Recent developments in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) conundrum amply demonstrate that the Egyptian political leadership has never lost sight of this crucial issue and that it is one of the top priorities of its foreign policy. While the talks ceased roughly two years ago, Egypt was determined throughout this time to find the optimal conditions to bring the issue to the fore at the regional and international levels and to find its way to a peaceful solution.
Any unbiased observer of the developments of this issue since it first arose in 2011 and up until this point cannot help but state objectively that the Egyptian state has been keen from the start that negotiations be the primary route to resolving the crisis and that Egypt’s message to the world was that the issues raised at the African continent level needed to be resolved politically and that the continent did not actually need any more problems, but rather needed economic growth.
Egypt therefore put forth the fundamental tenet for resolving the issue: that the Nile River serve as a model for cooperation among the countries of the Nile Basin without endangering any of these countries’ interests or water rights. In order to manage and operate the dam in a way that serves the interests of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, Egypt has attempted—and continues to attempt—to reach a legal, equitable, and binding agreement.
Egypt moved seriously on the political track, participated in a variety of tripartite and quadripartite negotiations and others for over a decade, accepted African mediation, dealt openly with US mediation, and initialed an agreement drafted by the US regarding rules for filling and operating towards resolution of this crisis in Washington in February 2020. Ethiopia, however, did not attend the signing ceremony despite taking part in all of the negotiations that led up to this agreement. After the negotiations came to a stalemate, Egypt was forced to turn to the Security Council (SC) in order for the SC to take on its role in maintaining global peace and security.
And while Egypt’s political leadership has been making great strides toward a political resolution, it has consistently emphasized that it will not tolerate Egypt going thirsty, and that water security is an existential issue. Consequently, Egypt was eager to partake in the negotiation process in pursuit of fair solutions rather than to sanctify the fait accompli. Ethiopia’s policy during these years was marked by intransigence; the country began filling operations before reaching an agreement with the two downstream countries and took unilateral measures that ran counter to international law.
On the other hand, it is impossible to discuss the GERD issue without mentioning its fundamental legal reference, which is the Declaration of Principles signed in Khartoum in March 2015, which is a legally binding agreement for the three signatory countries, namely Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and includes ten main principles, such as cooperation, development, regional integration and sustainability, not causing significant damage, equitable and reasonable utilization, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Unfortunately, Ethiopia did not follow through on this commitment. Despite this, Egypt concentrated on political action and urged Ethiopia to come to a legally binding agreement, in addition to calling on the international community to step in to maintain the region’s security and stability.
Despite Ethiopia’s intransigence, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi used to meet with the prime minister of Ethiopia in a variety of African and international fora, emphasizing to him the significance of fostering bilateral ties between the two countries and trying to persuade Ethiopia both directly and indirectly to demonstrate the necessary flexibility to advance the political track.
Sudan’s Neighboring Countries Summit, which was held in Cairo on 13 July and included Ethiopia, was an opportunity for Al-Sisi and the Ethiopian Prime Minister to hold a bilateral meeting, which resulted in the issuance of a joint statement that included the following:
- Launching urgent negotiations to complete the three nations’ agreement to fill and operate GERD
- Pledging to use all reasonable endeavors to complete this agreement within four months
- Ethiopia’s promise to avoid hurting Egypt and Sudan during the negotiation period and when the dam is filled in 2023 and 2024 in order to meet the two countries’ water needs.
In addition, even though the content of this joint statement is very similar to the Declaration of Principles signed in 2015, it is important to note that Ethiopia seemed keen to create a favorable environment before the resumption of negotiations by doing the following:
- The Ethiopian Prime Minister’s declaration on 6 July in front of the Ethiopian Parliament that the current year’s filling process would proceed gradually, in contrast to previous years, with his country’s commitment to not harm the two downstream countries. He also stated that his government is currently thinking about developing a joint future strategic plan that will be presented to Egypt and Sudan, serving the interests of the three countries.
- The announcement by Abiy Ahmed’s office on 15 July that Ethiopia does not intend to harm the Nile Basin countries, that it will work to establish a true partnership in which everyone benefits, and that Nile water storage will be a guarantee for all in the upcoming difficult drought seasons.
In short, if all signs point to a new phase that could lead to reaching a political solution to the GERD conundrum, the onus of responsibility remains primarily on Ethiopia, which must turn over a new leaf and demonstrate the necessary flexibility in the negotiations. The following four months should be dedicated to serious negotiations that establish long-term, true cooperation for the benefit of all parties, making the Nile River the ideal African example for implementing the idea of peaceful coexistence and shared interests.
This article was originally published in Arabic in Al-Ahram on 17 July 2023.