By Arab News
By Dr. Abdel Latif El-Menawy*
Egypt and Sudan resorted to the UN Security Council (UNSC) to interfere in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations due to the intransigence of the Ethiopian side, which still insists on proceeding with its unilateral measures. The latest of these is the second filling of the dam’s reservoir, which is inconsistent with the memorandum of understanding concluded between the three parties years ago.
The GERD has become the most pressing problem that worries the Egyptian people, and it is no exaggeration to say that that it worries all Arab people and the entire Middle East region because it not only threatens the water, agriculture and food security of Egypt, which is one of the most important countries in the region, but also because it threatens regional security, as declared by many parties, including the US.
But why did the UNSC stand so neutral?
It is one of the six main branches of the UN and the most important among them. It is responsible for maintaining international peace and security in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and for this reason member states can resort to it to save themselves or other nations from harm. It is also why Egypt has asked it to adjudicate on many situations that have concerned it and Arab and Muslim people generally, from the end of British colonialism in the 1940s to the issue of the GERD crisis today.
The previous stances of the UNSC concerning Arabs in general have usually been neutral and non-binding, but it seems incapable of confronting the language of power, arrogance and unilateral thinking. Therefore, it was expected that the council’s decision on the GERD crisis would call for the continuation of negotiations on the basis that none of the three conflicting parties would be harmed or that the situation would not create a general crisis in a region that the world sees as inflamed.
But the positions of some countries, from which Egypt expected support, were noteworthy. It is possible here to mention the position of Russia. The Russian delegate, Vasily Nebenzya, said in his statement: “We are convinced there is no alternative to settling this dispute other than through negotiations between the three countries. The solution is to be sought in accordance with the letter and spirit of the 2015 Khartoum Declaration. It requires trust and mutual understanding, whereas the inflation of tensions and claims about the possible use of force are unacceptable. We are concerned over the escalating confrontational rhetoric that does not facilitate the search for compromise solutions.”
The Russian position may stem from Moscow’s desire to return to the African continent through the Ethiopian gate. Russia is probably trying to exploit the state of American estrangement in its relationship with Addis Ababa due to the conflict in Tigray. It may also manipulate the African support and sympathy that leans more toward Addis Ababa than to Cairo, which was clear in the statements made by the delegates of the African Union, Kenya and Niger.
In addition, China, which is the largest investor in Ethiopia and Africa in general, does not see Russia as an economic competitor, but rather an element of integration and perhaps a supporter of its investments through its political and military presence. Moreover, Turkey, which is also strongly active in the African continent, has so far been able to manage its contradictions with Russia and preserve the interests of both parties. Therefore, Ankara’s position seemed to support Ethiopia in an effort to win its, and the rest of Africa’s, favor.
The Arab position of supporting Egypt and Sudan has been very positive. The foreign ministers of the Arab League countries last month affirmed at their meeting in Doha their support for Cairo and Khartoum. The meeting called on all parties to refrain from taking any unilateral measures that could harm the water interests of other countries. It also called for the issue of the GERD to be discussed by the UNSC, which is what happened.
Saudi Arabia has also announced its support for Egypt and Sudan, stressing that their water security is an integral part of Arab security. Kuwait demanded the preservation of the water and economic rights of downstream countries in accordance with international laws. Bahrain, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and the UAE also offered their support to Egypt and Sudan and outlined their keenness to continue diplomatic dialogue to overcome any differences. The positions of Oman and the legitimate Yemeni government were similar.
Surprisingly, the Arab decisions, advice and statements of support did not affect the Ethiopian side, which continued its intransigence and defiantly told the Egyptians and Sudanese that it had begun the second filling. It is better, therefore, for the Arab world to intervene by focusing its support on tangible matters on the ground — especially since there is cooperation on many projects between Arab parties and Addis Ababa — rather than issuing mere statements that will soon be forgotten.
I do not know when the next round of negotiations will begin, but I expect that it will only see more Ethiopian intransigence and Egyptian-Sudanese determination. However, other problems have surfaced in the last few years, as international dam experts have stated that the GERD has major design problems and that the capacity of the reservoir is 300 percent bigger than it should be, making it a time bomb that threatens Egypt and Sudan. Its capacity was supposed to be reduced by two-thirds and the dam’s height limited to 80 meters (it has been built to 155 meters), especially since the dam will generate only about 3,000 megawatts of power because of the low number of turbines Ethiopia has installed.
The dangers of the GERD may be one of the negotiation mechanisms Egypt can rely on in the future, whether by interfering with what remains, by giving advice or even by emphasizing the danger of what the Ethiopians are doing, not only to Egypt and Sudan but also to the Ethiopian people.
I am sure that Egypt and Sudan will not give up their rights to the waters of the Nile. The latter is poised to bear the greater part of the damage, especially regarding its weak infrastructure and the difficulty of dealing with changes related to the river, as we saw with the cost of floods in Sudan last year. But does Ethiopia realize this? It may or may not realize the seriousness of what it is doing. The future of the region is already fraught with dangers and this issue must be completely resolved in a way that leaves no trace of enmity.
- Dr. Abdel Latif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy