Crises in Sudan and Ethiopia Heighten Uncertainty in Nile Dam Dispute

Crises in Sudan and Ethiopia Heighten Uncertainty in Nile Dam Dispute

WHAT’S HAPPENING? As Sudan’s political crisis deepens and Ethiopia continues to unilaterally operationalize the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt is

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

As Sudan’s political crisis deepens and Ethiopia continues to unilaterally operationalize the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Egypt is likely to double down on efforts to project its power in the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Unfolding governance crises in Sudan and Ethiopia will sideline diplomatic efforts to resolve the trilateral dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
– Absent concrete prospects for a return to talks, Egypt will likely continue aggressively forging economic and security ties with Ethiopia’s neighbors, raising the possibility of a power struggle between Cairo and Addis Ababa in the Horn of Africa
– The development of Sudan’s post-coup political landscape will have secondary effects on the balance of power between Egypt and Ethiopia in the dam dispute and in the Nile Basin more broadly

FROZEN TALKS, ESCALATING UNREST

Less than fifty days into his second tenure as Sudan’s Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok announced his resignation to a nation in turmoil last week. He stated in televised remarks that his country had reached a “dangerous turning point that threatens its whole survival.” The prime minister’s decision to step down signals a new phase in a power struggle between the civilian forces behind Sudan’s 2019 revolution and the country’s military, which deposed Hamdok in a coup on October 25 — mere weeks before the leadership of the nation’s transitional Sovereignty Council was to be transferred to civilian hands. Though the coup’s orchestrator, General Abdel Fatah al-Burhan, reinstated Hamdok in late November, the move failed to quell ongoing civil unrest over the military’s involvement in domestic politics.

Khartoum’s political deterioration comes at a time of heightened tensions between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Despite a September 2021 UN Security Council statement urging the countries to restart negotiations to resolve their dispute over the hydroelectric dam’s filling and operation, the African Union’s efforts to reconvene the parties have stalled. As momentum to restart talks ground to a halt, Ethiopia’s own civil conflict escalated. In November, the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front advanced within 300 kilometers of Addis Ababa before government troops drove them back to Tigray’s borders one month later. However, civil war and diplomatic deadlock have not stopped Ethiopia’s work on the dam. Rather, Ethiopia has pressed forward with the project, with GERD set to begin producing hydroelectricity as early as this month.

GERD BLOWS AWAY RED LINES IN THE SAND

GERD fundamentally challenges Egyptian hegemony within the Nile Basin, a state of affairs Cairo believes is legitimized by three interstate agreements over Nile water rights established in the twentieth century. Signed in 19021929 and 1959, these accords obliged Ethiopia and other upstream riparian states to refrain from any construction that would arrest the Nile’s waters, while also reserving over 60% of the Nile’s annual flow for Egyptian consumption. Though Ethiopia rejected these agreements as relics of British imperial dominance over the Nile, Egypt managed to maintain the uneven status quo the accords produced through the country’s economic, political and diplomatic footprint in the Nile Basin and Africa. However, the near assassination of Hosni Mubarak during the 1995 Organization of African Unity summit in Addis Ababa precipitated a disengagement from African affairs that persisted through the end of the former Egyptian president’s reign in 2011.

Ethiopia took advantage of Egypt’s retreat. Over Egypt’s objections, Ethiopia and five other Nile riparian states had signed the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (NRBCFA), which sets forth principles for multilateral governance of the river, by 2011. That same year, Ethiopia began building GERD. Egypt, though opposed to the project, was consumed with the political aftermath of its January 25 Revolution, which led to the ousting of President Mubarak in February 2011.

Egypt’s fraught governance transition continued to occupy the country’s focus through 2014, during which time Ethiopia partially diverted the Nile and constructed 32% of the dam. GERD thus constituted a reality on the ground when current Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi took office in 2014. Sisi has conceded this in negotiations with Ethiopia — the 2015 Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan recognizes GERD as a fait accompli. Nevertheless, Sisi has also remained adamant that “the waters of Egypt are untouchable, and touching them is a red line.”

This “red line,” however, becomes increasingly untenable as GERD approaches completion. Despite multiple rounds of talks and foreign mediation, Cairo has failed to persuade Addis Ababa to heed its water-related concerns: Ethiopia has not adjusted its five- to seven-year timeline for filling GERD’s reservoir, nor has it agreed to refrain from stockpiling water during times of drought. Instead, Ethiopia has started operationalizing GERD unilaterally by completing the reservoir’s second filling last July and announcing in November that the dam would begin producing 700 megawatts of hydroelectricity, or 11% of its planned output, in 2022.

STALLED TALKS FUEL EGYPTIAN ACTION

Between Ethiopia’s unilateral moves and Egypt’s unwillingness to formally cede any portions of its hegemony — both real and imagined — over the Nile Basin, the chances of a diplomatic resolution to the GERD dispute will remain remote as the new year begins. In contrast to previous years, however, the possibility that talks will resume in the near-term is also small, for reasons that go beyond the immediate barrier posed by the war in Ethiopia and civil unrest in Sudan. Chief among these is that Egypt and Sudan’s insistence that future negotiations produce a binding agreement on GERD’s filling and operation contradicts Ethiopia’s preference for a non-compulsory framework.

With talks stalled, Egypt will likely double down on its efforts to expand bilateral relations with Ethiopia’s neighbors, a pressure strategy that could jeopardize regional stability. Egypt’s approach is twofold. On the one hand, Cairo might seek to develop security ties with SomaliaDjibouti, and Eritrea in order to establish a direct military presence there. Such a move would build on the security-driven approach that Sisi has taken to reengaging with Africa following Mubarak’s withdrawal, a strategy underlined by the fact that Egypt signed intelligence-sharing or military-cooperation agreements with SudanKenyaUganda, and Burundi in 2021 alone. The prospect of an Egyptian military base in one of landlocked Ethiopia’s three main avenues to the sea unsettles Addis Ababa. On this point, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government announced last July its own intention to build a Red Sea naval base, raising the possibility of a struggle with Cairo over influence in the Horn of Africa.

The second prong of Egypt’s dual approach is economic. Cairo is leveraging bilateral development assistance to help Ethiopia’s neighbors — including South Sudan, Eritrea, Tanzania, Somalia, Burundi, and Uganda — construct dams and power stations to boost their own electricity generation capacity. In doing so, Egypt aims to weaken regional demand for hydroelectricity from GERD once the dam is complete, thus damaging its profitability. Egypt’s efforts also seek to reverse political inroads Ethiopia made during Cairo’s absence from the African scene, as evidenced by the fact that the country’s new economic and military partners include several signatories to the NRBCFA: Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, and Uganda. Moving forward, Egypt will likely move to consolidate its new economic ties with military partnerships where they do not yet exist, and vice versa, thus solidifying the country’s return to the approach that undergirded its pre-1990s hegemony over the Nile Basin.

The success of Egypt’s unilateral strategy for shaping post-GERD power relations in the Nile Basin, however, will hinge on Sudan. Sudan’s political position in the dam dispute remains uncertain. Despite supporting Egypt’s call for a binding agreement on GERD and deepening its military and economic ties with Cairo in 2021, Sudan also submitted a request to purchase 1,000 megawatts of electricity from Ethiopia last August. Moreover, Cairo’s close relationship with Khartoum centers around the person of General Burhan and the military establishment he leads, a fact highlighted most recently by the provocatively-named “Guardians of the Nile” exercise the two countries’ armies, navies, and air forces conducted together last May. More recently, it was reported that Burhan’s activities on the night before his October 25 coup included a flight to Cairo to ensure Egyptian support for his plot.

Contrary to the amicable relationship Burhan enjoys with Sisi, a possible civilian-led Sudanese regime of the future would likely adopt a less Egypt-friendly posture; former Prime Minister Hamdok, for example, has privately expressed skepticism of Sisi, who himself led a coup to overthrow Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. However remote, the prospect of a successful transition to civilian rule in Sudan underscores the risk inherent to the zero-sum approach to Nile-based power politics that Sisi seems intent on pursuing. In all likelihood, the replacement of Khartoum’s military strongman with a democratically-elected leader would produce a Sudanese GERD policy focused more heavily on the imperative of securing cheap hydroelectricity from Ethiopia. In this way, a democratic Sudan might distance itself politically and economically from Egypt, swinging the pendulum of power in the GERD dispute — and in the Nile Basin more broadly — even more definitively in Addis Ababa’s favor.