The US Biden administration has recently made a number of moves in a bid to address the tripartite crisis between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the latter’s controversial building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.
Perhaps the most significant has been the shuttle diplomacy conducted by new US special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, to a list of states to discuss the GERD crisis with local leaders.
In May, Feltman travelled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan, concluding another tour to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kenya by this week.
The veteran diplomat has previously served in several parts of the Middle East and Africa. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the ex-UN official will be responsible for dealing with the “volatile situation” in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region, “escalating tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan”, and the “dispute” around the GERD.
However, experts have dissimilar views about the extent to which the US can effectively solve the crisis.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Michelle Gavin, who served as a special assistant to former US president Barack Obama when Biden was vice president and was senior director for Africa at the US National Security Council, believes that “neither the Gulf states nor the US will benefit from rising tensions in the Horn of Africa.”
“The Biden administration will be working to build multilateral consensus on the importance of a negotiated agreement around the GERD issues and other flash points in the region. Jeff Feltman’s appointment indicates that the administration understands how important it will be to work with the Gulf states on multiple issues relating to the Horn,” Gavin added.
Gavin, now a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out that the Biden administration will “refrain from incendiary statements”, coordinating instead its approach to the GERD crisis across the US government. She expected that Biden would be looking for ways to support the African Union-sponsored negotiating process on the GERD.
But Amany Al-Taweel, an Africa expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, believes that the Biden administration is still discovering how it will deal with the GERD issue.
“It [the Biden administration] is not prioritising the issue,” she said. Al-Taweel highlighted that Feltman had not revealed the outcomes of his visit, while Biden had not made an initiative, offered mediation, or even developed a strategy about the GERD and its regional implications.
“US administrations, especially Democratic ones, have been historically pro-Ethiopian. Even when Biden imposed sanctions on Ethiopia, he linked it to the Tigray conflict. We are not sure whether this carries a hidden message that Washington can escalate through sanctions, which is, in fact, a change in US-Ethiopian relations,” Al-Taweel said.
She did not expect much from Europe. “The Europeans, including Britain, have historically felt that Egypt has too much control over the Nile. I don’t know why they have this feeling,” she commented.
“The Ethiopians are taking advantage of this and have a similar historical enmity against Egypt because of its role in the Red Sea and Nile-related operations during Mohamed Ali’s reign in the 19th century,” Al-Taweel explained, warning that the Ethiopians “have not forgotten the past”.
“This could explain why some Ethiopian positions are so irrational, as they are built on emotions,” Al-Taweel said.
A Sudanese Irrigation Ministry official told Reuters in May that Ethiopia had started the second phase of filling the reservoir behind the GERD, with this being a major concern for Cairo and Khartoum.
Ethiopia plans to fill the reservoir with almost 14 billion cubic metres of water during this phase, and it has refused to negotiate the mechanisms for doing so with Egypt and Sudan.
Sudan’s top diplomat Mariam Al-Sadik Al-Mahdi warned in March that the second filling of the GERD “endangers the lives of 20 million Sudanese citizens”.
“We want the dam to serve as the basis of developmental cooperation between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The first filling made Sudan suffer thirst amid floods and did not stop the movement of Nile water. The second one is even more alarming,” Al-Mahdi said during a visit to Cairo.
She stressed that “if the second filling happens, Sudan will be thirsty, and it will be hard to count on diplomacy until we respond. Our response would also be an angry one,” she said.
According to a report published by the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, Egypt’s 100 million population relies on the Nile for more than 95 per cent of its renewable water resources. The report noted that a decrease of only one billion cubic metres of water could eliminate more than one million jobs and $1.8 billion in economic production annually across economic sectors.
Sudan’s proposal for establishing a quartet that would include the African Union, the United Nations, the United States, and Europe received Egyptian support. Both Sudan and Egypt asked Ethiopia in March to accept the suggestion.
Ashok Swain, a peace and conflict professor at Uppsala University in Sweden, also underlined the role of Beijing in this crisis. Swain said that Biden wanted to get support from the US’s Middle Eastern and African “friends and allies” to reach a settlement.
“They [the Biden administration] fear that Ethiopia is getting support from China, making it possible for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy [Ahmed] to resist US pressure. China is also exploiting the Tigray crisis to make Abiy more dependent on its support in the UN Security Council,” Swain said.
“Thus, the Biden administration is worried that Ethiopia could become a client state of China in the region, which would bring serious complications for regional security and US interests. So, the GERD has become another proxy battle between the US and China,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly