The extraordinary meeting of the Council of the Arab League (AL) at the ministerial level in Doha has called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to hold an urgent meeting to discuss ways to launch a negotiating process on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and facilitate a legally binding agreement protecting the interests of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.
Expressing their concern about the deadlocked GERD negotiations, the foreign ministers attending underlined the importance of negotiating with good will and called on Ethiopia to halt any unilateral action that may harm Egypt and Sudan.
On the same day Ethiopian Water, Irrigation, and Energy Minister Sileshi Bekele said the second filling of the GERD’s reservoir will go as per the schedule.
“The second round filling will continue and it has nothing to do with any other issue. The level of the construction of the dam in the coming rainy season will dictate the filling,” he said following the Meeting of Eastern Nile Council of Ministers in Addis Ababa on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, the AL committee comprising representatives from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Morocco, formed to secure political support for Egypt and Sudan on the GERD file in the UN General Assembly in New York, is continuing its work.
A diplomatic source in New York close to the committee did not pin much hope on the UNSC or on the Arab committee pushing forward the GERD file.
“The committee has exerted great efforts but the UN does not have the will to deal with the issue,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Professor of international law Ayman Salama told the Weekly that as non-permanent members of the UNSC, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates could play a useful role.
While international and regional organisations like the AL have the right to ask the UNSC to assume its responsibilities in maintaining international peace and security, Salama explained, “it is up to the UNSC to decide first whether the issue — GERD — represents a genuine threat to international peace and security.”
The UNSC must then decide to reconvene and take over from the AU after it had voted unanimously last June to refer it to the African organisation, Salama added.
In a joint press conference following the Doha meeting, AL Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit said: “I sensed clear Arab support for Egypt and Sudan based on the realisation that the security of both countries is part of Arab national security.”
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdul-Rahman Al-Thani said measures should be taken to avert unilateral acts that harm Egypt and Sudan. “Doha supports Egypt and Sudan’s water rights. Filling the dam’s reservoir should be carried out under rules that protect the rights of both states,” he told the press conference.
“Tuesday’s meeting of Arab foreign ministers is a strong political expression and sends a message that Ethiopia must consider,” said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri in an interview with Al-Jazeera on Monday.
It is not the only message that Egypt and Sudan have sent to Ethiopia in an attempt to resolve the dam file.
Egypt and Sudan are keeping all doors open, says Abbas Sharaki, professor of geology and water resources at Cairo University. “They issued a joint statement calling for ‘coordination on the regional, continental and international levels’, and the AL meeting showed that Cairo and Khartoum have the support of regional states.”
Although Egypt and Sudan have declared that AU talks have reached a dead end, Sharaki says neither has ruled the track out completely.
The AL meeting was held in Doha at the request of Egypt and Sudan to discuss ways to combat foreign interference in Arab regional security and reaffirm Arab solidarity with Egypt and Sudan over GERD.
Professor of political science Tarek Fahmi points to other moves to bring negotiations back on track. “In addition to this week’s AL extraordinary meeting supported by Doha, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman met in Sharm El-Sheikh, and Ahmed bin Kattan, the Saudi minister of state for African affairs, visited Ethiopia where he met Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed while carrying an important message of support for Egypt from King Salman.”
“Are there behind-the-curtain mediations,” wondered Fahmi. “Cairo would certainly welcome any meditation that will resolve the dam crisis.”
Egypt has already sent a second letter to the president of the UNSC outlining its objections to Addis Ababa’s plans to unilaterally embark on a second filling of the dam’s reservoir next month without first securing a legally binding agreement with the downstream countries. The letter blamed the failure of AU-sponsored talks on Ethiopia’s intransigence and called for the “active engagement of the international community to reach a peaceful settlement to this matter”.
Fahmi said the timing of the letter was important. “In May, Washington issued a statement urging the resumption of AU-mediated negotiations in line with the 2015 Declaration of Principles and the outcomes of the July 2020 AU summit on GERD, but no further action was taken. And US envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman concluded his visit to Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Congo last month without results.”
Sharaki argues that sending the letter to the UNSC “places additional diplomatic pressure on resolving an issue that affects not just one country or two but will impact the entire region”. He expects Sudan will send a similar letter soon. The two states may then submit specific requests to the Security Council which could include asking the council to assume its responsibility in maintaining security in the region by sponsoring negotiations until a legally binding agreement is reached.
Both Egypt and Sudan sent letters to the UNSC last year expressing concern that Ethiopia had started to fill the dam without prior agreement.
In June, the UNSC held an open session over the GERD dispute on Egypt’s request. During the session, the council urged Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to reach a consensus and warned against unilateral actions.
The AL meeting in Doha came less than a week after Shoukri’s visit — together with Egypt’s irrigation minister — to Khartoum in order to coordinate with Sudan over ways to counter the negative impacts of any second filling. The two states issued a joint statement urging concerted international efforts to help settle the GERD dispute and called on the international community to recognise the dangers of Ethiopia forcing a fait accompli on the downstream states.
While Egypt and Sudan demand a legally binding agreement with Ethiopia over GERD, Addis Ababa wants only guidelines that can be modified at Ethiopia’s discretion. It has repeatedly declared that it will commence a second filling on 22 July with or without a deal with the downstream countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly