Nile dam dispute: Ethiopia's stance swings support towards Egypt

Analysts say Cairo unlikely to consider military options after Addis Ababa backed itself into a corner

A general view of the construction works at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD),  near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa.
Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. 
Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbours, principally Egypt. / AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS
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Egypt is expected to persist with negotiations rather than take military action over Ethiopia's giant Nile dam, analysts say, as Addis Ababa's belligerent refusal to reach an agreement has turned international opinion in Cairo's favour.

Ethiopia's standing suffered following a series of undiplomatic statements seemingly contemptuous of international law on sharing cross-border rivers, sharply critical of Washington’s role in mediating the dispute and lambasting the Arab League, the analysts said.

For too long, Ethiopia was perceived as that poor nation that needs the dam to generate electricity for its people

Saying it needed more time for internal consultations, Ethiopia stayed away from a final round of negotiations in Washington on February 27-28 at which it was expected to sign an agreement with Sudan and Egypt on the dam’s operation. The deal, approved by Egypt, was the outcome of four months of intense negotiations sponsored by the United States and attended by World Bank representatives.

The draft was never made public but the agreement has been widely reported to lay out a timeline for a staggered filling of the dam's reservoir to reduce the impact on downstream nations Egypt and Sudan, as well as set the amount of water released to the two nations annually and during times of drought. It also provides for joint committees to operate the dam and a mechanism for settling disputes.

Sudan, which is unlikely to be affected much by the dam, has not given its approval of the accord. Last week, it insisted that its name be taken out of an Arab League resolution supporting Khartoum and Cairo over the dam dispute and admonishing Ethiopia for not signing the accord. It argued that it did not want the dispute to turn into a showdown between Arabs and Ethiopia, with which it has grown closer in recent years. Power-starved Sudan also hopes that the hydroelectric dam will provide it with cheap electricity.

Ethiopia’s failure to attend the Washington meeting triggered a bitter exchange between Cairo and Addis Ababa. Ethiopia rejected the US draft agreement and took exception to Washington’s advice not to start filling the dam's massive reservoir before the deal was signed. Egypt accused Ethiopia of employing time-wasting tactics and threatened to use “all means available” to protect the interests of its 100 million people.

On Saturday, Egypt again came out sharply against Ethiopia over its criticism of the Arab League resolution, saying Addis Ababa’s comments “lacked diplomacy and constituted an unacceptable insult to the Arab League”.

Mainly desert Egypt depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs. President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has said maintaining Egypt's share of Nile waters was a life-and-death issue.

"Egypt and Ethiopia have traded places," said Hany Raslan, a senior expert at Cairo's Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "For too long, Ethiopia was perceived as that poor nation that needs the dam to generate electricity for its people. Now, there is an agreement that it's refusing to sign although it guarantees its right to generate power," he told The National.

Egypt has not publicly spoken about the option of military action to halt the operation of the dam. However, Mr El Sisi appeared to send a thinly veiled message last week that such action could not be ruled out. The former army general chaired a rare meeting of the military’s top brass last Tuesday at which he urged the army to maintain the “highest level of caution, alertness and combat readiness … to carry out any mission assigned to them to protect Egypt’s national security”, according to an official statement issued later.

It is not clear how effectively Egypt's military could strike Ethiopia, given the distance between the two nations, but Cairo has in recent years acquired cutting-edge hardware from Western Europe and Russia, including two French-made Mistral class troop carriers, German submarines and Russian-made attack helicopters.

“I don’t think that the military option is realistic,” said Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York. “Egypt is in a very vulnerable position and it is reflective of its inattention to this crisis while it brewed for many years. Its only traction now is to get its powerful friends the United States and Gulf nations to lean on Ethiopia to be reasonable.”

Like Mr Raslan, Mr Hanna said Egypt was being seen as the reasonable party in the negotiations after Ethiopia’s belligerent comments. “That advantage will go up in smoke if Egypt chooses to act militarily, something that will be catastrophic, earn the eternal enmity of Ethiopia and fly in the face of Egypt’s traditionally conservative approach to regional issues.”

Mohammed Anis Salem of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs said hopes for settling the dispute rested with the United States.

“The US role remains key to future negotiations,” said Mr Salem. “It’s an election year for President Donald Trump and a resolution of the issue of the Ethiopian dam will be good for his re-election chances. There is some common ground between the three parties and maybe an effort by the United States will allow an agreement to be reached.”