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Analysis: Egypt vacates the seat at GERD negotiations, what is next?

The Egyptian negotiators during the recent third round talks in Cairo (Photo: Sileshi Bekele/X)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa &
Million Beyene @MillionBeyene

Addis Abeba – On 13 July 2023, a decade long negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt was rebooted when Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian president Abdel Fatah el-Sisi met face to face in Cairo, and consented to finalize the agreement on the first filing and annual operation of the GERD within four months.

However, four rounds of talks, two in Cairo and two in Addis Abeba, since the meeting, did not bring the anticipated resolution. Instead, the impasse took a turn for worse with Egypt announcing its withdrawal from the GERD negotiations accusing Ethiopia of “persistent refusal to accept any of the technical or legal compromise solutions that would safeguard the interests of all three countries.”

Ethiopia to the contrary said the trilateral talks failed as a result of Egypt “maintaining colonial era mentality” and “erecting roadblocks against efforts toward convergence.” A statement from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the negotiations were meant to enhance confidence and build trust among the three countries, not to foreclose Ethiopia’s rights on the utilization of the waters of the Nile.

While Ethiopia reiterates a right to “utilize its water resources to meet the needs of the present and future generations based on the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization,” Egypt also echoed that “it reserves a right, in accordance with international charters and accords, to defend its water and national security in case of any harm” adding that it will now closely monitor the filling and operation of the GERD.

The Nile’s contribution constitutes a substantial 70% of Ethiopia’s surface water, a proportion untenable for any nation to relinquish without jeopardizing its water resources on an unprecedented scale.”

Tirusew Assefa, Hydrologist

Experts were skeptical from the get go about the likelihood of arriving at a mutually acceptable agreement within the stipulated four-month period. Tirusew Assefa (PhD), a hydrology expert and a distinguished professor at the University of South Florida, told Addis Standard that an agreement on GERD has remained largely unachievable due to Egypt’s unwavering insistence on upholding the existing status quo regarding the utilization of Nile water.

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During the four rounds of talks “it seems that there has been minimal alteration in the respective positions [of Ethiopia and Egypt] compared to the prior state of affairs,” he commented.

Tirusew pointed out that “the prevailing circumstance involves the consumptive utilization of water exclusively by two downstream nations, namely Egypt and Sudan. Other nations are restricted to hydropower applications, precluding both irrigation and potable water access. Ethiopia vehemently rejects this premise, given its role as the source of 86% of the entire Nile flow, deeming it imperative to harness Nile water to address the nutritional needs of its populace. The Nile’s contribution constitutes a substantial 70% of Ethiopia’s surface water, a proportion untenable for any nation to relinquish without jeopardizing its water resources on an unprecedented scale.”

Concurring with Tirusew, Gashaw Ayferam, a hydro-politics expert and a doctoral candidate in Political Science and International Relations at Addis Ababa University said the ongoing deliberations concerning the GERD are unlikely to yield novel outcomes. 

“This is attributed to the geopolitical instrumentalization and securitization of the dam project, compounded by its framing from Egypt’s vantage point as an existential menace. Such characterization as an existential threat constrains the prospects for flexibility in the negotiation process,” he argues.

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He added that “for a negotiated resolution to be reached, it necessitates a shift towards mainstream political considerations or low politics, emphasizing economic cooperation rather than entrenching securitization or high politics. Without such a pivot, the prospects for a mutually beneficial solution may remain elusive.”

Gashaw Ayferam said “during the fourth round of negotiations, no substantial progress was achieved, and previous rounds maintained the status quo in terms of each country’s entrenched stance.

Notably, the Egyptian presidential election occurred during these negotiations, rendering any expectation of Egypt altering its position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam politically implausible due to the influence of domestic political considerations.”

The narrative underlying water allocation 

Both experts agree that at the heart of the divergence between the two nations lies differing perspectives on drought management strategies and the release of water.

According to Tirusew, “Egypt aims to establish a “binding agreement” for the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), intending to enforce a water-sharing mechanism that Ethiopia opposes. This proposed agreement lacks international precedent. The equitable sharing of water and addressing drought concerns should be a collective responsibility across all states in the Nile basin, rather than placing the sole burden on Ethiopia.” 

Egypt’s identity is deeply rooted in the Nile, elevating the river’s significance to a pivotal component of Egypt’s national security.”

Gashaw Ayferam, hydro-politics expert

For Gashaw, the Egyptian negotiating team altered its rhetoric, while preserving the fundamental concept rooted in the 1958 colonial agreement, focusing on water allocation. Subsequently, they incorporated elements related to drought management and water release that Ethiopia cannot accept.

He added that Egypt and Sudan, despite securing a controlled water flow from the GERD, emphasize the importance of sedimentation, viewing it as vital for economic security and sustaining agricultural production. The fear is that without adequate sedimentation, agricultural yields will progressively decline in Sudan and Egypt. While Ethiopia argues that GERD will mitigate flood disasters, Egypt and Sudan advocate for increased floods to support sedimentation.

Apart from the technical divergence, Gashaw elucidates that underlying Egypt’s unwavering insistence to the status quo is a historical, spiritual and cultural narrative among Egyptians that attaches extended significance to the Nile, making it difficult for the nation to relinquish total control over the river, .

“The significance of the Nile for the Egyptians extends beyond its utilitarian value, encompassing a mythic and spiritual dimension anchored in their historical and cultural narratives. The annual Nile Flood Day in August serves as a symbolic expression of gratitude to their deities for the floods and sedimentation that sustain the land. Additionally, the Nile has been integral to their calendar, shaping ancient Egyptian timekeeping. In contemporary contexts, the celebration of the Wafaa El-Nil festival reflects a global awareness campaign, drawing international attention to the imperative of preserving the Nile and its surrounding environment during their tourism day, so this narrative affects a negotiated settlement,” Gashaw said.

“Contemporary Egypt is intricately woven around the Nile, with the spiritual essence of the state tightly interwoven with the river. Myths, beliefs, and deities are profoundly connected to the Nile River. In the post-revolutionary era, Egypt’s identity is deeply rooted in the Nile, elevating the river’s significance to a pivotal component of Egypt’s national security,” Gashaw concurred.

What is Next?

In an Op-ed published on Addis Standard in December 2023, Dejen Messele, lecturer and PhD Candidate in Law, argued that Egypt’s withdrawal from the GERD negotiations has been long overdue.

“Leaving the GERD to Ethiopia was the only way that could get rid of the stumbling block that stood in the inter-riparian states’ peaceful lives.  Hoping that she may not have an interest to come back to the GERD, Egypt shall be praised for choosing a rightful path by taking the GERD negotiations backward.  Only halting (further) GERD negotiations and undoing the results (including the DOP) ensued in the process can save the reproduction of unjust, inequitable, and detrimental (ab)uses of the Abay waters to Ethiopia. In this endeavor, Egypt’s recent decision to vacate the negotiation is bold as it can stop the negotiating states from marching forward but in harm’s way,” he wrote.

According to Dejen, there is no guaranteed right, as Egypt claims, in international charters of any sort that establish and protect Egypt’s water right over a certain river. Nor does there be an internationally recognized water right that can constitute Egypt’s national security.

The Nile Basin Initiative’s cooperative framework presents a promising avenue, offering a considerable likelihood of establishing a comprehensive legal regime for Nile water.”

Gashaw Ayferam, hydro-politics expert

Following the signing of a MoU between Ethiopia and Somaliland granting Ethiopia a naval base on the red sea and diversified seaport options in return for international recognition for Somaliland, Egypt expressed solidarity with Somalia which rejected the deal considering it a breach of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. Experts say Egypt could use such incidents to cultivate strategic partnerships with countries in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere to pressure Ethiopia.

Gashaw stated that by leveraging the perceived shortcomings of the AU-led unsuccessful negotiations, Egypt intends to involve third-party entities in the GERD negotiations. This may include extending invitations to entities such as the United Nations, BRICS, or introducing the GERD matter to the Arab League for further consideration and engagement. Once more, they aim to internationalize the complexities surrounding the GERD.

“Egypt is facing an economic problem domestically and coupled with a complex political agenda involving Hamas and Israel. It is conceivable that they could leverage the ongoing political tensions between Israel and Hamas to intertwine their concerns regarding the GERD to negotiate favorable outcomes. This strategic maneuver bears resemblance to previous instances where Egypt skillfully incorporated Nile water issues into the broader Middle East political landscape following the Camp David agreement. 

Egypt strategically aligns the Nile issue with major international powers, involving various states in the Nile agenda. This alignment sometimes extends to the Middle East or Indo-Pacific issues depending on the prevailing power dynamics. The objective is to involve multiple actors in GERD issues, leading to the securitization of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam development project. Subsequently, they propagate a discourse portraying Ethiopia as intransigent, suggesting that Ethiopia prefers not to resolve the GERD issue through diplomatic negotiations.

As Ethiopia advocates for a comprehensive water legal framework that encompasses all riparian states, the Nile Basin Initiative’s cooperative framework presents a promising avenue, offering a considerable likelihood of establishing a comprehensive legal regime for Nile water, Gashaw concludes. AS

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