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Is latest Ethiopian proposal on Nile dam talks a play for time?

Ethiopia has called for a meeting of the African Union in a bid to break the stalemate in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam with Cairo and Khartoum, something that is viewed by Cairo as a maneuver by Addis Ababa to play for time until the completion of the second filling stage of the dam.
Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly, his Sudanese counterpart, Abdalla Hamdok, and other officials meet in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, on March 11, 2021. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked for almost a decade in inconclusive talks over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.

CAIRO — Ethiopia has proposed holding a meeting of the African Union Assembly in a bid to end the deadlock over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) trilateral talks between Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum, which have reached a dead end.

The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an April 21 statement, “[Ethiopia] still believes that the trilateral negotiations within the framework of [mediations] led by the African Union (AU) is the best way to achieve a win-win outcome for all.”

The statement cited Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed as saying, “The assumption that the negotiations have failed is not true because the talks have actually achieved tangible results, notably the signing of the Declaration of Principles.”

The last round of talks, however, held in early April in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, failed to yield any progress toward resolving the GERD crisis.

Neither Egypt nor Sudan has officially commented on Ethiopia’s recent statements.

However, an Egyptian government source said in a brief statement to Al-Monitor that “Cairo is waiting for a goodwill gesture to restart the talks given that the negotiations have failed over the past year to achieve progress on the ground.”

Mohamed al-Orabi, a former Egyptian foreign minister, doesn't pin high hopes on Ethiopia’s overtures to discuss the dam crisis.

“Ethiopia’s intransigence over the past years has made Egypt and Sudan suspicious of any initiative on its part, because it appears that Ethiopia’s main maneuver is to play for time and engage in futile talks,” Orabi told Al-Monitor via phone.

“It is clear that Addis Ababa is working systematically to buy more time with no intention to reach a binding legal agreement with Cairo and Khartoum, until the completion of the second filling stage [of the dam’s reservoir], thus imposing a fait accompli. This is why any future calls from Ethiopia will be met with great suspicion on the part of both Egypt and Sudan,” he added.

Tariq Fahmi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, shares the same view. He told Al-Monitor, “Ethiopia’s call for a meeting of the AU is a new attempt to play for time in the lead-up to the second filling stage. There have been Ethiopian official statements saying the second filling stage in the dam will proceed regardless of the course of negotiations.”

In an April 18 tweet, Ahmed said, “Ahead of the 2nd filling, Ethiopia is releasing more water from last year's storage through newly completed outlets & sharing information. The next filling takes place only during heavy rainfall months of July/August, ensuring benefits in reducing floods in Sudan.”

“There is nothing more that can be done under the auspices of the AU, after the past rounds of talks have failed to reach a decisive resolution to the crisis,” Fahmi said.

He explained that “Egypt and Sudan have been making movements on the African level, as Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and his Sudanese counterpart, Maryam al-Sadiq, have been touring [African countries] to mobilize African public opinion in the GERD case. [These tours] do not mean calling on the AU institutions to play any mediation role in the crisis.”

Shoukry’s tour to several African countries kicked off April 18 with the aim of clarifying the developments on the GERD issue and Egypt’s position on it.

“Things are now beyond the AU, which is no longer able to find a solution to the crisis. Egypt sent letters to the United Nations and the Security Council mentioning the latest GERD developments. Ethiopia followed suit and sent a letter to the Security Council. This means that the GERD issue has now become an international affair related to keeping international peace and security, and not merely an African issue at the level of these three countries only,” Fahmi said.

Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor, “Calling for a new [AU] meeting without acknowledging in principle Sudan’s and Egypt’s rights to their historical share of [the Nile] water will not bring anything new to the table.”

“Ethiopia is playing for time. Sometimes, it offers suggestions they already know … do not bring anything new and … will be refused by both Egypt and Sudan, just to waste time,” he added.

Hassan said if Ethiopia wants to show its goodwill, it should start with “negotiating according to the Declaration of Principles signed in 2015 and should be prepared to sign a legally binding agreement prior the second filling of the dam reservoir.”

“It is important to keep the negotiations going because we do not want to look for other alternatives as long as the Ethiopian side is ready to review things. We hope they will understand our right in the waters of the Nile. This is a matter of life and death for Egypt, and not merely a negotiating requirement,” Hassan said.

Abbas Sharaqi, head of the natural resources department at the Institute for African Research and Studies at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor the AU’s role in meditating in the GERD discussions was “a fait accompli.”

“If the observers participating in the talks, such as the US and UN, were to play the role of mediators instead, in addition to the AU effort, then Ethiopia’s call for a meeting could yield results,” he said.

He said that with this initiative Ethiopia is trying to improve its image before the international community and add some legitimacy to the second phase of filling the dam’s reservoir.

“The call for an AU meeting comes in response to Sudan's call for a meeting at the level of prime ministers of Khartoum, Cairo and Addis Ababa to discuss the GERD crisis, which was turned down by Ethiopia,” Sharaqi said.

Sudanese Minister of Irrigation Yasser Abbas said in an April 23 statement that Ethiopia rejected Sudan’s invitation for a meeting at the premiership level of the concerned three countries.

“This is the AU’s last chance to look into the crisis. Either we reach an agreement or we resort to the Security Council,” Sharaqi concluded.

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