Egypt, Ethiopia between Nile dam deadlock and breakthrough


By Sonia Farid

UPON his return from Cairo on Jan. 19, Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn announced that he has rejected Egypt’s proposal to seek the mediation of the World Bank in the dispute over the Renaissance Dam, which is expected to affect Egypt’s share of Nile Water. Upon finishing a meeting in Addis Ababa with Desalegn and Sudanese Present Omar Al-Bashir on Jan. 29, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told reporters who asked whether the crisis was resolved that “there is no crisis” and none of the countries involved will be harmed.

On the same day, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said that all pending technical issues will be finalized within one month, still giving no details. Unlike the first statement, which gives the impression that the impasse stands and negotiations are still failing, the second implies a breakthrough. However, with no obvious change in the few days that separated the two statements and no official announcements of a resolution, the situation remains blurred and so is the fate of Egypt’s one and only lifeline.

Ambassador and former deputy foreign minister Ahmed Abul Kheir said that despite how reassuring the president’s statement was, it still does not mean the crisis is resolved. “I don’t trust Ethiopia especially following the rejection of World Bank mediation,” he said. “The World Bank would have been extremely helpful in disputed technical issues and we are worried that any other entity might be swayed by Ethiopia.”

Abul Kheir added that Egypt should have come out of the meeting with more tangible results. “Obviously, Egypt had to do with good will gestures and promises rather than concrete agreements since unfortunately Ethiopia is in a stronger position and we need to be patient.” He, however, doubted that anything can be resolved within one month as the foreign minister said since the two countries have been negotiating for the past three years and are still unable to reach a middle ground. “This is, of course, unless Ethiopia offers huge concessions, which is extremely unlikely.”

Expert in African affairs Amani Al-Tawil argued that the results of the negotiations in Cairo and Addis Ababa are not announced because both parties opted for discretion so that matters would not be blown out of proportion by the media, which was especially the case in Egypt where an anti-Ethiopian discourse prevailed in most media outlets.

“We also need to take into consideration that the Egyptian regime is cautious not to adopt a confrontational stance and to solve the issue through diplomacy and good will.” Tawil refuted claims that the ambiguity of the situation is attributed to the regime’s inability to manage negotiations.

“Such claims overlook the fact that the current regime inherited the problem. This is a result of years of negligence of African affairs under Mubarak as well as strained relations with African countries when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power,” she explained. Tawil, however, admitted that the two sides have not reached any agreement on the main pending issues. “For example, there is obviously no progress on the issue of filling the dam reservoir,” she said, in reference to both the timing and the speed of the filling, a major bone of contention between the two countries. — Al Arabiya English