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Al-Monitor.com: Egypt fails to make headway as it navigates Nile River talks

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 17 July 2017

Egypt fails to make headway as it navigates Nile River talks
July 17, 2017

CAIRO — At the first Nile Basin States Summit held June 22 in Entebbe, Uganda, Cairo failed to amend the three clauses it rejects in the Entebbe Agreement. The latter, also known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement, was drafted as part of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and is aimed at regulating use of the river's waters in the 10 countries it flows through. While six of the upstream countries have signed the agreement, Egypt, Sudan and Congo maintain their opposition. 

The most important of the three clauses Cairo rejects is the one relating to water security. This one, which addresses the fair use and distribution of Nile water, failed to recognize Egypt’s historical annual quota from the Nile River, amounting to 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, or Sudan's 18.5 billion cubic meters in accordance with the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. Egypt must now pin its hopes on other rounds of negotiations between the heads of state as it calls for another summit in Cairo.

Both the Sudanese and the Ethiopian delegations withdrew from preparatory meetings on the water issue held two days before the Nile Basin States Summit.

Cairo is seeking to resume technical projects and other activities in the Nile Basin that were suspended when Egypt froze its membership in the NBI in 2010 after six countries signed the Entebbe Agreement. In addition to not recognizing Egypt’s water quota, the agreement allows upstream countries to build dams, block or store water from the river without prior notice. Cairo believes that the agreement poses a threat to its water security.

The agreement also stipulates that decisions must be voted upon based on a majority system, while Cairo demands decisions be made by consensus as stipulated in the NBI constitutive act because the numerous upstream countries have many common interests, while the downstream countries will be greatly affected by any decisions that do not take their interests into account.

Al-Monitor interviewed Mona Omar, Egypt's former ambassador to South Africa, Denmark and Rwanda, who is now the director of the African Center at the British University in Egypt and assistant to the former Egyptian foreign minister for African affairs.

The interview includes questions about the future of cooperation between Egypt and the other Nile countries and about the feasibility of holding future meetings of heads of the Nile Basin states. The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  What is your take on the future of cooperation between Egypt and the Nile Basin states following the recent summit’s failure to reach solutions on the differences over the Entebbe Agreement?

Omar:  First of all, I don’t agree that the summit was a failure, because it was the first positive step taken in many years. The Nile Basin states’ presidents met to discuss the issue, and their differences were technical, not political. Their positions differed given their different interests, and no one expected them to reach a consensus at the first meeting, especially considering that the principles that Egypt is clinging to cannot be waived. Cairo insists that the use of the river water be determined in accordance with the needs of each country and its population. It also insists on the principle of prior notice before any project is started in the upper Nile and to a unanimous voting mechanism instead of a majority one.

As for the fate of future cooperation between the Nile Basin states and Egypt in the event of continued differences, the current Egyptian approach is to strengthen relations with all of the Nile Basin states, all the while entrenching the principle of common interests rather than the interest of one party at the expense of another. The meetings held at the sidelines of international forums among leaders of the Nile states and Egypt confirm that there is an ongoing dialogue and that Egypt is on the right track.

Al-Monitor:  Do you expect other similar meetings?

Omar:  Egypt has offered to host another summit focusing on cooperation in order to achieve joint development projects away from any points of contention.

Al-Monitor:  The Egyptian historical quota of the Nile waters is the main point of contention with the upstream countries. To what extent does the water security clause in the Entebbe Agreement fail to assure Cairo regarding its quota?

Omar:  This article has two parts, the first of which is about quota sharing. It wouldn’t be fair for water quotas to be distributed without regard for the needs of each country and population. The second part calls for prior notification in accordance with international law. Being a downstream country, Egypt has the right to be notified before any project is started on the Upper Nile so that it can assess the potential danger and negative impact that might ensue as far as the flow of water to it is concerned. Egypt suggested that prior notification should not be made in a bilateral way so that Egypt is not accused of undermining the sovereignty of any state. It said that notification should be made collectively through the NBI. Third, Egypt objects to the majority voting mechanism stated in the agreement, and instead calls for unanimous voting because the two downstream states are a minority.

Al-Monitor:  What is your take on the Nile document submitted by Egypt during the recent summit of Nile Basin states’ presidents as an alternative to the Entebbe Agreement?

Omar:  I haven’t looked at the document yet, but I don’t think it included general issues that all countries could have agreed on, and Egypt might have once again incorporated controversial points, thus preventing the upstream countries from adopting it.

Al-Monitor:  Can Egypt participate in the NBI activities without being part of the Entebbe Agreement, similar to Sudan?

Omar:  The agreement and the NBI are two sides of the same coin, and I wonder how a state objecting to a cooperation mechanism can join the entity behind this very mechanism. Frankly, Sudan's position is incomprehensible. By the way, Congo and South Sudan have not yet signed the agreement. There are still upstream countries whose parliaments have not yet ratified the entry into force of the agreement. I think that by doing so, these countries are keeping a leeway that could lead to the return of Egypt.

Al-Monitor:  To what extent are the differences on the Entebbe Agreement related to the Renaissance Dam crisis, in light of the current obstacles hindering the finalization of the dam’s impact study?

Omar:  Had the article of prior notice in the agreement been approved, and had the issue of equitable quota been based on the Egyptian request, things would have gone smoothly. The current course of the Renaissance Dam negotiations is stalled, which required Egypt to call for an urgent meeting among water ministers in Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

Al-Monitor:  Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir did not attend the Nile Basin states summit despite Sudanese media reports of a desire to join the agreement. How do you think Cairo would be affected?

Omar:  Sudan's accession to the Entebbe Agreement would weaken [Sudan], being a downstream country, and when Egypt negotiates the principles of respect for historical water rights, it speaks for both downstream states, namely Egypt and Sudan. As for the Renaissance Dam, international reports have shown that it can cause damage and that the first victim would be Sudan. If there are differences between Egypt and the Sudan, then they should be put aside to serve the two countries' interests.

Walaa Hussein is the editor-in-chief of the parliamentary news division at Rose al-Yusuf. An expert in African affairs, Hussein has collaborated with the Nile Channel, writing and preparing newscasts. On Twitter: @walaahuseen

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