By Zelalem Demissie
As Ethiopia prepares for the fourth round of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) filling, Egypt resumes diplomatic wrangling.
In what appears to be a pattern, Egypt once again escalates its diplomatic rhetoric concerning the GERD by directly threatening Ethiopia, a riparian and major contributor to the Nile.
There is a pattern in the Egyptian diplomatic establishment’s choice of timing for escalating the GERD rhetoric and diplomatic row: the month of March. Egypt, through its foreign minister, threatened serious actions if its Nile water share was threatened.
Regardless, Ethiopia vows to continue to fill and operate the GERD in accordance with the principle of “equitable” and “reasonable” utilization of the river.
Pattern of Threats
On March 9, 2023, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told local media that “all options are open, all alternatives remain available, and Egypt has its capabilities and its foreign relations.”
While it remains unclear whether the FM was referring to military action or other coercive diplomacy, Ethiopia is well aware that the comment constitutes a ‘flagrant threat’ that violates the United Nations Charter and the African Union’s Constitutive Act.
Accusing Ethiopia of intransigence, stalling the negotiations and taking unilateral measures, Shoukry swanked on the endless capabilities of the Egyptian people and added, “Egypt takes disciplined stances towards Ethiopian intransigence.”
Ethiopia’s response, on the other hand, was assertive and aimed at adhering to international principles. The country called for the international community to take note and reminded Egypt that the comment made by its foreign minister clearly violates the agreement on the Declaration of Principles on the GERD signed between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan.
A statement from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), released on March 16, 2023, said, “Egypt must cease its callous and unlawful pronouncements.”
Although Shoukry’s “all options are open” comment triggered Ethiopia’s serious response, it was far from being the only threat made. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued a “warning” during his meeting with the Prime Minister of Denmark on February 14, 2023.
El-Sisi said Ethiopia’s mega dam construction “must not impact the Egyptian citizen in any way.” He insisted on the need to reach a binding legal agreement regarding the filling and operation.
In March 2021, El-Sisi issued a “stark warning’ directed at Ethiopia, saying “no one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, and whoever wants to try it, let him try.”
Furthermore, on April 7 of the same year, he made yet another threat, this time directed to the people of Ethiopia: he warned, “I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia: let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open.” It is evident that threats have become the hallmark of Egyptian GERD diplomacy.
The Arab League’s Position
In an apparent move to step up supposed diplomatic leverage on Ethiopia, Shoukry called, on March 8, 2023, for Arab nations to pressure Ethiopia to halt its “unilateral practices” over the GERD.
Following that, on March 9, the Arab League came up with its “unanimously adopted” resolution that makes the issue of GERD a permanent topic on the Arab League Council agenda.
Shoukry said, “The league’s decision manifests a joint Arab vision with regards to Ethiopia and the GERD.” The intended message apparently is that Ethiopia should consider its moves because a unilateral action that threatens the water share of Egypt and Sudan is an action on all sides.
As Shoukry put it, the league’s decision protects the rights of 140 million Arab citizens in Egypt and Sudan. And he added, “The issue of the dam is one of Arab national security.”
Despite Egypt’s efforts to make the issue of GERD and its treatment and operations “an Arab” issue, Ethiopia remains committed to reminding Egypt and the league that the solutions to the GERD dispute are only from within Africa.
In this regard, the statement from MoFA reads, “The African Union (AU) has been facilitating the trilateral negotiations among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to resolve the remaining outstanding issues guided by the maxim “African Solution to African Problems.”
By the same token, MoFA criticized the Arab League for mischaracterizing the negotiations but also for being complacent about Egypt’s ambition to maintain a colonial era-based “historic water rights claim.”
This was not the first time Egypt attempted to rally the Arab world behind its cause, however.
In June 2022, Arab League General Secretary Ahmed Aboul Gheit criticized the UN Security Council for not taking action against Ethiopia. He stated that “Ethiopia has decided to strangle the downstream countries, Egypt, and Sudan.”
On July 6, 2021, the league submitted a letter to the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly calling for intervention in the matter of GERD.
The league has always been outspoken about its positions on GERD. Previously, Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said on record that “there is a united Arab position.”
In the same manner, in 2020, the league adopted a resolution on the GERD that supports Egypt’s position, much to the dismay of Ethiopia. Nonetheless, what real effect these “unified positions” of the Arab League will have on the near-completed dam is yet to be seen.
According to a recent report, the GERD has now reached 90% completion overall. This was by the office of national coordination for the construction of the GERD during an occasion to mark 12 years since its foundation stone was laid.
Egypt’s vision of the African Union
Egypt’s efforts to internationalize the GERD matter and to paint an insincere image of Ethiopia’s attempt to fairly and equitably utilize the Nile water are not new. According to Salih Omer, a journalist covering African Union affairs, Africans consider Egypt’s reliance on the mediation capabilities of outside powers and institutions to be a belittling of the status of African leaders, their institutions, and their abilities.
In an article published on August 10, 2022, by Ahram Online, it reads, “Egypt will continue its diplomatic and media campaigns to expose the faulty Ethiopian stance to the international public opinion and the influential countries that share good relations with Ethiopia, including the US, Western European countries, Russia, and China.”
Egypt frequently sought out the European Union, the United States, and the United Nations to mediate talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and itself on GERD. This is on top of continuously lobbying against Ethiopia in exchange for coercing Ethiopia into signing a binding agreement.
This shows that Salih Omer said, “Cairo has always been inconsistent with the vision of the AU.”
This inconsistency was evident when, only seven months after declaring the negotiation under the auspices of the AU “faltered”, Egypt supported Sudan’s suggestion to have a quartet mediation committee composed of the United Nations, the European Union, the US, and the AU mediate between the three African countries over the filling and operation of the GERD, Which Ethiopia rejected.
Recent reports from the World Bank show less than half the population of Ethiopia has access to electricity. Upon completion and operationalization, it is believed GERD will lift tens of millions of Ethiopians out of abject poverty by virtue of their access to electricity.
GERD will generate more than 5100 MW of electricity, which is more than Ethiopia currently needs.
Ethiopia plans to export power to neighboring nations, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, Sudan, and South Sudan, thereby boosting regional economic integration.
In August 2022, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced the successful completion of the third GERD filling. And during the occasion, he emphasized the three countries’ shared ownership of this gift. He then added, “Abbay (the Blue Nile) is our gift, and it is Ethiopia’s responsibility to use it.”
Ethiopia first began generating electricity from the mega-dam in February. Currently, two of the 13 turbines with the capacity to generate 750 megawatts are operational.
Regardless, Egypt accuses Ethiopia of trying to establish a fait accompli by carrying out the GERD fillings without signing a binding agreement filling and operating of the GERD.
For Ethiopia, Egypt’s outdated and unrealistic ambitions to monopolize the river are causing the delay in GERD negotiations.
Meanwhile, Gibril Ibrahim, the Sudanese Finance Minister, told the Ethiopian News Agency on February 23, 2023, that the revenue to be generated from the GERD will be an engine of development for the entire region.
Conscious of the need to reach a fair and win-win solution, the statement from the Ethiopian MoFA suggested that “if approached in good faith and with respect for principles of international law, amicable solutions between the three countries are within reach in the negotiations under the auspices of the African Union.”