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Egypt, Ethiopia escalate war of words over stalled Nile dam talks

Ethiopia is accusing Egypt of deliberate hostility amid stalled negotiations on the controversial dam and tension between Addis Ababa and Khartoum.
A picture shows the Roseires Dam on the Blue Nile river at al-Damazin in southeastern Sudan, on November 27, 2020. - The Roseires hydropower complex is located 105 kilometres east of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. (Photo by Ebrahim HAMID / AFP) (Photo by EBRAHIM HAMID/AFP via Getty Images)

CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the Ethiopian chargé d'affaires to Cairo Dec. 30 to clarify statements by Dina Mufti, the spokesperson of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs who criticized the human rights situation in Egypt.

This is the first time in more than four years that Egypt has summoned the Ethiopian chargé d’affaires, a move observers believe may increase tensions amid the stalled negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the escalating border tensions between Sudan and Ethiopia. 

Mufti said in a Dec. 29 press conference, “Egypt has turned Ethiopia into a [danger zone] to escape its own internal problems, as there are tens of thousands of Islamists inside prisons in Egypt. … It is using such matters to avoid internal Egyptian issues and focus its attention on the GERD.”

In a strongly worded press statement Dec. 31, Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ahmed Hafez condemned Mufti’s statements as “a blatant transgression and outright unacceptable, in addition to a flagrant infringement of the commitments enshrined in the Constitutive Act of the African Union.”

He stressed, “Such an offense on the Egyptian state and allegations about its internal affairs is nothing but a continuation of the approach of using a hostile tone and fueling emotions as a cover for Ethiopia’s multiple failures, both domestically and externally. Meanwhile, Egypt has always favored refraining from mentioning in any way the internal situation and developments in Ethiopia.”

Hafez added, “The Ethiopian spokesperson should have rather paid attention to the deteriorating conditions in his country such as the many conflicts and humanitarian tragedies that have led to the killing of hundreds and the displacement of tens of thousands of innocent citizens, the latest of which are events taking place in the Tigray and Benishangul regions in full view of everyone, as well as the constant tensions and instability in the Oromia region. This is in addition to Ethiopia's continuous hostile practices against its regional milieu, including the recent military actions and escalating tension along the border with Sudan.”

The Ethiopian Embassy in Cairo did not respond to Al-Monitor's request for comment on the recent developments.

Back in 2012 and 2013, the two African countries first summoned their ambassadors over the GERD crisis. In 2016, Ethiopia summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Addis Ababa over comments on the Oromo minority group.

Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Mufti made a serious professional mistake by discussing the internal affairs of another country in violation of diplomatic norms and the African Union Charter, but it seems that the Ethiopian government has given him the green light to address this matter.”

Hassan added, “What is also strange is that Ethiopia is going through a civil war and refused to accept mediation by the AU to resolve the ongoing conflict in Tigray, although it is not a totally internal matter because it affects neighboring countries and caused thousands of people to flee to Sudan. Still, Egypt did not interfere.”

On Nov. 3, the Ethiopian federal government 's military operation against local forces in the Tigray region resulted in hundreds of deaths and the displacement of thousands to neighboring Sudan. Egypt has not commented on the ongoing conflict there.

Hassan wondered about the motives behind the Ethiopian statements, saying that they may aim to provoke tension and disturb the atmosphere in which the GERD negotiations are taking place, days before the start of a new round on Jan. 3.

He pointed out that Sudan's position has recently changed in the negotiations, becoming more inclined toward the Egyptian position after water receded in Sudan and water stations in Egypt went out of service following Ethiopia’s unilateral first-stage filling of the dam in July. Meanwhile, on Dec. 31, Sudan warned Ethiopia against proceeding with the second stage of the dam’s filling without reaching an agreement with Khartoum and Cairo. 

In a surprising move Nov. 22, Sudan boycotted the last round of the GERD negotiations, saying it would only return if AU experts are granted a greater role in facilitating negotiations between the three parties. It coincided with escalating tension between Sudan and Ethiopia after Khartoum accused militias backed by the Ethiopian military of carrying out an ambush against the Sudanese army. Egypt condemned the action and stressed its “full solidarity with brotherly Sudan and its right to protect its security and exercise its sovereignty over its territories.”

Egypt's expression of solidarity raised questions about Cairo’s position on the border dispute between Addis Ababa and Khartoum. However, Hassan noted that Egypt has nothing to do with the situation between Ethiopia and Sudan, and it has the right to condemn attacks by one African country on another.

Amani al-Tawil, a researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s position reflects an unprecedented escalation after years of tension between the two countries since 2015 due to the stalled GERD negotiations.

She added that the Ethiopian government has consistently made provocative statements about Egypt before the start of each round of negotiations, at some times to influence the talks and at others to distract from its internal crises, but Egypt has never responded.

“This time, Cairo broke its silence and took strong action,” Tawil noted.

Meanwhile, Riccardo Fabiani, a researcher on African affairs with the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor that a verbal escalation is likely to harm Egyptian-Ethiopian relations, at least in the short term, explaining, “The Egyptian and Ethiopian governments commenting on each other’s internal affairs is unprecedented.”

He added, “Perhaps Ethiopia is trying to divert attention from its internal problems by verbally attacking Egypt. But I also think that Ethiopia fears potential Egyptian interference in its internal issues and wants to make sure Cairo stays away from Tigray's and other problems.”

Fabiani pointed out, “This escalation will spill more tensions throughout the region, given the internal problems of Ethiopia and the tension on the borders with Sudan, in addition to harming the GERD negotiations.”

However, Hassan said the Egyptian statement will not affect the negotiations, saying that Egypt settled the situation with a strong official protest — by summoning the chargé d’affaires and issuing a strongly-worded statement — which Ethiopia heard loud and clear. This ends there, he noted, unless Ethiopia raises the issue politically again.

After being stalled for over a month, a new round of negotiations on the GERD began Jan. 3 in the presence of the foreign and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and during which AU experts presented a preliminary agreement document.

The parties agreed to hold meetings for one week between the three countries and the group of experts and observers, according to a statement by the Sudanese Ministry of Irrigation. The ministry also mentioned that Minister of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa Naledi Pandor requested that these meetings focus on identifying points of agreement and disagreement between the three countries, with the hope of concluding the negotiations by the end of January.

Still, the new round of talks collapsed after Sudan skipped a Jan. 4 meeting claiming its previous requests were denied. Egypt and Ethiopia, referred the matter to Pandor in her capacity as head of the AU, to look into the future steps to be taken during the scheduled Jan. 10 tripartite meeting. 

Hassan, for his part, does not see any breakthrough in the GERD negotiations in light of the conflict in Ethiopia as South Africa’s AU presidency nears its end.

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