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GERD talks should continue despite deadlock, Egyptian experts say

A conference in Cairo saw Egyptian experts and former officials voice their concerns about the Ethiopian mega-dam and the stalled negotiations around it

Bassem Aly , Tuesday 15 Oct 2019
Renaissance Dam
FILE PHOTO: Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019 Reuters

Talks between Egypt and Ethiopia over the latter's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) should not stop, despite reaching a deadlock earlier this month, Egyptians experts said at a conference in Cairo on Tuesday.

A number of top-level officials, diplomats, politics and legal scholars spoke about the legal, political and diplomatic aspects of the issue in an event organised by the Egyptian Center For Strategic Studies (ECSS), which also saw the presence of many journalists.

The conference comes amid heightened tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia after talks earlier this month on the operation of the mega-dam Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile failed to reach an agreement.

On 5 October, Egypt announced that talks with Ethiopia over GERD had reached a dead due to the “intransigency” of the Ethiopian side.

On Friday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed in a phone call to overcome any obstacles facing negotiations on the dam's operation, according to the Egyptian presidency.

The pair are set to meet at a summit in Russia next week, El-Sisi has said.

Egypt fears that the dam will reduce its water supply, which is dependent on the Nile, while Ethiopia maintains the hydroelectric dam will not restrict the river’s flow and hopes the mega-project will turn it into a regional power hub.

The dam, which has been under construction since 2011, is being built on the Blue Nile, which accounts for 85 percent of the Nile water that reach Egypt.

Khaled Okasha, CESS’s general manager, said that Egypt counted on "direct negotiations within the framework of international laws" regulating water relations between states, "respecting the rights of the Nile Basin countries in terms of development and prosperity, as long as it does not harm the interests of others."

However, Okasha argued, some actors "still try to impose a status quo that contradicts with the facts of history, geography and international law."

"The issue of GERD is no longer important for governments only; it has also become a public opinion issue," he said.


Mohamed Megahed El-Zayat, an academic advisor at ECSS, described the Nile issue as "a matter of life [for Egypt]."

Egypt's former minister of water resources and irrigation Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam argued that the Ethiopians took advantage of the state of political unrest that hit Egypt in 2011 to start building the dam.

"Ethiopia claims that it is trying to solve its electricity problems through building the dam. But this is not true, as the cost of producing electricity will most likely surpass that of distributing it," Allam said.

Instead, noted Allam, Ethiopia mainly seeks to export electricity to both Egypt and Sudan and get foreign currency in return. "Hence, without Egypt, this dam will be meaningless," he said.  

"Ethiopia wants to control the downstream countries [Egypt and Sudan] and enforce both of them to sign the new water agreements," said Allam.

He believes that Egypt has to reach a settlement with Sudan, work within the framework of the 1959 agreement—a bilateral treaty with Sudan which gives Egypt the lion’s share of Nile water— and boycott the electricity that will be generated through GERD until an agreement is reached.

"Afterwards, we [Egypt and Ethiopia] will be on good terms," Allam added.

Magdi Amer, Egypt's former assistant foreign minister for Nile Basin countries and Nile water, stated that Ethiopia "has been putting as many obstacles as possible" in place in response to Egyptian pressure.

"Each time we negotiate, it seems that a breakthrough is about to be reached, but we eventually discover that this is not true," said Amer.

The veteran diplomat said the Ethiopians were trying to both finalize the process of ratification for the 2010 Entebbe agreement, which has been signed by six out of the ten Nile Basin Initiative states, and to build the dam.

But, due to Egyptian efforts involving a number of state institutions and ministries, the ratification of the agreement has stopped "to a great extent."

Amer blamed the Muslim Brotherhood, during the period in which they took power in Egypt, for the deterioration in negotiations.

"They [the Brotherhood] represented a major, negative factor for the worsening conditions," he claimed.  He also spoke about "Sudanese collusion" with Ethiopia at the time.

"All the signs coming from the Egyptian presidency at that time gave a message to the Ethiopians to keep going with the dam project, and that there is no problem in Egypt. After their collapse, things became much better," said Amer.

He also referred to the example of the Malabo Declaration on 28 June 2014, which followed a meeting between President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Ethiopia's then-premier, involving the issuing of a joint statement guaranteeing that Ethiopia can develop the dam while diminishing possible damages affecting Egypt.

Amer said that the declaration included the establishment of a committee to study cooperation between both countries in all fields.

This, Amer said, was followed by the signing of the Declaration of Principles by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in March 2015.

"But none of these steps had an impact on the Ethiopian stance towards the diplomatic process," he said.

Without international pressures, Egypt should not trust the Ethiopian side, warned Amer.

"All the meetings between us and them ended with no results," said Amer.

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