The meeting Washington hosted yesterday, 6 November, between representatives from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan marks a qualitative step forward in efforts to reach a mutually satisfactory solution to the crisis surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
This is the first negotiating round between these three parties to be mediated by an international power — the US — and attended by representatives from the World Bank.
The invitation from Washington came shortly after the meeting between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa summit in Sochi last month. In that meeting, the two leaders agreed to resume negotiations and to call the GERD independent technical committee back to work.
Negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa broke down a month ago because of the latter’s intransigence. While Egypt has demonstrated a spirit of flexibility out of its recognition of Ethiopia’s developmental rights, Ethiopia has refused to reciprocate and even to consider the proposals that Egypt made in order to preserve its quota of Nile waters.
Before heading to Washington, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed his hope that the meeting would lead to the signing of a binding legal agreement between the three countries that safeguards the interests of all parties and ensures Egypt’s water rights. “Egypt’s water rights cannot be compromised,” he stressed, underscoring Egypt’s near exclusive dependence on the Nile for its water needs.
The United States possesses all the qualifications to make it an effective mediator between Egypt and Ethiopia, while the World Bank’s attendance is a very welcome addition. The presence of this major international institution, with all its knowhow and expertise, should lend impetus to negotiating efforts and encourage opportunities conducive to positive results.
The Egyptian delegation flew to Washington carrying a huge portfolio filled with documents and data regarding all aspects of the question, from the dam’s potential impacts on the Blue Nile Basin ecosystem to its potentially detrimental effects on Egypt’s agriculture, electricity production and economy. Some experts have gone so far as to suggest that the Ethiopian Dam could wreak such harmful effects on all aspects of life in Egypt that a special international committee should be created to study them.
That Addis Ababa had also accepted Washington’s invitation was seen as a positive sign and maybe the beginning of a solution. Far more important, now, will be Addis’s ability to show good faith and a sincere desire to resolve this question which is of such vital importance to Egypt. Hopefully, Addis will now commit itself to earnest discussions on the technical aspects that are of such concern to the Egyptian people who would face the gravest risks after GERD is built and goes into operation.
As its delegation set off to Washington, the Egyptian government and people held out high hopes for the negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa. They looked forward to a constructive process that will pave the way to an equitable resolution to a security crisis that has loomed so ominously during recent years because of its life-threatening implications for Egypt.
Hopefully, the meeting in Washington will mark the beginning of a new spirit in these negotiations: a spirit of mature, collective action towards a solution that is satisfactory to all parties.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.