After pursuing all bilateral and trilateral avenues with Ethiopia and Sudan, including talks brokered by a third party — the United States — in order to resolve the dispute with Addis Ababa, Egypt has turned to the UN Security Council to which it has submitted an 18-page memorandum explaining in detail its position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project that threatens to deprive it of a large portion of its rightful share of Nile waters. The letter that Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri submitted to the Security Council on 1 May, presenting the Egyptian perspective on the negotiations and other developments related to GERD, delivers a powerful message to Ethiopia and sustains the momentum and efficacy of the Egyptian diplomatic drive on this issue.
According to a Foreign Ministry statement, the letter underscored how Egypt’s positions have been consistently “flexible and consistent with the rules of international law” and stressed how important it was for Ethiopia to “engage constructively in order to settle this issue in a manner that is just and equitable for all parties concerned and that ensures the sustainability of security and stability in the region”.
The tripartite negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia reached an impasse in late February when Addis Ababa withdrew from the round of talks in Washington. The last meeting was to be dedicated to signing a final agreement on the rules for filling and operating GERD, an agreement drafted by the US Department of Treasury with the collaboration of the World Bank based on outcomes of previous negotiating rounds. Addis Ababa then announced plans to start filling the GERD reservoir in July with 4.9 billion m3 of water. In tandem, it ratcheted up its anti-Egyptian propaganda campaign to disseminate the patently false impression that Egypt had been the intransigent party and sought to deprive the Ethiopian people of their legitimate rights to development.
The Egyptian memorandum to the Security Council is less a grievance than it is an attempt to furnish the international body with a clear and objective picture of the situation and to urge it to act within the framework of its legal responsibilities by prevailing upon Addis Ababa to return to the negotiating table and sign the draft agreement and to stop escalating the crisis after announcing its intention to proceed with the filling of the GERD reservoir in less than two months’ time, without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
The Abiy Ahmed government has made it clear that it will not back down on its determination to act unilaterally under the rubric of “exercising its sovereign rights in the utilisation of its natural resource”, heedless of the international laws and conventions regulating the utilisation of transboundary watercourses. This further underscores the need for the Security Council to assume its responsibility to bring to bear the mechanisms of “pre-emptive diplomacy” it uses in order to contain disputes before they spiral.
Addis realises that its options are limited. It can either sign the draft Washington agreement or it can face the consequences of its intransigence when Egypt proceeds to seek a UN Security Council resolution obliging Ethiopia to halt construction of the dam until an agreement is reached. Egypt has every right to feel at the end of its tether on this matter. It has given Ethiopia nine years of patience through innumerable rounds of negotiations and talks with Addis and Khartoum, only to encounter Ethiopian evasiveness and foot-dragging. It is futile to waste further energy in more of the games of technical talks and initiatives that Addis uses simply to buy time.
Egypt continues to respect the Ethiopian people’s right to benefit from their material resources in the process of development. It has reaffirmed this in the memorandum it submitted to the UN Security Council, as it has on numerous other occasions. Egypt has never stood in the way of fellow African peoples’ pursuit of their dreams for development and prosperity to which testifies its long record of defending African rights in international forums. However, it cannot accept the threat that GERD poses to Egypt’s vital water resources. Its rightful quota of Nile water is upheld by longstanding international agreements and, more importantly, it already suffers a water deficiency that has grown more acute due to the needs of its growing population. Egypt also believes that the challenges posed by climate change should inspire countries sharing a common watercourse to work together, rather than acting unilaterally and giving rein to antagonism and political manoeuvres to encroach on others’ rights.
With the submission of the memorandum to the UN Security Council, Egypt has confirmed that it will not be provoked and will continue to pursue rational and coolheaded options. At the same time, however, this step marks an important shift in the Egyptian approach on this matter, which Ethiopia, international powers and the African Union and its regional groups should realise.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly