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GERD: Beating the clock

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is increasingly impacting Cairo’s foreign policy choices

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 13 Jan 2021
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Egypt will be watching closely as South Africa hands over the presidency of the African Union (AU) to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the second week of February, hoping that the move will push forward the long, and so far inconclusive, negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

It is hardly a secret that Egypt’s confidence in South Africa’s handling of the talks has waned. Traditionally more allied with Ethiopia than with either Sudan or Egypt, Egyptian officials say South Africa has not invested as much energy as it might in pushing for a deal.

For close to a decade Egypt and Sudan, with the help of various sponsors, have engaged in on-off negotiations with Ethiopia over GERD. Yet Ethiopia embarked on an initial filling of the dam’s reservoir last summer in the absence of an agreement. And now South Africa is set to end its presidency of the AU with Ethiopia poised for a second filling and the possible initial operation of GERD this summer, again with no deal signed.

In the words of one informed Egyptian official: “We have engaged in rounds and rounds of negotiations and Ethiopia has continued to do whatever it wants on the ground without any real intervention from South Africa in its capacity as chair of the AU and sponsor of the negotiations. South Africa should have spoken out against any filling prior to a comprehensive deal between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.”

Cairo is aware that the handover from South Africa to DRC holds no guarantees that negotiations will progress. What it is hoping for is a more engaged AU chair, committed to getting the parties to work on an equal footing in order to secure a deal — “even if elementary” — before the second filling which is expected in mid-July.

This week, after the latest round of GERD negotiations stuttered to a halt, Egypt underlined its commitment to continuing talks towards a comprehensive and legally binding agreement. Though under no illusions about the pressure the DRC can apply in the face of Ethiopia’s reluctance to reach a deal, Egyptian officials still hope the AU’s new chair will be able to end the so-far open-ended nature of the talks.

“We are not planning to walk away from the table even though we can see Ethiopia is not serious. We are determined to work closely with the DRC on this,” said one government official.

He added that one key demand that Egypt will put to DRC is to work on securing a zero draft of a possible agreement that manages to “marry the contradicting views and expectations of the three countries”.

Egypt also hopes the DRC will be able to resolve the debate over the methodology of negotiations that has been brought up recently by Sudan.

“Sudan has expressed a wish for the technical experts of the AU to propose their own. But we did not go to the AU to be handed over a document. We resorted to the AU, upon the mandate of the UN Security Council, to facilitate direct negotiations that could deliver a document,” said the official.

“We are hoping the DRC will assume this role and make the best use of the few months before the next rainy season,” he added.

DRC is not Egypt’s only hope when it comes to saving the negotiations. Cairo is also engaged in strenuous diplomatic efforts to secure support for its defence of its share of Nile water.

“It is not an easy time at all,” says another government official who notes that the incoming US administration may not immediately sympathise with Egypt’s legitimate concerns over water. Meanwhile, he adds, the European Union has done little to push Ethiopia into taking the negotiations seriously.

Cairo, officials say, is fully aware that it will take the Biden administration time to get round to examining the issue. In the meantime, Egypt must do what it can to get the US, the EU and other international players to want to help.

To this end, say officials, Cairo agreed, despite its concerns, to back reconciliation with Qatar and end three years of boycott.  

Egypt has also been working with Jordan, Germany, and France to restart direct Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, hopefully as soon as a new Israeli government is in place by the end of March or early April.

This week Egypt’s foreign minister spoke with both his Palestinian and Israeli counterparts ahead of hosting a meeting between the foreign ministers of Jordan, Germany, and France which will discuss what needs to be done in order to bring the Israeli and Palestinian foreign ministers together in Cairo sometime soon.

By working with its European allies to re-open the long-closed door to the Middle East peace process Cairo hopes to secure the support not only of the EU but also the Biden administration.

In tandem with this strategy, Cairo is investing enormous energy in facilitating an agreement to bridge the rifts that have divided Palestinian factions for over a decade. Egypt has already managed to consolidate its relations with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and is now considering options to strengthen ties with the leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian factions.

Egypt has also opened up towards the internationally recognised government in Libya, tilting away from five years of support for the leaders of the self-styled Libyan National Army.

According to government officials, this spring’s announcement of diplomatic postings is expected to include an ambassador to Libya, stationed in Tripoli and accredited by the government of Fayez Al-Sarraj, and a new ambassador to Qatar.

Ayman Abdel-Wahab, a senior analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, stresses that “Egypt really needs strong international support, not just a few gestures here and there, to get Ethiopia to stop going round in circles without ever reaching a deal.”

“Ethiopia has never faced serious pressure to work towards a deal and this has resulted in the lurch from one deadlock to another,” he says.

Abdel-Wahab argues Cairo’s most realistic option now is to attempt to secure sufficient international support to push Ethiopia into working for a fair deal. “Time is not on our side. Ethiopia is not only poised for a second filling and a start to the operation of GERD but is about to start building a second dam,” he says.

According to Abdel-Wahab, “it is a total waste of time” to begin to consider, as some parties have suggested, unfeasible projects like diverting the River Congo, or using the Jonglei Canal to divert water through vast wetlands of South Sudan, to deliver more water to Sudan and Egypt.

“These are projects with enormous technical challenges and would require the agreement of several Nile Basin states. They will also be eye-wateringly expensive. We need to stay focused. We need a fair and legally binding deal with Ethiopia and we need to secure international support for this. The more we make ourselves seen and heard the more likely we will get the backing we need.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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