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War of words
Published in Ahram Online on 23 - 10 - 2019

Egypt expressed shock at the statements attributed to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed hinting at war as an option to solve the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam's (GERD) stalled negotiations with Egypt.
Addressing the Ethiopian parliament on Tuesday Ahmed was quoted by the Associated Press as saying “Some say things about the use of force [by Egypt]. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,” Ethiopia's prime minister said.
“If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that's not in the best interest of all of us,” Ahmed said.
In reaction, a statement by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said that if true, Ahmed's words included negative signals and unacceptable hints. It said it was inappropriate to threaten military action as a means to resolve the dispute over GERD because that does not comply with the principles of international law and the laws governing the African Union. The statement stressed that Egypt has always sought to tackle this issue in line with the principles of international law and international legitimacy.
The Foreign Ministry added that Ahmed's statements were surprising, especially coming a few days after he received the Nobel Peace Prize and after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called to congratulate him. The two had agreed to meet in Sochi, on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit scheduled for 23-24 October, to discuss means to achieve a breakthrough in the negotiations over GERD.
Soon after Ahmed's statements, the US administration offered to host a meeting between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Washington to attempt to end the dispute.
Just before this escalation, a parliamentary ad hoc committee was formed last week to discuss the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Egypt's annual quota of Nile water has started its meetings.
Deputy Speaker Suleiman Wahdan heads the committee. On Saturday he told reporters the committee will review statements delivered before parliament on 9 October by Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati and Housing Minister Assem Al-Gazzar.
The meetings will be attended by heads of parliament's national security, irrigation, foreign relations and agriculture committees.
“Technical experts will also be invited to answer MPs' questions,” said Wahdan. He added that the ultimate goal will be to protect Egypt's water quota.
Madbouli told parliament on 9 October that Ethiopia had violated the Declaration of Principles signed by the presidents of Egypt and Sudan and the prime minister of Ethiopia on 23 March 2015 by opting to act unilaterally.
Shoukri has criticised Ethiopia for rejecting every proposal submitted to prevent a reduction in Egypt's water supply.
Agriculture Committee head Hisham Al-Hosari told reporters that the ad hoc committee is expected to grant President Al-Sisi a “mandate” to take all necessary measures to protect Egypt's rights to Nile water.
President Al-Sisi and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke on the phone last week and were expected to meet at the Africa-Russian Summit held this week in Sochi.
In a televised speech during the Armed Forces' 31st cultural symposium Al-Sisi said many statements about the dam on social media were “exaggerated” and called on the public to deal with the issue calmly.
“The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met in March 2015 and agreed on some principals regarding the filling and running of the dam in a way that does no harm to Egypt,” he said.
Al-Sisi argued that “if what took place in 2011 hadn't occurred [the January Revolution] we would have reached a consensual solution on the GERD and the matter would have been much easier.”
He said that since 2014 Egypt has developed an inclusive plan to solve Egypt's water problem, and that LE200 billion has already been spent on water recycling and desalination plants. A further LE70 will be spent in the next 12 months, and by 2037 it is anticipated that LE900 billion will have been invested in securing the country's water needs.
On 18 October Ahmed and Al-Sisi spoke by phone. The two leaders agreed on “the importance of overcoming any obstacles to the GERD negotiations in order to reach an agreement that fulfils the hopes and aspirations of the peoples of the three countries, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia,” according to a statement issued by the presidency.
Tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia have been building in recent weeks after talks on technical aspects of the dam Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile failed to make progress.
Earlier this month Egyptian officials said the talks over GERD had reached a deadlock and called for international mediation. Addis Ababa continues to insist it has faith in the trilateral negotiations.
In his statement before parliament on 9 October, Madbouli said “Egypt will use the Declaration of Principles signed on 23 March 2015 to ask for mediation to resolve ongoing differences.” An earlier suggestion by Cairo that the World Bank should become involved was rejected out of hand by Addis Ababa.
Tarek Radwan, head of parliament's African Affairs Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egyptian officials have been busy alerting the international community to the dangers posed by Ethiopia's intransigence over the dam.
“Egypt cannot accept the status quo Ethiopia is trying to impose and will never agree to one drop of its quota of the Nile water being lost due to the dam.” Radwan added that Madbouli's meetings with US Vice President Mike Pence and senior Congress members during his visit to Washington last week had focused on GERD.”
Some MPs have been critical of Shoukri's approach to the dam. Independent MP Ahmed Al-Bardisi says the foreign minister should have escalated Egypt's diplomatic offensive months ago, taking the issue to the United Nations and the African Union.
“The charters of both the UN and AU specifically prohibit countries from taking unilateral actions that harm the interests of other states,” said Al-Bardisi.
Egyptian geologist and space scientist Farouk Al-Baz told Al-Hekaya talk show on Sunday that Egypt, which has extensive experience in building dams, should have contacted Addis Ababa as soon as the dam project was announced and become involved in the dam's design from the beginning. Instead, “we let the problem worsen before suddenly waking up to a crisis.”
While Cairo fears the dam will reduce Egypt's already inadequate water supply, Addis Ababa hopes the electricity it generates will turn Ethiopia into a regional power hub.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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