19.02.2021 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Egypt-Ethiopia: Difficult Negotiations


The latest round of Egyptian-Ethiopian negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), brokered by former African Union (AU) president Cyril Ramaphosa, ended without agreement, adding another episode to the chain of failed negotiations.  Egypt accused Ethiopia of derailing the GERD negotiations and evading its obligations under the binding agreement.

It is worth noting that GERD has the potential to disrupt the lives of more than 150 million Egyptian and Sudanese citizens and create an avalanche of socio-economic turbulence in the region. The previous talks failed because they focused on the initially divergent positions of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Thus, Addis Ababa wants to fill the dam with water even if the country does not agree with Cairo and Khartoum, while the latter insists on the need to reach a trilateral agreement first, so that their share of the Blue Nile River is not affected. Sudan reacted rather sharply, with its official spokesman protesting against Ethiopia’s decision to fill the Renaissance in July irrespective of the opinion of neighboring states.

Cairo fears that Ethiopia’s plan to build a huge hydroelectric dam on the Nile will reduce the country’s access to water. At the heart of the dispute is Egypt’s fear that once the dam is built, the country will receive less of the annual 55.5 billion cubic meters of water that are a minimum requirement for Egypt’s population.

However, Ethiopia is confident that the dam will not have an adverse effect on the countries downstream of the Nile.

Recently, tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa have greatly increased. In particular, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stated that the Nile “is a matter of life and death” for his country, and that “no one can encroach on Egypt’s water share.” In response, Ethiopia objected that the dam was a matter of life and death for it as well.

Ethiopia explains the construction of the Renaissance on the Nile very simply: a country with a developing economy simply needs a new stable source of electricity (the stated capacity of the Ethiopian hydropower plant will be about six thousand megawatts). A hydroelectric power plant on the Nile, which will be the largest in Africa, will allow this country not only to fully supply itself with electricity, but also to sell it to its neighbors. At the same time, Addis Ababa assures that it does not intend to infringe on the rights of Egypt and Sudan. According to Addis Ababa’s calculations, the hydropower plant’s capacity will be enough to cover all of the country’s electricity needs (about 65% of the population there is currently without access to electricity), plus there will be surpluses left to sell to neighbors — Kenya, Sudan, Egypt and Djibouti — provided that power lines are built or upgraded. The construction of the hydropower plant cost Addis Ababa an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion, with funds coming from bonds and investments from private individuals. In the future, the country expects to earn about 27 million dollars a day from the operation of hydroelectric facilities. In addition, the large reservoir is expected to give Ethiopia about seven thousand tons of fish annually, an important circumstance for this landlocked country, which periodically suffers from famine (in particular, swarms of locusts cause great damage every year).

So far, the ongoing negotiations have not been encouraging. The Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese working groups discussed only minor details. And the discussion is accompanied by mutual threats from Cairo and Addis Ababa, with promises not to stand behind the price and to use military force. The arguments of the parties remain the same. Ethiopia, which has been distrustful of Egypt for a long time, believes that they want to prevent it from developing. Egypt insists on an agreement that would ensure that the flow of the Nile does not diminish. Sudan occupies, in a sense, an intermediate position. Perhaps because the Ethiopian dam will keep the water level in the Blue Nile the same throughout the year, eliminating the danger of flooding that occurs after heavy rains in the Ethiopian highlands. Lately, Addis Ababa has suspected Cairo of intending to strain relations between Ethiopia and Sudan by provoking a military conflict between these countries (there are many disagreements between the neighbors) in order to weaken both countries upstream on the Nile and dictate to them their terms. Whether or not such suspicions are well justified is hard to say.

But it should be noted that in both Egypt and Ethiopia there are now massive propaganda campaigns against each other. For example, Birhanu Jula Gelalcha, Deputy Commander of the Ethiopian army, accused Cairo of “threatening to take away from other countries the right to use their own water resources”. In addition, Ethiopia reproaches Cairo for complaining about the lack of water, while in the meantime it is launching a $2 billion project to irrigate the western Sinai desert with Nile water. According to the Ethiopian publication ECADF, a water pipeline from the Nile is being laid under the Suez Canal, and the fruits and vegetables grown on the plots taken from the desert will be exported to the Persian Gulf countries at an incredibly high cost.

An important first step in this direction, according to experts, is to present the discussion of the GERD to various international capitals, including Washington, Moscow, Beijing, and Brussels, so that they can facilitate a special session of the UN Security Council. Similar messages should also be sent to the UN Secretary General, the current chair of the AU, President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to the chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki.  A message is to be sent to the AU Summit Bureau, warning of the dangers of the current situation and explaining why previous negotiations have failed. That way, a correct picture of the current state of affairs will be presented, showing what concessions can be made by each side in order, in the end, to maintain regional security and stability.

Cairo has recently put forward a new proposal: to approach the United States again and ask the new Biden administration in Washington to invite the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia for a round of confidential talks (similar to the Camp David talks) to discuss the latest version of the draft agreement.  A successful resolution of this crisis under Washington’s auspices would also provide an immediate boost to the new president’s domestic and international credibility. But as events show, the new US administration is in no hurry to intervene in such a delicate and dangerous conflict. This means that African countries will have to negotiate the GERD on their own.

Egypt, according to officials, has always preferred the path of negotiations and mutual concessions, but it is ready for other options if Ethiopia rejects the path of consensus and prefers to have its way. As Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told parliament on January 26, when a hundred million people face an existential threat, their options are very limited. No one can impose their will or a fait accompli on a country of such size and status as Egypt.

Paradoxically, the deterioration of Cairo’s relations with Ethiopia over GERD has led to the gradual establishment of favorable ties with Sudan.  Throughout their long history, Sudan and Egypt have never been very close in terms of political consultation and joint cooperation. It is true that the deposed former president of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, was a stumbling block to progress between the two countries. It was the regime of al-Bashir and his supreme mentor Hassan al-Turabi that dealt a powerful blow to Egypt, calling it a bad neighbor and disorienting the Sudanese public. With Al-Bashir’s removal from power in 2019, thanks to a popular and army-backed revolution, a new chapter opened in Egyptian-Sudanese relations.

In the trilateral negotiations, the Sudan and Egypt are united, although each has its own goals and objectives. Recently, Khartoum, following a unified position with Cairo, refused to participate in further talks until experts from the African Union, which has mediated several rounds of talks between the three sides, were given more opportunities to help bridge the differences between the parties.

Meanwhile, the lack of agreement on the distribution of the Nile’s water threatens a significant deterioration in relations, up to and including hostilities between Egypt and Ethiopia. Moreover, with climate change and the world’s migration crisis, the dispute over the Nile could become a precedent to guide other states in dealing with transboundary rivers. Clearly, if the parties fail to reach an agreement – and so far the chances are high — it will mean a new hot spot in northeast Africa. This, in turn, will lead to a huge number of new migrants rushing to Europe, and the cradle of civilization, the Nile, will be controlled, albeit partially, by terrorist groups, which even today are successfully taking every chance to strengthen their influence in North Africa.

It is only natural that there is no alternative to the GERD negotiations, even if they are very difficult and last several years. Nevertheless, these states — Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan — need to solve this difficult and complicated problem of equitable distribution of the waters of the Nile. There is no other option.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.