Taking Gerd dispute to Security Council may be Egypt and Sudan's last diplomatic attempt

Frustrated by Ethiopia's 'intransigence', downstream nations seek UN action on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

In a deep and chilling voice, the Egyptian army general quoted from a little-known poem penned some 100 years ago by Hafez Ibrahim, widely known as the “Poet of the Nile”.

The verse cited by Egyptian army Brig Gen Yasser Wahba at a weekend military ceremony attended by President Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoke of the injustice committed by anyone who tries to deny Egypt water and how the country will never allow this to happen.

The message embedded in the choice of verse, and its intended target, could not be missed. Egypt is running out of patience with Ethiopia’s refusal to enter an agreement on the operation and filling of the dam it is building on the Nile that Cairo fears will reduce its vital share of the river’s water.

Fuelling already growing tension over the dispute, Ethiopia is adamant about going ahead with a second filling of the dam this month despite the insistence of downstream Egypt and Sudan that a deal must be reached first, regardless of the extent of the filling or whether it will have a negative impact on them.

Mr El Sisi, a former general who became president in 2014, signalled his approval of Gen Wahba’s choice of verse, joining participants and guests at the ceremony in a round of enthusiastic applause when he finished. Minutes later, he proudly watched Egyptian air force, navy and army units put on a display of force in war drills to mark the inauguration of a sprawling naval base on the Mediterranean.

“Egypt never, directly or otherwise, threatened anyone throughout its history despite its possession of military strength, of which only a fraction was on display in these war games,” Mr El Sisi told his guests at a lunch banquet later on Saturday. “We will not negotiate indefinitely,” he cautioned.

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The diplomatic process has gone astray. It has gone for far too long and it is moving in circles
Mohamed Anis Salem

Egypt and its ally Sudan are taking their dispute with Ethiopia to the UN Security Council later this week in what is likely to be their final diplomatic attempt to clinch an agreement after a decade of fruitless negotiations over the dam.

“The diplomatic process has gone astray. It has gone for far too long and it is moving in circles,” said Mohamed Anis Salem, a former Egyptian ambassador and now a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“Egypt is now trying to energise the negotiation process through the Security Council. Trying to reach a win-win situation through diplomatic means.”

It is not clear, however, what Egypt and Sudan would do if the Security Council, as widely expected, fails to force Ethiopia into entering a legally-binding deal that addresses the concerns of all three nations. Egypt’s pro-government media have meanwhile increasingly hinted at military action.

Egyptian officials have acknowledged that the Security Council session was unlikely to produce a resolution. Some experts predict instead a statement urging all sides to return to negotiations mediated by the African Union, which would be identical to the outcome of the council’s first meeting on the dispute last year.

France's UN Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere, the council's president for July, has also sought to lower expectations. He said there was little the 15-member body could do other than encouraging the parties to return to negotiations.

"I don't think the council can do much more than that," he said.

On Monday, senior Sudanese negotiator Omar Al Farouq appeared to second the French diplomat's prediction. "We want the Security Council to revive the process and not create a second negotiating track," he told reporters.

Both Egypt and Sudan have said the AU’s involvement in the negotiations has not helped. They demand that the UN, the United States and the European Union join the pan-African, Addis Ababa-based organisation as mediators. Ethiopia rejects the proposal.

“We will place the Security Council and the international community before their responsibilities,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told a television interviewer over the weekend. “This issue will pose a threat to peace, security and stability if harm comes to the people of Egypt or their water rights are compromised.

“The Security Council must contain the situation and work to prevent an escalation of tension,” he said, suggesting that Ethiopia’s continued rejection of a deal and going ahead with this month’s filling will trigger a reaction beyond rhetoric.

Egypt, which has been investing heavily in cutting-edge weaponry, has never spoken publicly of military action as a last resort in its dispute with Ethiopia. Instead, it has branded the issue as “existential” -- it depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its fresh water needs -- and spoken of “unimaginable instability” if it is denied its full share of the water.

Sudan, for its part, is traditionally bound to Ethiopia by vast cultural and economic relations and may not have the stomach for hostilities with its larger neighbour at a time when it is going through a delicate and bumpy transition to democratic rule after the toppling of dictator Omar Al Bashir in 2019.

Egypt may also have concerns about how effective a military strike would be as well as the “day-after” consequences, such as a negative international reaction, possible international sanctions and serious damage to its carefully cultivated ties with sub-Saharan Africa.

But Egypt’s options may have become limited after 10 years of fruitless diplomacy and consistent intransigence by Ethiopia, which has mostly viewed the dispute as one of national sovereignty or framed it in racial terms, as one pitting Sub-Saharan Africans against the Arabs of the north.

A second filling of the dam without a deal would turn the Blue Nile - the source of 85 per cent of the Nile waters that reach Egypt - into an Ethiopian lake from which it releases water to Egypt and Sudan only when it suits it, wrote Imad Hussein, editor of the pro-government Cairo daily Al Shorouk.

Moreover, a partial deal dealing just with the second filling - a proposal floated by Addis Ababa but rejected by Egypt and Sudan- would be a win for Ethiopia, he added.

“The time for decisive action has come regardless of regional or international positions because it is a matter about our life and future.”

Updated: July 5th 2021, 5:03 PM
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