GERD negotiations without Desalegn: Best and worst possibilities

Will there be a direct or indirect reversal following the resignation of Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on the negotiations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?

The answer may be yes, and may be no. Expectations indicate that in the coming period, Ethiopia will focus on the internal situation to stabilize the new power that will succeed Desalegn, and this is expected to lead to more flexibility in the negotiations with Egypt, especially as the Egyptian demands are not big.

Egypt has approved the constructing of the dam, but on condition that it does not affect our water rights by controlling the water storage period and reviewing its filling capacity. The project started with 14 billion cubic meters of water and reached 74 billion cubic meters in its final design.

The dam negotiations have stalled since November, and no agreement has been reached on the adoption of the preliminary report on the studies being carried out by the two French consultants. Sudan and Ethiopia have refused to approve the initial report on the GERD studies, while Egypt has approved it.

In mid-January, Desalegn made his first official visit to Egypt, with most of its axis focusing on ways to push the stalled GERD negotiations. Observers expressed optimism about the visit and the resumption of negotiations again. Later, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi visited the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa to attend the African Summit, and held a summit with Desalegn and the Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on January 30. Sisi said after the summit in a famous statement: “There will be no harm to the citizens of any of the three countries over the issue of the water.”

Now, the government is moving as if nothing happened in Ethiopia, anticipating the worst scenario, which is that no change may happen. So we find that the propaganda campaign to rationalize the use of water and reduce the volume of waste is continuing and did not stop regardless of the temporary change in the situation in Ethiopia.

This made some media outlets here, which do not care much about the international affairs, publish news about the risk of thirst in Cape Town, the coastal city of South Africa, and how the city is preparing to receive the “Zero Hour” expected between April and June – when water runs out completely in the city, in the worst water crisis the country has known.

It did not stop there. Some active media organizations even published messages via social media warning Egyptians not to come to this point (of Cape Town), not because of GERD, but because of the erroneous behavior that causes billions of meters of water to be wasted.

The government’s handling in this way gives it a preference in negotiating with the future authority in Ethiopia. Certainly, there is a dynamic and unfixed anticipation of how the situation will evolve, by avoiding the mistakes of the past in the era when Desalegn was the Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

The situation in Addis Ababa is worrying after the declaration of a state of emergency following the resignation of Desalegn. This is the second time that the Ethiopian authorities impose the state of emergency since 2016 when it witnessed the largest anti-government demonstrations in 25 years. At that time the government dealt with it with repression, and the confrontation killed at least 940 people.

Desalegn was no more than a transitional prime minister. This is what I felt when I met him about three years ago. He belongs to the southern region and represents a small minority with little influence. The real influence is for the ruling Tigray Front, founded by late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, which has the keys to authority and real power in the country. The resignation of the Ethiopian prime minister appears to have reached a crossroads with the powerful leaders in this front, a more extremist trend in terms of nationalism of the Tigray region, and the attempt to maintain their authority in the country.

Those who expect flexibility in the Ethiopian position bet on the fact that Desalegn has exhausted the Ethiopians materially and in security in the construction of GERD. Ethiopians need projects that serve them, not giant projects that are economically burdensome without positive results. Therefore, Egypt makes use of the political situation in Ethiopia and provides support to the Ethiopian people. Egypt’s support for the Ethiopian people now has political gains that no one would expect.

But there is another point of view that does not believe that there will be a fundamental change in the Ethiopian situation. The Ethiopian people and the state apparatus, especially the Ethiopian army, regard the dam as one of its greatest national projects. They consider Egypt an “unfriendly” country which seeks to eliminate their national project. Those with this point of view demonstrate this by saying that, since Zenawi, the Ethiopian government has promoted the project, as it will save Ethiopia from poverty and transform it to the ranks of developed countries.

The unrest in Ethiopia froze the dam’s negotiations until the situation stabilizes, but the construction work continues. The first of these impacts was the indefinite postponement of the tripartite meeting between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, which was scheduled for February 24-25.

If any of the projected prospects happened, Cairo has a more realistic chance in dealing with the current situation, especially with the aforementioned advertising campaign or with the announcement of the construction of a major sewage treatment plant to avoid a potential future crisis.

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