A veteran Egyptian diplomat who has participated in talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam says that Egypt should use all the tools at its disposal to protect its water rights.
Magdi Amer, Egypt’s former assistant foreign minister for Nile Basin countries and Nile water, believes that Egypt should use “all the tools” that are available against Ethiopia to protect its water rights.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly during a Cairo conference on the implications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Amer stated that Egypt has both “diplomatic and other tools” that should be used in parallel.
Egypt and Ethiopia failed to reach an agreement in early October over the dam, a project that started eight years ago.
The Ethiopian government has failed to address Egyptian concerns about the distribution of Nile water, for the dam, built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, controls 85 per cent of the water that reaches Egypt.
Amer, deeply involved in the Egyptian-Ethiopian negotiations when he was serving as a top diplomat, said that the sole focus on diplomacy in the negotiations had come at a price.
“The problem is that we [Egypt] focused only on negotiations in the past phases, hoping that we could reach agreement. But after all these years we did not achieve anything that satisfies us,” he noted.
Amer emphasised that Egypt was looking for cooperation with Ethiopia. But he also suggested putting pressure on Ethiopia through international organisations, including but not limited to the UN Security Council.
“There is a wide range of steps that we need to take in order to explain how dangerous the situation is for Egypt,” he stressed. “There is another solution, but it will take time, and that involves, as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has said, the involvement of a superpower that is interested in seeing no further problems in this part of the world.”
Based on Amer’s expectations, there is more than one superpower that could mediate. “We [Egypt] have always informed the United States, the EU, China and Russia about developments on the GERD. They have all the information. All of them are interested in having a stable situation in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan,” Amer said.
Even after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent Nobel Peace Prize, traditionally seen as a sign of international support for a country or leader, Amer insisted that a settlement could still be reached.
He said that Ethiopia had a “clear strategy of trying to meet its objectives through all possible means” and added that none of Egypt’s demands are hard to meet.
“In all international crises, talks come first and continue until the end. You can’t say no to talks, especially in technical matters like the one we are witnessing. We have a lot to discuss, including the distribution of water, the water shares of each country before and after the filling of the dam reservoir, the amount of rainfall, and so on. These issues require negotiation, and they take time,” Amer said.
But he said that what was provocative was the behaviour of the Ethiopian side because it had not been “cooperating with us so far”. Amer mentioned that the Ethiopians had not abided by the agreements they had earlier accepted, yet he stated that such “Ethiopian resistance” should not lead to the end of the talks.
“All international rivers must have a system through which they are managed. This is the case, for example, for many rivers in Europe. No country has the right to say that this river is mine, as it would break all international laws and norms by doing so,” Amer said.
“In Malabo in 2014, we [Egypt] told the Ethiopians that we were ready to sign a comprehensive framework in all fields, including water, trade, investment, and transportation. We also offered them access to the Mediterranean for their import and export activities so that Eritrea would no longer be their single trade channel. First, they said yes, and we had a deal, and the two presidents headed a joint committee that was then established. One month later, they changed their position, however,” he said.
Amer thinks that Ethiopia still considers conflict, not cooperation, as the basis of its foreign policy. “This will certainly change with time, but we cannot wait for 10 years until this happens. We need to count on all the tools to protect the rights of both sides,” Amer said.
He said that in 2011 Egypt had had little information about the GERD, which was why negotiations had had to start in order for Egypt “to know what they [the Ethiopians] were doing. All the studies made on the Dam are very primitive thus far, though the Ethiopians have signed them. This means that we have the right to move forward with our plans as well,” Amer said.
Meanwhile, Amer held the Muslim Brotherhood accountable for the deterioration that had happened in the talks when ousted former Mohamed Morsi was in power. “He gave the green light for Ethiopia to do whatever it wanted,” Amer said.
“At that point in time, I was still working at the Foreign Ministry. The Brotherhood’s water resources and irrigation minister Mohamed Bahaaeddin shared statements that served the interests of Ethiopia, not ours,” he stated.
“We [the Foreign Ministry] were working in one direction, and they [the Muslim Brotherhood] were moving in a totally different one. You never knew whom they were talking to or what they were doing,” Amer concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.