President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi addressing the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)
In a recorded statement to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said on Tuesday that Egypt is still “committed to work to reach, in the nearest time possible” a fair, balanced, “and legally binding agreement” on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Al-Sisi told the UNGA that Egypt fully recognises the development ambitions of neighbouring African countries and that at the same time it calls on African countries to recognise its legitimate worry over water shortage, given the fact that Egypt is already suffering water poverty and that the River Nile is its main source for water.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri arrived in New York on Sunday to head the Egyptian delegation to the UNGA which opened on Tuesday evening, as Al-Ahram Weekly was going to press.
Maintaining Egypt’s quota of Nile water will be the subject of an intensive diplomatic campaign, with the Egyptian delegation hoping to win international support for Cairo’s position.
For three years Cairo and Khartoum have been pushing for a legally binding deal with Ethiopia covering the filling and operation of the GERD, so far to no avail.
Last week, the Foreign Ministry welcomed the presidential statement released by the UN Security Council on Wednesday calling for “a mutually accepted and legally binding deal”. The statement, which also referred to the need for the parties to reach this agreement within a reasonable time frame, came three months after Egypt and Sudan started a joint push to persuade the Security Council to intervene to encourage Ethiopia to commit to reaching an agreement. Rather than a legally binding deal though, Ethiopia continues to insist it will only commit to a set of guidelines.
Shoukri will meet his Sudanese counterpart Mariam Sadek Al-Mahdi in New York. In press statements over the weekend Al-Mahdi said that Sudan and Egypt are in close consultation over the crucial GERD file.
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the African Union which serves as the umbrella organisation for negotiations over GERD, last week presented Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa with a set of ideas that Kinshasa hopes will end the deadlock.
Two informed sources, one Egyptian, the other Sudanese, say the DRC paper falls short of specifying the legally binding nature of any agreement. What it does do, they agree, is offer alternative language on some details concerning mitigation and dispute settlement. The sources added that while both Cairo and Khartoum are willing to work on the paper in an attempt to agree a possible draft for a legally binding deal, neither capital is optimistic that Ethiopia will be forthcoming.
“While the [UNSC] presidential statement does not directly pressure Ethiopia to work towards an agreement it does state that any agreement on the filling and operation of the dam should be legally binding which is a good start,” said a concerned Egyptian official. He added that while in New York Shoukri will push for an understanding that negotiations towards an agreement cannot be open-ended, and that a deal should be concluded by spring 2022, before the third filling of the dam’s reservoir.
In 2011, Ethiopia started building GERD, with a planned capacity of over 74bcm on the Blue Nile, in 2011. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the Blue Nile provides Egypt with most of its water. In 2015, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed a Declaration of Principles that stipulated the three countries must come to an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Yet in July 2019, and again in July 2020, Ethiopia unilaterally executed two fillings of the reservoir in the absence of an agreement. The first filling reached close to 5bcm, as did the second which fell far short of the 13bcm Addis Ababa had planned.
Officials in Cairo insist Egypt cannot decide its water policy based on the “situation in Ethiopia”, especially given what they qualify as “a total failure on the side of the Ethiopians to embrace transparency”. Similar concerns were voiced in Khartoum. Last week Yasser Abbas, Sudan’s minister of water resources, sent a letter to his Ethiopian counterpart Selshi Bekele complaining of Addis Ababa’s failure to furnish Khartoum with accurate information about the second filling.
“We have given Ethiopia the benefit of the doubt over and over again but unfortunately our accommodation has been misunderstood. Now we have to tell the world that it needs to get Ethiopia to act in good faith on this crucial file,” said the Sudanese source. He added that the messages the Egyptian and Sudanese delegations to New York will be pushing are “almost identical”. They make two basic demands: that the agreement be legally binding, and a target date be set for any deal to be concluded.
Egyptian officials say Cairo wants a reasonable compromise to work towards. If that compromise is not forthcoming, Shoukri will end up warning his interlocutors in New York that Egypt’s patience is wearing thin.
Shoukri will also use his meetings around the General Assembly to lobby support for Egyptian plans to restart Palestinian-Israeli talks before the end of this year. While Egyptian officials concede there is little if any chance of securing a deal any time soon, they argue that there is an urgent need for peace talks to resume after a decade of being put on hold.
In his statement before the UNGA, Al-Sisi said “there is no way for the Middle East to enjoy stability without a fair solution to the Palestinian question that remains the central cause for all Arabs.” He added that the end objective is a negotiated peace deal that leads to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. For now, however, Al-Sisi said that Egypt is working to consolidate a ceasefire it helped broker in the spring of this year in Gaza and to improve the living conditions of Palestinians there, especially through a reconstruction scheme that it has committed to.
During a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet in Sharm El-Sheikh last week, Al-Sisi pressed Bennet to commit to restarting peace talks. According to statements made by the Israeli minister of interior this week, however, Bennet has no plans to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Egypt has managed to secure Israeli agreement on the slow launch of a Gaza reconstruction plan. A delegation of Egyptian engineers and other experts arrived in the Gaza Strip this week to finalise details on rebuilding 1,500 houses that were damaged during the war on Gaza earlier this year, and Egypt continues to negotiate with Israel on the timeline for starting major infrastructure reconstruction work.
Officials in Cairo warn, however, that reconstruction is not enough to consolidate the frail situation in Gaza and on the borders between Gaza and Israel, or to keep the tense situation in the West Bank free from some “unexpected explosion”. They argue that a political process is needed to contain tension “and give hope”, and it is support for this process that Cairo is canvasing in New York.
Egypt is working on this in close cooperation with Jordan, France, and Germany.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly