Iginio Gagliardone (University of WITS) to map online debates prior and post 2015 Ethiopian elections. Initially we will focus on selected events, like the beginning of the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2011. These events will be also situated in broader debates about key political events influencing the relations between the three countries and their respective perceptions, such as the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the independence of South Sudan or the most recent Oromo protests in Ethiopia.

watching Nile Dams

One key point in Gramsci is that hegemony is not alternative to coercion, but rather complementary. Political regimes does not revert to force if they lack cultural hegemony, rather they tend to legitimise the former with the latter. For instance in his notes Gramsci analyses the way the education system disciplines pupils bodies by inculcating habits of sitting down, concentrating and mechanical repetitions of tasks. (He seems anticipating Foucault ideas by 40 years: I found this reflection on the link between knowledge and body in Gramsci inspiringly discusses by David Forgacs in his article Gramsci undisabled)

Similarly, the quest for hydro-hegemony in Blue Nile countries comes along with control and coercion of media and science as well. We had a small experience of this in our project too: two of the Egyptian journalists invited to the workshop did not get their visa to enter in Ethiopia. In spite of having an invitation letter signed by the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign affairs, the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo told them that an additional check was needed because of their profession. And at the end of the process the visa were denied.

giulio-regeniA second, fatal, example is the story of Giulio Regeni, the Cambridge PhD student that disappeared in Cairo exactly one year ago: a few days later his body was found dead with signs of atrocious tortures. Actual perpetrators and political responsibilities for Giulio’s death have not been identified yet. Who was disturbed by his research on independent trade unions in Cairo? Suspicions about the involvement of Egyptian security forces – officially denied by Egyptian authorities – have been recently reinforced by this video secretly shot by one of Giulio’s informants with a type of small cameras usually used by the Egyptian police. The video is truly moving because of the passion showed by Giulio speaking in fluent Arabic about the role of research and ideas in changing societies, as well as because of the integrity he shows in refusing to pledge research funds to be used for personal purposes by his informants. Giulio’s research was not related to Nile issues, but his story – and the quest for truth about his death – should constantly remind us about the sensitive but potentially liberating role that ideas and intellectuals can play in closed political spaces.

Cite this blog post
Emanuele Fantini (2017, January 24). Gramsci on the Nile. FLOWs. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from

Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Department of IHE Delft. Committed to public engagement and crossover projects with artists and journalists, Emanuele coordinates the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, he hosts the podcasts “The Sources of the Nile”, “Water Alternatives Podcast”, and “Si dice acqua”, and he is the editor of IHE Delft Water Governance Blog, FLOWs.

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6 Responses

  1. Martina says:

    Complimenti Emanuele per l’importante lavoro di studio e analisi delle dinamiche geopolitiche e sociali legate ad un tema tanto delicato come l’acqua e la sua egemonia in contesti autoritari… Ne è passata di acqua nel Nilo da quando ho scritto la mia tesi di laurea proprio su queste tematiche, vedo che sono sempre attuali! Leggerò con piacere altri tuoi contributi. Un caro saluto a te e Igino e un abbraccio alla tua famiglia! Martina Venzo

  2. ISHRAGA says:

    “The main goal is to contribute to the emergence of shared Nile narratives going beyond mainstream “national interest” perspectives”
    .If we succeed in achieving this goal, we will have put our feet on the first steps of emergence of a new era for prosperity and development in the Nile basin countries. Let us contribute to this began by more intensive training for all stakeholders in the basin, and let this understanding flowing with the Nile water.
    Ishraga Abbas

  3. Jeltsje Kemerink says:

    This blog reminds me of the duty and responsibility we have as scientists, critically engaging with struggles in society and continuously questioning the status-quo…..this might (unfortunately) become even more pertinent in this Trump era in which ‘alternative’ facts are produced to silence alternative views….

  4. Sandro Colò says:

    Bravo Emanuele, ottimo lavoro, condivido il tuo pensiero ed apprezzo l’estrema trasparenza nell’esposizione della temaica affrontata. Un forte abbraccio, Sandro Colò e famiglia.

  1. 03/02/2017

    […] continue the discussion on the role of popular culture in shaping narratives and hegemonic discourses on the Nile, as well as on how to use video to study and communicate  water governance issues. So join us in […]

  2. 28/06/2019

    […] also one of the main players in shaping it. A few months ago, the authors started a conversation on these topics. Now, it continues […]

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