By Friday, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia must decide whether or not there is any reason to continue the current round of negotiations sponsored by the African Union in the hope of reaching an agreement over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
According to the assessment of an Egyptian government source who spoke on Tuesday afternoon, the possibility of a deal emerging is unlikely.
The source spoke after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told his country’s parliament on Tuesday morning that his government will start filling the GERD reservoir this month with or without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
Ahmed said that the filling, involving five billion m3, will be conducted in a way that does not inflict serious harm on Sudan and Egypt, and that parallel to the first-filling process negotiations would continue in the hope of reaching an agreement.
The recent round of talks was initiated by South Africa, the current chair of the African Union (AU), on 3 July, a week later than expected. There were no great expectations they would succeed after close to a decade worth of negotiations had failed to reach a deal.
According to most concerned diplomatic sources, Addis Ababa seems determined to make good on its official statements that it will begin filling the dam this rainy season regardless of a deal being reached or not.
Egypt had hoped that growing international pressure on Addis Ababa would result in a legally binding agreement, including mitigation measures during periods of drought and a dispute settlement mechanism, being reached before the first filling but up until Monday this week the official word in Cairo was anything but optimistic.
Only one of five sources who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly believed international pressure would lead Addis Ababa to “possibly continue the negotiations for another week or two to reach an agreement and then embark on the filling”.
An extension of the AU talks was not ruled out by most of the sources who spoke during the week, though they argued such an extension was more likely to be a continuation of the open-ended talks strategy that Ethiopia has engaged in since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 2015 rather than the prelude to a deal.
According to Cairo-based foreign diplomats who have followed the talks closely, Egypt may have been willing to acquiesce to 40 billion m3 being released annually from GERD, for both Sudan and Egypt, during the filling process, but any flexibility by Cairo could not have embraced a figure approaching 30 billion m3.
Nor was Egypt willing to forgo a legally binding agreement and replace it with Ethiopia’s proposal of “rules and guidelines”.
For Egypt, according to one negotiator, “a compromise is not without a limit and has to be reciprocated”. After all, he said, “as far as we are concerned, no deal is better than a bad deal — we cannot sign to a deal that would compromise a strategic interest like water security.”
In the opinion of Cairo officials it is now likely that Abiy Ahmed will give the go ahead to start filling in the next two weeks. “He might start without taking the full five billion m3 but this is not going to force us into signing a bad deal just to secure a piece of paper,” said one.
There is an almost unanimous assessment among sources that Egypt remains unwilling to “actively undermine” GERD. But they qualified the upgrade of Egyptian contacts with some of Ethiopia’s neighbours, including Eritrea, whose President Isaias Afwerki was in Cairo for talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, as sending a message to Addis Ababa that despite Egypt’s commitment to a diplomatic process that secures the interests of all sides, Cairo could “push back” if and when it has to.
The same sources agree that it is also unlikely that Egypt will recall its ambassador to Ethiopia. The scenario they most expect involves “an uphill diplomatic battle”. Egypt, they say, will continue to put pressure on Ethiopia and insist on taking the file back to the UN Security Council (UNSC) if the AU fails to secure a deal.
Last month Egypt presented the UNSC with a draft resolution calling on the three countries — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — involved in the dispute to refrain from taking unilateral measures.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press there was no significant advance in Cairo’s attempts to get the UNSC to adopt the draft resolution. The problem, according to New York-based sources, is that some UNSC member states were loath to help Egypt with the GERD problem, while others were opposed in principle to the UNSC becoming involved in matters relating to the construction and operation of dams by upstream countries.
The same sources say that even so Egypt managed to get the UNSC to hold a meeting on GERD late last month despite an aggressive diplomatic attempt by Ethiopia to block it, and Cairo will be willing to keep ramping up the diplomatic pressure, possibly by presenting the UNSC with another draft resolution condemning any unilateral move by Ethiopia and demanding the filling be suspended pending an agreement.
The GERD dispute is unfolding simultaneously with fast moving developments in Libya, a crucial and explosive national security front for Egypt.
“It is a very complex situation in Libya now,” said a concerned government source.
He spoke 24 hours after the Turkish Minister of Defence acknowledged that Al-Watiya air base in Libya had been hit by air strikes from unidentified foreign planes.
While many speculate that France was behind the strikes neither Paris nor Ankara, who are at loggerheads over the situation in Libya, have acknowledged this.
France, along with Egypt, the UAE, Jordan and Russia, has been supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar against Fayez Al-Sarraj’s Government of National Unity (GNA). And despite the dismay of Haftar’s backers over his performance, they remain determined to stop the advance of pro-GNA militias that include many Islamist fighters.
The big question now is how, where and when Turkey will respond to the strike.
Cairo-based Western diplomats say the strike places Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a difficult position. According to concerned Cairo officials, it is one thing if the Turkish-French stand-off is fought out within NATO, and quite another if the squabble continues on the ground in Libya.
If the Turkish reaction takes place in Libya it will be in one of two directions: either Erdogan will send Libya-based Islamist militias south to the borders of Libya’s southern neighbours, the Sahel and Sahara states that are crucial to the strategic interests of France in Africa, or get them to move east, possibly towards Sirte and Al-Jufra.
On Tuesday, the Turkish chief of staff was quoted as saying that the strikes on Al-Watiya would prompt his country to act to move against Sirte and Al-Jufra to “end the military stalemate”.
According to Cairo officials, any move south means Egypt will have to worry about the impact of Sahel and Saharan security on its own. But if the direction of Erdogan’s possible show of force is to the east Cairo will have to consider all its options.
Late last month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was explicit about the red line Cairo had drawn around Sirte and Al-Jufra since when there has been intense political intervention to get the Turkish-supported GNA to refrain from advancing further east.
This week, there was no certainty over the fate of Ankara’s understandings with concerned international capitals, including Washington, to suspend any military advance to the east to allow for a political window to open.
Egypt, say official sources, supports giving a political settlement in Libya a chance as long as it excludes Jihadists. However, the same sources add, a political deal in Libya cannot be based on a fait accompli whereby Turkey is left in control of Egypt’s western neighbour.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly