Egyptian official: Ethiopia dam negotiations in Washington ‘a disaster’

Three days of negotiations in Washington between the foreign and irrigation ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan ended on Wednesday without an agreement over the filling schedule for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, according to a joint statement by the three countries and the World Bank that was released by the US Treasury Department, which hosted the meeting.

The ministers agreed to hold further technical and legal talks before reconvening again in Washington on January 28 and 29 where they plan to finalize an agreement, the statement said. The three countries agreed to begin filling the dam in stages during the wet season between July and August and will aim for an initial level of 595 meters above sea level.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shouky said on Thursday that Egypt is “cautiously optimistic that we are reaching a critical point” in the negotiations.

But Egyptian officials, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, say that Cairo finds itself in a weak negotiating position with little outside support and is coming under pressure to agree to a less than favorable deal.

An official member of the Egyptian delegation in Washington described the negotiations as a “disaster” as the talks proceeded on Tuesday.

Another official source confirmed that the talks were not going well and that the Trump administration was pressuring Egypt to accept the minimum conditions in order to finalize a deal. Hours after both sources spoke to Mada Masr, the talks, which were originally scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, were extended for a third day, because the Trump administration refused to conclude the negotiations without some kind of joint statement, the second source said.

According to a well-informed consultant for the minister of irrigation on the dam project, the Trump administration is pressuring Egypt to accept Ethiopia’s proposals in return for compensation from the World Bank in the case of any water shortages. The nature of the compensation is unclear as yet.

According to the source, Ethiopia is refusing to commit to a number of key conditions: Firstly, that its annual share of water will be less than 40 billion cubic meters; secondly, that it will provide Egypt with an early notification before the dam’s operations begin; and thirdly, that the operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be compatible with the safe operation of the Aswan High Dam — specifically, that the High Dam would be capable of producing sufficient electricity.

“Egypt doesn’t have support from anyone on these demands,” the consultant source said, adding that Cairo finds itself in a weak negotiating position. The source said that Egypt cannot fully go against the wishes of the United States and that they are not getting the kind of support they were hoping for from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, an assessment by the Irrigation Ministry has concluded that Egypt will not get enough support from international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the African Union in the negotiations, according to the source. Egypt does not have a strong ally in Africa and when Ethiopia plans to begin filling the dam in July, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s term as head of the African Union will have ended and handed over to South Africa.

An official at the Foreign Affairs Ministry told Mada Masr that Egyptian officials will hold internal technical discussions to decide what they could compromise on ahead of the next round of talks at the end of January. Meanwhile, the presidency and the Foreign Affairs Ministry will convene in the next two weeks to decide on a political strategy. According to the official, Cairo is trying to avoid an open-ended scenario in which a final deal is not agreed upon, which would lead to the dam being filled without Egypt’s consent.

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