On Monday and Tuesday, the irrigation ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met online for the fifth and sixth time since 9 June.
According to a statement from the Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation, tripartite negotiations have achieved “progress” on important technical files, including dam security, the initial filling of the reservoir, the dam’s long-term operation, environmental studies and exchange of information.
Tellingly, the Sudanese statement did not specify whether the “progress” had been achieved during the Washington talks which ended late in February, or the present, online round.
Since the virtual talks began last week it has become clear that Ethiopia has focused its objections on a number of fundamental legal issues. They include outlining a mechanism to settle differences, provisions to make the agreement legally binding, and legally enforceable measures to be taken in times of drought and prolonged drought.
Ethiopia is treading water in the negotiations in an attempt to run down the timetable, says Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
“It is not willing to reach a fair agreement. Its goal is unrestrained exploitation of transboundary water resources regardless of the rights and interests of Egypt and Sudan.”
On the third day of the online talks Ethiopia produced a new statement that backtracks on principles and rules previously agreed.
At a lecture organised by the Egyptian Business Council for International Cooperation two days after the Ethiopian statement was unveiled, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt has been committed to negotiating in good faith to reach “a balanced and fair agreement” in the best interest of the three countries.
“But as long as Ethiopia remains intransigent, negotiations will not produce positive results. Egypt will have to look at other options, including asking the UN Security Council to shoulder its responsibility to protect international peace and security by preventing Ethiopia from taking unilateral actions that negatively affect Egypt’s water rights. Egypt will exert every effort to protect its interests,” he said.
On Sunday, Addis Ababa issued a statement that reflects a lack of confidence in its negotiating parties, says former deputy to Egypt foreign minister Mohamed Hegazi.
“Given the uncertainties and hard-feelings reflected in the statement it is difficult to predict how things will progress. Perhaps the tough negotiations and the initial filling — if the different parties agree on it — will lead to greater political understanding and a gradual removal of suspicion between the parties,” he said.
In the statement, Addis Ababa said it will only abide by the Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Sudan in 2015, and rejected earlier international treaties as “colonial based water allocation agreements that deny Ethiopia, and all upstream countries, their natural and legitimate rights”.
The statement stressed that “the ongoing negotiation is not about the allocation of Blue Nile waters” and insisted “Ethiopia will be bound by the guidelines and rules for the filling and annual operation of the GERD that it will sign with the two downstream countries,” and that “such a commitment will be guided solely by the Declaration of Principles.”
It warned that “any attempt to confuse the international community or campaign to exert maximum pressure on Ethiopia to accept colonial-based treaties that it was not a party to, and foreclose its legitimate right of using the Blue Nile camouflaged in the guidelines and rules on the filling and annual operation [of the dam] is unacceptable.”
Both Egypt and Sudan have expressed worries that Ethiopia is now backtracking on understandings reached during years of tortuous negotiations.
Ministry of Irrigation Spokesman Mohamed Al-Sebaai described the Ethiopian statement as “a deeply troubling statement that is technically and legally unsound”.
“The Ethiopian statement completely backtracks on the principles and rules agreed by the three countries during the negotiations sponsored by the US and the World Bank. It also ignores the technical understandings reached in previous rounds of negotiations.”
In a press briefing Al-Sebaai said the Ethiopian statement is an attempt to impose a fait accompli that “either pushes Egypt and Sudan into signing a text that turns them into hostages to Ethiopia’s will, or forces them to accept Ethiopia’s decision to unilaterally fill the dam”.
On Friday, the Ethiopian deputy army chief told the media that Egypt should be aware of Ethiopia’s military capabilities as Egypt continues to oppose Ethiopia’s plan to start filling the hydroelectric dam next month.
“Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” he said.
The negotiations via video conference, which began on 9 June, were brokered by Sudan. South Africa, the US and the EU are attending as observers.
“Both Egypt and Sudan showed flexibility in attending the online talks to discuss issues that were supposedly concluded and agreed-upon in Washington. It was also a compromise for Egypt to accept the Sudanese draft statement, given Cairo wanted these talks to be based on the terms of reference of the Washington agreement,” says Al-Hefni.
Egypt entered the current round of talks with four demands, tailored to prevent negotiations returning to square one: that Ethiopia would not take unilateral action to fill the dam until an agreement is reached; a deadline would be set to reach agreement on the filling and operation of the dam; the talks would be based on the terms of reference of the Washington and World Bank-brokered negotiations in February, and observers who attend the meetings would act as “facilitators”.
The ongoing video negotiations come more than three months after talks in Washington stalled when Ethiopia failed to turn up for what was to be the final session at which a final agreement was due to be signed. Egypt initialed the agreement while Sudan said it would sign when Addis Ababa did.
The US, represented by the Treasury Department, and the World Bank stepped in in November to host tripartite negotiations after talks between the three countries reached a dead end.
While it is obvious from the negotiations that Addis Ababa is not willing to respect Egypt’s conditions, Al-Hefni believes Cairo should continue to press international bodies to try and make Ethiopia abandon its intransigence.
“Egypt still believes that outstanding issues should be resolved via negotiations, and should press international bodies, including the Security Council, to pressure Ethiopia,” he said.
Hegazi remains optimistic that despite the stumbling start, an agreement remains in reach.
“Should that happen, it will in large part be thanks to the dedication, discipline and strategic awareness of the risks and difficulties of the negotiations of our negotiating team. Recognition should also be given to Sudan’s efforts to bridge the gaps between Egypt and Ethiopia,” he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly