Sisi expresses ‘grave concern’ at close of Ethiopian-Egyptian summit

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi expressed Egypt’s “grave concern” over the stagnation of tripartite Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam negotiations at Thursday’s press conference, marking the conclusion of a two-day Egypt-Ethiopian summit that saw Sisi hold direct talks with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.

Sisi emphasized that it is “necessary to work as soon as possible” to ensure the resumption of the required technical studies on the impacts of the dam as a “condition” in the Khartoum Declaration of Principles in order to begin to fill the dam’s reservoir.

“The ideal and only way to translate Ethiopia’s commitment” to not harming Egypt’s interests, Sisi stated, is “the resumption of the required studies and the implementation of their findings.”

Desalegn described the summit’s meeting as “cordial,” affirming Ethiopia’s commitment to work with Egypt to confront difficulties and outstanding issues, in addition to working with all technical parties toward resolving problems. However, he did not pledge support for the proposal Cairo recently floated to Addis Ababa to involve the World Bank as a technical mediator in the talks, and which Sisi stated on Thursday remains a standing proposal.

“We leave it to our brothers in Ethiopia and Sudan to study [the proposal],” Sisi said.

Desalegn stated that the proposal should be discussed in the tripartite committee “because it also relates to Sudan, and not just Ethiopia.”

Egypt had announced that an earlier round of discussions in November between the two countries and Sudan over technical details had failed.

“Prime Minister Desalegn said, ‘Let’s invite another third party rather than the World Bank,’ but I told them that we would lose even more time in discussing who that third party would be,” Sisi stated.

The summit’s modest outcomes — which amounted to the signing of memoranda of understanding on industrial cooperation, political and diplomatic cooperation, and the minutes of the meeting — came as no surprise to several diplomats from both countries, who spoke to Mada Masr in the lead-up to the meeting on condition of anonymity, as they are not authorized to speak to the press. The diplomats all agreed that Desalegn’s visit would not necessarily produce a “remarkable” announcement on progress in the negotiations concerning the dam, nor would the parties agree to a date for the dam to begin to be filled.  

However, there had been signs of increased potential cooperation ahead of Thursday’s press conference. Coinciding with Desalegn’s visit, the joint Egyptian-Ethiopian Higher Committee held its sixth meeting, and the first since 2014. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry released a translation of minister Sameh Shoukry’s address, which he delivered at the closing session of the commission’s meeting on Wednesday. While the dam was only mentioned briefly, Shoukry outlined several points of potential cooperation.

“I wish to take this opportunity to reiterate Egypt’s commitment to the full implementation of the Agreement on Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed by Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which will be – upon full implementation – a successful model of cooperation in the Nile Basin,” the minister said. The implication of Shoukry’s comments seem to be that Cairo does not expect Ethiopia to halt construction.

The Ethiopian diplomatic source who spoke to Mada Masr in the lead-up to the meeting said that Addis Ababa did not want Desalegn’s visit “to be directly associated” with Sisi’s reception of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki last week, which took place shortly before reports emerged that Egyptian troops had been deployed in Eritrea at the border with Sudan.

The strained relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea “will not put a strain on the relations between Egypt and Ethiopia,” the Ethiopian source said. For the diplomat, Ethiopia wishes to improve relations with Egypt and establish joint cooperation in various fields, in addition to advancing negotiations to minimize the dam’s effect on Egypt’s share of Nile water after construction is complete.

Shoukry’s address and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s statements regarding the joint commission’s meeting carried the same sentiment of strengthening bilateral joint cooperation that diplomats outlined for Desalegn’s visit. Shoukry stressed cooperation “in the fields of agriculture, trade, investment, mining, health, industry, culture and education,” in addition to “enhancing security cooperation between the two countries […], particularly due to the imminent threats of terrorism.”

Despite the countries’ positive sentiments, an Egyptian government official intimately involved in the bilateral relations told Mada Masr before the meeting concluded that Cairo “has developed a near certain conviction that the path of negotiations with the Ethiopians toward a reasonable understanding regarding filling the reservoir has become extremely bumpy and is about to lead to a dead end.”

The upstream Nile country plans to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir with 74 billion cubic meters of water over the span of three years, concluding the construction of the dam in 2019. Egypt insists that the timetable should be extended, contending that filling the reservoir at this pace would cause a dangerous drop in its water share, which it already claims is insufficient for the needs of its 100-million person population. But, since implementation began on the dam construction plans in 2011, Ethiopia has reiterated that the project – whose projected cost is approximately US$4.2 billion – is vital to the development of the country and to meeting the needs of its population, which is nearly as large as Egypt’s.

Sisi pledged Egypt’s unwavering belief in Ethiopia’s right to development in his Thursday remarks and pointed to the experiences of other river basins where cooperation over water shares had been made possible by sharing benefits and avoiding harm. However, Sisi stated that such cooperation was only possible by “refraining from unilateral actions” and “respecting the applicable principles of international law.”

“The Ethiopians are not really being cooperative. They are playing for time. Egypt will have no choice but to consider available legal options, unless Ethiopia makes an exerted effort to move forward with the negotiations, especially on the matters of the start date for the filling of the reservoir and how many years will be allowed for the process,” the Egyptian diplomatic source said before the meeting concluded.

According to the source, Ethiopia’s rigid position is compounded by Sudan’s position, which is “complicated, as it involves several issues, the most prominent of which are the dispute over the Halayeb Triangle and Shalateen, Egypt’s relations with South Sudan and what Sudan claims is Egypt’s provision of continual support to the Sudanese opposition.”

The Egyptian diplomat also pointed out that Egypt and Eritrea have recently made further developments in security and military cooperation “because Egypt must act swiftly to protect its interests. The cooperation between Egypt, the UAE and Eritrea will be conducted on a higher level this year.” The trilateral cooperation between the countries began a year ago, taking a quasi-institutional form and granting Egypt the right to use a United Arab Emirates military base in Eritrea to combat what Egypt believes is an antagonist axis that involves Sudan, Ethiopia, Turkey and Qatar.

Egypt has also recently contacted other Nile Basin countries on several occasions to secure further support for its rejection of Ethiopia’s decision to commence filling the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir before a clear understanding has been reached with Egypt in its capacity as a downstream country.

According to the Egyptian official, Egypt is working to garner support from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Tanzania.

The Egyptian and Tanzanian foreign ministers met in Cairo last week in the third session of the joint ministerial committee between the two countries. Tanzania was one of the last countries to sign the 2010 Nile Basin Initiative, joining after Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed the 2015 Khartoum Declaration. Egypt rejects the Nile Basin Initiative on the grounds that it contravenes what it describes as its “historical right” to a specific share of Nile water.

Asmahan Soliman 

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