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Egypt/Ethiopia/Sudan: Could the US be the key to unlocking the GERD deadlock?

By Mourad R. Kamel
Posted on Thursday, 22 July 2021 17:21, updated on Friday, 23 July 2021 12:49

Sudan's Sovereign Council Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, in Khartoum, Sudan March 6, 2021. Sudan Sovereign Council/Handout via REUTERS

In a speech on 15 July to kick-start a national project, “Decent Life”  (حياه كريمة), Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stated that the country’s national security is a “red line" that cannot be crossed. It’s not the first time the former chief of military intelligence has warned against testing the nation’s threshold when it comes to matters of national security and sovereignty. But this warning came ten days after Ethiopia began the second filling of its contentious Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD).  

“I want to make it clear that your concerns about the GERD are legitimate, but we need to address this topic calmly… It is not because we practice wise politics [or] that we [prioritise] peace, that we allow in any way or form, the jeopardy of our national interests,” said the Egyptian president in his address, before adding that the state can use varied options to protect itself.

The GERD, located in Guba – 60km from Sudan and 750km from Addis Ababa – has the potential to reduce Egypt’s water shares by up to 30%, leading to a similar decrease in electricity production by the Aswan dam. Both Egypt and Sudan rely almost entirely on the Nile for water supplies to over 140 million people. Any problems in accessing water spells trouble for citizens of both countries.

One year ago, during Ethiopia’s first filling of reservoirs, Sudan claimed that its water levels dropped, thereby prompting Sudan to join Egypt in finding a solution to the GERD.

“The reality is that Ethiopia’s plan has failed. By early July, the country had started its second phase of filling and was supposed to collect a total quantity of 13.5bn cubic meters of water but failed to reach this objective, [only getting] a total of 8bn cubic meters [from] the two fillings,” says Hany Raslan, an analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

If Ethiopia had reached the 13.5bn cubic meters of water, it would have annihilated any considerations of military interventions by Cairo and Khartoum, because an attack on the dam could drown both Ethiopia and Sudan, says Raslan.

Egypt losing leverage, but….it’s got power

“The Ethiopians refute any idea of diplomatic talks or resolutions on the GERD. They carry on with what they need to do and do not mind the implications of their actions. In the meantime, Abiy Ahmed knows that if he is attacked this might be of benefit to him: the war in Tigray becomes of secondary importance and he becomes the victim in front of the international community. I believe that we are dealing with a man that is not pragmatic and is disconnected from reality,” says Raslan.

Indeed, Prime Minister Abiy has had a busy year. In addition to the GERD crisis, he is also dealing with the war he launched in Tigray; the rise of insurgency in Oromia; al-Fashaga border tensions with Sudan; and an election – which he won by a landslide.

Egypt and Sudan’s concerns over water security and the safety and operation of the dam can be reconciled with Ethiopia’s development needs through substantive and results-oriented negotiations.

On the other hand, Egypt does not have many cards to play, and has no real leverage over Ethiopia. But an escalation of relations could spill over into the region, as Cairo houses one of the strongest armies in Africa and the Middle-East. Its recent military relationship with France, and yearly reception of American weapons, has made the country one of the most militarily developed in the region.

“Egypt’s primary goal is a balanced and just political settlement, but failed diplomatic talks have pushed Sisi to mention the ‘red line’. I do not believe that Egypt is really convinced of bombing anyone, but it lacks leverage to seriously threaten an unresponsive Ethiopia,” says Raslan. In March, the head of state had warned of ‘unimaginable instability’ if water supplies were to be affected.

In the case of Sudan, the country does not believe, and does not want to get involved, in military confrontation with Ethiopia. “Sudan finds itself in a difficult situation because of its fragile transition but also because it fears that Ethiopia could target the Roseires Dam – a small dam in Sudan that provides electricity to an important part of the population,” says Raslan.

Egypt and Sudan have called on new mediators to referee negotiations despite Ethiopia insisting that the AU be the sole mediator.

If no diplomatic solutions are found for Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, there will be confrontation, but not a direct war. “The concern is rather about proxy activity. It’s very possible to imagine Cairo and Khartoum becoming involved with various armed actors as a misguided attempt to create leverage in the face of Ethiopian intransigence,” says Michael Wahid Hanna, director of the US programme at the International Crisis Group.

That being said, support for proxies would unlikely shift Ethiopia’s stance and be extremely dangerous for the Horn’s stability. “Because of geography, if Ethiopia is prepared to suffer the consequences of being an uncooperative actor, it doesn’t need anybody else. [It is] creating facts on the ground, and the United States, the Arab League, and others have sought to change Ethiopia’s approach, but have been wholly unsuccessful. The country has its own internal political pressures that make it difficult to compromise,” says Hanna.

Growing room for US in GERD talks?

The GERD crisis has been looming in US politics for some time but no major decisions have been made to date. During the Obama years, it was a topic that was discussed in the State Department, and he [Obama] was the first US head of state to visit Ethiopia. During the Trump era, Ethiopia felt that the US was not a neutral actor, but rather partial to Egypt.

Ethiopia used this argument to shield [itself], saying [it] did not want biased actors involved in the process, and US efforts were very ineffective,” says Wahid.

The Horn of Africa has Washington’s attention, given that any conflicts in the area risks further destablising the region, and consequently its own personal interests.

“The US would like to see a binding cooperative water management agreement that would set clear terms on the fill, operation during drought conditions, future projects, and how the cooperative arrangements would work in terms of dealing with deficits in upstream countries. But Ethiopia clearly is uninterested in entering into any sort of binding agreement,” says Hanna.

He notes that in general, the Horn of Africa has Washington’s attention, given that any conflicts in the area risks further destablising the region, and consequently its own personal interests. Instead, the US is pushing the three countries, as well as the African Union, to resume negotiations urgently.

“Egypt and Sudan’s concerns over water security, and the safety and operation of the dam, can be reconciled with Ethiopia’s development needs through substantive and results-oriented negotiations,” said Jeffrey Feltman, US Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, following a 10-day tour of the region.

Egypt and Sudan have also called on new mediators to referee negotiations despite Ethiopia insisting that the AU be the sole mediator.

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