‘Satisfactory solutions’ on the GERD?

Doaa El-Bey , Thursday 5 Aug 2021

Algerian mediation in the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam may be a last opportunity to put the tripartite negotiations back on track

Shoukri and his algerian counterpart
Shoukri and his algerian counterpart

Cairo and Khartoum, both still after a diplomatic solution to the crisis over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), this week welcomed an Algerian attempt at mediation intended to bridge the differences between the two capitals and Addis Ababa and put the negotiations back on track.

Visits by Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra to the three states have led to Algeria being given the green light to play the role of mediator between the parties, especially in the wake of its previous role as a mediator in the Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict in 2000, said one diplomat who preferred to remain anonymous.

“However, unless the Algerian initiative is clearly drawn up according to a timetable and mechanism that will lead to a legally binding agreement, it will meet the fate of previous mediation attempts,” he said.

During his visit to Egypt this week, Lamamra said that his country was keen to see Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia reach “satisfactory solutions” to the GERD issue.

“We believe that the relations between the three countries are passing through a critical stage, and that it is important that they reach an agreement on the water issue,” he said in a joint press conference after his meeting with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri.  

Lamamra said he was keen to hear all the information he could about the issue from each country during his visits to the three countries. He also expressed his wish that Algiers could be “part of the solution to the problems that face the Arab and African countries, at the top of which is the dam issue.”

Algeria is influential in both the Arab League and the African Union (AU), and Egyptian professor of political science Tarek Fahmi said he expected Lamamra’s visit to lead to something new with regard to returning to the negotiating table.

He said the visit to Cairo was an exploratory one that could be expected to be followed by either an initiative to restart the tripartite negotiations, or another shuttle tour, or a call for a tripartite summit to be attended by the heads of state of the three countries with the technical teams involved.

But the main purpose of Lamamra’s visit was to thwart an Israeli attempt to join the AU as an observer, he said. “He aimed to kick Israel out of the AU,” Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly. On 22 July, Israel attained observer status at the AU after nearly two decades of diplomatic efforts.

Khartoum welcomed the Algerian initiative on the GERD, and in a meeting with Lamamra, Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi said her country wanted to see a diplomatic solution to the GERD crisis.

She re-emphasised Sudan’s stance on the need to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Sudan has previously proposed the formation of an international quartet made up of the United Nations, the European Union, the US, and led by the AU, to help to resolve the decade-old dispute.

During Lamamre’s visit to Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen asked Algeria to play a role in “correcting” what he described as the Arab League’s misperceptions about the GERD and “underscoring Ethiopia’s intentions to see the fair and equitable utilisation of the Nile water,” the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting.

In June, the Arab League issued a resolution after its meeting in the Qatari capital Doha rejecting any measures that would undermine the water share of Egypt and Sudan from the Nile and calling on the UN Security Council to intervene to resolve a crisis that threatens peace and security in the region.

Ethiopia denounced the resolution, describing the position of the regional organisation as “misguided”.

During his meeting with Lamamra, Mekonnen said Ethiopia was firmly committed to resuming the trilateral negotiations under the auspices of the AU. Ethiopia has also asked Algeria to help to persuade Sudan to resolve a border issue over the Fashqa region peacefully.

According to Abbas Sharaki, a professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, the Algerian intervention indicates disappointment in the UN Security Council, the loss of hope in African AU-led negotiations that have now reached a deadlock, and the lack of seriousness in the EU call to resume the negotiations quickly.

“Egyptian diplomacy continues on all international and regional levels, however. The fact that Ethiopia could not carry out the second filling of the GERD as originally planned has helped to keep the status quo more or less as it is for another year,” he said.

Ethiopia declared last month that the second filling of the Dam was complete. Although it did not disclose the exact amount of water used, experts believe that it could not have exceeded four billion square metres (bcm), much less than what was previously declared by officials.

They had repeatedly announced that Addis Ababa would unilaterally fill the GERD’s reservoir with 13.5 bcm in July and August to raise the amount of water to 18.4 bcm, up from the 4.9 bcm secured in the first filling in July last year.

This level of water is sufficient for Addis Ababa to operate the first two turbines of the dam and to start generating electricity.

Egypt’s attempts to use diplomatic channels to resolve the Dam crisis continued in other ways this week.

The GERD issue was highlighted during Shoukri’s meeting with Czech counterpart Jakub Kulhánek, who said their talks had addressed the Ethiopian dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the GERD, voicing his full support for the negotiations and international mediation to reach a solution on the issue.

In a phone call last week, Shoukri discussed with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian the latest developments concerning the GERD, reiterating Egypt’s aim to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

Shoukri told Le Drian that he was looking forward to continuing consultation and coordination with France on the GERD, drawing on France’s position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.

Talks held under the auspices of the AU throughout last year failed to secure an agreement on the dam’s filling and operations, and Cairo and Khartoum have demanded that Addis Ababa cease filling the massive reservoir until such a deal is reached.

The UN Security Council met in early July to discuss the issue, and Tunisia submitted a draft resolution to members of the council during the session. The draft resolution was supposed to be discussed in the session, with a view to later voting. However, Ethiopia slammed the session as an “unhelpful distraction” to the AU-led negotiating process.

The July meeting was the second time the UN Security Council has met to discuss the GERD, having last convened on 29 June last year when it called on the parties to return to the AU-led negotiations.

The only way to resolve the GERD crisis is thus within the framework of the AU, Fahmi said. “The next move will be resuming the negotiations linked to a time table if possible and prompted by the Democratic Republic of Congo as chair of the AU together with Algeria and the EU.”

 He said this was why Shoukri had recently visited Luxembourg and a number of other European states.

However, he added that although the Ethiopian side welcomed the Algerian initiative, any progress would be linked to how far Addis Ababa was willing to present concessions, and, more importantly, to the presence of a clear mechanism drawn up by the AU in collaboration with the EU.

He added that Algeria would also need the support of the Arab states in its mediation efforts.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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