Egypt’s choices narrow on the Nile dam crisis

CAIRO — In an interview with Bloomberg television on Sept. 8, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Egypt is committed to talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis and wants to avoid any military conflict.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel Aty told Al-Jazeera on Sept. 6 about “diplomatic actions regarding the GERD.” He explained that “these actions cannot be announced unless they are fruitful.” He did not provide any further details about their nature.

Following a five-month stalemate since the last round of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Kinshasa under the auspices of the African Union (AU) on April 6, Egypt called on the UN Security Council to look into the case. On July 8, the world body recommended the resumption of negotiations under the AU.

On July 19, Ethiopia announced the completion of the second filling of the dam’s reservoir without an agreement with its downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan, which escalated tensions between the three Nile Basin countries.

In this context, Rakha Hassan, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “As the military option is unlikely for Egypt, negotiations remain the only possible course of action, alongside political pressure and soft power, specifically with Germany and Italy, whose companies operate in the GERD, in addition to the African countries that back Ethiopia.”

On whether a new round of AU-negotiations would fail, Hassan said, “Jumping to conclusions is not recognized in diplomacy.”

On Aug. 26, regional media outlets cited anonymous Sudanese sources as saying that Tunisia intends to submit a revised draft resolution on the GERD to the Security Council, calling on Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia to resume talks to reach a binding agreement on filling and operating the dam. Tunisia had submitted a draft resolution in July, calling on Addis Ababa to halt its unilateral moves and return to the negotiations to reach an agreement within six months.

Hassan believes the new Tunisian draft resolution is not a solution because the council will not address the GERD crisis unless the AU informs it that it has exhausted all means and failed to reach an agreement.

Hassan said that resorting to international arbitration is the last resort because the disputing countries will be forced to accept the outcome of this arbitration, whatever it may be. Therefore, the means of negotiations and mediation must be exhausted first, he noted. “Failure to reach a result in the negotiations is not the end of it. We must continue to try and exploit Egypt’s interests with different countries to reach a solution.

Egypt has recently been reaching out to several countries in the region as part of efforts to mobilize support for its position in the crisis. On Sept.13, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett discussed the GERD file. Following the meeting, Sisi said he sensed a common understanding between the two sides.

On Sept. 10, Egyptian assistant Foreign Minister for European Affairs Badr Abdel-Aty and Director-General of Political Affairs at the Italian Foreign Ministry Pasquale Ferrara addressed the GERD issue during the talks in Cairo.

Meanwhile, Shoukry met with his Burundian counterpart, Albert Shinjiro, in Cairo on Sept. 7. The two officials discussed the GERD issue, with Shinjiro expressing his country’s support for Egypt.

Mostafa Kamel el-Sayed, professor of political science at Cairo University, does not believe there is a third option for Egypt other than military intervention or negotiations, except for relying on itself to maximize its benefit from the Nile waters.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Sayed mentioned the government’s plan to rationalize water use, line canals, reuse wastewater after refining it and increasing cooperation with Nile Basin countries, specifically the White Nile countries, to benefit from the increased water flowing into Egypt from there.

He added, “In the past days, the media circulated news about Tunisia’s willingness to submit a new draft resolution to the Security Council regarding the GERD. But the council’s intervention in the crisis is currently unlikely because the current high level of flooding in Egypt makes the council’s intervention not urgent, given that the dam is not currently a source of harm.”

Sayed said, “The current weakness of the Ethiopian government due to internal armed conflicts may rekindle hopes for a change in the Ethiopian position on the GERD crisis during negotiations under the auspices of the AU, and make it more willing to accept a consensual solution between the three parties.”

Sudan and Egypt, which suffer from water scarcity, fear the GERD will affect their shares of the Nile water, while Ethiopia considers the dam an existential project for the development of its country by generating electricity.

Heba al-Bashbeshi, researcher at the Institute of African Studies at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor the AU will play a good role in resolving the GERD crisis in the coming period, especially since the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the current AU chair, said before that it is seeking to develop a road map to get out of the crisis.

On Sept. 9, Ethiopian Minister of Water and Irrigation Seleshi Bekele announced his country intends to generate electricity from the turbines of the GERD by the Ethiopian New Year, which falls on Sept. 11.

He said in a statement, “Ethiopia is currently unstable; the fate of its government is unknown, and these circumstances must be taken into account.”

“Maybe a new agreement will be made or the AU may become a party to the process of filling and operating the dam; no one knows,” he added.

Al-Monitor tried to contact a member of the Egyptian negotiating committee and a spokesperson for the Ministry of Irrigation for comment on the fate of negotiations, but there was no answer.

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