The latest round of the Egyptian-Ethiopian talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) brokered by former chair of the African Union (AU) South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ended without agreement last month, adding yet another episode to the chain of negotiating breakdowns.
Regardless of how just the Egyptian and Sudanese demands are and how important it is for these countries to reach a binding agreement that safeguards Ethiopia’s right to development and Egypt’s right to life through the water of the River Nile, Ethiopia remains as arrogant, intransigent and indifferent to the principles of international law and good neighbourliness as ever.
The prevailing ultranationalist zealotry, jingoistic discourse and mounting domestic pressures due to ethnic discord in Ethiopia that have flared into civil war have blinded Addis Ababa to the rights and welfare of others and to its international commitments.
It is clearly unable to appreciate the dangers of such behaviour, which should galvanise the international community, as embodied in the UN Security Council, into action. Cairo also needs to drive home the message that an equitable agreement will benefit all concerned while the continued lack of one will harm them.
In keeping with the recommendations of the UN Security Council and out of respect for the African framework of dispute resolution, Cairo entered the AU-sponsored negotiations in good faith. Unfortunately, Egypt’s Ethiopian negotiating partner could not bring itself to reciprocate. Apparently, just as it has constructed the GERD without consulting the downstream nations, it also feels that it can proceed with filling and operating it without consulting them either. The existential threat this poses to Egypt has left Cairo with few options.
One logical option would be to return to the Security Council in order to build up important international pressure for a solution to the crisis. However, before doing so Egypt should ask Ramaphosa to convene a summit meeting of the AU Heads of State and Government Assembly Bureau, which delegated the AU experts who took part in the negotiations within the AU framework. It is time that these experts submit a full report on what transpired during the talks and for the bureau to take the appropriate action.
At the same time, the AU chair should issue an opinion on the collapse of the AU mediating efforts. High-level exposure of Ethiopia’s intransigence and its scorn for international norms is one of the main ways available to put pressure on Ethiopia and encourage support for whatever steps Egypt takes next.
An essential first step is to present the Egyptian case to various international capitals, among them Washington, Moscow, Beijing and Brussels, so that they can facilitate a Security Council session that can produce results serving the Egyptian cause. Similar messages should also be delivered to the UN secretary-general, current AU chair Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi and Chair of the AU Commission Moussa Faki.
A message should be sent to the AU Summit Bureau warning of the dangers of the current situation and explaining why the Ethiopian leadership is to blame. In this way, Egypt will have performed its duty of presenting a clear picture of the current state of play, demonstrating the concessions it has made in order to create opportunities for consensus and how Ethiopia has snubbed all conciliatory efforts and neglected its responsibility to uphold regional security and stability.
In its communications with international and AU parties, Egypt should insist that if the task of mediation is returned to the AU under the new Congolese chair, this should be for a limited duration of no more than two months such that it concludes well in advance of a likely Ethiopian bid to undertake the second stage of the filling of the GERD reservoir when the Blue Nile flooding starts in July.
To increase the pressure, the Security Council should caution that in the event that the concerned parties fail to reach an agreement once again within the stipulated timeframe, it will take it upon itself to issue a binding resolution.
Another suggestion is to turn again to the US and ask the new Biden administration in Washington to invite the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to a round of confidential talks in the US (along the lines of the Camp David negotiations) in order to discuss the last version of the draft agreement that Egypt initialled in February last year.
The participants would add new points to the agreement in the light of the substance of meetings they have held since last February, whether mediated by Khartoum or by the AU. I believe that this proposal would be welcomed by US president Joe Biden, especially given how close the parties were to a final agreement last year before Ethiopia snubbed the signing ceremony in Washington. A successful resolution of this GERD crisis under Washington’s auspices would also give an immediate boost to the new president’s domestic and international profile.
Meanwhile, it must be acknowledged that Ethiopia lacks the will to reach a binding agreement over the filling and operation of the GERD. For years, Addis Ababa has been vague, guarded about its aims and designs, and unwilling to commit to principles and limitations on its ambitions. It is little wonder that negotiating with it has been difficult if not impossible.
Its chief strategy has been to sabotage any negotiating process it undertakes, leaving the other parties up in the air. It negotiates because it needs to be perceived to be willing to talk, but when it feels cornered and pressed into making the concessions necessary for an agreement to take place it pulls out, as occurred in Washington last year and in the Sudan-brokered and AU-sponsored talks this year.
In order to counter domestic political pressures, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has used the GERD, his country’s major national project, to rally public opinion behind him and his government. But he has gone to such extremes to drum up popular fervour over the GERD that even if he wanted to he would scarcely now be able to convince the Ethiopian public of the need to make concessions in order to reach an agreement that would serve the welfare of all the parties concerned and also bring Ethiopia into compliance with international law.
In response, Egypt should employ strategic acumen and display internal cohesion and balance in its regional and international actions supported by a suitably conscious media. These are essential ingredients in forging cohesive positions on one of the foremost challenges to Egypt’s national security during these turbulent times and in the unfamiliar climate shaped by the Covid-19 pandemic with its consequent limitations on movement, communications and the ability to rally pressure when influential parties are also focused on Covid-19-related developments at home.
Ethiopia may believe that this environment presents the perfect opportunity for it to do as it pleases without being challenged, which is why Egypt needs to make it crystal clear that unilateral actions come at a cost and that Addis Ababa must make up its mind on whether it will work for mutual benefit or reciprocal harm.
Egypt has always preferred the former course, but it is prepared for other options if Ethiopia rejects the path of consensus and chooses to force a confrontational path on all. As Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told parliament on 26 January, when a hundred million people are faced with an existential threat, their options are very limited. No one can impose their will or a fait accompli on a country of the size and status of Egypt.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly