Egypt and Ethiopia between deadlock and breakthrough over Nile dam

Upon his return from Cairo on January 19, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that he rejected Egypt’s proposal to seek the mediation of the World Bank in the dispute over the Renaissance Dam, which is expected to affect Egypt’s share of Nile Water. Upon finishing a meeting in Addis Ababa with Desalegn and Sudanese Present Omar al-Bashir on January 29, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi told reporters who asked whether the crisis was resolved that “there is no crisis” and none of the countries involved will be harmed.

On the same day, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that all pending technical issues will be finalized within one month, still giving no details. Unlike the first statement, which gives the impression that the impasse stands and negotiations are still failing, the second implies a breakthrough. However, with no obvious change in the few days that separated the two statements and no official announcements of a resolution, the situation remains blurred and so is the fate of Egypt’s one and only lifeline.

Ambassador and former deputy foreign minister Ahmed Abul Kheir said that despite how reassuring the president’s statement was, it still does not mean the crisis is resolved. “I don’t trust Ethiopia especially following the rejection of World Bank mediation,” he said. “The World Bank would have been extremely helpful in disputed technical issues and we are worried that any other entity might be swayed by Ethiopia.”

Abul Kheir added that Egypt should have come out of the meeting with more tangible results. “Obviously, Egypt had to do with good will gestures and promises rather than concrete agreements since unfortunately Ethiopia is in a stronger position and we need to be patient.” He, however, doubted that anything can be resolved within one month as the foreign minister said since the two countries have been negotiating for the past three years and are still unable to reach a middle ground. “This is, of course, unless Ethiopia offers huge concessions, which is extremely unlikely.”

Expert in African affairs Amani al-Tawil argued that the results of the negotiations in Cairo and Addis Ababa are not announced because both parties opted for discretion so that matters would not be blown out of proportion by the media, which was especially the case in Egypt where an anti-Ethiopian discourse prevailed in most media outlets.

“We also need to take into consideration that the Egyptian regime is cautious not to adopt a confrontational stance and to solve the issue through diplomacy and good will.” Tawil refuted claims that the ambiguity of the situation is attributed to the regime’s inability to manage negotiations.

“Such claims overlook the fact that the current regime inherited the problem. This is a result of years of negligence of African affairs under Mubarak as well as strained relations with African countries when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power,” she explained. Tawil, however, admitted that the two sides have not reached any agreement on the main pending issues. “For example, there is obviously no progress on the issue of filling the dam reservoir,” she said, in reference to both the timing and the speed of the filling, a major bone of contention between the two countries.

For professor of political science Tarek Fahmy, the optimistic tone with which the president spoke following his meeting with Desalegn and Bashir is due to Egypt’s ability to gain more ground in the negotiations. “Egypt scored a number of diplomatic victories in this meeting. First, Ethiopia did not reject the principle of mediation, so an international organization other than the World Bank can be asked to do this job,” he said.

“Second, the technical committee which stopped following an earlier deadlock in negotiations will now resume its work.” Ethiopia and Sudan, Fahmy added, also pledged not to make any agreements regarding the filling of the reservoir without involving Egypt. “All these achievements imply that Egypt did not offer any concessions and adhered to its position as far as its historic rights to Nile water are concerned.”

According to Ethiopian journalist Anwar Ibrahim, one of the reasons why negotiations are not moving forward is Egypt’s insistence on more demands in every round. “This includes the request for the mediation of the World Bank, which Ethiopia rejected because it believes that the two countries can resolve the issue without intervention,” he said.

“Add to this Egypt’s demand to know the amount of water to fill the reservoirs and the speed with which the water will be pumped and its request that Ethiopia constructs gates at the entrance to the dam in addition to proposals of joint administration of the dam.” Ibrahim added that he also heard reports that Egypt wanted to exclude Sudan from the negotiations. Ibrahim said that Egypt keeps adding demands despite reassurances from the Ethiopian side that its share of Nile water will not be harmed. “The Egyptian administration gives the impression that it is always trying to buy more time.”

Sudanese journalist Khaled al-Tijani Nour notes that strained Egyptian-Sudanese relations complicate the issue even more. “Both Egypt and Sudan are on the weak side since they are the downstream countries to be harmed by the construction of the dam, while Ethiopia calls the shots and that is exactly why it does not need to offer any concessions whatsoever,” he wrote.

“So, both Egypt and Sudan will eventually have to bow.” The problem, Nour explained, is that relations between the two countries have been souring lately, which is in Ethiopia’s best interest. “Ethiopia is aware that Egypt and Sudan will not unite against it so while they are both busy fighting, it is going ahead with its plans.”

Nour added that the technical issues over which Egypt and Ethiopia disagree are the least important. “This is not about water. This is about power. The Nile is just a strategic tool to determine who has leverage in the region and the problem needs to be dealt with from this perspective.”

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Sonia Farid

I teach for a living... write for a life!

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