Tensions rise again between Egypt, Ethiopia over GERD after US-sponsored negotiations

Sarah El-Sheikh
12 Min Read

A new heated war of words over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) sprung up between Egypt and Ethiopia, putting the pace of negotiations at risk.    

Late Sunday, Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry said Ethiopia’s statement on the GERD’s recent meetings in the US included several fallacies, and that there was a desire to hinder the final agreement’s signing by the Ethiopian side.

“This issue is an existential one, and it will not be tolerated, no one is allowed to take unilateral measures regarding transboundary rivers,” he said, adding the situation requires to show the true image to citizens.

He noted that Ethiopia’s announcement to not participate in the last round of negotiations in Washington came in short notice, and apologised on 25 February.  

In a televised phone call, the minister also said that the last round of negotiations was to format minor points and the technical rules had been negotiated already over the past four months, and were approved by the Ethiopian side.

Shoukry also said that Ethiopia participated in many rounds and adopted many of the presented material and specified formulations on the dam negotiations, under US mediation.

He pointed out that it was necessary to stress the importance of commitment  to the Declaration of Principles in 2015, under the rules of international law. 

“The Ethiopian side continues on their stance, the matter will remain pending, after what Addis Ababa announced about their intention in filling the portal during the constructional stages, which is considered contrary to the Declaration of Principles Agreement,” said the minister.

Egypt is determined to use all available and possible means to take care of national its interest, people, and water rights, Shoukry said. 

The minister’s remarks came following a statement by the Foreign Ministry on Sunday which rejected Ethiopia’s stand, describing it as full of fallacies. The ministry said that Ethiopia is deliberately hindering negotiations, and rejects the dams filling at the same time of its construction.

In a harsh tone, Ethiopia announced on Saturday in a statement that it would commence the dam’s filling in parallel with its construction process by right of ownership, in response to the US treasury’s call to delay final testing and filling until an agreement is made.

Ethiopia further elaborated that it does not accept the US characterisation of the Guidelines and Rules of the First Filing and Annual Operation of the GERD, and the text of the draft agreement reportedly initiated by Egypt was not the outcome of a tripartite negotiation.

This came after Ethiopia’s absence in the last meeting in the US on 27 and 28 February to sign the draft of the final agreement prepared by the US after holding several rounds of talks between three countries in attendance of the World Bank during recent months. 

In November, Washington hosted negotiations between the three Nile Basin countries in the presence of the World Bank and the US Treasury, which resulted in the milestone final agreement draft. In 2019, Egypt had sought third party mediation due to reaching a deadlock in negotiation with Ethiopia that took place for almost nine years. 

The absence of Ethiopia was described as rejection of the final agreement and presence of the US in negotiations, especially since Ethiopian citizens have been demonstrating during the past day against the final agreement and the presence of the US. 

Egyptian experts on social media believe that the recent stances by Ethiopia is “expected” and “not new,” and what is happening is another attempt in procrastination and prevarication to escape from any entitlement against its interest, and is clear that Ethiopia will not sign any agreement before the dam’s construction is completed. Others already believe that the state is under pressure due to public rejections for the final agreement and with elections coming up in Ethiopia, the government will try its best to not stir discontent.

Ethiopian social media users have been circulating the hashtag “#it’smydam” where they expressed their full support of their country’s decision to start the filling of the dam, believing that the US is pushing negations in Egypt’s favour, and the final agreement is not fully serving their country’s interests. 

Also, critics of the negotiations mentioned that US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the person, who hosted the negotiations participated in bilateral meetings on Thursday and Friday with Sudanese and Egyptian foreign affairs and water resource ministers. Meanwhile, Meanwhile, out of three Nile basin countries, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo only visited Ethiopia in mid-February during an African tour.

Rakha Ahmed Hassan, former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister, said “Ethiopia is delaying the process of signing any agreement until the Ethiopian elections end next August, and this is a belief that I had from the beginning due to the clear delay by the Ethiopian side from the beginning.”

Hassan added “We are still counting on the US’s role to convince Ethiopia that there is no solution, but to respond to Egyptian demands, because Egypt did not ask for something unjust from Ethiopia or caused harm. We are not against the development and construction of the dam, all we want is that the dam does not cause damage to our country, and the US announces every day that they are trying to persuade Ethiopia.”

“From the beginning, the Ethiopian statements were stretched, and at the end of each round of negotiations, they just announced they were continuing to negotiate, without setting a final date for those negotiations,” the assistant minister said, commenting on the stance of the Ethiopian side since the beginning of negotiations. 

Hassan questioned, ”Will Ethiopia stall to reach any solutions and fill the dam in next June, and wait for elections in August, suggesting that this is what Egypt is currently discussing with the US side. The monsoon rains start late in May, and this is the date that the Ethiopians set it to fill the dam.”


“Washington has a significant role and influence on Ethiopia, and it can, if it wanted to, pressure it, but Pompeo, during his visit to Ethiopia said, “we will not exert pressure on any of the parties but rather we will negotiate to reach an agreement that will achieve the interests of the parties as much as possible”, he concluded.

Ahmed Al-Mufti, a former Sudanese member of the Nile Basin Countries Negotiating Committee, suggested that Mnuchin’s visit to Ethiopia was to pressure Ethiopia into accepting the agreement, urging that this agreement was not Egyptian, Sudanese, or Ethiopian, but rather an American agreement, and when Egypt signed it first and Ethiopia did not, Pompeo went to Addis Ababa to pressure them to sign.

Mufti is a legal adviser and has been a member of the Sudanese delegation in the Nile water negotiations since 1994, but left the file in 2011 due to the conditions that Ethiopia set when the negotiations started.

He also said “Addis Ababa will not sign any agreement now, and from the beginning it is said that that water is its right, and when the US pressured it to sign the agreement, it did not attend the negotiation process, and Pompeo returned without obtaining its approval.

“The only case in which Ethiopia will sign any agreement will be after the completion and filling of the dam’s first filling, and putting everyone before the de facto situation,” he said, adding that Ethiopia said before the United Nations General Assembly in 1994, that the waters of the Blue Nile are a right that is unique to them and not justification. 

Regarding water shares, he said that Ethiopia had proposed during previous negotiations to pump 31bn cubic metres of water from the dam distributed among the three countries, while Egypt proposed 40bn cubic metres, and when Washington came as a mediator, it offered to pump 37 bn cubic metres, while providing incentives to Ethiopia, if it accepts the offer.

“But Ethiopia’s attitude changed suddenly, revealing that it had hidden intentions other than producing electricity, which is to maintain the share of water that the dam will hold, for the purposes of the first filling, in a sustainable manner,” he said.

The Mufti explained that even if Ethiopia accepts the flow of 37bn cubic metres of water, the shares of Sudan and Egypt will increase, but it will never reach the shares of the 1959 agreement for the waters of the Nile.

Egypt and Ethiopia, which both have populations of about 100 million and are the fastest-growing economies in their respective regions, have said the future of the Nile is a matter of national security. The dam is built on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the world’s longest river, and will generate about 6,000 megawatts once completed. The foreign-exchange-starved horn-of-Africa nation plans to export electricity to neighbouring states.

The main differences revolve around the operation and filling of the dam and the water shares allocated to each country after its reservation in the dam.

Ethiopia continues construction of the dam, in accordance with a principles agreement signed by the three countries in 2015, and experts describe it as the “biggest mistake” committed by Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt believes that the dam will adversely affect its share of water and its national security. The position of Sudan remained more like a mediator than a stakeholder, according to a number of experts.

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