DON'T MISS : Talking Africa Podcast – Mozambique's insurgency: After Palma, what comes next?

Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan: Is the escalating language in GERD talks cause for concern?

Timothy Kaldas
By Timothy Kaldas

Policy Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and an independent risk advisor. You can follow him on Twitter @tekaldas.

Posted on Thursday, 22 April 2021 13:45, updated on Friday, 23 April 2021 00:01

A boat is moored on the Nile river in Atfih town, Giza, Egypt, Tuesday, 12 Jan 2021. AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

African Union-led talks in Kinshasa between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) collapsed earlier this month without an agreement and tensions appear to be on the rise.

Following the failure of the talks, both Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and Sudan’s irrigation minister, Yasser Abbas, warned that “all options are open.”

Ethiopia, for its part, has gone to the United Nations Security Council to complain that Egypt and Sudan are not negotiating in good faith and trying to “internationalise” the dispute to apply pressure on Ethiopia. Egypt and Sudan, in turn, argue that it is Ethiopia who has failed to negotiate in good faith.

As for internationalising the dispute, the Ethiopian complaint seems incoherent. First of all, a dispute between states is, by definition, “international.” Moreover, Ethiopia has sought mediation from the African Union (AU), itself an international body, and is now turning to the UN.

The role of international mediators

Escalating rhetoric, disagreements over mediators and appeals to the UN are part of an effort by all parties to seek international support for their respective positions. The real disagreement is not over whether international mediators have a role to play, but over which are seen as favourable to each party’s interests.

Egypt and Sudan, like Ethiopia, are indeed seeking international mediation, and their recent escalating rhetoric is aimed to increase a global sense of urgency around the dispute to attract more engagement.

Egypt, in particular, has spent years seeking international mediation to bring an end to the dispute, initially proposing the World Bank mediate before turning to the United States.

Ethiopia has criticised such efforts, often insisting on “African solutions to African problems”.  While this is a powerful invocation, it is more a reflection of interests than principles. It also ignores the fact that Egypt has participated in years of talks hosted by the AU that have failed to deliver a binding agreement. Indeed, Ethiopia continues to untenably reject the very goal of a binding agreement.

Ethiopia and Egypt have both sought the most favourable dynamics for talks over the dam. Many riparian member states have long objected to Egypt’s insistence that the colonial era 1929 and 1959 Nile Water Agreements guaranteed it and Sudan virtually exclusive rights to Nile waters and veto power over any upstream projects on the Nile, including Ethiopia.

LISTEN GERD: 1959 Egypt/Sudan treaty -‘The worst agreement Khartoum could have signed’

In addition, Ethiopia is convinced that the AU will not compel it to make concessions, and so believes the AU is the ideal forum for talks. Egypt, for its part, recognising it has little direct leverage over Ethiopia and suffering from decades of neglecting many of its neighbours on the continent has sought a more favourable setting with mediators who have more leverage to press Ethiopia to make concessions.

Egypt has long refused to entertain upstream dam projects like the GERD.

Ethiopia’s approach to building GERD has further encouraged Egypt to pursue external intervention. Ethiopia built the dam without consulting downstream countries or performing in advance the normally requisite environmental and social impact assessment for such a project.

Instead, Ethiopia has sought to build facts on the ground that allow it to impose the dam on its downstream neighbours fait accompli, insisting it has the sovereign right to do so.

Unilateral decision

Ethiopia has reason to have adopted this approach rather than going through normal consultations. Egypt has long refused to entertain upstream dam projects like the GERD. When Ethiopia floated the idea of building a series of dams in 1978, then Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat threatened war.

Ethiopian unilateralism and its decision to exploit the turmoil in Egypt following the 2011 uprising has paid dividends. Egypt has gone from rejecting Ethiopia’s right to build a dam to accepting the GERD as part of Ethiopia’s right to development and is now pursuing a binding agreement on the long-term management of the dam to mitigate future damage.

While Ethiopia insists the dam will not significantly harm Egypt and Sudan’s interests, independent researchers warn that without a fair and carefully devised protocol for managing the dam, significant harm is likely.

Egypt’s escalation in language

The latest escalation in language from Egypt is part of ongoing efforts to internationalise the issue. On 30 March, Sisi made his most forceful statement to date on the dispute, insisting that no one can take a drop of water from Egypt and if that should take place there were will be “a level of instability in the region beyond anyone’s imagination.”

He went on to say that Egypt’s water was a red line and, if crossed, Egypt’s response will impact the stability of the entire region. While he insisted he was not threatening anyone, the warning was clear.

For years, Ethiopia, along with many of Egypt’s partners, has dismissed the possibility that Egypt would entertain using force against Ethiopia if negotiations didn’t deliver an acceptable agreement.

A week later, he reiterated his red line and the following day, Ethiopia’s riparian neighbour, Uganda, announced a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Egypt.

The announcement highlighted the two countries shared interest in the Nile. The following week Egypt and Sudan held joint military exercises dubbed “Nile Eagles 2.”

The exercises had been planned long in advance, but the optics of their military cooperation help reinforce their escalatory warnings.

Sisi’s statements had multiple audiences.

First and foremost, these warnings aim to encourage foreign capitals to devote more attention and resources to the dispute and use their influence to help deliver a resolution and avoid the “unimaginable instability” Sisi assured them will come if they fail to do so.

President Sisi also has reason to increase the perceived credibility of Egypt’s military option if talks fail. For years, Ethiopia, along with many of Egypt’s partners, has dismissed the possibility that Egypt would entertain using force against Ethiopia if negotiations didn’t deliver an acceptable agreement.

‘It’s a mistake to confuse highly unlikely for impossible’

Some doubt  Egypt’s ability to pull off such an operation so far from its own territory while others doubt Egypt’s appetite for military action abroad. There is no denying that Egyptian officials have little appetite and limited capacity for foreign military adventures. Nonetheless, it’s a mistake to confuse highly unlikely for impossible.

That said, in both of Sisi’s recent warnings over the threat of instability he also had a domestic message to caution the Egyptian public that military action is no simple thing and reduce the domestic appetite for a military option. Many Egyptians are increasingly frustrated by what they see as their leadership failing to take action to protect Egypt’s access to Nile waters.

They’ve been told for years that the GERD poses a serious threat to their survival and yet the government has pursued seemingly interminable and unsuccessful talks.

For his domestic audience, Sisi sought to remind them of the heavy price of conflict and why it must be carefully considered and avoided if at all possible, reminding Egyptians of the enormous cost of the wars in Yemen and with Israel in the 1960s.

None of this is to suggest that Egypt has abandoned engaging with African states to build support. On top of participating in all AU-mediated talks, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, just finished a whirlwind tour of African capitals meetings with a number of heads of state and the GERD was on the agenda during each visit.

Egypt is using its considerable diplomatic depth and strong international partnerships to isolate Addis Ababa and increase the pressure for a binding agreement.

Ethiopian problems

Meanwhile, Ethiopian leaders may be contributing to their own international isolation. Their actions in Tigray have been under enormous scrutiny. The UN is pursuing an investigation of war crimes, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed himself acknowledged atrocities took place.

Earlier this year the European Union suspended €88m of aid to Ethiopia. This is on top of the $272m of aid to Ethiopia that former US President Donald Trump halted last year. Much of the US aid is still on hold, but now due to the atrocities in Tigray rather than the GERD.

The combination of threats and isolation appears to have contributed to a far more modest response by Addis to the latest bellicosity from Cairo as compared to Abiy’s response to escalating language from Egyptian regime-controlled media in 2019. In 2019, Abiy warned that Ethiopia didn’t want war, but was prepared to mobilise millions if needed.

For its part, Egypt claimed it was “shocked” at the suggestion. This time, an embattled and internationally isolated Abiy has refrained from responding in kind to threatening language, insisting  Ethiopia had no intention of harming downstream countries.

A history of Egyptian maximalism helped encourage Ethiopian unilateralism and its decision to impose facts on the ground. Its success was in part due to a weakened Egypt coping with dramatic internal turmoil.

Bottom line

Today, Egyptian domestic turmoil has subsided and it is strengthening its international partnerships, while Ethiopia is struggling with insurgencies and aid flows to it are being slashed.

Ethiopia has nonetheless achieved a large victory in building the dam and gaining Egypt’s acceptance.

The question is will it take its winnings and make a deal to protect them or will it continue to delay and test the limits of its partners and neighbours with all the risks that come with that?

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