GERD: Where does the Sudan-Ethiopia rapprochement leave Egypt?

By Mourad R. Kamel

Posted on Monday, 20 February 2023 14:00
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed meets the Chairman of Sudanese Sovereignty Council Abdel Fattah al-Burhan at Presidential Palace in Khartoum, Sudan on January 26, 2023. (Photo by Sudan Sovereignty Council Press / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP)

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently visited Sudan for the first time since the 2021 military coup. He met with the Sovereign Council head, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan in Khartoum, as well as General Hamdan Daglo 'Hemeti', head of the Rapid Support Forces. The visit is seen as a rapprochement of the two countries, to the detriment of Egypt that had depended on Sudan's support in the on-going tensions with Ethiopia over GERD. However, why the sudden change between the two neighbours?

Relations between the neighbours have been strained in recent years over the disputed fertile fashaqa border region where troops from both countries have faced each other in violent clashes. Added to that were the tens of thousands of Ethiopian refugees who fled the civil war in the north to seek safety in Sudan, followed by the on-going debate over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

More than half of Ethiopia’s population doesn’t have access to electricity and the country has long suffered from extreme poverty. The GERD promises to provide electricity and economic growth, but it is also seen as a symbol of determination by Abiy Ahmed’s government. 

On the other hand, Egypt worries that the dam will negatively impact the country’s water supplies. Sudan on its end, which initially opposed the construction of the dam, has warmed up to the idea of receiving cheap electricity, but worries about what could happen to its local dams. During his visit, Abiy reassured Burhan that the Renaissance Dam would not cause any harm to Sudan but “will have benefits for it in terms of electricity”, Reuters Reuters.

Seeds of rapprochement

The rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Khartoum might have started earlier when Abiy Ahmed and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan held side talks in July 2022 during the Intergovernmental Authority on Development Extraordinary Summit in Nairobi. This meeting occurred just after the third filling of the dam, and Ethiopia, which has one of its own occupying the Executive Secretary seat of IGAD, was desperate to get Sudan aboard.

Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed, Sudan’s Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Djibouti’s Ismail Omar Guelleh attend the 39th IGAD extraordinary summit in Nairobi on July 5, 2022. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

“There were smiles, laughs and positive messaging, that they were trying to find solutions for the Fashaga border dispute and other issues. This rapprochement was confirmed during the Tana High Level Forum in October 2022, when both leaders met again and communicated that they were on the same page.

“When Abiy Ahmed visited Khartoum, he lent his support to the Framework agreement, which favours Hemeti; and by doing so, he is trying to get both generals on board, but he is incentivising them separately and in different ways,” says Kholood Khair, the founder and director of Confluence Advisory, a think-tank in Khartoum. 

Indeed, Abiy Ahmed’s three meetings with Burhan in less than seven months, coupled by his nod to Hemeti through support of the Framework agreement is action at play.

To recall, the Framework agreement does not provide for adequate security sector reform that would will allow Burhan and Hemeti to effectively keep control of the country’s security apparatus. But the agreement will also enable Hemeti to be on equal terms with Burhan.

“There are two generals at the top and they have diverging foreign policies, they have diverging income streams, they have diverging political constituencies domestically that they play to. Because you have that inherent divergence between the two generals, you get different and unpredictable sorts of power plays,” says Khair.

Cairo’s watchful eye on Khartoum

Egypt and Sudan have held close relations since Bashir’s overthrow in 2019. Burhan, 61, who headed the coup and received military education in Egypt has enjoyed support from Cairo and Gulf countries. Three weeks prior to Abiy’s visit to Khartoum, Burhan had welcomed Egypt’s Chief of the General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, to discuss bilateral relations, the GERD and Sudan’s political process. 

For Michael Hanna, the director of the US Program at Crisis Group, Egypt doesn’t believe there has been a change in Sudan’s position on the GERD despite the press coverage. “Cairo is comfortable with the written readouts and doesn’t understand that Khartoum has shifted. Now that being said, there is concern that the improving Ethiopia-Sudan ties and the possibility of more data and information sharing by Ethiopia will make Sudan less insistent on the necessity of a binding agreement,” he says.

“Abiy has often played off one general against the other. Burhan is viewed in Addis Ababa as Egypt’s man and therefore keeping him on side is one way of Abiy maintaining some potential channel of communication with Cairo,” says Rashid Abdi, a chief analyst on the Horn of Africa at Sahan Research.

It’s a very unstable power play that is going on not just in Sudan, but also across the region.

“Ideally, this presence of two generals in Sudan, one that backs and is backed by Egypt, and one that backs and is backed by Ethiopia, would allow for a sort of a way to mediate between Ethiopia and Egypt; but because of such intense competition between Burhan and Hemeti, it increases further the enmity between Egypt and Ethiopia. It’s a very unstable power play that is going on not just in Sudan, but also across the region,” says Khair.

Turkey growing influence

Egypt’s concerns do not only include Ethiopia and the GERD, but also Turkish influence in the region. Two weeks after Egypt’s spy chief visited Khartoum, his Turkish counterpart visited Sudan and was welcomed by Hemeti this time. There is word that the Ottoman-era port of Suakin that was leased to Turkey for 99 years in a deal that ended following Bashir’s overthrow is something Ankara wants to get back. The lease was signed in 2017 and was fervently contested by Riyad and Cairo who fear Turkish encroachment in Sudan. 

During President Sisi’s meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on the sidelines of the US-Africa Leaders Summit in January, the Egyptian leader underlined the necessity to find a deal that would safeguard Egypt’s water security. 

The US has stepped up its involvement in GERD issues, but is also cognizant that the various discussions have not yet progressed

The last rounds of unsuccessful negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia collapsed in April 2021, after Egypt’s foreign ministry slammed Ethiopia for not negotiating in “good faith”. It also looks like new attempts to revive talks have also failed. 

“The US has stepped up its involvement in GERD issues, but is also cognizant that the various discussions have not yet progressed to a point at which high-level political decisions would be necessary. There is no optimism that the current situation could produce a deal,” says Hanna. 

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options