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Will political tension in Ethiopia benefit Egypt's position on Nile dam dispute?

Egypt is patiently following up on the internal political and military developments in Ethiopia before taking any new position on the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
South Sudan's Vice President James Wani Igga (L), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (C) and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir attend a meeting in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, on March 23, 2015.

CAIRO — Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s July 15 remarks in which he told Egyptians not to worry about any threat posed by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), tension and anger at Ethiopia’s unilateral move to fill the GERD without prior agreement with Egypt has subsided in traditional and social media.

Speaking at a conference launching the Haya Karima (Decent Life) project for the development of Egypt’s countryside, Sisi had said, “Everything will be alright. We have good plans, and there is no need to worry. … Egypt has never sought to threaten or meddle in other countries’ affairs.”

In addition to Sisi’s statement, which came as a calming message following a series of fiery statements against Ethiopia, diplomatic silence prevailed following the UN Security Council’s session to discuss the GERD crisis on July 8, during which no resolution or position on the GERD was taken. Meanwhile, Algeria’s initiative to resume direct talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia has also stalled.

Despite the relative calm currently surrounding the GERD issue in Egypt, the file remains on Sisi’s agenda during his official meetings. In a Sept. 4 press conference with his Cypriot counterpart, Nicos Anastasiades, Sisi pointed to Egypt’s continuous efforts to settle the GERD crisis in a fair manner and resume negotiations so as to reach a legal and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.

He further called on “the international community to assume a serious role in this file in order to preserve the region’s stability.”

The volatile events and escalating tension between the Ethiopian federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since November 2020 have added a new dimension to the tension surrounding the GERD. This became apparent in the last two months after the Tigrayan rebels achieved major gains in the Tigray region by seizing key areas after the army withdrew. Meanwhile, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently called on civilians to join the army and the fight against the rebels in Tigray.

For his part, Lt. Gen. Bacha Debele, the Ethiopian National Defense Force chief of army staff, said in a press conference on Sept. 4 that the army countered an attack by TPLF rebels in Ethiopia's far western region of Benishangul-Gumuz who sought to hinder the GERD construction. The army, he continued, killed 50 infiltrators. He did not mention if these rebels had actually reached the GERD site.

Ethiopia accused Sudan of supporting this attack, which the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied in a statement. The ministry condemned “the Ethiopian statements that clearly have political goals, as the Ethiopian government continues to blame Sudan whenever the domestic situation [in Tigray] worsens.”

Commenting on the repercussions of security tension in Ethiopia on Egypt’s position on the GERD, Hani Raslan, an analyst of African affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “Domestic developments in Ethiopia are accelerating and involve a great deal of uncertainty, which prompted the Ethiopian government to resort to foreign powers such as Turkey and Israel. [Ethiopia] is seeking support in the face of the escalating tension with the United States, which rejects the inhumane conditions in the Tigray region.”

Raslan added, “Some are counting on the possibility that the developments in Ethiopia will result in the Ethiopian government losing control of the Benishangul-Gumuz region where the dam is being built, or that the economic crisis will cause the construction works to stop.”

He noted, “There are several opportunities that Egypt could seize in the near future, particularly since the current circumstances are in favor of Cairo.”

According to Raslan, the disputing countries (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) are less likely to resume the GERD negotiations any time soon. “Any attempts to resume negotiations that would lead to a political solution will not succeed because the Ethiopian government is not likely to change its positions, especially as the internal political situation deteriorates.”

Negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia broke down on April 4 during the countries’ water and foreign affairs ministers meeting in Kinshasa, because Ethiopia refused Sudan’s request for international mediation and insisted on keeping the negotiations under the African Union’s (AU) umbrella. Meanwhile, no tangible progress was made during the AU-sponsored negotiations in the past two years, during which Ethiopia managed to store nearly 7 billion cubic meters of water in the GERD reservoir despite Egypt’s and Sudan’s opposition.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Alaa al Zawahry, a professor of engineering at Cairo University and member of Egypt's technical committee for the GERD negotiations, said, “Egypt insists on specific and clear technical constants related to the agreement on the GERD’s filling, operation and refilling during periods of drought.”

He added, “But the Egyptian team is always open to any negotiations on other legal points in the agreement, such as the mechanism to resolve disputes.”

“The Egyptian team is still waiting for a clear initiative to discuss, after the technical, legal and diplomatic dispute that has been ongoing for the past years,” he noted.

Commenting on whether Cairo overcame the expected risk from the second filling during the current flood season, Zawahry explained, “The problem does not lie in the technical impact of the retained water quantities during the filling, but in [Ethiopia’s] unilateral action in the absence of any consultation or agreement on any procedures and on a binding legal agreement.”

Although the water flow from the Nile is higher than average this year — which was somewhat reassuring for Egypt when it comes to the impact of the GERD’s filling on the water storage in Lake Nasser — Zawahiri said, “Let’s assume that the Ethiopian side has only stored 7 billion cubic meters of water so far, while the water flow is higher than average this season. There will be risk in case the water flow goes below average and in case of drought occurrence in the next few years.”

He added, “The potential negative impact of extended drought is not limited to the filling stages, but also to the years during which the dam was filled and operated, which caused disagreement during the previous negotiation rounds over who will have priority of filling and how to refill the two dams simultaneously after drought periods.”

Meanwhile, an Egyptian research team is conducting a study on the real efficiency of the GERD and the reasons why Ethiopia could not collect a planned 13.5 billion cubic meters in the dam as it contented itself with 3 billion cubic meters during the second phase of the filling.

Hesham el-Askary, a professor of remote sensing and earth system science at Chapman University in the United States, told Al-Monitor, “We are trying to provide a scientific answer to the reasons why Ethiopia failed to complete the second phase of the filling, regardless of the political statements that have circulated.”

He added, “We seek to present scientific studies testing the dam’s safety and the changes in the dam’s structure, at a time when Ethiopia did not submit studies that provide scientific answers to questions related to the dam’s technical problems.”

Egypt, meanwhile, is waiting to see how the successive developments on the political scene in Ethiopia will unfold before taking any steps that involve a dialogue with the Ethiopian government.

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