Can Arab League push Ethiopia to delay filling of Nile dam?

Arab foreign ministers called on Ethiopia to refrain from filling the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam next month without prior agreement with Egypt and Sudan, but Arab experts and observers believe this position must be translated into action to support Egypt and Sudan in their dispute with Ethiopia.

al-monitor A worker walks with a piece of wood on his shoulder at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.  Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP via Getty Images.
Ahmed Gomaa

Ahmed Gomaa

@AhmedGomaa252

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Water Issues

Jul 1, 2020

CAIRO — Arab foreign ministers have recently called on Ethiopia to refrain from filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) next month without Egypt and Sudan’s prior agreement.

The statement comes as Cairo seeks to increase pressure to block the filling of the dam. The UN Security Council met to discuss the issue June 29, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warning that the dam threatened the lives of 150 million Egyptians and Sudanese.

The Arab ministers' decision came at the conclusion of the Arab League emergency meeting held June 23. The meeting called for “the need for all parties to refrain from taking any unilateral measures, and the need for Ethiopia to refrain from filling the GERD reservoir without reaching an agreement with the downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) on the dam filling and operation rules.”

The decision stated that “the water security of Egypt and Sudan is an integral part of the Arab national security” and stressed the rejection of any action or measure that affects the rights of Nile countries.

Egypt announced June 19 the faltering of tripartite negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan over the contentious points related to the $4 billion GERD, which is being built near Ethiopia's border with Sudan.

The Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation said in a statement June 19 that “during the discussion of the legal aspects, Addis Ababa refused the conclusion of a binding agreement between the three countries in accordance with international law and insisted on reaching guidelines it can unilaterally amend.”

On the same day, Cairo called on the UN Security Council to intervene to resume the talks.

Chairperson of the African Union (AU) and Republic of South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa intervened and held an emergency AU summit on June 26, with the participation of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The three parties agreed during the summit to form a committee made up of experts from the three countries and from the member states of the Bureau of the AU Assembly, as well as representatives of international observers. They also agreed to resume negotiations on the GERD within two weeks, according to an AU statement released June 28. 

For his part, Hossam Zaki, assistant secretary-general of the League of Arab States, told MBC Egypt June 24 that Egypt has received good Arab support in the Renaissance Dam crisis, as Arab foreign ministers said in their last meeting that they are all for supporting Egypt’s water rights. Zaki said he hoped this Arab support would serve as a strong component of the efforts deployed in the crisis and would be useful at the Security Council.

Tarek Fahmy, professor of political science at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The Arab position as a whole is supportive of the Egyptian position, and the Arab League meeting came to issue a unified decision supporting Egyptian and Sudanese rights in the Renaissance Dam crisis. However, this position needs to be translated into real mechanisms.”

Fahmy added, “There are a lot of measures that Arab countries can take to support Egypt’s position. There are Arab investments, including Saudi and Emirati investments, in Addis Ababa. And one of the pressure cards that could be used against Ethiopia is to threaten to stop or hold off such investments. Egypt will not ask them to go for such a measure and will leave them to willingly take such a decision.”

"The Arab role may also be activated through consultations with international actors, which might strengthen Egypt’s position at the UN Security Council,” he said.

On June 29, the UN Security Council held a session to discuss the Nile dam dispute, during which it expressed its support for the AU efforts to resume tripartite negotiations. The council meeting came upon Egypt’s request submitted to the Presidency of the Security Council on June 19.

Fahmy expressed fear of what he described as “Sudanese prevarication,” especially with regard to the Arab League decisions or the complaint to the Security Council.

In May, Sudan expressed reservations about a draft resolution issued by the Arab Foreign Ministers Council expressing solidarity with Egypt and Sudan regarding the Renaissance Dam. Subsequently, and after full coordination between the two countries, Minister of State at the Sudanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Omar Ismail said during the Arab League Council meeting June 23 that there is consensus between Sudan and Egypt on the Arab draft resolution on the Renaissance Dam.

Former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Nasruddin Allam played down the impact of the Arab League’s resolution on the GERD and told Al-Monitor, “The Arab League’s decision has no tangible impact. There will only be real impact when influential Arab countries proceed to supporting Egypt in the Security Council or start pressuring Ethiopia to return to the path of negotiations and complete the tripartite agreement. This is the role [the Arab League] is expected to play.”

Allam added, “Arab countries can widely assist Egypt by communicating with members of the Security Council regarding the Egyptian complaint, by supporting efforts to unify the Egyptian and Sudanese positions, and by using Arab investments in Ethiopia to pressure the country not to take any unilateral action regarding the filling of the dam.”

This comes as Ethiopia announced its intention to start filling the dam in the “next two weeks.” The Ethiopian prime minister’s office announced in a June 27 statement Ethiopia’s commitment to attempt to reach a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan within this period, under AU sponsorship. 

On June 27, the Kuwaiti al-Qabas paper cited well-informed sources (which it did not name) saying that efforts are currently underway to come up with “an Arab pressure position in the coming days” with the aim to intervene in non-Arab issues, including the GERD dispute. The paper reported the presence of “contacts and coordination on the Arab level to contain the situation and calm all the parties concerned in these issues … to reach a final agreement with minimum losses.” 

Ahmed Youssef Ahmed, professor of political science at Cairo University and former dean of the Institute of Arab Research and Studies, told Al-Monitor over the phone, “The position of the Arab League reflects faith in the fairness of the Egyptian and Sudanese issue and the necessity of Arab support.”

“If Arab support remains limited to a diplomatic decision, it would not have an impact at a time when Ethiopia is showing continued intransigence and taking tough positions. But if such a diplomatic position is translated into a language affecting interests and economics, then it would have a significant impact considering some Arab investment and trade interests in Ethiopia,” he added.

Fahmy said, “The crisis complexity requires an Arab effort in support of Egypt and real measures on the ground that would benefit all parties and not only Cairo.”

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