Ethiopia is still at odds with Egypt and Sudan over a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). At the heart of the disagreement is the need for Addis Ababa not to start the second stage of filling before all three parties sign an agreement on these crucial issues. But Cairo and Khartoum are wary of Ethiopia’s intentions. They believe that Addis will proceed with an attempt to impose a fait accompli regardless of how strenuously they have reiterated their opposition to any Ethiopian unilateral actions designed to monopolise control of the Blue Nile.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum last weekend is very important in this regard, but it is also symbolic in the context of the age-old relations between the two countries. It is the first visit to Sudan by an Egyptian president since the fall of the Omar Al-Bashir regime. In addition to the question of GERD, talks in Khartoum addressed economic cooperation, military and security relations, Red Sea security and the situation on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
Al-Sisi stressed the threat that the Ethiopian dam presents to the vital interests of both Egypt and Sudan, both downstream nations in the Nile Basin and therefore immediately affected by that mammoth project. He stressed the need to resume serious and effective negotiations with the aim of reaching a just, balanced and legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam at the earliest opportunity before the next flooding season. Intensive talks between Cairo and Khartoum reaffirmed their shared rejection of unilateral measures to impose a fait accompli on the part of Ethiopia.
The presidential visit crowns a recent flurry of bilateral activity between the two countries’ diplomatic, military and political. According to a statement from the Egyptian presidency, President Al-Sisi and Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, chairman of the Sudanese Transitional Sovereignty Council, agreed that the GERD question was at a delicate stage and required the closest possible coordination between Egypt and Sudan.
The statement stressed that Egypt endorsed the mechanism proposed by Sudan to relaunch the GERD negotiations through the formation of a quartet consisting of the African Union, the US, the European Union and the UN to mediate talks. That mechanism would support the efforts of the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo Felix Tshisekedi, whose ability to steer the negotiations and achieve a breakthrough Cairo reaffirms its confidence.
As Cairo and Khartoum have drawn closer in recent months, they have strengthened cooperation on a number of crucial political and security issues, launching joint projects in vital areas such as trade and agriculture, transport and communication, health, energy and mining. The projects to link electricity and rail networks are an example of their desire to revive bilateral integration projects that had been launched decades ago but were abandoned despite the close connection between Egyptian and Sudanese national security interests.
Sudan is alarmed by the prospect that Ethiopia will proceed with a second stage of filling the GERD reservoir in a few months, adding 13.5 billion cubic metres of water to the 6.5 billion that it stored behind the dam last year. Khartoum fears this could cause a major hydraulic and environmental disaster in eastern Sudan. Tensions between Khartoum and Addis Ababa have been further aggravated by the encroachment of Ethiopian forces on Sudan, which compelled Khartoum to appeal to the international community to intervene.
Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly affirmed that their closer ties are motivated not by an animosity towards any party but by their shared desire to reach an agreement that will guarantee the rights of all countries concerned to the waters of the Nile and pave the way to greater multilateral cooperation in joint fields of development. Unfortunately, Addis has continued to ignore such appeals and proclaim its intent to proceed with unilateral actions despite the danger they pose to peace and security in the Nile Basin and the wider African continent.
The ball is now in the court of the international community and world powers. Hopefully, they will act before the situation spirals too far.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly