Egypt’s bet on international pressure yields scant results as GERD talks remain at impasse

With just weeks left before Ethiopia says it will start filling a new mega-dam on the Blue Nile River that would make it Africa’s biggest power exporter, negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan ended on Wednesday without an agreement on several key issues, including legally-binding drought mitigation protocols and a dispute resolution mechanism, according to official statements by the three countries.

The stalemate comes amid a backdrop of Egypt’s failed efforts to apply international pressure on Addis Ababa through diplomatic channels and by repeatedly calling on allies with large investments in Ethiopia to use their economic weight to force them to the negotiating table and commit to a binding agreement. Despite the lack of progress over the last 10 days of talks and the diplomatic blitz in recent months, Egypt remains committed to this strategy, Egyptian officials tell Mada Masr. 

The renewed negotiations, which began on June 9 via videoconference, were brokered by Sudan. The United States, European Union and South Africa, in its capacity as African Union chair, attended the talks as observers.

Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty said in a statement that the talks had made “little progress” due to the “intransigent positions” held by Ethiopia on both technical and legal aspects of the deal. Ethiopia refused to “include a legally-binding dispute resolution mechanism and objected to the inclusion of an effective measure to cope with periods of drought,” Abdel Aty said.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Sudanese Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas said that the three countries had agreed on “95 percent” of the technical issues related to the filling and operation of the dam but the differences over the legal aspects remained unsolved. “Sudan does not accept the unilateral filling of the dam,” Abbas said. 

Sudan proposed referring the matter to the prime ministers of the three countries in a bid to resume negotiations once again. The Ethiopan Ministry of Irrigation said in a statement that it agreed to continue negotiations after consulting Sudan. Yet it also reiterated Ethiopia’s right to fill and operate the dam in accordance with the Declaration of Principles signed by all three countries in Khartoum in 2015.

“We are giving Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok a bit of time to consult with the Ethiopians and see if they would move forward towards the basic idea of a “legally binding agreement,” an informed Cairo official told Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. “The visit by the vice president of Sudan’s presidential council was supposed to help there,” he added, referring to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as “Hemedti”), who arrived in Addis Ababa on Wednesday.

“There are some convergences on technical matters in relation to environmental flows and first stage filling, which has been non-controversial from the very beginning actually,” Zerihun Yigzaw, an official at Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and one of the country’s negotiators in talks over the dam, told Mada Masr. “But we have huge gaps unfortunately when it comes to legal issues, and most importantly the Egyptian side still insists on maintaining what is called its historic rights and existing use or current use and that’s impossible and unacceptable.”

According to the NGO International Crisis Group, Ethiopia is opposed to binding international arbitration to settle water disputes and prefers any disputes to be settled through negotiations between the three countries.  “Ethiopia also sees little benefit in a process in which only it — as the dam owner and upstream country — is likely to be subject to potential claims,” the International Crisis Group said in a brief.

An Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity said there are three aspects Egypt would not “under any circumstances” sign up to a deal without: an agreed minimum amount of water Ethiopia would have to release annually, legally-binding measures for mitigation and dispute resolution, and a final document that does not imply any permanent concession from Egypt on its water rights.

According to a consultant with the Egyptian government on the dam who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, Ethiopia wants a text that would inevitably allow it a fixed annual share of Nile water, which would make the GERD not just a mega energy project but would eventually turn it into a “water bank.” “Egypt would never agree to such an arrangement,” the consultant said.

Tensions have simmered between Cairo and Addis Ababa since 2011, when Ethiopia announced plans to build the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), pitting Ethiopia’s push to generate electricity for domestic consumption and export against Egypt’s fears over water scarcity. 

The US 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, calling on the US to allow time for more internal consultations. 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.

Ethiopia’s Zerihun said that the inclusion of the African Union and European Union as observers to the talks had helped bring all parties back to the table after the U.S. decided to hold a meeting in February without Ethiopia’s presence during which it presented a final draft agreement that did not meet the expectations of Addis Ababa.

He also called the US a “biased arbitrator” that has backed Egypt.

Cairo’s strategy over the past several months has been to try and drum up international support for its position in the negotiations in order to pressure Addis Ababa to commit to a comprehensive deal, efforts that have met with little success.

While Ethiopia accuses the US of backing Egypt, an Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity said Egypt feels it has been let down by Washington. The combination of the coronavirus pandemic, skyrocketing unemployment, massive nationwide protests against police brutality, and the looming presidential election in November have sidelined the GERD issue in Washington. “Clearly the US is not going to put in a great deal of effort in this file. It has exhausted its efforts,” an informed foreign diplomat told Mada Masr.

Nevertheless, the US National Security Council on Wednesday reiterated its call for a comprehensive agreement before the filling of the dam. In a post on its official Twitter account, the National Security Council said: “257 million people in east #Africa are relying on #Ethiopia to show strong leadership, which means striking a fair deal. Technical issues have been resolved — time to get the GERD deal done before filling it with Nile River water!”

However, Washington has refused to use its economic weight, with investments in Ethiopia amounting to nearly $5 billion, to put pressure on Addis Ababa to continue with the negotiations, according to an analyst specializing in the Horn of Africa who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity.

Similarly, according to an Egyptian government source, Egypt was rebuffed in its “repeated” requests to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to suspend investments in Ethiopia in order to secure Egypt a better negotiating position. The two countries have combined investments of over $7 billion in Ethiopia, according to the Africa analyst. The same goes for China, which has hundreds of projects in Ethiopia exceeding $5 billion, the analyst says, and has not put pressure on Ethiopia on Egypt’s behalf.

Ethiopia has repeatedly pledged to start filling the dam by July, when its rainy season begins, with or without an agreement from Egypt and Sudan. Confronted with that prospect, Cairo has waged a diplomatic offensive for the past several months in a desperate bid to garner international support.

In May, Egypt wrote to the United Nations Security Council urging the bloc to call on Ethiopia to not act unilaterally by filling the dam. Sudan sent a similar letter. In response, Ethiopia sent a letter to the Security Council two weeks later saying it “does not have a legal obligation to seek the approval of Egypt to fill the dam.” The dam has also become a point of national pride in Ethiopia and any concessions may be politically costly to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. “The stakes would be too high for Abiy” not to fill the dam in July, the informed foreign diplomat told Mada Masr. “The gesture will be more important than the amount of water, and, by doing this, it would be creating a fait accompli and an important ‘posturing’ position for Ethiopia.”

In early April, Abiy proposed a transitional agreement on an initial filling of the dam and for negotiations on a final agreement to restart in the fall. Both Cairo and Khartoum rejected the proposal, saying that whatever deal the three riparian countries reach would have to be a final and comprehensive agreement.

With the latest round of talks ending in a stalemate, Egypt will continue to lobby the international community to try and garner support, according to an advisor to Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity. For Ethiopia to come around, the adviser said, there has to be a much clearer position from the international community and leading investors in Ethiopia that Addis Ababa has to “genuinely commit” to reach a negotiated solution.  

Yet Ethiopia has also displayed a willingness to push back using international diplomacy, sending a letter to the Security Council and pushing for observers from the EU and South Africa to be included in the recent talks. They have also occasionally rattled sabers, with Ethiopia’s deputy army chief on Friday saying his country will strongly defend itself and will not negotiate its sovereignty over the dam.

Earlier this week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry threatened to call for UN Security Council intervention to “protect international peace and security by preventing Ethiopia from taking unilateral actions that negatively affect Egypt’s water rights.”

Yet, the prospects of making progress through the UN Security Council appear dim. 

“Egypt wants a resolution from the UN Security Council. They are already talking about it in New York with the member states of the council,” the foreign diplomat said. “But it is not likely at all, at least now, that the Security Council would get too involved in this matter. So far most members have not shown any appetite for this. Clearly most of the P5 has companies working on the dam, and some other UNSC non-permanent members as well.”

“There is also the question of who on the UN Security Council would table a draft resolution,” a Cairo-based Western diplomat said. “In fact, nobody wants to get between Ethiopia and Egypt.”

“Egypt is threatening to boycott the companies that are working in the dam if Ethiopia starts filling without an agreement,” the foreign diplomat said. “I am not sure that anybody would be immediately worried about this.”

Additional reporting by Simon Marks 


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