The Arab League's role in the Nile dam dispute

arab league
6 min read
10 November, 2022

Preliminary meetings at the Arab League summit in Algeria saw an Egyptian-Sudanese attempt to gain the regional body’s support for their vision of how to solve the controversial Renaissance Dam dilemma.

Since April 2021, negotiations about the Ethiopian dam between Khartoum and Cairo on the one hand, and Addis Ababa on the other, have stalled.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has continued steps to complete its giant energy project on the Blue Nile, announcing the start of electricity generation from the facility in March 2022, followed by the completion of the third filling of the dam in August.

Although the final Algiers Declaration was devoid of explicit support for Cairo and Khartoum, it stipulated “working to strengthen joint Arab action to protect Arab national security in its comprehensive conception and in all its political, economic, food, energy, water, and environmental dimensions”.

"Egypt's endeavour is part of an attempt to rally the Arab position behind it, by turning the Renaissance Dam's crisis into an Arab national security issue"

Why turn to the Arab League, again?

According to African affairs expert Dr Amani El-Taweel, Cairo's repeated turn to the Arab League is part of a parallel recourse to “all regional and international organisations out of its responsibility towards regional security and stability, because here we are talking about the right of life of the Egyptian people and ensuring their future". 

The director of the African program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo told The New Arab that "this support is not based on ethnicity in the sense of ‘Arabs versus Africans’, because the proposition that Ethiopia is promoting in this point is a great fraud, given that Ethiopia as a country violates the rules of international law and causes the Egyptian people to be deprived of life”.

On this point, the view from Addis Ababa differs greatly. Ethiopian journalist and political analyst Abdushekur Hassen believes that Cairo's turn to the Arab League is due to its "feeling that the Arab League is part of Egyptian foreign institutions, as a result of its headquarters being located in Cairo, and that most of its staff are current or former employees in Egyptian Foreign Ministry”.

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He explained to TNA that "Egypt's endeavour is part of an attempt to rally the Arab position behind it, by turning the Renaissance Dam’s crisis into an Arab national security issue".

Diplomatic sources confirmed to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab’s Arabic-language sister publication, that Egypt exerted great pressure during the preparatory consultations for the 2022 Arab Summit with the aim of pushing Algeria and Arab countries to adopt a formula regarding two issues.

Firstly, to secure Cairo’s position concerning its water rights in the Nile River, and secondly, to secure Arab political support in the Dam crisis.

The Arab League's effectiveness

This is not the first time that the Ethiopian Dam crisis has been discussed in Arab institutions.

Arab foreign ministers held an extraordinary meeting in Doha in June 2021, at the request of Egypt and Sudan, where the meeting confirmed the possibility of the Arab League taking "gradual measures" to support Cairo and Khartoum in their dispute with Ethiopia.

In this context, Dr El-Taweel believes that the Arab League could support Cairo via various mechanisms. "At the national level, a statement can be issued that supports the idea of ​​a consensus on resolving the Renaissance Dam crisis through a binding legal agreement, and it is an issue on which there is no dispute,” she said.

Since April 2021 negotiations about the Ethiopian dam have stalled. [Getty]

The Arab League, through its members, could also put pressure on Addis Ababa, "especially the Gulf countries that have large investments in all sectors in Ethiopia," she added. "This is a card that is supposed to be employed for the benefit of the Egyptian people and their right to life".

El-Taweel stressed that "the Arab League through its diplomatic tools all over the world can show the dangers of not reaching a binding legal agreement that preserves the right to life for Egyptians and the right to development for Ethiopians, based on a win-win game”.

However, Dr Mohamed Torshin, a Sudanese specialist in African affairs, told TNA that neither the Arab League nor the African Union have sufficient pressure tools to resolve this crisis.

"The Ethiopian side has proceeded with stages of work on the dam, so it is very difficult to compromise and respond to the Egyptian position, given that the Sudanese position is always ambiguous," he said. 

"Neither the Arab League nor the African Union have sufficient pressure tools to resolve this crisis"

"Egypt and Sudan request the support of some countries in the ‘AL’ and the ‘AU’, such as Algeria, Morocco to some extent, Libya, and the Comoros Islands, but the influence of these states is limited, except for Egypt, which is a party to the crisis, in addition to Algeria which tried to mediate between the parties of the crisis, but was unsuccessful.”

An Arab diplomatic source revealed to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that the Egyptian-Sudanese draft resolution submitted to the Algiers summit saw lengthy discussions before approving several amendments.

The source stressed that reservations about the formulation of the resolution were not only on the part of the UAE, which refuses to take strong positions against Ethiopia in view of the broad economic links between the two countries.

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The Ethiopian and African reaction

Egypt's attempts to win the support of the Arab League have motivated Ethiopian Arabic-speaking activists to intensify their efforts to convey Addis Ababa's viewpoint to the Arab world, according to Ethiopian political analyst Abdushekur Hassen.

“Not only that,” Hassen says, “but it has increased popular calls to focus on completing construction work on the Dam as well.”

In turn, journalist Ibrahim Salih Omer, who resides in Addis Ababa and specialises in African Union affairs, told TNA that Egypt’s move will enhance the “image for Africans, both at the official and popular levels, that Cairo has always been inconsistent with the vision of the AU".

He added that many Africans consider any discussion about the Renaissance Dam outside of African institutions as "a belittling of the status of African leaders and a questioning of their ability, especially in light of the AU's call to activate the principle of ‘African solutions to African problems’".

In light of this, Omer believes that Egypt’s steps will lead to African “support for the Ethiopian position in a more serious manner and without any embarrassment, to confirm that African issues must remain within the African framework, and to punish anyone who tries to deviate from the principles and vision of the African Continental Organisation".

"Many Africans consider any discussion about the Renaissance Dam outside of African institutions as 'a belittling of the status of African leaders and a questioning of their ability'"

In contrast, Dr El-Taweel clarifies that Egypt's pivot to the Arab League is not based on an ethnic calculation of ‘Arabs versus Africans’ as promoted by “Ethiopian propaganda".

She added that the principle of ‘African solutions to African problems’ has not yet proven successful across the continent's other crises.

The African affairs specialist believes that the position of the AU in the Tigray war is an indication of this failure. "Unfortunately, the AU is affected by the presence of its headquarters in Ethiopia, and therefore on this particular issue, the AU may be somewhat restricted," she said.

Furthermore, the UN Security Council’s adoption of the principle of solving African problems with African solutions is not necessarily an acknowledgement of the effectiveness of this idea, according to El-Taweel.

Rather, it is “an expression of the subordination of regional problems to the interests of influential international parties, as China, for example, refuses to bring up water issues in the Security Council because it has built dams at the expense of its neighbours”. 

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli