This week Egypt and Sudan reiterated their commitment to work with Ethiopia to reach a fair and legally binding agreement over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The statement was made during a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and the Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan in Cairo on Tuesday, days after US President Donald Trump said Egypt could use force to settle the dispute.
Cairo, according to more than one informed source, was as taken aback as Khartoum and Addis Ababa by Trump’s statements earlier this week suggesting the possibility of military action by Egypt to “blow up” the GERD which Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, Egypt’s main source of water.
A little over three months after Ethiopia opted for a unilateral first filling of the reservoir, Trump made a seemingly casual remark during a conversation with Sudanese officials, in the midst of an announcement of an Israeli-Sudanese normalisation deal, to say that Ethiopia had walked back on a deal he helped negotiate and that Egypt would have to react if the failure to reach an agreement persisted.
“It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way,” Trump said. “They’ll end up blowing up the dam. And I said it and I say it loud and clear — they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.” Ethiopian officials were quick to denounce Trump’s words. The Ethiopian prime minister’s office said that “occasional statements of belligerent threats to force Ethiopia to succumb to unfair terms still abound… Such threats and affronts to Ethiopia’s sovereignty are a misguided, unproductive and clear violation of international law.”
The US president, speaking to Sudanese officials by phone, asked them to help push for an agreement on GERD.
According to informed Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian sources, it is Khartoum that has been reluctant to resume the negotiations that have been suspended for more than eight weeks now.
According to one source, Ethiopia’s minister of water resources called his Sudanese counterpart to ask him to resume talks in mid-September, only to be told that Khartoum was unwilling to resume talks that have been going round in circles without even approaching an agreement.
In press statements following the failure of a third round of extended talks under the umbrella of the African Union in August, Yasser Abbas, Sudan’s minister of water resources and irrigation, blamed both Egypt and Ethiopia for their failure to compromise.
The AU-sponsored talks were launched in the summer by Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa and the current chair of the AU.
According to Egyptian and Sudanese sources, Ramaphosa, despite promises made to Egyptian President Al-Sisi and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, failed to persuade Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to accept a legally binding deal.
During consecutive phone calls with Al-Sisi and Ahmed earlier this month, Ramaphosa was unable to convince either leader to abandon their mutually exclusive positions. Al-Sisi remains adamant that a legally binding deal on the filling and operation of GERD that secures Egypt’s basic water rights is needed, while Ahmed is equally determined to refuse a binding deal on the grounds that Egyptian demands undermine Ethiopia’s sovereign rights over its resources.
Following the telephone conversation earlier this week between Trump and Hamdok, and after consultations with South Africa, Khartoum has now given the go-ahead for talks which were scheduled to start on Tuesday afternoon via video-conference.
The talks will bring together the three countries’ ministers of irrigation. Speaking from Khartoum, an informed political source said that they are “talks on how to get the talks moving forward rather than the resumption of negotiations.”
Mohamed Abdel-Ati, Egypt’s minister of irrigation and water eesources, said that whatever the agenda Cairo will not compromise on its demand for a legally binding agreement that specifies the details of GERD’s filling and operation, especially during seasons of drought and severe drought.
“Yes, Ethiopia did the first filling without an agreement, and it is true that we were unable to stop it. But nor did we give our approval, so Addis Ababa cannot claim a precedent,” said an Egyptian official.
He says Tuesday’s talk could last “a few days — until the weekend.”
“If an agreement on how to proceed is reached then we will get the talks to fully resume but if not then we would be back to the curious state where we don’t have negotiations, but neither do we have an announcement of the failure of negotiations either.”
According to this source, there is a dwindling confidence in Cairo about South Africa’s performance as a mediator.
“We don’t think that South Africa has put its heart into impartially helping the parties reach a fair deal.”
Cairo’s decision to agree to a resumption of talks despite deep dismay at the long and inconclusive path of negotiations and scepticism over its future prospects is a clear sign that Egypt wants a negotiated deal.
In statements made earlier this summer at a very low moment for the talks’ prospects, Al-Sisi said Egypt remains committed to negotiations and convinced of the legitimacy of its demands.
Informed sources say that in the wake of the failure of the three countries to reach an agreement, first independently, then with a US/World Bank mediation and now with AU mediation, Sudan is proposing the time has come for African and international experts to step in, not as monitors but as direct facilitators, to help draft a deal that reconciles the demands of the three countries. So far, Ethiopia has categorically opposed such move.
The AU and EU have both issued statements that shrugged off Trump’s intervention and stressed the only way out of the GERD impasse is a negotiated deal.
Ahead of Tuesday’s talks the various delegations were well aware that they would be meeting less than a week before a possible change of US administrations.
“If Trump is re-elected then he might put a bit more pressure on Ethiopia, but if Biden is elected then it is a whole new game,” said an Egyptian official.
The next US president will be sworn in office in the first week of January 2021, less than a month before South Africa’s presidency of the AU comes to an end.
“We had been hoping that Ramaphosa would want to secure a legacy for his presidency of the AU by presiding over a negotiated deal on GERD but this looks unlikely now with time running out. Maybe we will be pleasantly surprised — maybe the Trump statements will prompt something positive, we will see,” the Egyptian official stated.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly