Commentary: Egypt’s gunboat diplomacy and Ethiopia’s win-win approach on GERD negotiation

Mahemud Tekuya (@MTekuya) and Alekaw D. Assefa, For Addis Standard

Addis Abeba, April 01/2020 – Nine years have passed since Ethiopia announced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The GERD – a big hydroelectric dam on one of the River Nile’s main tributaries, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia – is designed to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Its reservoirs will hold 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) of waters, more than the amount that flows to Egypt. Filling this immense reservoir will diminish the flow of the Nile.

Although studies show that Egypt has Egypt has several huge aquifers, including the Nubian Sandstone, which contains “more water than the Nile River discharges in 500 years” and sea waters convenient to desalination plants, it has always claimed  dependency upon the Nile water. As such, the rate at which the giant reservoir would be filled has long generated tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia. Ethiopia needs to fill the reservoir within seven years while Egypt demanded the reservoirs be filled in a long period, lasting about 20 years.

Since November 2019, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, another state with a stake in the Blue Nile,  have held dozens of negotiations ─ on the filling and operation of the GERD ─ which were supported and attended by the U.S. and the World Bank (WB) as observers.

In the last round of negotiations, the U.S. bypass its observer status and crafted an agreement that adversely affects Ethiopia’s national interest.  Ethiopia rejected the draft agreement and pulled out from the last meeting held in Washington, DC.

The U.S. Treasury Department, in its yet another surprising statement, requested Ethiopia to sign the agreement, and caution it not to start testing and filling the dam without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.

Ethiopia, expressing its disappointment to the statement, decided to fill the dam unilaterally. Egypt, on the other hand, signed the deal brokered by the U.S. and vowed to protect its interest over the Nile “by all available means.”

In several stages of the negotiations, Egypt, disguising its real intention in the filling and operation of the GERD, has tried to force Ethiopia to recognize the so-called “historic rights” provided in the 1959 treaty. The 1959 treaty is a bilateral accord between Egypt and Sudan which allocated 55.5 BCM to Egypt, 18.5 BCM to Sudan and left the remaining 10 BCM for evaporation. The treaty did not recognize the rights of any other country, including even Ethiopia, whose territory contributes 85 percent of the Nile waters that flow to Egypt.

Indeed, Egypt has been Peter Pan in the GERD talks. Its approach of the compromise process is akin to telling Ethiopia, “toss the coin if it is head, Egypt wins and if it is tail Ethiopia loses” which departs from the known “win-win” solution of negotiation.

In the international negotiation “win-win” approach is not a fringe operation. Winner takes all or zero-sum game tradition of negotiation has long since withered. This sort of negotiation will not work on Addis Abeba because as Ethiopian Ambassador to the U.S., Fitsum Arega, reiterates, “Ethiopia will never sign on an agreement that will surrender its right to use the Nile River.”

Egypt’s Gunboat Diplomacy

The circumstance following the GERD talks reminds President Trump’s tweet on Iran which goes on “Iran never won a war, but never lost a negotiation.” Like Iran, Egypt never won a war against Ethiopia, but unlike Iran, it is now on the verge of losing the negotiation over the GERD.

In the past, Egypt tried to invade Ethiopia and suffered successive defeats by Ethiopia. No theory can defy this fact. But Egypt seems to defy history and is now beating the drum of war. Surprisingly, War rhetoric is not new for Egypt. Several Egyptian officials have long declared war on Ethiopia in their attempt to safeguard Egypt’s hegemonic status in the Nile Basin.

Early on, Anwar El Sadat signaled that Egypt was ready to go to war to avert “any action that would endanger the water of [the] Blue Nile.” In 1989, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, then Egyptian Minister of State of Foreign Affairs, also stated that “…the next war in our region will be over the waters of the Nile, not politics.” Hosni Mubarak, former Egyptian President threatened to “bomb Ethiopia” if it built any dam on the Blue Nile. More recently, Morsi, who took power following President Mubarek, emotionally revealed that Egypt would trade a drop of blood for every drop of its Nile water.

Egypt’s coercive diplomacy and warmongering posture against Ethiopia persists and shows no sign of entering to win-win process after the downfall of Morsi. The incumbent Egyptian President Al Sisi in 2017 sternly warned Ethiopia not to “touch Egypt’s share of water” and asked if Addis Abeba is “going to recruit a million people or build the dam?”

 Similarly, this belligerence and bullying has been expressed by Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry who warned that “Ethiopia cannot in any way start filling the reservoir without an agreement,” and that “Egypt will use all available means to defend the interest of its people”

Egypt, well aware of the fact that the war rhetoric is not enough, has long tried to have proxy near and in Ethiopia that will help achieve its lofty goals of destabilizing Addis Abeba and thereby hinder the realization of GERD.

Egypt’s Proxy War in the Horn of Africa

In today’s world, the use of force is outlawed by the international community. Hence, Egypt is following the less explicit coercive tactics suggested by Werner Munzinger that “Ethiopia. . . is a danger for Egypt. Egypt must…. retain it in anarchy and misery.” As of the writing of this paper, it is frequently argued by scholars and politicians alike that Egypt engages in covert and proxy operations to divert the attention of Ethiopia and devote its limited resources towards tackling internal turmoil.

Having proxy in Horn Africa is not a holy grail as there are many breeding grounds for the proxy to thrive and flourish`. For long, Egypt has exerted relentless effort to wage a proxy war against Ethiopia, exploiting Ethiopia’s vulnerable situation and the Horn of Africa’s restive environment. For instance, according to a New York Times report in 1978, Egypt generously trained the Somalia National Army, unleashed unreserved funding to the separatist Western Somali Liberation Front (WSLF) and supported the Somalia President Siad Barre’s invasion to Ethiopia. The invasion resulted in huge human and material catastrophe even though eventually Ethiopia defeated Siad Barre.

The Eritrean Liberation Front and Tigray People Liberation Front (TPLF), a party dominated the former ruling party ─Ethiopia People Revolutionary Democratic Front─ until Abiy Ahmed was sworn in as Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister in 2018, were the huge beneficiary of Egypt’s generous financial and arms support during their struggle against the Derg, the military junta that had ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991.

Other domestic former guerrilla fighters, including Ginbot 7 (500.000 USD) and Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), were also the recipient of financial supports from Egypt.

Ethiopia’s Response

Ethiopia dearly holds diplomatic and legal channels to solve disputes. Ethiopia is synonymous with diplomatically seeking solutions, never resorts to military showdown unless to repel attacks. Ethiopia has long shown keen interest to find a win-win solution to the Nile dispute.

Depicting the existence of a win-win solution to the Nile problem, the late Ethiopian P.M Meles Zenawi once stated that, “the utilization of the Nile water is not a zero-sum game. It does not mean [that] if the upper riparian countries benefit, Egypt and Sudan should lose. It doesn’t mean that if Egypt and Sudan benefit, the upper riparian countries should lose.”

Since the beginning of the GERD project, Ethiopia has been taking various measures to accommodate the interest of the downstream countries. Looking at these measures, in retrospect, one can understand how Ethiopia is committed to finding amicable and a win-win solution to the GERD dispute.

Ethiopia conducted transboundary impact studies; initiated a tripartite committee consisting of experts from the three countries, and established an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) comprising ten members, six from the three countries (two from each) and four international experts. Ethiopia also submitted all design and study documents (153 documents) of the GERD to the IPoE.

In June 2013, after a rigorous review of the documents and several site visits, the IPoE release its final report. The report, reaffirming the benefits of the GERD to the three countries, confirmed that the design and construction process of the dam is in line with international standards. The IPoE also recommended the three countries to conduct two studies: one on hydrological modeling and the other on the impact of GERD on Sudan and Egypt. 

While international law allows Ethiopia to conduct transboundary impact studies by itself and report the finding to Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia agreed to undertake joint studies and established Tripartite National Committee (TNC) as a mechanism to conduct the two studies. 

Later, the TNC decided international consultants would carry out the studies, and hired two French firms, BRLi Group and Artelia to carry out the studies. However, when the studies started, Egypt insisted that the baseline data to determine the impact should be its current uses of the Nile waters and even reportedly suggested the exclusion of Sudan from the GERD negotiations.

Ethiopia also agreed to establish a new National Independent Scientific Research Group (NISRG) to develop scenarios for the first filling and annual operation of the dam. However, instead of refining and agreeing on the work of NISRG, Egypt submitted outrageous proposals in August 2019 and internationalized the GERD issue, with the U.S. and World Bank involved in the negotiation as observers.

Egypt, using the U.S. and the World Bank, wanted to impose the 1959 unjust treaty on Ethiopia. No doubt that coming to the U.S. was historic wrong in Ethiopia’s part, but the fact that it agreed to the process shows the extent to which Addis Abeba is going to accommodate the interest of Egypt and Sudan.

Sadly, all these measures did not satisfy Egypt’s hegemonically insatiable interest and couldn’t narrow the diplomatic chasm Egypt created. Now the talks are in a stalemate, and diplomatic spats are growing between Ethiopia and Egypt. It seems that the ship, in the GERD talks, is sailing in uncharted waters. Yet, the international community as a large crew is clueless, and according to David Shinn, a former U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, the U.S. as a captain of the ship is “putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”

Moving forward, Ethiopia should stop the politics of appeasement and start asserting itself in the GERD talks. It should walk away from the U.S. and World Bank brokered negotiations and bring the GERD back to Africa. The three countries should resolve the GERD dispute by themselves. But, if mediation is necessary, it should be initiated in the spirit of “African Solutions for African Problems.” 

 Mediation should be facilitated by neutral parties. As external parties such as the U.S. and the World Bank have been biased towards Egypt because of its geopolitical advantages, organs like the African Union and Nile Basin Initiative should be more involved in finding amicable solutions to the GERD dispute.  AS

Editor’s Note: Mahemud is a former Dire Dawa University lecturer. He is a Ph.D./JSD candidate in international legal studies at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. He does his dissertation on transboundary water resource issues under the supervision of Professor Stephen C. McCaffrey.He can be reached at:[

Alekaw D. Assefa (LL.B, LL.M, EMLE, Lecturer Haramaya University, College of Law, Attorney and Consultant at Law in all Federal Courts, Former Acting Dean and Associate Dean in Dire Dawa University, School of Law). He can be reached at

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