GERD: Egypt-Sudan rapprochement

Doaa El-Bey , Thursday 18 Mar 2021

Egyptian-Sudanese relations are growing closer as Cairo and Khartoum work together to head off the dangers posed by Addis Ababa’s intransigence over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

President Sisi and Sudan PM Hamdok
President Sisi and Sudan PM Hamdok in Cairo on 11 March, 2021. (All photos courtesy of the Egyptian presidency)

A flurry of visits at the most senior levels reflects the determination of Egypt and Sudan to work together to confront the threats both countries face.

Ali Al-Hefni, former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister, says Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli’s recent visit to Sudan drew an effective roadmap for relations, which includes cooperation across a host of fields. The process was then accelerated by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s trip to Egypt’s southern neighbour.

The Egyptian-Sudanese rapprochement is unprecedented, says Abbas Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies. And while concerns over the GERD top the agenda of both capitals, Sharaki points out that deals have been struck over a host of other issues, including military cooperation.

But whatever the purported subject of the meeting, be it closer economic cooperation or political coordination, the two countries have taken the opportunity to highlight their determination to reach a legally binding agreement on the dam and reaffirm their rejection of unilateral actions on the part of Ethiopia intended to impose a fait accompli.

One example of their newly coordinated approach was the joint call last Friday for the resumption of trilateral talks, to be mediated by an international quartet comprising the African Union (AU), the UN, the EU and the US.

On Tuesday, Ethiopia said that it has not received the suggestion of the quartet officially and it was ready to resume the tripartite negotiations. Ethiopian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Dina Mufti told the Ethiopian News Agency that Ethiopia has not officially received Sudan and Egypt’s suggestion for an international quartet committee, adding that “the tripartite talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should be concluded between the three countries themselves, not through mediators,” he said. “The role of mediators is facilitating the talks, not spoon-feeding the process.”

As Addis Ababa continues to resist international mediation and makes few bones about its intention to undertake a second filling of the GERD reservoir with or without an agreement, Cairo and Khartoum’s common stand is increasingly leaving Ethiopia between a rock and a hard place.

GERD topped the issues discussed during Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s two-day visit to Cairo last weekend.

Hamdok and Al-Sisi reviewed the latest developments in the dam file and agreed to intensify talks with regional and international parties to support the Sudanese proposal to form a quartet committee. They also discussed ways to boost trade and establish joint investment projects in the industrial and agricultural sectors.

Hamdok said President Al-Sisi’s visit to Khartoum earlier this month have lent momentum to efforts to promote cooperation across a range of joint strategies and actions. During a meeting with Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, respectively the head and Vice President of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, the leaders of the two countries called for the intensification of bilateral, regional, and international efforts to reach a binding legal deal on the filling and operation of GERD, addressed economic cooperation, military and security relations, Red Sea security and the situation on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.

Al-Sisi’s visit to Sudan came a few days after Sudan’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister Mariam Al-Sadiq Al-Mahdi made the trip to Cairo. The exchange of visits also included Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Mohamed Farid’s trip to Khartoum on 1 March to attend the seventh meeting of the Egyptian-Sudanese Joint Military Committee, following which a joint agreement on security cooperation was duly signed.

In November 2020 Egypt and Sudan conducted joint military manouevres. Other joint cooperation projects now receiving a boost include plans to connect the two countries’ power grids and rail networks and initiatives to develop higher education, scientific research, agriculture, irrigation, trade, and industry.

Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the dam in the last rainy season, and repeat the process this year, made stronger Egyptian-Sudanese relations and joint coordination inevitable, argues Hani Raslan, an expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The arrogant language and threats that Addis Ababa has used in its border dispute with Sudan further incited Sudan to boost its relations with Egypt in defence of its security, stability, and territorial integrity,” he said.

Whatever the developments in the dam file this summer, Egypt and Sudan will continue to boost their relations because they reflect genuine political will on both sides, says Al-Hefni.

Sharaki does not rule out that the two countries’ newly coordinated stand may lead to a breakthrough in the tripartite negotiation. While Ethiopia has rejected the quartet committee acting as a mediator, it has signalled that it will accept it as an observer.

“I expect that, as a compromise, committee will play a role somewhere between that of observer and mediator,” says Sharaki. “While this would be acceptable to Ethiopia, which has consistently rejected mediation, it could also give a push to the stalemated negotiations.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Egypt-Sudan rapprochement 

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