All eyes were on Sochi in Russia late last week, where on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa Summit meeting President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed were set to meet to find a way out from the deadlock in the negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
President Al-Sisi’s meeting with Ahmed on the sidelines of the Sochi Summit was described as positive, with both leaders agreeing to resume the work of the tripartite technical negotiations on the dam.
Speaking to reporters after that meeting, Ahmed said “there is no problem if we do the political discussion with anyone. The technical discussion has already been initiated, and they have gone on for five rounds and will continue,” he said.
The Kremlin announced last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin had offered to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia in the dam talks.
According to Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, Putin told the two leaders they should take advantage of their presence in Sochi to “directly discuss [their] concerns” on the dam and he also offered “his assistance”, Peskov said.
The Ethiopian position was against external mediation. During a question-and-answer session in parliament in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa a couple of days earlier, Ahmed had said that only negotiations could resolve the deadlock with Cairo. But he also warned that “if we are going to war… we can deploy many millions. But war is not a solution.”
Egypt regarded his comments as “negative” and “unacceptable”. In a statement issued the same day, the Foreign Ministry “expressed its shock, great concern, and deep regret over comments conveyed by the media and attributed to Prime Minister Ahmed” of Ethiopia.
“Egypt was surprised that the comments came days after Ahmed received the Nobel Peace Prize, an event that should have prompted the Ethiopian side to show the political will, flexibility, and goodwill to reach a legally-binding and comprehensive agreement that serves the interests of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia,” the statement said.
The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan may also meet in Washington on 6 November to discuss the GERD.
US Treasury Decretary Steven Mnuchin sent an invitation to the ministers last week after Egypt declared a deadlock in the negotiations with Ethiopia over the conditions for operating the dam and filling its reservoir.
Egypt has accepted the invitation “in line with its firm commitment to the articles of the Declaration of Principles [on the GERD] and with confidence in the efforts exerted by the US,” according to a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry last week.
“The US mediation is a positive step that may lead to a breakthrough,” commented one diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But, he added, time was an important factor. “We cannot spend another four years in four-party negotiations. Unless there is a clearly-drawn timetable for negotiations. The dam, which has been nearly 70 per cent built, will be fully built and there will be nothing to negotiate,” he said.
Earlier this month, Washington said that it supported the ongoing negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on reaching a “cooperative, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on filling and operating the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”
Addis Ababa had rejected any possibility of external mediation in the negotiations in the past. In December 2017, Egypt suggested that the World Bank should be brought in to resolve tensions with Ethiopia over the dam, but Ethiopia rejected the suggestion.
In September and October this year, two rounds of talks were held in Cairo and Khartoum, but they resulted in a “stalemate” and prompted Cairo to seek international mediation.
President Al-Sisi asked US President Donald Trump during the UN General Assembly meetings in New York in September to mediate in the negotiations on the GERD. He also called on the international community to play a “constructive role” in urging all the parties to be flexible in the negotiations, in order to reach an agreement that reflected their common interests.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has repeatedly expressed Egypt’s dissatisfaction with the delay in reaching an agreement on the GERD. He also raised the issue in bilateral meetings with European, African and Arab counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meetings, expressing his concern that the extended negotiations had so far failed to issue in an agreement.
In 2015, Cairo and Ethiopia signed a Declaration of Principles on the GERD, which state that the two countries and Sudan should cooperate to reach an agreement on guidelines for different scenarios for the filling of the dam reservoir in parallel with its construction and on the operational policies of the dam.
However, after four years of negotiations, two problems remain in the rate at which Ethiopia will draw water out of the Nile to fill the dam’s reservoir and the operating procedures of the dam.
Cairo wants Ethiopia to release about 40 billion cubic metres of water, while Ethiopia has been saying that the figure should be 35 billion cubic metres. It has been proposing to fill the dam reservoir over a period of three or four years, with Egypt wanting the filling to take seven years.
According to Addis Ababa’s present plans, the initial operation of the dam is scheduled for next year and its full operation by 2023.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.