Since December, Washington has been helping Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia hammer out an agreement acceptable to them all and that they would sign the final text at the end of February. In an unexpected move, Ethiopia refrained from attending the last round in a series of negotiations that started four months ago.
“President Trump made a priority to try and work with each of the three significantly impacted countries to try and get a good outcome for all of them, to effectively mediate. And so we ve been working on this… many of the elements of an agreement are now moving closer to finality, but there s still work that remains,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a joint press conference in Addis Ababa on 18 February, referring to the crisis over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He did not specify what work remains.
He also said, “I think there s a solution that will work, but our mission is not to impose a solution on this, but rather to get the three countries to come together around a solution that each of them acknowledges works for the concerns of all three nations.”
It appears that the US has been let down, by Ethiopia in particular. Ethiopia refrained from signing, claiming the need for more consultations.
Egypt signed the agreement even though it did not meet all of its demands, especially concerning the amount of water it would receive during the first filling of the dam, which will be 37 billion m3 of water. Egypt s current quota of Nile waters is 55 billion m3 per year. During the negotiating rounds in December, Egypt indicated a willingness to accept 40 billion m3 in order to give Ethiopia the chance to fill the reservoir sufficiently to begin electricity production within a reasonable period of time but without causing a major water crisis for Egypt.
Pompeo may have suspected that Ethiopia would refrain from signing the agreement at the scheduled time. Perhaps this is what he meant by “there s still work that remains.” But “refraining” is not “refusing” which offers the US an opening to deal with the embarrassment. Washington may be convinced that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed really needs time to consult with others in Ethiopia where the federal system limits his powers to take major decisions and where opposition groups and other rivals may seize on any lapses or mistakes to score points in the domestic power game.
On the other hand, Washington may take advantage of Ethiopia s stance in order to assert pressure on Egypt on other issues of concern to US interests in the Arab region. Perhaps this is to be inferred from Pompeo s remark that the US had no intention of pressuring any of the three parties to sign the agreement. Washington knows that Ethiopia is unlikely to sign unless Washington pressures it to do so.
Egypt hopes for something more from an important ally such as Washington, especially when it comes to such a vital question as water resources. Certainly, Egypt has shown itself to be committed to the spirit of the US mediating efforts, even if all its demands have not been met. Washington will hopefully take Egypt s cooperative and constructive attitude into account during its communications with Addis Ababa over the coming months.
Ethiopia was present in every negotiating round. The agreement that stood ready for its signature was built on years of technical studies and featured rules and principles for filling and operating the dam conducive to the fulfilment of Ethiopia s right to benefit from its ambitious project as soon as possible without causing significant harm to Egypt. Egypt, meanwhile, is clearly the party that made significant compromises in order to enable Ethiopia to achieve its developmental aspirations. Egypt also refrained from putting the US, as a mediator, in an awkward position, unlike Ethiopia.
Fortunately, remarks by another US official have helped allay some of Egypt s concerns over certain parts of Pompeo s statement, especially the vague reference to work that still remains and the suggestion that the US mediating role is so neutral that it doesn t have the power to pressure a party that creates obstacles for no convincing reason. It was US Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin who offered the much needed clarification and reassurance. In his statement on 28 February, Mnuchin said that the US looked forward to Ethiopia concluding its internal consultations “to provide for the signing of the agreement at the earliest possible time” and stressed that “final testing and filling [of GERD] should not take place without an agreement.”
He added, “We also note the concern of downstream populations in Sudan and Egypt due to unfinished work on the safe operation of the GERD, and the need to implement all necessary dam safety measures in accordance with international standards before filling begins.”
Mnuchin s statement indicates that the US may be prepared to pressure Ethiopia. It tells Addis Ababa that Washington can understand the Ethiopian government s need for further consultations, but that it would not find it acceptable if that plea for time turned out to be a pretext for evading its commitments and for attempting to fill the dam and produce a fait accompli before an agreement is signed.
Certainly, it is not in Washington s interests to forego its responsibilities towards Egypt, an important ally that has shown its flexibility throughout the negotiations, in contrast to Ethiopia s obstructiveness. If Ethiopia continues to procrastinate in order to impose de facto realities harmful to Egypt, Cairo will have no alternative other than to bring the matter to the UN Security Council. In this case, Ethiopia would be angered if this question is brought to the UN Security Council which could sanction Ethiopia without US opposition.