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Ethiopia Freezes Nile Water Treaty in Sign of Thaw With Egypt

Ethiopia has agreed to postpone ratification of a treaty on sharing Nile River water until a new Egyptian government takes office to join the negotiations. The delay eases a long-running dispute between upstream countries at the source of the Nile and downstream countries that claim historic rights to the water.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has told a visiting Egyptian delegation he will freeze consideration of a treaty that would reverse colonial-era agreements giving Egypt and Sudan rights to 90 percent of the Nile’s water. Six upper riparian states have signed the deal, clearing the way for ratification. But downstream countries Egypt and Sudan have refused.

Ethiopia’s ambassador to Egypt Mohamoud Dirir Gheddi said the delay is a goodwill gesture to allow Egypt time to elect a new government following the popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

"Ethiopia, having seen the current situation in Egypt, where they need to establish their own government and go through a democratic process of election of their president, sees that it is sane and wise to wait for Egypt and give her time. So it is by way of freezing the ratification at parliament that process will be delayed until such time as Egypt comes up with its own popularly elected government," Dirir said.

Members of the Egyptian delegation say they received a similar assurance from Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during a visit to Kampala last month. Delegation leader Mustafa el Gindy said the 47-member group asked for a delay of up to a year.

"Six months or a year because we need to stabilize, we need to finalize our revolution. We got Mubarak, we got his ministry, but 30 years of Mubarak in Egypt, there is a lot of ‘Mubarak underground’ who want to kill this revolution. Then we need the time, the year is a maximum to get back strong enough, to sit all together," el Gindy said.

The water-sharing dispute gained new urgency last month when Ethiopia announced it is building a huge 5,000-megawatt power project on the Nile, close to the Sudanese border. El Gindy said the announcement frightened many Egyptians, who were told for decades by the Mubarak government that Ethiopia was trying to steal their water.

"I told the prime minister, 30 years of Mubarak made the Egyptians [think] they don’t trust you. They think you are the man who wants to kill them and cut the water on them," el Gindy said.

Ethiopia’s ambassador Dirir Gheddi says the Mubarak government contributed to the unfriendly atmosphere by blocking international funding for an Ethiopian power project on the Nile.

"There was a baggage of suspicion created by the former regime vis-a-vis Ethiopia that Ethiopia is a conspiring country against Egypt, and of course Egypt has conspired against Ethiopia in the past, persuading international donors like the IMF and World Bank not to fund projects in Ethiopia related to the Nile River," Dirir said.

Egyptian delegation leader el Gindy says that when all Nile riparian countries reach a deal on water-sharing, institutions like the World Bank and IMF will be knocking on their door to fund power generation projects.

News agencies say Egypt’s Prime Minister Essam Sharaf will visit Ethiopia later this month to follow up on the work of the public diplomacy delegation.

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