Egypt, Sudan reject Ethiopian offer for transitional agreement on mega-dam to allow initial filling in summer

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok sent two separate letters to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last week rejecting his proposal for a transitional agreement on an initial filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in mid-July, according to three separate sources.

The three sources — a well-informed Cairo-based European diplomat, an Egyptian government official and a Khartoum-based political source — told Mada Masr that the Ethiopian government sent letters to Cairo and Khartoum 10 days ago proposing a temporary agreement to allow for Addis Ababa to begin the initial filling of the dam reservoir and for negotiations on a final agreement to restart in the fall.

Hamdok and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the chairperson of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, debated the proposal before both agreeing that it does not serve Sudan’s interests, the Khartoum-based Sudanese political source said. It is noteworthy that Sudan’s letter to Ethiopia rejecting the offer was signed by Hamdok, as sources previously told Mada Masr that the Sudanese prime minister was overall more in line with Ethiopia’s position in the dam dispute while Burhan was more inclined to accommodate Egypt.

Khartoum then informed Cairo of its rejection of the proposal, according to the Egyptian government official.

Both Egypt and Sudan have agreed that whatever deal the three riparian countries reach would have to be a final and comprehensive agreement, according to the Cairo-based European source. 

Tensions have simmered between Cairo and Addis Ababa since 2011, when Ethiopia announced plans to build the mega-dam, pitting Ethiopia’s push to generate electricity for domestic consumption and export against Egypt’s fears over water scarcity. Earlier this month, Abiy reiterated his pledge to begin filling the reservoir during the wet season between late June or July and September.

Despite years of negotiations, the two sides have been unable to overcome key differences to finalize an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Serious points of contention remain unresolved, including the annual water release, mitigation measures in various cycles of drought, water levels of both the GERD and Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, and a dispute resolution mechanism.

The United States became involved in the dispute in November after Egypt called for international mediation. Delegations from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan met three times in Washington DC earlier this year. Ethiopia pulled out of the final meeting in late February where a deal was to be signed. After holding bilateral talks with Egypt and Sudan, the US released a statement saying it believed an agreement had been reached. Yet Sudan declined to give any formal consent to the text, leaving Egypt as the only country to sign the deal.

Egypt is still determined that any final deal would have to be based on “the entirety of the text of the agreement negotiated in Washington,” the Egyptian official said. 

Earlier this month, Hamdok said that Khartoum was committed to the Washington text “as a term of reference” to a final agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. However, the Khartoum source said that Sudan is not prepared to accommodate Egypt’s request to sign onto the Washington text without Ethiopia’s agreement.

Ever since the US-sponsored talks broke down, both Egypt and Ethiopia appear to have been courting Sudan’s favor to win leverage in the dispute, with diplomatic efforts, border agreements and energy supply deals coming into play.

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