GERD: All options open

Mohamed Hegazy
Monday 12 Apr 2021

Regarding GERD, Egypt insists that cooperation would be the better course, Mohamed Hegazy writes, but Ethiopia’s intransigence is limiting its choices

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi sent a clear warning to Ethiopia on 30 March, stating that Egypt’s right to the Nile water will not be compromised and that its share in its lifeline is a “red line”. He added that tensions regarding this topic will have negative repercussions on the entire region.

President Al-Sisi warned Ethiopia to backtrack on its intransigent position, namely its intention to act unilaterally and go ahead with the second filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) during the wet season in July without a legally binding agreement on its filling and operation with the downstream countries Egypt and Sudan.

The Egyptian president’s statement was also directed at the international community, raising a red flag about a situation fast turning into a threat to international peace and security. 

Nonetheless, President Al-Sisi maintained that negotiations were Egypt’s real battle, saying that hostile actions are ugly and have long-lasting effects that not easily forgotten. All options are open, he said, “but cooperation is better”.

Attempts to achieve a breakthrough by the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Félix Tshisekedi, the current chair of the African Union (AU), have failed, meeting the same fate as the efforts exerted by former AU chairman Cyril Ramaphosa, the president of South Africa, to break the deadlock in 10 years’ worth of negotiations with Ethiopia over the GERD.

Although Egypt and Sudan’s demands to reach a legally binding agreement guaranteeing Ethiopia’s right to development and Egypt’s right to life, and safeguarding the operation of GERD in coordination with Sudan’s dams, Ethiopia has been intransigent, ignoring its obligations to international law and good neighbourhood. 

Meanwhile it has become clear that Ethiopia is entrenched in its ethnic conflicts and domestic political pressures, and that it has become too isolated to assess the dangers it poses correctly. Hence, it is imperative that the international community, represented by the UN and affiliated bodies, should stand against those threats.

Egypt should also send a stern message that the GERD crisis, if resolved, will bear positive results for all, and vice versa. After all, this is a strategic part of a region that is close to international energy tracks and maritime navigation routes. 

Egypt seriously and sincerely engaged in the latest Kinshasa talks over GERD. Despite the Congolese president’s appreciated efforts, the negotiations have failed, and the next logical step is to go back to the UN Security Council (UNSC), it being the body responsible for world peace and security. Egypt previously respected the recommendations of the UNSC and engaged wholeheartedly in the negotiations mediated by the AU, but Ethiopia lacked the required good intentions, believing that it would fill and operate GERD without consulting with its neighbours just as it built the dam without deliberating with the affected countries. 

The existential threat Egypt is facing and Ethiopia’s attempts to ignore the interests of the downstream countries gives Egypt very few choices. 

Egypt should be communicating with international capitals, such as Washington, Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, Rome, London, Berlin and Paris, to present the full picture and pave the way to a UNSC session. It should explain the peace-threatening situation that has occurred due to Ethiopia’s intransigence, focusing on its repercussions on regional and world stability and security.

A number of Arab parties have been contacted as well, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which has economic and investment interests in Ethiopia. Egypt should also address active African capitals, the UN secretary-general and the AU Commission chairman. In tandem, it should send a high-level envoy to Addis Ababa to warn against the repercussions of the current situation.

Another proposal is to approach the US administration. The previous administration managed to seal 90 per cent of the deal over GERD in Washington in February 2020. Maybe the US will invite the three concerned countries to a round of talks, Camp David-style. This proposal may appeal to the Democratic president and may allow Washington to continue the negotiations that would have been completely successful had Ethiopia not been absent on the last day. 

Perhaps the White House and US Department of State statements, preceded by the US ambassador’s efforts in Kinshasa, and coupled by Washington’s rejection of unilateral actions, are a prelude to serious US interference in the negotiations by presenting solutions and proposals. 

It has become a glaring fact that Ethiopia doesn’t want to reach a binding agreement. It has been adopting the same vague approach for years and it doesn’t reveal its goals, which makes negotiating with the African country almost impossible. Ethiopia engages in talks to make them fail. It joins negotiations only when it has to but it withdraws when cornered, just as was the case in Washington, and with the AU and Sudan.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is facing domestic pressures and he has been using the GERD cause to garner public support. He has charged Ethiopians against Egypt and now can’t strike a deal with the downstream country after he falsified facts and ignored international law. 

It is no secret Ahmed has resorted to regional – and perhaps international – extortions and tensions to pressure Egypt. Historically, there had been many attempts to use the Nile water for political purposes.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri had earlier stated that when a threat endangers the lives of 100 million people, the choices become very limited, adding before parliament on 26 January that no party can impose its will on a country the size of Egypt and its people will not accept a fait accompli. 

In October 2020 President Al-Sisi said before the UN General Assembly that “if Egypt’s national security is threatened, Egypt has the right to resort to all means permitted by international law to preserve it.”

In his latest statement, President Al-Sisi identified the red lines in the GERD and water file. It is hoped that Egypt will see the same positive results Libya saw when the political path was launched after President Al-Sisi spoke of red lines there.

*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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