Ethiopia/GERD: What would push Egypt’s Sisi to resort to force?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: GERD: The dam of discord

By Hossam Rabie in Cairo

Posted on Friday, 7 May 2021 19:21
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Athens, Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.(Costas Baltas/Pool via AP)

Egypt appears to be getting serious about military action against Ethiopia over its control over Nile River water resources. In fact, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s political future hinges on how well he manages the dam dispute.

This is part 4 of a 5-part series

Many Egyptians are talking about these the likely prospect of going to war to safeguard the country’s access to Nile River water resources and to salvage whatever is left of its reputation.

On social media, many internet users have been sharing a picture of Anubis, the god of death, along with the message: “If the river’s level drops, let all the Pharaoh’s soldiers hurry and return only after the liberation of the Nile.”

In recent weeks, tensions have risen again as the sense of urgency has grown, with just two months remaining until Ethiopia begins the second phase of filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Two months to reach an agreement after 10 years of beating about the bush . . .

‘Red line’

The accelerated dam filling timeline is also behind Sisi’s sharper rhetoric, with the leader issuing a spate of warnings and threats aimed at Ethiopia – and at the international community.

“Egypt’s water is a red line,” he has said on several occasions, while maintaining that Cairo is keeping “all options … on the table” if the various parties to the dispute are unable to rapidly conclude “a binding agreement”.

The message is clear: for the president, who has the rank of field marshal, going the military route is not off limits, even if a conflict is bound to plunge the entire region into “a state of unimaginable instability”.

In an unexpected twist, the opposition is getting behind the head of state, with many leaders voicing their support for whatever action Sisi ultimately decides to take, using the hashtag “Defend Egypt’s water rights in the Nile”, for instance.

During a conference held in Turkey on 9 April, Muslim Brotherhood party members living in exile said they were prepared to set aside their differences with the regime.

Vocal opposition activist Haitham al-Hariri, a former MP who represented the 25-30 Alliance in parliament, expressed the same kind of solidarity on his Facebook page: “As an Egyptian citizen, I support any decision made to save our historical legal rights to Nile River water.”

Mohamed Nasreddin Allam, who served as Egypt’s water resources and irrigation minister from 2009 to 2011, also recognises the gravity of the situation: “If Ethiopia begins the second filling phase and uses 18 billion cubic metres of water this summer with no agreement in place, then Egypt and Sudan’s share of Nile water will be under its complete control. At that point Ethiopia will have the upper hand and be in a position to dictate its terms to both downstream countries.”

President Sisi is well aware that once the GERD filling process begins, it will be pointless to further threaten or put pressure on Addis Ababa.

With this reality in mind, Sisi didn’t pass up the opportunity to talk tough during his 30 March visit to the Suez Canal, where he watched the dislodging of the container ship Ever Given. “I’m not threatening anyone here,” he said, later qualifying his statement with a warning: “No one is untouchable for us.”

Sisi under pressure

As if to add heft to the president’s statement, within a few hours Egypt carried out a joint training exercise with Sudan called “Nile Eagles 2”. Departing from Merowe Air Base, located along the Nile, fighter jets simulated air raids.

For Allam, the stakes are clear: “Egypt needs to act before the filling process has begun, because initiating a strike after July would cause flooding in Sudan.” If an agreement is not reached soon, he added, a military intervention will be the only remaining option to stop Ethiopia from proceeding with the dam’s filling.

Egypt’s goal is to avoid losing control of its water supply, which would make the country more vulnerable in times of drought. Sisi would come under immense pressure from citizens if he were to fail them on these points. “Sisi’s political survival hinges on resolving the Ethiopian dam dispute,” said Said Sadek, an Egyptian national and professor of political sociology at the University of Helsinki.

“If the filling starts in July, it will deal a blow to Egypt’s reputation as a regional power and to the president’s credibility,” he stressed. Sisi, who draws on his reputation as an intransigent leader to silence the opposition, knows that his political future hangs in the balance.

In search of allies

But is there still time to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis? Against all expectations, Cairo may actually be in a better negotiating position now than it was several years ago. First, because Sudan, despite initially supporting Ethiopia’s project, has since begun to sympathise with Egypt’s position. Second, because Egypt signed military pacts with two other Nile basin countries, Burundi and Uganda.

What’s more, as Hani Raslan, a researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS), put it, “Egypt has successfully shown the international community that its cause is just and that Ethiopia’s intransigence is putting Egyptians at risk.”

“For over 10 years now, the country has been taking part with the utmost patience in negotiations and has showed a certain degree of flexibility to arrive at an agreement. It has requested that the United States, the World Bank and the African Union act as mediators, even going as far as to ask the UN Security Council for assistance. Addis Ababa is the intransigent party and wants to control ‘the Nile tap’,” Raslan added.

Egypt’s leaders continue to press forward in their search for allies.

On 12 April, during an official meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, President Sisi stressed the importance of the country’s access to Nile water resources, referring to it as a matter of national security.

The following day, Lavrov’s Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, spoke over the phone with UN Secretary-General António Guterres about the serious implications of Ethiopia unilaterally deciding to move forward with the second filling of the GERD and how Ethiopian intransigence is impacting the region’s security.

After all these efforts, no one will be able to say that Cairo didn’t try right to the end to resolve the dispute peacefully. “Nobody wants to have to go the military route,” Raslan said. “But Egypt has few alternatives for survival. It’s a matter of life or death.”

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