For the second time in a matter of weeks, the government in Egypt is trying to refer the case of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the River Nile to the UN Security Council. On the first occasion last month, Cairo blamed “Ethiopian procrastination” for the faltering negotiations. The Council disregarded Egypt’s communication, as if no real issue had been raised.
At that time, the Egyptian referral was unexpected, because no role had been sought for the UN. Cairo’s latest move, though, was not only unexpected, but also strange. Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent another letter earlier this week to the Security Council regarding the same issue, only now it has raised the ceiling of its demands. It wants the Security Council to intervene immediately after Egypt has exhausted every means possible to reach an amicable solution. The urgency of Egypt’s demand to the UN is understandable given that Ethiopia plans to start filling the reservoir behind the Renaissance Dam on 1 July.
What is surprising is that the Security Council is being asked to consider this matter quickly as part of the agenda for peace and security in Africa. Moreover, Egypt is urging the international community to act to put pressure on Ethiopia to act responsibly and reach a fair and balanced agreement on the Renaissance Dam without taking any measures of its own in relation to the project.
This is the ceiling of Egypt’s demands. Is this the most that Cairo aspires to? For the Security Council to urge Addis Ababa to act “responsibly”? Given the impact that the dam is likely to have on nations downstream in terms of access to water from the Nile, this is astonishing.
However, Egypt’s management of this critical matter does not stop with the letter. While its ceiling of demands from the UN looks narrow and soft, the official and media discourse within Egypt is escalating. Government officials and media outlets are adopting a tough and hostile tone against Ethiopia. There seems to be an organised campaign, which is understandable, justified and logical in light of the stagnant nature of the situation, the time-driven pressure, a gloating Ethiopian government and arrogant official statements coming out of Addis Ababa. I do not understand, though, why the tone of Egypt’s letter to the UN and its campaign on the ground appear to be contradictory.
Cairo’s position would have seemed more realistic and convincing if, for example, the Arab League and the African Union had called for an emergency summit to discuss the situation first. They could have moved the matter on to the UN Security Council and invited it to convene, while holding the major powers responsible for the stability of a vital region of the world. An urgent appeal to the International Criminal Court and the World Water Council would allow them to obtain legal, political and technical advice about Ethiopia’s position. As it stands, though, for Egypt to resort to the Security Council as if it were just trying to jockey for position is difficult to justify. Perhaps a lack of understanding may be better than having an explanation in such a situation.
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