Every time the leaders of the Arab world convene, it has become almost a ritual to hear a similar agenda. Egyptian authorities have repeatedly claimed that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will have repercussions on the country, and they have done so without hesitating or trying to downplay the issue. Ethiopia’s subsequent statements attempt to clarify the situation.
The 32nd Arab League Summit that took place last week in the Saudi Arabian coastal city of Jeddah followed a similar pattern. Syria’s return was granted for the first time since 2011 at the summit, which welcomed representatives of all 22 member nations.
After its meeting on May 19, 2023, the Arab League Council issued resolutions with a primary focus on ensuring the security of Arab countries. One of these resolutions is concerned with GERD. The resolution asserts that “the water security of Egypt and Sudan is an integral part of the water security of the Arab world.” It rejected any action that affects Egypt and Sudan’s rights on the Nile, making the GERD case a threat to the water security of the entire Arab world, not just Egypt and Sudan.
The League has taken a very firm stance on this issue, departing from its usual practice of merely condemning Ethiopia’s unilateral filling and demanding a legally binding agreement.
Samuel Tefera (PhD), an expert and lecturer at the Center for African and Oriental Studies at Addis Ababa University (AAU), insists that the League’s stance toward Egypt and Sudan is blatantly partisan. “Gamal Abdel Nassir exerted considerable effort to Arabize the Nile agenda. Ultimately, the League declared that the Nile issue is on the water security agenda of the entire Arab world.”
According to the expert, this will have a negative impact on Ethiopia’s relations with the Middle East. “They declared GERD to be a threat to water security in the Arab world. This falls just short of action. Next time, they may say that they took action. They have told us explicitly that the Nile poses a security threat to the Arab world,” Samuel explained.
Members also agreed that until Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt reach a binding agreement, this resolution will continue to be reported as a declaration in their respective reports, indicating that the issue of GERD will remain on the League’s agenda until their demand is met.
The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a response on May 22, 2023, two days after the League passed the resolution. It noted that the recent summit of the League of Arab States regarding the GERD echoed Egypt’s rhetoric and hostile actions.
“This resolution is an affront to the African Union and its member states, which are working toward an amicable negotiated resolution to the GERD matter. It runs contrary to the history of the people of Africa and the Arab world,” reads MoFA’s statement.
Egypt has been attempting to use its diplomacy on any regional or global stage to promote its version of the narrative regarding Ethiopia’s national project. The week prior to the summit, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry made similar statements to local media. He accused Ethiopia of buying time while demonstrating “no political will to settle the issue.”
In addition to regional forums, Egypt petitioned the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to compel Ethiopia to reach a binding agreement before filling the dam. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed the Agreement on the Declaration of Principles (ADP). They agreed that construction of the dam would continue concurrently with negotiations on the filling and operation guidelines and rules.
In September 2021, the UNSC urged the three to reach an acceptable and legally binding agreement within a reasonable timeframe. Nonetheless, the UNSC directed the case to be resolved under the supervision of the AU. Egypt uses the League as leverage while the African Union works on the matter at the same time.
On the one hand, the Arab League demands that the UNSC and AU exert pressure on Ethiopia to reach a legally binding agreement. On the contrary, it issues statements that undermine the AU’s and UN’s efforts.
“The Arab world never believed in the AU’s mandate to resolve this case,” Samuel says. “They claim that Ethiopia is filling the dam unilaterally. But this is not true. Ethiopia is filling the dam based on the 2015 Principles of Declaration signed by Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, Omar al-Bashir, and Hailemariam Desalegn.”
Samuel indicated that both Egyptian and Sudanese experts agreed on the phased filling of the GERD.
“They agreed that Ethiopia would fill the dam gradually only during the summer, when there is an abundance of water in Ethiopia. This is a formal agreement, and Ethiopia is filling the dam in accordance with that.”
There is a quantified amount of water determined for each phase, which can take up to seven years under the phased filling tri-partite agreement.
“This phased filling is not based solely on the interests of Ethiopia but also on the consent of Egypt and Sudan.”
Ethiopia is currently preparing for its fourth round of filling in the coming months. Since the 2011 groundbreaking, Ethiopia has not failed to provide any scientific or factual truth in the past decade. However, neither Egypt nor the Arab League appear convinced by this fact.
The Ethiopian government appears equally exhausted by such irrational beliefs.
Ethiopia asserts that Egypt is attempting to preserve its colonial monopoly on the Nile.
“Ethiopia calls on Egypt to abandon its unlawful claim to the monopoly of the Nile River, citing a defunct colonial agreement and a colonial-mentality-based position, negotiate in good faith, and reach a win-win outcome,” MoFA’s latest statement reads.
Constantinos Berhutesfa, a senior political economy analyst and former anti-corruption commissioner for the African Union, argues that Egypt’s claim has no basis in reality.
Egypt is aware that GERD offers numerous advantages, according to Constantinos, who believes they are uneasy because they think Ethiopia is violating their rights. “GERD is an electric generating dam that ensures a steady water supply for downstream nations,” he explained.
He affirms that the amount of water that evaporates from the Aswan dam is greater than the amount of water used for irrigation in Egypt. “Because Egypt is a lowland, the rate of evaporation is exceptionally high. In contrast, Ethiopia is a highland, so the amount of water that can evaporate from the GERD reservoir is negligible.”
Egypt is also concerned that Ethiopia plans to construct additional dams on the Abbay River. “There is no scenario or international law that forces Ethiopia to enter into an agreement to develop its own water,” Constantinos said.
He believes the statements issued by the League do nothing but cast a shadow on Ethiopia’s relationship with Middle Eastern countries.
“The Arab world continues to create pressure. In fact, Ethiopia is not making unilateral filling, though it may seem so,” he said. He claims the Egyptians have tried everything, including barring Ethiopia’s access to external financing for the dam.
As long as Ethiopia’s economy is able to finance it, he says the dam will be finalized.