The assembly of a limited African Union (AU) summit on Tuesday afternoon, via videoconference, seemed to hold little hope of reassuring Egypt over its water security concerns.
The Blue Nile is the source of by far the largest part of Egypt’s annual share of Nile water, and it is across the Blue Nile that Ethiopia has built the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with its 74 billion cubic metre (bcm) reservoir.
The limited summit convened in the wake of what Egyptian negotiators said were major differences on technical and legal issues related to the filling and operation of GERD.
According to an AU source who spoke briefly on the phone on condition of anonymity, the reports that Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt presented following two weeks of negotiations conducted through videoconference under the auspices of the AU reflect major differences in what the three countries perceive to be their “legitimate rights”.
Ahead of the mini-summit Egyptian, African and other sources close to the file expected South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, the current chair of the AU, to present Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa with “possible alternative solutions” to their outstanding differences, and to ask them to give negotiations another go, this time aided by legal and technical assistance panels provided by the AU.
While Egyptian officials had been maintaining that Cairo would not continue to negotiate in a vacuum, this week they sounded more reconciliatory, arguing that Egypt could well give the AU a chance to deliver by considering “a limited extension” of the talks.
Egypt had demanded Ethiopia to refrain from “officially inaugurating the first filling of the dam” for as long as the negotiations unfold. It also requested that the AU compile a precise schedule for the participating countries to meet. Cairo is keen to secure the support of the AU presidency.
The same officials say agreeing to an extension to negotiations is one thing, and agreeing to an open-ended exercise another.
Officials who spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on the possible length for an extension to the negotiation process put it at between three and five weeks.
The wet season for the Blue Nile began last week. It usually continues for 10 consecutive weeks. Last Wednesday, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service quoted the Minister of Irrigation Seleshi Bekele as saying Ethiopia had started the first filling and that the time had arrived for the people of Ethiopia to celebrate.
The news came while consultations were underway between South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to set a date for the limited African summit that is supposed to review the disagreements contained in the reports Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia submitted to the AU following two weeks of negotiations.
Initially, officials in Cairo said Egypt would recall ambassadors from Addis Ababa and Pretoria to protest against the breach of the negotiating rules, and head back to the UN Security Council that in June, on Egypt’s request, discussed the GERD dispute and asked the AU to facilitate talks and to report on the outcome of the negotiations.
A round of phone calls by Foreign Ministry officials and a couple of phone calls between the Egyptian president and his South African counterpart managed to contain the crisis. Ethiopia also backtracked, with its minister of irrigation saying his words had been taken out of context.
Sudan was sceptical about Addis Ababa’s backtracking: Khartoum had already announced a decline in the level of the Blue Nile. It did, however, opt to give Ethiopia the benefit of the doubt.
For its part, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry requested clarification from Addis Ababa on the confusion surrounding the start of the first filling.
According to a political source in Cairo, Ethiopia’s reply to both Egypt and Sudan was vague: Addis Ababa said the “deliberate filling” had not been initiated, and that Bekele was referring to the natural flow of Blue Nile water to the GERD reservoir.
The same source said Ethiopia told South Africa that it had allowed water to gather behind the low-level gates of GERD to test the dam.
On Tuesday following the limited AU summit, the office of the prime minister of Ethiopia issued a statement stating that the first filling was already done. “The current rainfall and runoff situation in the region have made it conductive to fill the dam,” and that “it has become evident over the past two weeks in the rainy season that GERD’s first-year filling is achieved and the dam under construction is already overtopping,” the statement said.
The statement of the Ethiopian prime minister, meanwhile, announced that the three riparian countries would continue to negotiate in the pursuit of an agreement.
To the chagrin of Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopian officials had maintained during negotiations that the first filling, of less than 5bcm, was part of the testing of the hydrological functions of the dam and did not contradict the 2015 Declaration of Principles.
The crisis appeared to have been put on ice, without being resolved, to allow the Tuesday summit to convene as Ethiopia continued to refuse to commit to halting the first filling during the current rainy season. After the summit, an Egyptian government official said that Cairo and Khartoum accept that Addis Ababa projected the matter as “natural filling”. He added that it was important that Ethiopia refrained from acting defined and that it was the “high-level” decision in Cairo that it is in the interest of Egypt to keep the negotiations going.
According to one official, speaking in advance of the summit, “the next step depends on the ability of South Africa to secure a commitment from Ethiopia that it will negotiate in good faith and refrain from any unilateral action.” After the summit he said that the AU chair promised to invest every effort to make sure that the three countries walk their way towards a fair agreement that should accommodate the demands of all parties.
Neither Egyptian nor Sudanese sources are particularly hopeful. Sources from both countries say the Ethiopian prime minister lacks the political capital to suspend the first filling pending the conclusion of talks, though a Sudanese source did not exclude the possibility for a reconciliatory deal “provided there is a political will on all sides”.
Egyptian sources were more pessimistic, pointing to years of evidence that Ethiopia lacked the will to negotiate a fair deal.
Ethiopia, they argue, is negotiating in an attempt to pressure Egypt and buy time. Had Ethiopia been serious about reaching a deal it could have struck one earlier this year on the text its delegation negotiated in Washington with the support of the US and the World Bank.
After the summit, Sudan sounded less upbeat than Ethiopia. It just said that the Tuesday summit was productive. For its part, Egypt in a statement issued by the president’s office said it is sticking to its demands of a fair and legally binding agreement.
Last week, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent a special envoy to meet with Turkey’s foreign minister to discuss cooperation. The visit came as tensions between Cairo and Ankara over Libya reached boiling point.
A day later Ahmed arrived in neighbouring Eritrea for talks with his counterpart Isaias Afwerki who had met with Al-Sisi in Cairo a few days earlier. The Egyptian-Eritrean talks were interpreted in Addis Ababa as an attempt by Cairo to build alliances with Ethiopia’s regional rivals.
According to Hani Raslan, a political commentator who has followed the GERD dispute closely, this “does not at all seem to be a scene set for deal-making”.
“Talks might continue because Egypt wants to exhaust every possible chance of negotiations but clearly the gap is really wide.”
On Monday, Al-Sisi addressed unfolding political developments in a telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump.
In addition to facilitating three-way talks late last year, the US supported Egypt’s request for a UN Security Council session to discuss the GERD dispute.
Officials say Cairo is likely to repeat its request for the US to help secure another UN Security Council session on GERD if the extended talks under the supervision of the AU hit “the expected impasse”.
The US, the same officials say, has been also “encouraging Ethiopia to come round to an agreement” in return for economic and political support from Washington.
Egypt is also lobbying the support of other permanent members of the UN Security Council, though Russia and China are both wary of the council becoming a venue for transboundary river disputes.
If the talks go nowhere, then Cairo is hoping to get a UN Security Council position — “a resolution or a presidential declaration” — to protest the filling and call on Ethiopia to suspend any action pending an agreement.
“The first filling is less than 5bcm,” Raslan said, which is a violation of the negotiating terms but far from being the worst thing that Egypt may have to swallow.
That, Raslan added, lies 12 months away, during the 2021 rainy season, when Ethiopia will move towards a second filling of 18+ bcm.
“By which time,” Raslan stated, “Egypt would have to have made its mind on how it will handle Ethiopian intransigence.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly