Egypt is hoping for good news on Saturday after a week of distressing stories, including a tragic train crash in Upper Egypt that killed and wounded over 120 people, the collapse of a residential apartment building in eastern Cairo that saw a death toll of close to 30 people, and the crisis over the Ever Given, a 200,000-ton container ship that ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal until it was finally refloated on Monday afternoon.
Saturday is the day of the grand parade that is scheduled to transfer 22 ancient Egyptian royal mummies from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation (NMEC) in Fustat in Old Cairo. The coverage of the trip of the mummies of these kings and queens from ancient Egypt, including those of Ramses II, Tuthmoses III, Hatshepsut, and Nefertari, is expected to be an opportunity to promote Egypt at home and abroad after a week of troubling news.
However, in executive quarters in Cairo there is an awareness that while the parade of the royal mummies may recall the grandeur of Egypt, it cannot overshadow the clear challenges the country has to attend to. “There are investigations currently being conducted to clarify the reasons behind the case of the Ever Given, and there is a thorough assessment going on of the crisis-management performance of the concerned officials,” said an informed political source who wished to remain anonymous.
On Tuesday morning, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited the Suez Canal, where he met with top officials from the Suez Canal Authority (SCA). The president demanded a high state of alert such that any possible problems affecting the canal could be suitably anticipated and prevented. In press statements he made during his visit, Al-Sisi said that the Ever Given episode had underlined the importance of the Suez Canal to the whole world.
“The great work that was done that got the ship refloated without having to unload its containers helped save the image of Egypt. If the ship had had to be unloaded, the canal could have been blocked for at least two weeks — this would have been devastating not just for the image of Egypt, but also for the future of the Suez Canal,” argued the political source.
That said, Cairo officials are not necessarily confident that their hard work will be matched with the same kind of good outcome in the case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), however. In the words of one informed Egyptian official, the situation on the GERD “seems to be really troubling”.
Cairo is becoming concerned that Addis Ababa will again try to fill the reservoir of its dam on the Blue Nile without any legal or technical agreement with the downstream countries. Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed is accused in official quarters in Cairo of deliberately wasting time while waiting to execute the second filling in the rainy season this coming July.
Ethiopia earlier openly rejected a Sudanese proposal for Quartet mediation that would have brought the African Union, the European Union, the UN and the US into the fray. Egyptian officials do not accept the Ethiopian argument that the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DOP) on the GERD stipulates the need for the three concerned countries, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, to mutually agree on any possible mediator as an excuse for Addis Ababa to reject the Sudanese proposal of the Quartet mediation that Egypt also supported.
“What Ahmed likes to say is that he wants African problems to have African solutions, but in fact he is not looking for a solution. We had a solution on the table around December 2019, a solution that he had participated in drafting during a US-sponsored process of negotiations but then tried to walk out on,” said an Egyptian government source.
In July 2020, Ethiopia unilaterally filled the reservoir of the GERD with close to five billion cubic metres (bcm) of water. This caused trouble for Sudan, the first downstream country on the Nile. This coming July, Ethiopia is adamant, according to statements by its officials, that it will go ahead with the second filling of the dam, which will cut close to 15 bcm from the flooding of the Blue Nile. Both Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly expressed concerns over the possible repercussions of this second filling on their water shares and flood management in both downstream countries.
Sudan, in particular, has been vocal over the possible impact of the second filling, especially if executed in a hasty one-to-two-week timeframe, as was the case with the first filling, on its Roseires Dam and water stations. For Egypt, the question is not just about the impact of the second filling, but also about the political message that Ethiopia is sending to the downstream countries by insisting on pursuing the second filling without any agreement.
Egyptian officials particularly reject the Ethiopian argument that the second filling of the GERD is part of its construction according to the DOP. “Not true,” according to the Egyptian government official. “Ethiopia is manipulating the situation,” he added.
Meanwhile, the chances of a full and comprehensive agreement — or rather a legally binding agreement as the foreign and irrigation ministers of both Egypt and Sudan have been insisting — does not seem high before the rainy season. According to an African diplomatic source, this is so “despite a possible meeting of the foreign and irrigation ministers that is scheduled to be hosted in Kinshasa,” the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current chair of the African Union.
According to two African diplomatic sources who spoke this week in Cairo, not even the UAE initiative to facilitate talks between Ethiopia and Sudan “to start with” can help pave the way for a bilateral Sudan-Ethiopia technical agreement on the second filling before mid-July.
They said that the real purpose of the Abu Dhabi meetings, which started on Monday evening between Ethiopian and Sudanese officials, is essentially to help the two countries come round to an agreement on their border conflict, which could then facilitate talks on other issues including the management of the possible impact of the second filling of the GERD on the Roseires Dam and the water stations.
Both sources said that the offer of an agreement of a transitional nature had been put on the table by Ethiopia for both Egypt and Sudan to consider, and it was up to the downstream countries to decide on it.
Cairo-based African and Western diplomats say that Ethiopia is adamant on the second filling and that it will not succumb to pressure to delay it. The official Ethiopian line is that the people of Ethiopia are anxiously waiting for the second filling, which will allow two of the 13 turbines of the GERD to start generating electricity.
The question in foreign diplomatic quarters in Egypt, though, is what reaction Cairo will offer when, and not if, Addis Ababa begins the second filling. “If the second filling is done in six rather than two weeks, then Sudan might be reassured for now. The question is about the reaction of Egypt,” said one European diplomat. A Sudanese source earlier said that the abrupt execution of the first filling had been particularly harmful to the country.
President Al-Sisi has repeatedly said that Egypt is committed to a negotiated agreement on the GERD. However, according to informed foreign diplomatic sources, he has been telling world leaders over the past few weeks that Egypt cannot sit and watch while Ethiopia tries to take control of the Nile and keep Egypt hostage.
According to the same sources, Al-Sisi has also been telling his interlocutors that Egypt has openly acknowledged the right of Ethiopia to secure power generation, but that this cannot be done at the expense of the operation of the Aswan High Dam that could be negatively influenced if Ethiopia decides to block the Nile water necessary to operate the turbines.
On Tuesday, during his visit to the Suez Canal, Al-Sisi said that while he would make no threats against anyone, he would not compromise on a single drop of water. “I don’t threaten anyone. We are sticking to very rational dialogue. But I am saying that nobody will get a single drop of water from Egypt,” Al-Sisi said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly