Egypt running out of diplomatic options on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis

Egypt running out of diplomatic options on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam crisis

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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi meets with Ethiopian PM Abiy Ahmed at Ittihadiya Presidential Palace, Cairo, Egypt, June 10, 2018. (Reuters) 

Uncertainty surrounds the fate of the next round of trilateral negotiations involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia regarding the timetable to fill the huge reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and other technical guidelines, which have prevented an agreement for years. The last round, hosted by South Africa as head of the African Union (AU), achieved little, just like previous rounds.

In fact, as Ethiopia is believed to have started filling the reservoir as of last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi finds himself in an unenviable position. Almost a decade of futile diplomacy has delivered little in the way of agreements and pressure is now mounting on Cairo to adopt a more confrontational attitude. 

El-Sisi on Saturday told his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, that Egypt was committed to agreeing on a legal framework regulating the filling and operation of the dam, while rejecting any unilateral steps. This was seen as a diplomatic response to a provocative tweet last week by Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew, who congratulated his people for completing the first stage of filling the dam, claiming “the Nile is ours.”

The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry on Friday announced that progress had been made in the latest round of talks, but that Addis Ababa was seeking a non-binding agreement over the filling of the dam. It added that, while it could fill the dam in three years, it was ready to extend that timeline to seven. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti said that his country is instead seeking a guiding agreement that can be modified as needed.

Egypt and Sudan know that, without a binding agreement, their share of Nile water as downstream countries could be badly affected, especially during drought years. Ethiopia has not recognized the previous treaties regarding Nile water sharing that date from 1929 and 1959, as it was not a party to them. Both Sudan and Egypt boycotted a separate agreement Ethiopia signed with its neighbors in 2010.

There is no doubt that Addis Ababa’s attitude toward the two countries is one of disregard and disrespect. Neither denies Ethiopia’s right to build a dam on the Blue Nile. The $4 billion hydroelectric GERD project, financed almost entirely by the Ethiopian people, is a source of national pride. It is projected to provide electric power to millions of people while creating badly needed jobs. But the government’s disregard for the two downstream countries’ legitimate rights is developing into a major crisis.

With Ethiopia accelerating the process of filling the dam, Egypt and Sudan could soon see their share of Nile water drop to dangerous levels. For Egypt, it goes without saying that this is an unprecedented existential threat. Egypt depends on the Nile for more than 97 percent of its drinking water and irrigation needs.

Egyptian diplomacy has been slow to react to the challenge presented by the Ethiopian dam. In 2015, El-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a declaration of principles in Khartoum that also involved Sudan. It underlined that cooperation must be based on mutual understanding, mutual interest, good intentions, benefit for all, and the principles of international law. It also stated that the three countries would take all necessary measures to avoid causing significant harm while using the Blue Nile. Moreover, it said that the parties had agreed on the guidelines and rules of the first filling of the GERD, including the different scenarios, in parallel to the construction process.

A meeting between El-Sisi and Ahmed in Cairo in 2018 signaled a breakthrough, with both sides saying they had built confidence. Ahmed insisted that Ethiopia was committed to ensuring Egypt’s share of Nile water. But, since then, Ethiopia has adopted a stubborn position on agreeing to the technical guidelines. Egypt sought the mediation of the US, which under President Donald Trump ordered the Department of the Treasury and not the State Department to take on the task. That led nowhere and recent reports say that US diplomats in Cairo and Addis Ababa were kept in the dark.

Now Egypt says it will take its case to the UN Security Council, but not before the efforts of the AU have been exhausted.

There is no doubt that Addis Ababa’s attitude toward the two countries is one of disregard and disrespect.

Osama Al-Sharif

With Egypt fighting terrorists in Sinai and gearing up for a military intervention in Libya, the timing of the crisis with Ethiopia could not have been worse. A growing number of Egyptian pundits believe the threat posed by Ethiopia’s unilateral, callous and provocative moves is the country’s most serious in modern times. El-Sisi has been careful not to refer to the possible use of force in this crisis.

On the other hand, it is difficult to understand the Ethiopian attitude toward its downstream partners. The provocative statements by its foreign minister reveal a hidden desire to dominate and dictate. Countries have gone to war for less. While a military conflict must be avoided at all costs, Egypt should not waste time in raising its diplomatic offensive while keeping all options on the table as it faces its biggest peace-time challenge yet.

  • Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010
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