Last week, Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti told Sky News Arabia she expects the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current chair of the African Union (AU), to send delegations to Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan soon to hold talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Restarting negotiations, however, is likely to prove difficult given the situation in Sudan where the military dissolved the transitional government on 25 October, triggering protests. Meanwhile, Egypt is continuing its diplomatic campaign to explain its position and the dangers of maintaining the status quo. It is a strategy, explained Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister, that began several months ago.
Al-Hefni pointed to the two Security Council sessions on the issue, one held last year, the second this year, and the UNSC presidential statement issued in October, as developments on which Egypt needs to build. This week’s COP26, and last week’s Cairo Water Week 2021, also provided international forums for Egypt to press its case, he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
American University in Cairo professor of political science Tarek Fahmi, however, ruled out GERD, or indeed any other water security issues, being discussed on anything but the sidelines of COP26.
“Given the AU remains responsible for the file, and Algeria has yet to pursue its initiative on the matter, the only avenue open is for Egypt to continue raising the issue in international forums and summits wherever possible,” Fahmi told the Weekly.
Algeria proposed an initiative to restart negotiations in August but nothing has happened since.
During COP26, which focuses on international efforts to combat climate change, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was expected to foreground issues of concern to developing countries in general, and African states in particular, with the outstanding conflict over GERD accorded more than passing mention given its importance to Egypt and the continent.
In his meeting with the Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg on the periphery of COP26, President Al-Sisi underlined Egypt’s historic rights to Nile water, describing it as “an existential issue”, and called on the international community to exert every effort to reach a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.
The two leaders also discussed bilateral cooperation and regional issues, including illegal immigration, extremism, and the latest developments in the Palestinian cause. Al-Sisi also affirmed Egypt’s wish to host next year’s COP27.
COP26, which opened on Sunday in Glasgow, Scotland, aims to agree mechanisms to keep global warming below2 oC. It ends on 12 November.
In his meeting with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi on the sidelines of the summit, Al-Sisi underlined Egypt’s determination to reach a legally-binding agreement on GERD and hailed the efforts exerted by the DRC to bring Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia back to the AU-sponsored tripartite talks.
Al-Hefni explained President Al-Sisi’s meetings with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior officials were also likely to be pertinent to the outstanding issues over GERD, given Cairo is seeking to build up as much pressure on Addis Ababa as possible.
President Al-Sisi held brief meetings with Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the second between the two leaders since the resumption of relations between Cairo and Qatar in January, and with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Armenian President Armen Sakissian, and the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Palestine, Lebanon, and Libya.
The dispute over GERD was high on the agenda of last week’s Cairo Water Week 2021. In a video address to the opening session, Al-Sisi underlined that Egypt is seeking a balanced and legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, and explained that Cairo wants Addis Ababa to pursue its development ambitions while minimising the social and environmental consequences on Egypt and Sudan.
Despite Cairo’s efforts to push forward tripartite negotiations, commentators fear the situation in Sudan will be counter-productive.
Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University, believes things will have to settle in Sudan before negotiations can begin. Al-Hefni argues the opposite, saying that Sudan is too aware of the dangers of maintaining the status quo not to engage with the issue.
Cairo has repeatedly stated its fears that GERD will significantly reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water, on which it depends for more than 90 per cent of its fresh water needs, while Khartoum is concerned GERD could threaten the safety of Sudan’s dams.
Ethiopia claims Egypt and Sudan will not be harmed by the dam but has repeatedly refused to show studies that back its assertions and insists it will only accept guidelines on the operation and filling of the dam rather than a legally-binding agreement. Ethiopia has also rejected Khartoum’s proposal that the UN, the US, and the EU be given mediating roles in the dispute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly