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Egyptian diplomacy and troubled waters on the Nile

Until recently, relations between Egypt and Ethiopia were governed by an agreement signed under the auspices of Britain in 1902, in which the ruler of Ethiopia officially promised that his country would not allow any projects on the Blue Nile, Lake Tana or Sobat River that may harm Egyptian interests.
But secretly, in 2011, after the institutional collapse of the Egyptian state and Mubarak regime, Ethiopia exploited the situation and began constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, confident that Egypt was not in a position to do anything about it. In 2013, the Ethiopian parliament officially voted in favor of revoking all old agreements with neighboring countries and concluding new ones. Muhammad Mursi came to power and then was overthrown and, when Abdel Fattah El-Sisi became president, he took care of the case and concluded a tripartite agreement with Ethiopia and Sudan in 2015. However, Egypt’s partners did not pay much attention to the vague promise of “taking into account the interests of Egypt” because the expression did not reflect any specific features or limits of the interests.
The current de facto situation is that Ethiopia is building the dam at the sources of the Nile, which would deprive Egypt of the river’s usual flow and endanger the country, whose population relies heavily on the Nile water. However, Egypt is sparing no effort to reach a solution that would save the region from a real crisis.
Negotiations over the dam stalled in November last year, after the ministers of irrigation of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia failed to reach agreement regarding the adoption of a report prepared by experts on dam studies. Both Sudan and Ethiopia rejected the report, while Egypt accepted it. Egypt was worried that building the dam would destroy its agricultural lands and deprive 100 million Egyptians of drinking water. On the other hand, Ethiopia says the dam is important for the development of the country, and stresses it has benefits for all downstream countries, including Egypt and Sudan. The position of Sudan seems closer to Ethiopia than to Egypt, and Khartoum, unlike Cairo, declared many times that the dam would benefit downstream countries.
President El-Sisi signed the “Declaration of Principles” in Khartoum in 2015, along with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia Hailemariam Desalegn and the Sudanese President Omar Bashir. The three leaders welcomed the agreement in their speeches in the Presidential Palace, where they watched a short documentary about the advantages of the dam.

Ethiopia is building the Grand Renaissance Dam at the river’s sources, which would reduce its usual flow and endanger Egypt, whose population relies heavily on the Nile’s water.

Abdellatif El-Menawy

Ethiopia received strong support from other Nile Basin countries — Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi. The inclusion of the good faith principle in the agreement was understood by the Egyptians to be an important, binding commitment to Ethiopia with regards to Egypt’s right to benefit from the Nile River and from the Renaissance Dam. The agreement included a mechanism to settle disputes between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the interpretation or implementation of the agreement, which stressed the importance of preserving historical agreements on Nile water but did not address water quotas or usage.
Signing the document at that time indicated the Egyptian approval to Ethiopia on building the dam and the resumption of foreign funding, which had stopped after Egyptian diplomacy succeeded in convincing contributing countries to withhold it.
The dam, in this case, became legal and official, built with the consent of the three eastern Nile countries: Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Thus, the international funding of more than $5.5 billion returned and Ethiopia accelerated the building process in a bid to complete it before the final non-binding report of the international advisory and expert bureau was issued 15 months later, because Egypt’s approval of the Renaissance Dam implied its approval of building a series of five other dams in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia imposed the word “respected” rather than “binding” regarding the report of the advisory bureau to ensure that Sudan and Egypt would not have the right to object to the report, while Ethiopia would still have the right to continue building the dam regardless of any objections.
In the context of Egypt’s efforts to contain the crisis diplomatically, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri held talks with his Ethiopian counterpart Workneh Gebeyehu in Addis Ababa last December. Shukri suggested the participation of the World Bank, which enjoys wide technical experience, as a neutral and decisive party in the work of the tripartite technical committee of the Renaissance Dam.
Egyptian diplomacy needs to continue its efforts to preserve Egypt’s water interests, and the political leadership has to be careful in its attempt to reach a decisive agreement that guarantees the historical rights of Egypt to the Nile water.
• Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy