Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri toured seven Arab capitals this week, five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan and Iraq, for talks that had developments on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as the number one issue.
Shoukri’s tour came less than a week after an Arab League foreign ministers meeting adopted a resolution that openly blamed Ethiopia for failing to act promptly in reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on the filling and operation of the GERD.
Sudan had refrained from supporting the resolution, offering an alternative text that Egypt declined and then asking for its name to be removed from the text that criticised Ethiopia, an upstream country on the River Nile, for acting to inflict serious harm on the water resources of the two downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt.
It later issued a statement arguing that the Arab League resolution was not “purposeful”.
Egypt, in a statement from the office of the spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, expressed dismay over the position taken by Sudan. It implicitly argued that Sudan was being insensitive about Egypt’s concerns over possible water shortages in the wake of the filling and operation of the GERD in the absence of a fair deal.
Ethiopia had already hit back with a statement that harshly criticised the Arab League resolution. Egypt then issued a statement that was more than usually critical of Ethiopia, criticising it for trying to monopolise decision-making on the Blue Nile’s resources.
The statement put out by the office of the Foreign Ministry spokesman on Saturday in response to that coming out of Addis Ababa came hours after the Foreign Minister of Oman Youssef ben Alawi who currently heads the Arab Foreign Ministers Council, told reporters that his country was fully aware of “Egypt’s true concerns” at the possible water shortages it could suffer if the filling and operation of the GERD were conducted in a way not sensitive to its situation.
However, the statements were not designed as a reply to the statement by Ethiopia. The secretariat of the Arab League would also not agree to an Egyptian request for it to issue a statement in reply to the harsh Ethiopian attack, according to a source at the secretariat of the organisation.
The secretariat of the Arab League, the source said, would have needed the consent of several member states at least, including Oman, to issue a statement against Ethiopia, and this had not been immediately available. Oman was one of the stops on Shoukri’s diplomatic tour this week.
The source added that Egypt had a lot of lobbying to do in support of its position against Ethiopia, especially as Sudan did not seem to be following the same line as Egypt.
The diplomatic momentum Egypt is currently building is intended to frustrate Ethiopian attempts to “hijack” the Blue Nile and to gain sufficient political support to pressure Ethiopia to abandon announced plans to start filling the reservoir of the GERD this summer, possibly in late June.
Shoukri is working on putting the same message across to EU member states and permanent members of the UN Security Council.
“The message we are putting across is that we are committed to reaching a negotiated deal, and we have made considerable compromises and have shown many signs of good will,” said an informed government source.
Ahead of Shoukri’s tour this week, the Foreign Ministry had already briefed African ambassadors in Cairo on the fate of the negotiations process that Egypt was going through with both Ethiopia and Sudan with joint US-World Bank mediation.
After a negotiation process that had lasted for 10 weeks and included direct and indirect talks among foreign and water resources ministers of the three countries concerned in Washington and meetings of the respective technical teams in Khartoum, Addis Ababa, and Cairo, the US and the World Bank had drafted a deal that Egypt, “despite some concerns”, according to the same official, had initialed in Washington late last month, while Sudan abstained.
Ethiopia deliberately missed the meeting in question and later accused Washington of siding too much with Cairo.
A Cairo-based Western diplomatic source said that Washington was not taking the Ethiopian accusations to heart but was rather placing them within the context of the internal Ethiopian political debate ahead of upcoming legislative elections.
According to the same source, Washington, as US President Donald Trump promised President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in a telephone call last week, would still continue with its work to bring together the three parties to sign an agreement “hopefully” before the beginning of the high point of the rainfall season in July when Ethiopia seems to want to begin the filling process.
Contacts, the same source said this week, were “still ongoing” between the US and Ethiopia. But the source would not offer any definite expectation of any possible initialing by Ethiopia of what he qualified as “a quite comprehensive” text that Egypt had accepted late last month.
The source would not commit to words like “probably” or “possibly”, but said instead that the agreement was a “work in progress”.
Nor would he agree that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who is heading into tough parliamentary elections in August, would feel hesitant to sign an agreement that his opponents could qualify as making too many compromises.
It all depended, the source said, on what Ahmed would be getting as a political package, including incentives from the US, which has already shown a deal of generosity in supporting the prime minister of Ethiopia.
In the midst of the recent diplomatic confrontation, Ahmed called on the Ethiopian people to complete their work to finish the construction work on the GERD so that Ethiopia could become a leading hub for electrical energy.
On Monday, in a meeting with Ethiopian generals Ahmed reiterated the same message.
The construction of the GERD has been delayed due to management issues. Technically speaking, the construction should be completed by 2023 or 2024. However, the initiation of the first filling of the dam is not that far away.
With a reservoir of about 74 billion cubic metres of water, which could be filled in six years if rainfall keeps to a steady high, the GERD should be a leading power generator in the African continent.
Sudan is expected to benefit significantly from the dam through inexpensive electricity supplies and having the annual floods of the Nile regulated efficiently enough to allow for better agricultural planning.
For its part, Egypt, which gets around 80 per cent of its already insufficient annual share of water from the Blue Nile, could be set to suffer further water poverty in a way that could significantly harm its food security.
Egypt also has a range of ecological worries over the possible medium and long-term impacts of the GERD and concerns over its safety.
Since the signing of the 2015 Khartoum Declaration of Principles, Egyptian officials have been saying that Cairo would be willing to accept some harm in order to help Ethiopia launch its mega-development scheme to which the GERD is central. However, there are red lines that it cannot overlook given that Nile water resources are a matter of national security for Egypt.
Late last week, the office of President Al-Sisi announced a meeting he had held with army generals to review Egypt’s readiness to defend Egyptian national security interests.
The meeting prompted questions in diplomatic quarters on “how far Egypt would go” to defend its water resources, especially since earlier official statements had referred to Egypt’s willingness to use “all possible options” to defend Egyptian rights.
According to Cairo-based European diplomats, Egyptian officials insist that they are determined to pursue every “political and legal” option to get Ethiopia to reach an agreement that would not compound Egypt’s water poverty or gravely influence the capacity of the Aswan High Dam to generate electricity, which are the two main Egyptian concerns about the GERD.
“We have a few weeks before the rainfall starts. We will see what the Americans do and how far the Ethiopians can get with the construction of the dam. This issue has had so many ups and downs that we will have to see what the summer will bring,” one diplomat commented.
He added that the capitals concerned “seem to find it unlikely” that Ahmed will push the line too far in beginning the filling of the dam reservoir without an agreement “because this is not just about Egypt, but also about the US”.
However, he said that Ahmed might opt for a “trial filling” that would grant him political gains internally without actually completing the filling. “There is a range of different scenarios, and it all depends on the political lobbying of Egypt and Ethiopia,” the diplomat concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly