Egypt and Sudan seem to agree that the negotiation process in Washington has made progress, and that they need to continue negotiating after the restrictions imposed because of coronavirus are lifted.
In a joint press statement issued last week, Egypt and Sudan underlined their commitment to the outlined agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reached in talks held in Washington.
“Sudan’s commitment to the outcome of the Washington meetings is a positive step. But it is too early to determine whether it will give a push forward to the negotiations,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The statement was hailed in the media as a sign of agreement between Egypt and Sudan over the dam issue,” added the diplomat.
The last tripartite meeting, held in Washington at the end of February, was supposed to see the signing of a final deal on GERD. Ethiopia did not turn up, claiming it needed more time to review the deal.
Both the Egyptian and Sudanese delegations attended the meeting, but while Cairo initialed the deal, Khartoum said it preferred to wait until Ethiopia signed.
Political analysts say Sudan is now showing a greater willingness to bring both Egypt and Ethiopia back to the negotiation table.
The latest Egyptian-Sudanese joint statement was released after a meeting held in the Sudanese capital Khartoum between Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdouk and Irrigation Minister Yasser Abass, Egyptian Intelligence Chief Abbas Kamel, and Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati.
Both countries reiterated their adherence to the terms of the Washington agreement and the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in March 2015.
A few days before the Khartoum meeting Hamdouk had announced he would visit Cairo and Addis Ababa soon to urge the two sides to resume talks on the dam.
The announcement was made following a call between Hamdouk and US Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin who co-sponsored the Washington talks alongside the World Bank.
Both officials discussed the importance of international cooperation and reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a fair solution on the dam.
Hamdouk’s planned visits were delayed owing to restrictions imposed on travel because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Last month President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Deputy Chairman of the Sudanese Sovereign Council Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo in Cairo. They discussed the dam file, and Dagalo offered Khartoum’s services as a mediator between Egypt and Ethiopia. No more details of the meeting were disclosed at the time.
Abbas subsequently ruled out the possibility of Sudanese mediation, pouring cold water on the idea that Khartoum could play the role of intermediary between Egypt and Ethiopia.
“Sudan will exert every effort to encourage the resumption of negotiations but it cannot play the role of mediator when it is a party to the talks,” Abbas said in an interview published online this week.
Sudan not only declined to sign the Washington deal but withheld support for a draft resolution proposed by the Arab League on the GERD dispute.
In the resolution Arab foreign ministers rejected any erosion of Egyptian and Sudanese historic rights to Nile Water, stating that Egyptian and Sudanese water security “is an integral part of Arab national security”.
In the wake of last month’s Arab League meeting held in Cairo, Sudan has insisted its position on the dam has been “misunderstood”. Rather than favouring one party against the other, Khartoum says it is simply taking into account the interests of all parties affected by the dam.
Ethiopia’s no-show in Washington has contributed to tensions between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, with Cairo accusing Addis Ababa of deliberately impeding the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced earlier this month that his country will start filling the dam during the July and August rainy season and insisted the dam is “a symbol of [Ethiopian] sovereignty and unity”.
Ahmed’s declaration followed Mnuchin’s statement that “the final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement”.
Last month Addis Ababa declared that it is working on its own proposal for an agreement, which it will deliver to Egypt and Sudan soon.
“We won’t subscribe to an agreement just because the US and the World Bank came forward with it. We need to take time and sort out any sticking points,” Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew told the media.
Asked when negotiations would resume, Andargachew said the Ethiopian side does not accept that negotiations have ever stopped.
“After Ethiopia finishes the discussions it is conducting internally, and when the Egyptians fully recognise that Ethiopia has the right to use its water resources, the negotiations will resume without any third party involved,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly