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Time running out for Egypt, Ethiopia over Nile issue
April 19, 2018, 4:02 pm

Egypt was expected to host Sudan and Ethiopia in another round of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Cairo on April 20, but senior officials said that neither country responded to the Egyptian invitation. Egypt maintains it is keen to reach consensus on the issue.

The Nile River is an agricultural and economic lifeline for 100 million Egyptians [Photo: Laila Sherif Said]

Days after winning his second term in office, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi faces the most challenging crisis of his tenure –Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.

Last week, marathon 18-hour talks in Khartoum failed to secure an agreement, with no date set for a resumption of negotiations.

The dispute over the Renaissance Dam has been ongoing for years. It started in March 2011, amidst the turmoil in Egypt following the ousting of ex-president Mubarak, when the project was made public. Tension rose between the two countries in May 2013, when Ethiopia unilaterally started to divert a stretch of the Blue Nile for the purpose of building the dam.

In the same month, Ethiopia belittled Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi by only sending its Mining Minister to receive him at the airport during a formal state visit. During President Sisi’s first term, Egypt tried to mend relations with Ethiopia.

In March 2015, Egypt managed to secure a tripartite Declaration of Principles on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, which was signed by Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

In February 2018, however, the Ethiopian government formally handed over to Egypt and Sudan a unilateral plan for filling the dam reservoir.

Reports suggest that Ethiopia has named two phases of the filling process: The first is a filling phase to start generating power; the second is to fill the dam reservoir to its full capacity.

The reservoir of the GERD will have the capacity to store up to 74 billion cubic meters of water, which is 40% more than Egypt’s entire annual Nile water supply. Experts dispute whether the declaration of principles provides a legally binding framework for Ethiopia on the timing of the filling, compounding Egypt’s fears from Ethiopia’s unilateral actions.

Nonetheless, Egypt is in no mood to escalate disagreement. Before the Khartoum meeting, Egyptian President El-Sisi congratulated the new Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, and asserted his desire to maintain good relations with Ethiopia.

This charm offensive, however, was not enough to soften the Ethiopian stance. The new Ethiopian PM is clearly not keen to portray a softer image, while his country is facing the prospect of inter-ethnic civil war, and sees the dam as a tool for national unity.

In his first government meeting after being elected, President Sisi discussed new water policies, including 19 new desalination projects.

For years, Egypt was rightly criticized for abusing its Nile water. Such recklessness has changed recently.

A more constructive water policy has started to evolve, with planned desalination projects and local media adverts encouraging people to cut water consumption in view of the current shortage.

Are Egypt’s rational diplomatic efforts and its new water preservation policies enough to save the country from a looming water crisis?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Ethiopia simply has no incentive to compromise. Therefore, the Egyptian leadership needs to consider changing its approach:

First, enough with polite secrecy:

Egypt has understandably remained tight lipped on all the details of disagreement for fear of ruining its chances of securing a fair deal. Now that negotiations have failed, it is time for the Egyptian authorities to rally public support, inside and outside of Egypt, against Ethiopia’s passive aggression.

Second, engaging the international community:

A water dispute between two African countries may seem trivial in comparison to other global conflicts, and some countries will even be happy watching Egypt suffer from drought in the hope that it can speed up a collapse of the regime.

In light of this, it is the duty of the Egyptian leadership to garner support, isolate regional enemies, and ring the alarm bells in Western capitals of the implications of the deadlock with Ethiopia. International mediation and pressure are needed to convince the Ethiopian leadership to forge a fair deal with Egypt.

Third, the dreaded military option:

Ethiopia is galloping to finish the first filling phase of the dam because it knows that any Egyptian military strike will be almost impossible following that phase.

Hence, Egypt is snookered; it has only a few months to consider a military intervention of some sort. There are practical challenges that prevent the country from launching air strikes against the Ethiopian Dam, but it is still possible, particularly with regional support from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Ethiopia’s rival, Eritrea.

The Egyptian president has rightly asserted that Egypt does not want war with its African neighbors. But reducing Egypt’s share of Nile water is simply an act of aggression that cannot be ignored.

The desire to secure Egypt’s water supply is not new. Khedive Ismail tried to invade Ethiopia twice – in 1875 and 1876 – but the Egyptian troops were badly defeated. Underestimating the terrain and lack of appreciation among soldiers of the purpose behind the war were the main reasons behind the defeat.

It has become increasingly clear that Ethiopia is playing for time, creating facts on the ground that will be hard to reverse. Egypt is neither a warmonger nor a smug neighbour that once tried to invade others.

For more than four years Egypt negotiated in good faith, but still failed to secure a deal. How long can Egypt afford to wait? Perhaps military pressure is needed to ensure political success. Waiting for Egypt to struggle with drought is simply not an option.

A version of this article was previously published in Arabic and English on the Al Hurra website

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.