By Arab News
By Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy*
Under African Union mediation, the negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia resumed last Friday after the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa had grown in recent months, with the former referring the issue to the UN Security Council. However, the fate of this round of negotiations promises to be the same as its predecessors, especially in light of the growing differences and divergent views between the two key players.
What Egypt had managed to gain in the previous rounds was the apparent convergence of the Egyptian and Sudanese positions. These two warned that Addis Ababa’s unilateral decision to fill the GERD reservoir without a deal constitutes a clear and present danger to Egypt, with repercussions that threaten international peace and security.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed during last month’s UN Security Council session on the GERD issue that the unilateral filling of the reservoir and operation of this dam — without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect downstream communities and prevent the infliction of significant harm on their riparian rights — would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that would further destabilize an already troubled region.
Shoukry stressed that, while Egypt recognizes the importance of this project to the developmental objectives of the Ethiopian people, which it supports, it is essential to realize that this mega-dam potentially threatens the welfare, well-being and existence of millions of Egyptian and Sudanese citizens.
The Sudanese government submitted a memorandum to the Security Council reiterating Egypt’s position. The letter included an explanation of Sudan’s position on the GERD negotiations. It also urged all parties to refrain from taking any unilateral measures and called on the Security Council to support its efforts to resume negotiations and resolve outstanding issues.
The Egyptian-Sudanese position is supported by a large number of Arab leaders, most notably Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Cabinet last week underscored that the water security of Egypt and Sudan are an integral part of Arab security and it rejected any measure that would jeopardize the rights of all parties to the Nile’s water. The Cabinet also stressed the need to resume negotiations in good faith in order to reach a fair agreement that takes into account the interests of all parties.
Ethiopia, meanwhile, is convinced that it has a sovereign right to the Nile’s water; in the sense that the Nile is Ethiopian property and that Egypt has no historical rights to its waters. Addis Ababa considers that what Egypt sees as historical rights to be injustices imposed on Ethiopia and other partner countries in the Nile Basin by British colonialism, and that it is time for these countries to rebel against this colonial legacy and end it once and for all.
These Ethiopian convictions are contrary to international law and the rules that regulate the sharing of river water between states. These are internationally recognized rules that have nothing to do with what they call a “colonial legacy.” These Ethiopian convictions are one of the main obstacles to reaching an agreement.
Before Egypt could even think of a way to respond, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed surprised everyone with a position that could only be seen as an early willingness to disavow any agreement that might be reached or, more clearly, to block any agreement. A few hours after the end of the African mini-summit, Ahmed announced that Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the reservoir within the next two weeks, with the remaining construction work to continue while this happens.
Egypt is now facing two possible assumptions. The first is to consider that the statements made by the Ethiopian government that contradict what was agreed at the summit are a mere attempt to save face in front of its people, after being forced to accept the postponement of the filling of the reservoir until a binding and legal agreement has been reached.
The second assumption is to deal with the Ethiopian statements as confirmation of its intention to sabotage the work of the technical committee, while working to hold Egypt accountable for its failure.
The first, although questionable in its seriousness, does not impose on Egypt any consequences other than to be serious in the formation of the technical committee and to present all papers that confirm the legality and legitimacy of its demands. Egypt must also show some flexibility by waiving some of its rights and not rejecting Ethiopian claims on the issue of its alleged sovereign rights to the Nile’s waters. And it must seek to gain the appreciation and respect of the members of this committee to dodge any Ethiopian plan aimed at thwarting it.
However, it is the second assumption that is the most important. Egypt must strive to move forward with both paths of negotiation, through the African Union and the UN Security Council, along with Sudan. Ethiopia is trying to provoke the resentment of these countries due to the so-called colonial heritage that it promotes in relation to Egypt’s water rights, which Ethiopia denies.
The truth is that stalling has been an integral part of Ethiopia’s actions since Egypt signed the Declaration of Principles agreement in 2015. Addis Ababa has entered into a long series of negotiations with the aim of wasting time while continuing the process of building the dam. What is certain is that there are a number of reasons, many of which are internal, that made Ethiopia adopt this tactic. It does not negotiate with the aim of reaching an agreement, even if it is favorable, but rather stalls in order to avoid reaching an agreement.
The internal situation in Ethiopia is not good, as internal conflicts are undermining the stability of society. We have all witnessed in recent days the demonstrations in Addis Ababa protesting the killing of an Ethiopian singer and activist, as well as the political unrest and turmoil that preceded it. Therefore, the authorities in Addis Ababa are seeking another political issue to distract the people from what is going on in their country. They are using the GERD to achieve that goal, considering that it is an issue of development for the Ethiopian people and that their position can be presented as a victory in this conflict.
But what next? The question here is: What if negotiations under the African Union’s patronage fail? Egypt and Sudan have declared their desire to reach a compromise, in which their water shares are not affected and peace and stability are not threatened in this disturbed and conflict-ridden region. But, in the case of negotiations failing and the UN Security Council also being unable to reach a solution, things will be complicated considerably, which is something no one wished for.
- Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy