Africa week

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Wednesday 19 Jul 2023

Last week Egypt hosted an important summit of the leaders of countries neighbouring Sudan in the hope of making and sustaining initiatives to end the destructive fighting that has been ongoing there for over three months.


Two days later, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi headed to Kenya to take part in the African Union’s semi-annual summit, which Egypt had originally proposed while chairing the AU in order to follow up on decisions made by African leaders and ensure they are implemented.

But the most significant development was the meeting that took place on the fringe of the summit on Sudan between President Al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the longest formal meeting between the two leaders since 2019. On Thursday, the two countries issued a joint statement announcing their agreement to start negotiations to finalise a deal between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan regarding the filling and the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), within four months.

As in previous, lengthy rounds of negotiations over the past eight years, Egypt will take part in these negotiations in good faith, hoping to reach a binding agreement to set the regulations for the filling and the use of the dam in a way that would not harm the rights of Egypt and Sudan to the vital waters of the Nile.

In the statement, the two leaders stressed their joint commitment to exert all efforts to reach a deal on the GERD dispute. Ethiopia, meanwhile, pledged that it was committed not to impact Egypt and Sudan’s share of water during the fourth filling of GERD, indicating it would be carried out in a manner that safeguards the needs of both countries.

The statement noted that the two leaders reiterated their mutual political will to enhance bilateral relations at the political, economic and cultural levels, based on the common desire to achieve their interests. Strengthening bilateral ties will, in turn, contribute to achieving stability, peace and security in the region and boosting the two countries’ ability to deal with common challenges. 

The fourth filling is expected to be the largest since the ambitious Ethiopian project was launched. And while experts believe that this filling is unlikely to decrease Egypt’s share of the water due to expected high flood levels, reaching a binding agreement among the three countries remains crucial for the future, especially during the years of drought.

Egypt, in particular, cannot be left in the dark on its main source of drinking water and agriculture, serving over 100 million people. In all previous rounds of talks, this was the key point that Egypt made: that it did not oppose any project that would benefit and serve the interests of the Ethiopian people. Yet it cannot be left at the behest of decisions taken by Ethiopian officials alone, and must be fully aware of all the details related to GERD and the filling schedule, now and in the future. 

To confirm that Egypt will be taking part in those negotiations in good will, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri had already announced that Cairo will not seek to refer its dispute with Ethiopia on the GERD to the United Security Council as it did in previous years, while confronting Ethiopia’s procrastination and refusal to finalise a deal.

While taking part in the upcoming talks, one scenario Egypt does not want to see repeated is the one that took place in Washington more than three years ago. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan spent months negotiating a deal in Washington. Yet when the time came for signing the deal, Ethiopia’s delegation did not show up, and Egypt alone signed the agreement mediated by the previous US administration.

Both Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly called on Ethiopia to sign a legally binding agreement on the GERD in order to protect the two downstream countries’ water rights.

Negotiations will also be successful if Ethiopia drops the needless rhetoric on the need to revoke what it describes as “colonial agreements” on sharing the Nile waters. This has clearly been one false argument made by Addis Ababa in order to evade both its legal obligations on the GERD and its moral duty not to harm the two downstream countries.

History cannot be falsified, and what Addis Ababa refers to as “colonial agreements” were agreements signed when Ethiopia was a sovereign state. Opening the door for renegotiating century-old agreements would also wreak havoc on the entire African continent, not only in relation to water rights, but even to the borders of existing nations.

Ethiopia, which houses the AU headquarters, should also accept mediation by outside parties, particularly the AU, in an objective manner. It cannot simply turn down the proposals put forward if it deems them unhelpful to its unilateral interests.

Unlike Ethiopia, which has plenty of water resources as well as other sources to generate electricity, Egypt cannot afford any shortage in its legitimate share of the Nile. 

The last round of AU-sponsored GERD talks collapsed in April 2021 and all attempts to revive the negotiations have since failed. Hopefully, the successful, friendly meeting held between President Al-Sisi and Ethiopia’s premier will turn a new page and bring about the desired outcome within the time specified.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 20 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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