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Has Egypt achieved international mobilization to protect its interests in Blue Nile?

Countries at the UN Security Council seem to have maintained a balanced position on the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Egyptian Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly (L) welcomes his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok upon his arrival in Cairo, Egypt, March 11, 2021.

CAIRO — During a meeting held July 8 at Egypt’s request, the United Nations Security Council discussed the potential threats of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to Egyptian interests in the Nile waters.

The meeting echoed differing international positions and an impartiality of a number of international key players. This weakened the possibilities of a Security Council vote on a negotiated solution to the GERD dispute.

Egypt had its hopes pinned on a Security Council resolution that would push the disputing parties — Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — to agree on a comprehensive framework of engagement to resolve their contentious issues on the GERD crisis. Those include an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, while preventing Ethiopia from taking unilateral decisions.

During the meeting, the five permanent members of the Security Council gave speeches that were noncommittal on any further Security Council action They asserted that the dispute could only be settled by peaceful means through good faith  negotiations utilizing mediation by the African Union.

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia cautioned that statements of possible use of force to protect Egyptian rights from the potential threats of the GERD should be avoided. “We are concerned about escalation of confrontational rhetoric,” he said.

China's representative, Ambassador Zhang Jun, encouraged the three disputing parties to resolve their differences through dialogue and “in a spirit of friendly cooperation.”

Despite US condemnations of human rights violations and abuses in Ethiopia's Tigray region, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the UN, reiterated calls for a negotiated solution on the GERD via the AU channel, while offering continued US support and facilitation. While voicing concerns over the seriousness of the situation in the Horn of Africa, she warned that “decisions in the weeks and months ahead will have significant, long-term implications for the people of the region.”

Thomas-Greenfield reiterated the US commitment “to addressing the interlinked regional crises and to supporting a prosperous and stable Horn of Africa.”

Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed in his speech before the Security Council Egypt’s efforts to act with restraint in the face of Ethiopian practices and attempts to control and seize the Nile River.

He said that Egypt is committed to “pursue the path of peace by seeking a settlement to this crisis through an equitable agreement that preserves the interests of all three parties.” Shoukry provided a brief explanation of the botched negotiations, whether under the African Union (AU) umbrella or with the participation of international parties such as the United States and the World Bank.

Noting that Egypt’s efforts to build bridges of trust came to naught, Shoukry lashed out at Ethiopia’s policies and unilateral decision to start the second filling of the dam’s reservoir, disregarding international laws and norms. “This blatant act of unilateralism is not only a manifestation of Ethiopia’s irresponsibility and its callous indifference to the damage that the filling of this dam could inflict upon Egypt and Sudan … but it also illustrates Ethiopia’s bad faith and its attempt to impose a fait accompli in defiance of the collective will of the international community,” he said.

Shoukry summarized the possible next steps if the Security Council did not resolve the dispute over the dam. “Egypt will be left with no alternative but to uphold and protect its inherent right to life that is guaranteed by the laws and customs of nations and the imperatives of nature” should its riparian rights be imperiled or its survival be endangered. 

In addition to calling for a binding legal agreement that protects the interests of the downstream countries, the Sudanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mariam al-Mahdi, focused in her speech at the Security Council on the human and social suffering of the Sudanese people as a result of the unilateral Ethiopian actions. She pointed out that Ethiopia notified Sudan in June of opening the dam gates, which allowed 2.5 billion cubic meters to flow in just 72 hours, inducing panic and terror in downstream Sudanese communities.

In an attempt to mobilize the international community to support their position, Egypt and Sudan held intensive diplomatic rounds and meetings prior to the Security Council meeting. Shoukry was in New York three days prior to the meeting and held several talks with officials, most notably with the UN ambassadors of China, Russia, France, Britain, United States, India and Estonia, and with the UN secretary-general. He illustrated the Egyptian position and the seriousness of the crisis on regional peace and security, and stressed the need for the international community to assume its responsibilities to press for a just and legally binding agreement.

Ethiopia responded with more disinterest. The Ethiopian foreign minister did not participate in the official delegation to the Security Council meeting. Rather, Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy Seleshi Bekele expressed his country’s views that discussions on the GERD are “unfitting of the council’s time and resources.” He indicated that it is useless to raise a technical issue before the Security Council, which he said is a political body concerned with security. 

What’s more, Ethiopia had anticipated the Security Council meeting with an official letter sent by Bekele to his counterparts in Egypt and Sudan on July 5, informing them of the start of the second filling stage of the GERD lake. 

Egyptian Minister of Water and Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Aty responded with an official letter on the same day, stressing Egypt’s categorical rejection of this unilateral measure that violates the Declaration of Principles and international laws governing facilities on the common basins of international rivers.

Sudan expressed the same rejection. The Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs disregarded Ethiopia's notification in a press statement July 6. It dismissed it as useless, unless a final and binding agreement is negotiated.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Egyptian diplomatic source close to the negotiating team on the GERD told Al-Monitor, “We did not see any real pressure on the Ethiopian side to urge it to return to negotiations according to the principle of good faith. No international party condemned the Ethiopian unilateral first and second fillings of the dam, regardless of the rejection of the downstream countries.”

The source explained, “Resuming negotiations should be linked to international guarantees of more seriousness and a commitment to reach efficient and binding solutions within a specific time period. This is Egypt’s objective. Without these guarantees, I do not expect Egypt to accept a return to negotiations under the umbrella of the AU, whose initiatives and tours during the past two years have failed.”

Ayman Abdel-Wahab, an Egyptian researcher at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that the international stance on the GERD will not be much different from the views echoed at the Security Council meeting. “Egypt’s main goal was to urge international institutions to assume their responsibility. No decisive positions were expected from the international community, apart from a commitment to impartiality,” he said.

Abdel-Wahab added, “Egypt must mobilize all international powers to reconsider their stances. Several scenarios can be elaborated that promote the idea of ​​trading off security and stability for international interests and investments in the region. If the international powers do not feel the gravity of the situation, there will be no effective action. Even positions that seem positive, such as the US position, are ineffective. China, Russia or the United States will not change their position unless Egypt takes an action that forces them to reconsider their views. Dialogue and peace with Israel were only possible after Egypt won the 1973 war.”

Stressing the importance of pressuring countries to protect their investments from any potential threat to peace and security in the region, Abdel-Wahab argued that states' positions are mainly related to the positions of international companies investing in this region.

Egypt’s next moves remain contingent on a decisive international decision to resume negotiations on the next stages of filling and operation of the dam. Ethiopia had planned to collect 13.5 billion cubic meters. But technical problems caused delays and reduced the quantities of water expected to be filled during the current rainy season to less than 5 billion cubic meters of water. This delay could be an opportunity to reach an agreement before any serious risks to the interests of Egypt and Sudan are imposed as a fait accompli. 

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