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Egypt’s choices limited if diplomacy fails with Ethiopia

Jul 28,2020 - Last updated at Jul 28,2020

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

 In fact, as Ethiopia is believed to have started filling the reservoir as of last month, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi finds himself in an unenviable position. Almost a decade of futile diplomacy has delivered little or no agreement with pressure mounting on Cairo to adopt a more confrontational attitude. 

 On Saturday Al Sisi told his South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, that Cairo was committed to reaching a legal framework regulating the filling and the operation of the dam while rejecting any unilateral steps. This was seen as a diplomatic response to a provocative tweet last week by Foreign Minister Guido Andargachio who congratulated his people for completing the first stage of filling the dam and claiming that “... the Nile is ours”.

 On Friday the Ethiopian foreign ministry announced that progress has been made in the latest round of talks but that Addis Ababa was seeking 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. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti said that his country is instead seeking a guiding agreement that can be modified as needed.

 Cairo and Khartoum know that without a binding agreement, their share of Nile water as downstream countries could be grossly affected, especially during drought years. Ethiopia has not recognised previous treaties, of 1929 and 1959, over Nile water sharing that it was not party to. Both Sudan and Egypt boycotted a separate agreement that Ethiopia has signed with its neighbours in 2010.

 There is no doubt that Addis Ababa’s attitude towards the two countries is one of disregard and disrespect. Neither country denies Ethiopia’s right to build a dam on the Blue Nile. The $4 billion hydroelectric 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 new jobs. But the government’s disregard to the two downstream countries legitimate rights is developing into a major crisis.

 By accelerating the process of filling the dam, even during drought years, Egypt and Sudan could 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 over 97 per cent of its drinking and irrigation needs.

 Egyptian diplomacy has been slow to react to the challenge presented by the Ethiopian dam. In 2015 Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed signed a Declaration of Principles in Khartoum that involved Sudan as well. 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 will take all necessary measures to avoid causing a significant harm while using the Blue Nile. Moreover, it also said that the parties had agreed on the guidelines and rules of the first filling of the Renaissance Dam including the different scenarios, in parallel to the construction process of the dam.

 A meeting between Sisi and Ahmad in Cairo in 2018 signaled a breakthrough with both sides saying that they had built confidence and Ahmad insisting that Ethiopia was committed to ensuring Egypt’s share of Nile water.

 But since then Ethiopia had adopted a stubborn position on agreeing to the technical guidelines. Egypt sought the mediation of the United States, which under President Donald Trump ordered the secretary of treasury and not the state Department to take on the task. That led to 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. 

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 that the threat posed by Ethiopia’s unilateral, callous and provocative moves is the most serious in modern times. 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 towards 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. And while a military conflict must be avoided at any cost, Egypt must 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.  

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