The UN Security Council (UNSC) meeting that convened on 8 July failed to adopt the draft resolution that Tunisia had tabled on behalf of Egypt and Sudan. The draft called on Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith with the two downstream countries, and set a timetable of six months for reaching an agreement, under the umbrella of the African Union, on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
A few days ahead of the UNSC meeting Ethiopia began the second filling of the dam’s reservoir in the absence of an agreement. Cairo and Khartoum are now telling concerned world capitals that this is the last filling Ethiopia can get away with in the absence of a legally binding agreement.
In meetings with European Union (EU) officials this week, and with UN Security Council officials last week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri urged international bodies to live up to their responsibilities and send clear messages to Addis Ababa that it must end its refusal to negotiate seriously. Informed diplomatic sources said that in Brussels Shoukri made it clear to his European interlocutors that Egypt cannot be expected to continue to accommodate Ethiopia’s intransigence.
“It was not for nothing that the foreign minister stressed in his speech before the UNSC that GERD represents an existential threat to Egypt in the absence of an agreement on its filling and operation,” said a diplomatic source.
He added that Shoukri was very clear that when the push comes to shove Egypt will do what it takes to defend itself. “I think the message is clear we have been far too patient to be blamed by anyone for taking action to defend our own survival,” he added.
Egyptian diplomacy is adopting parallel approaches in its attempts to resolve the GERD issue, says Ayman Abdel-Wahab, a senior analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, one of which is to mobilise international public opinion by highlighting the repercussions of Ethiopia’s refusal to reach a legally-binding agreement.
On Monday, after concluding a series of meetings with EU officials in Brussels, and with the President of the European Council Charles Michel and Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg, Shoukri hinted the EU may soon make clear its unhappiness with Ethiopia’s unilateral moves over the dam.
In his statement before the UNSC, Shoukri had already commended the EU for its statement, issued hours before the UNSC meeting, expressing concern over Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to start the second filling in the absence of an agreement. Shourki called on the UNSC to take a similar position.
The foreign ministers of Egypt and Sudan both held consultations ahead, and after, the UNSC meeting. While Shourki left New York for Brussels, his Sudanese counterpart Mariam Sadik Al-Mahdi travelled to Moscow to lobby for support from Russia which is about to sign a major military deal with Ethiopia.
In Brussels, Shoukri stressed the need for a clear roadmap and timeline for Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to reach a legally-binding agreement on the dam.
During his meeting with Michel, Shoukri conveyed a message from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, and stressed that Cairo would like to see the EU, UN, and US involved in future negotiations over GERD. Khartoum has long been pushing for a proposal to the same effect — that the UN, EU, and US play a part in talks alongside the African Union — only for Ethiopia to reject it out of hand.
Concerned Egyptian diplomats say that while last week’s meeting of the UNSC saw a consensus among members on the need for the three riparian countries to reach an agreement through AU-led negotiations, it failed to draw a roadmap on how to get there.
In the press conference that followed the session, Shoukri told the media that the next step is in the hands of the UNSC and its members who must assume their responsibilities under the UN charter and work to resolve the dispute peacefully.
“The unilateralism displayed by Ethiopia threatens the water security of Egypt and Sudan and the livelihood of 150 million people… Ethiopia has yet to demonstrate the political will needed to reach an agreement, and this has been the main obstacle to resolving the dispute despite the flexibility and moderation that Egypt and Sudan have shown,” he told the press conference.
Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, says it is only sensible for Egypt to give the UNSC a chance to take a clear position on the way forward. According to Sharaki, should the UNSC fail to take a clear position on GERD it will be up to Cairo and Khartoum to decide their next step, which could include legal action over the building of the dam, the way it is being built, and its location.
According to Abdel-Wahab, should diplomatic lobbying fail to get the world to pressure Ethiopia into changing its position, then it will be up to Cairo and Khartoum to underline to international players the danger this poses to peace and security in the Horn of Africa.
He argues that “a cooperative approach with Addis Ababa and other countries can go hand-in-hand with a tougher approach that reminds all concerned parties of the high cost of water as a weapon against Egypt.”
Abdel-Wahab is also under no illusions about the tough stand Egypt and Sudan will have to take even if an agreement is reached given “there is nothing to guarantee that Ethiopia will stick to any agreement, or will not use the water weapon against Egypt in the future.”
Ethiopia started building the mega dam in 2011. Last year, it unilaterally executed a first 5 bcm filling of the dam’s reservoir. On 5 July it started a second filling, initially planned to trap 13.5 bcm of water. Construction delays, however, mean the second filling is unlikely to reach more than 9 bcm.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.