Washington’s announcement of the appointment of Ambassador Jeff Feltman as US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa could be a positive sign. Perhaps the new Democratic administration is planning to play a more active role in this volatile and strategic region.
Feltman’s mission includes developing the US’s ongoing efforts to address the urgent crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, and mediating among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resolve their dispute around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and shared water resources.
Considering Feltman’s long experience as a diplomat, both at the US State Department and the United Nations, observers believe he is uniquely suited to develop and execute an integrated strategy to address these complex issues.
Feltman’s new job is critical to filling in the void in US diplomacy in the Horn of Africa, what is more. The appointment comes not a moment too soon, given increasingly dire conditions in Tigray, and intransigence in GERD negotiations due to Addis Ababa rejected all of Cairo’s positive initiatives to reach a binding deal that protects the interests of all three countries affected by the ambitious Ethiopian project. The continued military standoff between Sudan and Ethiopia over a border dispute is another thorny issue that Feltman must deal with.
It is time for action to maintain Washington’s own interests and prevent a serious deterioration in the security situation in the region.
The chances that the situation might deteriorate further have been greater following Ethiopia’s recent announcement that it will move forward with the second-year filling of GERD, slated for this summer, whether or not it reached an agreement with Egypt and Sudan. This was made just hours after the collapse of talks earlier this month with Egypt and Sudan in Congo’s Kinshasa to reach an agreement on re-launching the negotiations.
Despite Ethiopia’s repeated claims that it won’t accept any international mediation in its dispute with Egypt and Sudan over GERD, insisting that only the African Union (AU) should be involved, the fact that the Kinshasa talks were under the auspices of the AU made no difference in Addis Ababa’s intransigent position.
For mysterious reasons, Ethiopia, which is in dire need of international aid on both the economic and political levels, has rejected Egypt and Sudan’s proposal of inviting an international committee made up of the UN, the European Union (EU) and the US to help the AU in either mediating or facilitating the row.
However, the Ethiopian strategy has been clear to Cairo since talks began between the two sides nearly 10 years ago: Addis Ababa wants to prolong the negotiations to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries. Therefore, it has refused demands by Cairo and Khartoum to sign a legally-binding trilateral agreement on the rules of filling and operating of the dam.
As a result, both Egypt and Sudan have revived their diplomatic efforts to put pressure on Ethiopia to hold serious negotiations. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that Egypt and Sudan will head to the UN and Security Council to brief them on the latest developments. Shoukri also launched an African tour taking in Comoros, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, Kenya and Tunisia to explain Egypt’s stand and seek support for its fair and just demands.
The second filling aims to collect around 18.4 billion cubic metres of Blue Nile water, up from the 4.9 bcm secured during the first filling last year. Egypt’s 100 million-plus population is dependent on the Nile’s water for 95 per cent of its renewable water needs. There is no doubt that the massive $4.8 billion Ethiopian hydropower project will significantly diminish Egypt’s crucial water supply, which is already below scarcity levels.
Sudan also fears that GERD will put the operation of its Roseires Dam, which is located near the Ethiopian Dam, and the lives of approximately 20 million Sudanese citizens at “a very high risk” if an agreement regulating its operation and filling is not reached before the second filling.
Cairo is looking forward to work with the new US envoy, Ambassador Feltman, and will certainly show the same flexibility it adopted during its recent discussions with Ethiopia.
At the same, Feltman should benefit from the experience of failed negotiations held early last year among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia under the auspices of the former Trump administration. Egypt has already signed the initial part of the Washington agreement, which confirms Egypt’s clear desire to reach a deal, while it was Ethiopia that pulled out of the talks at the last minute, claiming the need to hold further consultations with the government back home.
While maintaining that “all options are open” to protect Egypt’s rights, Cairo will spare no diplomatic effort to solve its dispute with Ethiopia. But for a deal to be reached Ethiopia too must negotiate in good faith.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly