Five months of marathon and farcical negotiations under US auspices have failed to produce a solution to the crisis surrounding Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam on the River Nile. The Declaration of Principles drafted in the discussions was not signed by the government in Addis Ababa, and the months of negotiations are now added to the years of Ethiopia's stalling over the issue. It is reaching the stage where Ethiopia can simply impose a fait accompli.
No schedule for new negotiations has been prepared, as in the past; instead the talks ended with Addis Ababa pretty much ignoring Egyptian demands. Egypt, meanwhile, signed an agreement unilaterally which was drafted together with the Americans and the World Bank, from which Ethiopia was missing. There was public support from Washington for Cairo and tacit support for Addis Ababa. This dual approach was cemented by the visit of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Ethiopian capital just days before the signing of the last agreement. The issue has been pending for a decade due to accumulated neglect, which has resulted in great weakness manifested by putting all of the eggs in Washington's broken basket.
The recent Ethiopian provocation involved an explicit threat to start filling the reservoirs behind the dam within months. Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy Seleshi Bekele said that the dam was in its final stages, and that filling the reservoirs would begin in July, meaning that the generators could start next February. Does this mean that it is moving forward, ignoring Egyptian objections and American support for Egypt's position in this regard?
Egypt does not oppose filling the reservoirs, but is opposed to doing so in one go, because it will greatly reduce its share of water from the Nile for several years. This would have an impact on the millions of Egyptians who depend on the Nile for drinking water and irrigation.
The agreement signed in March 2015 between the Presidents of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan stipulates in Article Five the need to agree on the rules for filling the reservoirs and operating the dam before the filling process begins, in order to prevent any damage to the countries downstream. That process is one of the most contentious points between Egypt and Ethiopia. With a capacity of 74 million cubic metres of water, says Egypt, the dam threatens its own share of Nile water by an estimated 55.5 billion cubic metres, over 90 per cent of which it relies on for drinking and agriculture. Ambassador Abdullah Al-Ashaal, a former assistant to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, believes that the course that the crisis has taken since the beginning is an Ethiopian-Israeli-American plot aimed at depriving Egypt of its share of the Nile.
After the recent Ethiopian escalation, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi met with the senior officers of the Egyptian armed forces and stressed the need to demonstrate the highest degree of caution, preparation and combat readiness. They must, he insisted, be ready, to implement any tasks entrusted to them to protect Egypt's national security, in light of the current challenges facing the region.
Some people believe that this meeting and the statements that followed were intended to send a message to Ethiopia, although it was not mentioned by the official spokesman. Such a demonstration of the Egyptian army's readiness, they believe, implied that force is an option in response to Ethiopia's inflexibility. This was echoed by some of Cairo's supporters, including journalists and politicians, on social media.
Resorting to the military option is risky, given the fine details related to geography, politics and military capabilities. All are interlinked with regional relationships and the domestic issues affecting both Egypt and Ethiopia.
If the military option is out of the question, what can Egypt do politically and diplomatically? Will diplomacy bear fruit in light of Ethiopia's escalation and its assertion that it will start filling the reservoirs within months? This is an important question, because Addis Ababa has said that there is nothing that can prevent the filling process as it is something that lies at the heart of Ethiopia's sovereignty over its territory and its water.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Addustour on 12 March 2020
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.