Since the Kinshasa round of negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) broke down, the Egyptian strategy has been to contact Egypt’s international partners in the hope of building up the pressure on Addis Ababa to return to the negotiating table and hammer out a binding agreement with Cairo and Khartoum that will guarantee Ethiopia’s right to development and to generate electricity without inflicting significant harm on downstream nations.
Egyptian officials discussed the subject with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during his recent visit to Cairo, and the Egyptian government presented its point of view to senior US officials during their visits to Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa in order to help bridge differences. Cairo has also been in contact with Arab partners, such as Tunisia, a member of the UN Security Council, and African partners, notably Kenya, Cameroon, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Senegal, all members of the African Union Bureau, that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri visited on his recent African tour.
However, the Ethiopian stance has remained unchanged, and there was little need for the Egyptian prime minister’s statement last Sunday to remind observers of Ethiopia’s failure to depart from its dangerous unilateralism and come up with something new and constructive.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s proposal to set up an information-exchange mechanism outside the framework of a binding agreement on the principles for filling and operating the GERD reflects an indifference to the importance of the Nile to Sudan and Egypt and a failure to appreciate the magnitude of the potentially grave impacts that a mega-dam such as the GERD could have on downstream nations.
His statement was thus a declaration of Addis Ababa’s continuing violation of Article 5 of the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in March 2015, which underscores the need for a binding agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam, and its disregard for the UN Watercourses Convention. An entrenched and unyielding position of this nature presents a threat to international peace and security and therefore necessitates the intervention of international, African and Arab partners to persuade Ethiopia to comply with international law, adhere to its commitments and join Egypt and Sudan in an agreement that guarantees the interests and welfare of all.
Shoukri’s African tour on which he conveyed letters from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to his African counterparts was part of Egypt’s drive to update its partners on the facts surrounding the latest developments on the GERD and to demonstrate once again the flexibility that Egypt has shown throughout in stark contrast to Ethiopia’s persistent intransigence.
In a similar spirit, Egypt has been explaining to the international community and to international organisations the dangerous repercussions of Ethiopia’s behaviour, not only on Egypt and Sudan, but also on a strategic region of East Africa overlooking critical international maritime routes for trade and oil.
Cairo wants to convince the international community to shoulder its responsibility to resolve this crisis in the interest of the preservation of international peace and security. Due to the many overlapping regional and international political, economic and security-related interests in the region, the potential fallout from Ethiopian unilateral actions would be more extensive and far-reaching than many imagine. This means that the responsibility for defusing this crisis cannot fall on Cairo alone, despite its resolve to continue to pursue a diplomatic course as long as the albeit narrowing opportunities exist.
I believe that Egypt’s foreign policy drive should include steps to convey important messages to the Ethiopian leadership and people. A special envoy, appointed by the president, could deliver a letter from President Al-Sisi, for example, and meet directly with Ethiopian officials and representatives of civil society in the hope of persuading them not to let ten years of negotiating efforts go to waste and opening their eyes to the fact that Ethiopian development and Egyptian and Sudanese welfare are not mutually exclusive.
There is no reason why Addis Ababa should need to harm the downstream nations in order to attain its development goals. Rather than dwelling on baseless fears that a legally binding agreement will restrict its future projects, it should open its mind to the great potential inherent in Egypt’s proposals for cooperation and development in the Blue and White Nile Basin, since these would lead to a range of projects including some focusing on a reduction in water losses. Once such projects are under way, it will be possible to think of future projects in a calmer, more relaxed and more mutually trusting collaborative environment.
Such cooperation could lead to a regional tripartite power grid with a terminal in Egypt through which Ethiopia could export electricity to Europe, North Africa and the Levant. In tandem, there would be road and rail linkages that would offer Ethiopia, a landlocked country, direct access to Mediterranean ports and European markets. This is not to mention the access it would have to Egyptian markets, which would be able to accommodate all the products Ethiopia would care to send and would increase the current volume of $2 billion of Egyptian investment in Ethiopia.
The horizons for cooperation are limitless, and the spirit of cooperation would promote and bolster security and stability, economic development and the common welfare and prosperity of the three countries of the Eastern Nile Basin. In the process, these countries would also be doing a great favour to other countries that share transboundary watercourses by establishing a model for a multilateral agreement that provides for the collective management of such resources preliminary to the emergence of an integrated cooperation ecosystem. In the Eastern Nile Basin Development Corridor, as we might call this system, water-resource management would be only one area of cooperation.
The alternative, should Addis Ababa turn its back on the region, the spirit of good neighbourliness, and the principles of international law, and should it continue to fail to appreciate that the Nile is truly Egypt’s sole artery for life, would be a destabilising and escalatory chain reaction. This would be the last message that the Egyptian envoy would deliver in the event that Ethiopia shuts the door to understanding by unilaterally proceeding with the second filling of the GERD.
Egypt and Sudan would then have no alternative but to regard this as an act of aggression and to respond with the measures necessary to defend their national interests and security. The UN Security Council would have to take the measures it deems necessary to safeguard regional and international peace and security.
Egypt’s hand is still extended in peace and goodwill, however, as it always is wherever this is possible. But its people’s right to life is non-negotiable and must be defended. Yet, as President Al-Sisi has said, while “all options remain open, cooperation is best”. So, for the sake of the two African nations with the oldest civilisations, in the spirit of the responsibility to promote regional stability and prosperity, and in order to preserve the Nile as a divine gift to all its peoples, it is worth conveying one last message to the Ethiopian leadership.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly