The Tuesday meeting of Arab foreign ministers to affirm solidarity with Egypt and Sudan in their dispute with Ethiopia over the dangerous effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was an important first step in intensive efforts by the two downstream countries to win world support and understanding on this vital issue.
Arab ministers not only expressed verbal support through a routine statement, they also pledged to back Egypt and Sudan in any diplomatic effort they will launch on the regional and international levels to prevent Ethiopia from inflicting harm on the water rights and interests of both countries.
Wealthy Arab Gulf nations that maintain huge investments in Ethiopia, including the host country of the foreign ministers meeting, Qatar, can definitely play a role in persuading Addis Ababa that it cannot turn the River Nile into an exclusively Ethiopian river, and must respect Egypt and Sudan’s historical rights and water shares as stated in internationally binding agreements.
The fact that the meeting was held in Doha, and not at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, is in itself a sign that there is genuine change in official Arab stands, and a readiness to provide tangible support. While Egypt has constantly enjoyed the backing of influential Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the recent rapprochement between Cairo and Doha has added strength to efforts to convince Ethiopia to interact positively with numerous proposals made by Egypt and Sudan, to ensure that the GERD will not cause drought in Egypt, threatening the lives and agricultural income of millions of people.
With Arab backing for Egypt and Sudan, the two countries will at the same time continue to work on gaining African support. Ethiopia, which houses the headquarters of the African Union, has set an extremely negative example of how to solve its dispute within an African framework.
It is indeed ironic that while Addis Ababa has insisted that it would only accept African mediation in its dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the GERD, it has turned down all initiatives made by influential African leaders, including South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both the previous and current chairs of the AU.
Seeking the support of African nations, and especially Nile Basin countries, has been a cornerstone in Egypt’s diplomatic efforts since the GERD crisis escalated in the past two years. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi paid visits to several African countries, and regularly receives African leaders in Cairo. Regardless of the GERD dispute, the president and government have promoted cooperation with fellow countries in the continent as a top priority, serving the interests of both sides.
The support and understanding Egypt and Sudan enjoy on both the Arab and African levels should also be a message to the rest of the world that the GERD dispute is a serious and dangerous one that affects regional and international peace and security. Such a message must be clearly conveyed when Egypt and Sudan decide to take their case to the United Nations Security Council again — that is, if Ethiopia continues to disregard the demand by the two countries to reach a binding agreement on all details related to the filling of the GERD prior to the second phase.
In all disagreements Egypt has had with any other country, Cairo has taken a calm and balanced attitude, with the president avoiding verbal exchanges or public statements that can make the situation worse. However, the president has been very firm and clear in marking Egypt’s red lines. Egypt’s water interests are certainly among the most important of those — if not the most important.
Close coordination between Egypt and Sudan on all levels, and their diplomatic efforts on the Arab, African, European, and American fronts should send a clear message to the entire world that the two countries have spared no effort to peacefully solve their disagreement with Ethiopia. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been neighbours that shared the same drinking water for thousands of years. This alone should have been a good enough reason to cooperate to solve their differences, rather than Ethiopia taking unilateral actions that clearly threaten its neighbours. Egypt will always remain keen to maintain close and warm ties with Ethiopia as well as other fellow African nations, but it cannot stay put while the lives of its people face a threat of such magnitude.
There are many ways to reach solutions that serve the interests of all three countries, but to declare the River Nile an exclusively Ethiopian waterway not only violates international laws and agreements, but also confirms the suspicion that the present Ethiopian government has no intention to solve its dispute with Egypt and Sudan.