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Ethiopia/Egypt: GERD fight sucks in global actors

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

By Tamim Heikal
Posted on Monday, 10 May 2021 09:24

Egyptian Chief of Staff Mohammed Farid and his Sudanese counterpart Mohamed Othman al-Hussein in Khartoum, Sudan, March 2, 2021. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP

The failure of the latest round of negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could have dramatic repercussions for the region and the world, potentially setting off a new migrant crisis, a military intervention and chaos in shipping.

This is the final report of a 5-part series.

The recent incident involving the Ever Given, the container ship that was lodged in the Suez Canal for six days, throwing world trade into a temporary crisis, served to remind the international community of the vital importance of the canal and stability in Egypt and the wider region.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made an in-person visit to the canal to watch the ship being dislodged and seized the opportunity to bring up the lingering tensions over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

He didn’t mince words: “No one can take a drop of Egypt’s water and if it happens there will be inconceivable instability in the region.”

Greater drought vulnerability and a new migrant crisis

As the seemingly never-ending crisis enters its final phase, just two scenarios remain on the table.

  • The first involves Ethiopia taking the unilateral decision to begin the second phase of filling the dam in July.
  • In the second, Ethiopia manages to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, and the GERD’s filling is extended over a longer period, probably something more like seven years, which would greatly ease the impact on the two downstream countries’ water supply.

The Nile River provides 97% of Egypt’s water needs, with 85% of its water originating in the Ethiopian Highlands. If the filling process were to start in July at the pace Ethiopia has discussed, millions of hectares of farmland in the Nile River Valley would be vulnerable to drought. Farmers and their families, who make up 40% of the country’s population, or around 40 million people, would see their livelihoods threatened and be forced off their land.

This prospect is a major destabilising force for the Egyptian government. But the crisis isn’t purely a domestic affair: if millions of people were to leave the Nile basin, some of them would emigrate to Europe or at least try to do so. And the number of displaced persons would far exceed that seen during the Syrian war.

The spectre of war

Moreover, the likelihood of an Egypt-led military intervention has never been greater, as Ethiopia’s inflexible leaders have caused negotiations to deadlock at every turn in the mediation process.

While an air strike against the dam may be improbable, it isn’t impossible, and such a scenario could trigger an Egypt-Ethiopia war –- one Sudan would have a hard time avoiding getting entangled in.

It hardly helps that relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa aren’t exactly sunny. Skirmishes have been on the rise for months in the border region of al-Fashaga. Sudan has been trying to regain control of territories seized by Ethiopian militias, and tens of thousands of people have fled the area. This wave of displacement comes on top of the refugee crisis created by the civil war in Tigray, making northern Ethiopia a region on the verge of an all-out conflict.

Then, there is Ethiopia’s proximity to Eritrea. If the conflict were to spill over to the latter, it could put the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Gulf of Aden at risk, not to mention throw a globally significant shipping lane into chaos – one that is already under threat by the war in Yemen and Iranian meddling in the conflict.

Is Europe in the dark?

Does Europe – which, it must be said, has offered a helping hand along with the UN, the African Union (AU) and the United States – fully understand the scale of the crisis and the ramifications it could have at its very doorstep?

At this stage, the EU seems more concerned about other problems, such as Russia and China’s influence in eastern Europe, the economic slowdown and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. By comparison with these immediate threats, the GERD is seen as a rather distant, lesser matter.

Europeans should understand, however, that if the dam’s filling is resumed without an agreement in place or, worse still, if a war breaks out, they will be overwhelmed by a new wave of migrants.

Two countries would be impacted in particular. First, Italy, and for several reasons. The idea of building a dam in Ethiopia on the Blue Nile goes back, in fact, to Benito Mussolini’s rule in the 1930s.

The fascist leader thought it would be an effective way to reduce the floods that regularly hit Egypt and Sudan. Also, an Italian company named Webuild (formerly Salini Impregilo) is currently involved in the dam’s construction, but that hasn’t stopped Rome from siding against the GERD. Italy remains vague towards Cairo, seeing as it has brokered a number of weapons deals worth several billion euros with Egypt.

France, though it tries to adopt a completely neutral stance, finds itself in a rather similar position. For instance, the French company Alstom is supplying hydroelectric equipment for the dam, and Egypt also happens to be a lucrative customer of the French arms industry. While President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly stressed the importance of stability in Africa, it seems Paris deems the GERD crisis less worrying than, say, the situation in Mali.

Murky Saudi and UAE positions

Other countries play a more or less subtle role in the crisis, beginning with the US, which under Donald Trump’s presidency unabashedly threw its support behind Sisi’s Egypt, and the now-former president famously nicknamed him “my favourite dictator”.

Cairo, catering to the White House’s wishes to secure its continued support, pushed the Sudanese government to formally recognise Israel, which, for its part, unwaveringly backs Ethiopia.

But President Joe Biden’s administration is looking to adopt a more balanced position. Mindful of Ethiopia’s strategic importance in the Horn of Africa, the new US leadership is now seeking to be a neutral mediator.

US neutrality is, however, compromised by the posture of a key Washington ally in the region: Saudi Arabia. From the outset, Riyadh has backed Egypt and Sudan’s demands, but Saudi companies have been investing in the dam all along. Attesting to its influence in the region, Saudi Arabia has also acted as a mediator between Ethiopia and Eritrea.

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The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) position is even more ambiguous since it is one of Egypt’s traditional partners but has also extensively invested in Ethiopia, especially in the irrigation and agriculture sectors. Unsurprisingly, the country has refrained from backing Cairo and Khartoum’s claims over the Nile.

Turkey and China waiting in the wings

Turkey, which is currently waging a major campaign to strengthen its presence in Africa, has also been trying to establish itself as a mediator in the dam dispute, but the warring parties have ignored its offers of assistance so far. Given that Ankara is in direct competition with Cairo for the development and production of recently discovered gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt has no desire to see Turkey get involved in its quarrel.

Then, there is Beijing, which has interests in every party to the dispute. For starters, five Chinese companies are working on the GERD project. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said several times that his country would expend every effort to support a peaceful, negotiated resolution to the crisis.

The AU is best placed to lead the negotiation process, as it is the only actor that has managed, to date, to act as an effective mediator, thanks in no small part to South African and Congolese leaders.

Regrettably, the most recent round of talks, which took place in Kinshasa, were unsuccessful and it seems unlikely that the parties are going to return to the negotiation table anytime soon. This latest failure underscores the challenging nature of the GERD crisis, with its slew of external actors vying to safeguard their interests and its stakes extending far beyond the Horn of Africa’s borders.

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