As the African Union-sponsored negotiations on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam convened in Kinshasa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke of war on “eight fronts.” Most of those fronts are internal. The most serious is in the Tigray region where conditions are still highly volatile; the situation is laden with the possibility of outbreaks of similar crises elsewhere in the country. Spiralling tensions in the Oromo region, in particular, could unleash a more severe conflict. But some of those fronts are abroad. Although the clashes over Sudan’s Al-Falqa region have subsided and the Sudanese-Ethiopian border has reopened, that battle is far from over. What this signifies is that the Ethiopian prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has not engaged in a dialogue with a single party on any of the fronts on which he is fighting, and that his government leans to the military option in response to difficult problems.
While Egypt and Sudan have not eliminated the military option, as a deterrent above all, it is only one of many at their disposal. Given the concrete balance of power, there is no doubt which side would prevail in the event of such a confrontation. However, Egypt fully appreciates both the costs and the difficult ramifications of such a prospect. As President Al-Sisi said in his speech at the Suez Canal Authority, the repercussions would impact the entire region in view of the many and complex interrelations between diverse stakeholders. Even under the most strenuous circumstances, Egypt has never opted for military escalation. Cairo’s approach would best be termed an incremental strategic deterrence. For example, when the situation in Libya grew very threatening, Egypt declared a “red line” where it insisted military operations in Libya had to stop. It simultaneously staged a number of military activities in the Western Desert that told other parties it was ready to fight if need be. That worked, and in the process Egypt showed that a strong deterrent message can win a battle without a single shot being fired.
In addition to such deterrent power, Egypt is not on its own. It has forged a strategic partnership with Sudan which, at the military level, means a commitment to mutual defence and to sharing the various risks this involves.
It was two years ago that, by taking provocative unilateral actions, Addis Ababa began to force Egypt’s and Sudan’s hands. Cairo and Khartoum had never denied Ethiopia’s right to fill and operate the Renaissance Dam, but they do insist on pre-established rules and principles for the process in order to avert jeopardising their own water security. Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam Sadiq Al-Mahdi said that if the first filling of the dam made Sudan go thirsty for a week, imagine what the second filling would do. Egypt is at much greater risk. Two weeks ago an international report issued on the occasion of World Water Day warned that water scarcity in Egypt had fallen to 500 m3 per capita a year, or half the internationally recognised water poverty threshold. Egypt has intensified its measures to regulate water usage, curb wastage and diversify water sources, but it still has only the Nile to depend on.
Addis Ababa remains indifferent to the threats it presents to Sudan and Egypt. It claims it has a sovereign right to control the Blue Nile. This, regardless of what international law has to say about transboundary watercourses, the use of common resources and avoidance of harm to countries that share the same watercourse. Addis behaves as though the Blue Nile, which originates in the Ethiopian highlands, does not flow through Sudan and Egypt on its way to the Mediterranean. It is blind to the problems of the downstream nations, such as the fact that Egypt’s stipulated share of Nile waters has not changed while its population has quadrupled since the time that quota was set. It shrugs off Khartoum’s worries over the safety of the dam, which are not unfounded given Addis Ababa’s lack of transparency on the structural details and safety precautions that need to be in place before the dam goes into operation. It is certainly not interested in essential cooperation with Khartoum and Cairo over coordinating the operations of the Renaissance Dam with the operations of downriver dams, which would again be in keeping with the principle of avoidance of harm.
The Ethiopian tactics are currently focused on evasion and buying time by trying to keep the talks from moving beyond negotiations over the rules of negotiations. Fortunately, however, Washington has been determined to encourage the parties to move forward. Its ambassador to Kinshasa, Michael Hammer, has been particularly energetic in this regard. Secretary of State Antony Blinken too has been in touch with his Sudanese counterpart to express support and urge patience.
Both Cairo and Khartoum have made it clear that they are willing to resume talks, but they should not be expected to have to wait another ten years for Ethiopia to cease its intransigence. This is why they have considered recourse to the UN Security Council as a means to pressure Addis Ababa into more reasonable behaviour. They have other available options, as well, in their search for a solution to the problem that, for Egypt at least, does pose an existential threat.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly