Egypt strengthens its African relations as Ethiopian dam negotiations remain stalled

Sarah El-Sheikh
16 Min Read
GERD dam talks resume after Egypt issues stark warning against Ethiopia over stalled Nile dam talks

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is the first Egyptian president to visit Djibouti since the latter gained its independence in 1977.

The President’s visit, which was described by the Egyptian presidency as both “historic” and the first of its kind, aims to strengthen bilateral relations in the economic, security, and military fields.

Egyptian diplomats and national security affairs experts believe that Djibouti “is a country of great strategic importance for Egypt.” 

This is especially with its supervision of maritime traffic from the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the southern entrance to the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. It comes in addition to its importance as a country located in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, which is closely related to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) file. 

Djibouti is one of five countries to have borders with Ethiopia, along with Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya. It is with these five countries that Egypt has strengthened its military cooperation during the past three months.

This coincides with the approaching second filling of the GERD reservoir, an event repeatedly highlighted by Ethiopia, and the escalation of statements between Ethiopia, on the one hand, and the two countries located on the Nile River mouth, Egypt and Sudan, on the other hand.

Salah Halima, former Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Chairperson of the Egyptian Parliament for African Affairs committee, considers Al-Sisi’s visit to Djibouti “historic”.

Halima said that the visit follows the inauguration of the Council of Arab and African Riparian States on the Red Sea in January 2020. Djibouti plays a strategic role in the committee, to ensure the security and stability of maritime navigation in the Red Sea.

Military bases for several countries have been established along the Red Sea coast, to contribute to ensuring freedom of maritime traffic at the entrance to the South Sea.

Halima added that Egypt has naval forces in the Bab Al-Mandab Strait, to maintain stability there in light of the Yemeni crisis. He pointed out that the strategic importance of Djibouti’s military and security aspects makes it imperative for Egypt and other Arab countries to support the small state.

Eight countries make up the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Jordan.

It was set up with the aim of coordinating and consulting on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, enhancing navigation security, and protecting global trade that passes through the Suez Canal. The council also aims to strengthen political and economic cooperation between the eight countries, in accordance with its founding charter.

Social media in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia has been awash with rumours on the possibility of a military confrontation between Egypt and Sudan on the one hand, and Ethiopia on the other hand. There has also been much digital discussion about the military capabilities of the three countries.

Ethiopian political analyst Abdul Shakur Abdul Samad said, in a press statement, that the comparison between military capabilities of the three countries will not be settled in numbers and the strength of the weapons arsenal.

Abdel Samad said that if Egypt boasts more forces and more weapons, then there are other factors in Ethiopia’s favour, such as geography and the nature of the country.

He excluded that the rapprochement between those countries neighbouring Ethiopia and Egypt is for the purpose of military cooperation against Ethiopia. This is because signed agreements between these countries and Egypt are “public relations agreements that do not carry a greater level than that.”

However, he indicated that Egypt has not been at this level of rapprochement and relations with many countries in the Horn of Africa during the past few decades.

Abdel Samad criticised the military treatment of Egyptians in the GERD issue, and stressed that the cost is great for everyone. He also noted that Egypt needs finances for internal economic and social spending.

He also noted that more importance should not be paid to the concluded military agreements, as they reflect more a message from Egypt to the Ethiopian street, stating “We may deal militarily at any stage with regard to the waters of the [River] Nile.”

Military efforts 

Last March, Egypt signed a military agreement with Sudan during a visit by Egyptian Army Chief-of-Staff Lieutenant General Mohamed Farid to the latter.

After the agreement’s signing, Farid stressed that Egypt seeks to “consolidate ties and relations with Sudan in all fields, especially the military and security fields, and solidarity as a strategic approach imposed by the regional and international environment.”

Egypt and Sudan also recently conducted three joint military exercises, named “Nile Eagles 1” and “Nile Eagles 2”, the latter of which will continue until the end of May this year, under the name “Protectors of the Nile”.

The “Protectors of the Nile” exercises will be attended by ground, air, and sea forces from the two countries’ armed forces. Egypt says that “the training comes to develop joint work between the armed forces in Egypt and Sudan”.

The three parties affected by the GERD crisis, namely Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, have not succeeded in reaching an agreement on filling and operating the dam during 10 years of negotiations.

Return of Negotiations 

President Al-Sisi received US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken last week, in a visit that came in the context of recent developments in Egyptian-US relations. Of particular note has been the dispatch of US special envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffery Feltman, in an attempt to reach a truce and application of ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

The meeting was attended by: Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry;  Abbas Kamel, Chief of the General Intelligence Service (GIS); Victoria Nuland, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs; US Ambassador in Cairo Jonathan Cohen; and Thomas Sullivan, Deputy Secretary of the US Chief-of-Staff. 

This is the first visit by the US Secretary of State since President John Biden succeeded Donald Trump as US President. 

A number of experts and analysts said that Blinken’s visit comes as part of the US’ endeavour to solve the Ethiopian Dam crisis, and reach a fair and legal agreement that guarantees Egypt’s water rights.

Abbas Al-Sharaki, a professor at Cairo University’s Institute of African Research and Studies, said that Blinken’s first visit to Egypt follows the significant role Egypt played in stopping the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people. It also reflects the American interest in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.

Al-Sharaki continued that the US has called for an agreement that satisfies all parties in the Ethiopian Dam crisis, which has entered into a dangerous stage due to time constraints. The crisis has also been negatively impacted by the continued Ethiopian intransigence and insistence on implementing the second filling this coming July without an agreement.

He reviewed recent moves by Egypt, which included recent strong warnings by President Al-Sisi on the safety of Egypt’s water.

There has also been an Egyptian-Sudanese rapprochement that resulted in three military manoeuvres in less than six months, along with the military and intelligence protocols with the countries surrounding Ethiopia, including Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi.

Additionally, President Al-Sisi’s historic visit to Djibouti, the most important country for Ethiopia and its only outlet to the world and its first commercial outlet with the outside, should be factored in.

Al-Sharaki noted that all this has prompted the US to move quickly and at the highest level, to discuss important issues in the region, foremost of which is the Ethiopian Dam.

He added that the US is also seeking, through the visits by both Blinken and Feltman, to push the three countries to return to negotiations as soon as possible, to reach an agreement before the second filling in July.

He expects the resumption of the negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the controversial dam before the second filling starts. These negotiations would aim to reach a binding legal agreement on the rules for filling and operating the dam.

Al-Sharaki said that there is a feeling among the international community, especially the US, of the seriousness of the situation and the need to return to negotiations to reach any agreement before the second filling starts.

He also indicated that it is expected the negotiations will focus on the second filling, which Ethiopia intends to start during the flood season.

He attributed the delay in the resumption of the negotiations to the recent volcanic explosion in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the current African Union President which has been heavily involved in recent GERD negotiations. 

The explosion has caused the deaths of dozens and the injury and displacement of many others, and has additionally distracted the DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi from calling for negotiations on the Dam.

The GERD negotiations have been stalled since April, after the three countries again failed to achieve notable results during a round of talks in the DRC at the level of Foreign and Irrigation Ministers.

A few days ago, Sudan expressed concern that Ethiopia had actually started the second filling of the GERD without an agreement. This came as head of the Sudanese negotiating delegation, Mustafa Hussein Al-Zubair, confirmed that Ethiopia had started the second filling, which constitutes the first violation, and it is expected that the second filling will be finally completed in July and August.

Former Egyptian Assistant Foreign Minister Gamal Bayoumi said that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Cairo at this time is one of the gains of Egyptian diplomacy. It also highlights the regional moves that Cairo has recently practiced, especially regarding the situation in Libya and the East Mediterranean. 

He also said that there has been a dramatic transformation in US-Egyptian relations with the US envoy’s reception, as it confirms Egypt’s rational policy towards the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

This is represented in Egypt’s desire to complete negotiations through international partnerships, including the participation of the US. Meanwhile, on the other side, Ethiopia rejects international mediation, which strengthens a kind of de-facto policy imposition.

In a press statement, Bayoumi also said that the US is moving effectively in the Ethiopian file with regard to human rights, after sending more than one envoy. Of foremost importance to the file is the issue of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region

The former assistant minister pointed out that relations between Egypt and the US are only established on common interests. He stressed that Egypt has outlined its stance, in a message understood by the US, the summary of which was to not compromise its water rights.

As a result, responsibility has fallen on the US to play a greater role, especially since all the parties in the conflict are allies of the US. 

Bayoumi added that Egyptian diplomacy achieves good results at all levels, whether with regional partners or with Horn of Africa and Nile Basin countries. 

“If Ethiopia decides to continue unilateral action that harms regional interests, it will escalate its diplomatic and legal language,” he said, “What may push the US to prevent igniting the flame of the crisis is unifying visions between the three countries.”

Blinken’s visit came after a round of talks on the Ethiopian Dam in early May, which was led by Feltman, in a renewed US attempt to save the negotiations and keep the region from the threat of war.

During his trip, Feltman met with President Al-Sisi, before travelling to Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

The US State Department said that the special envoy’s visit to the region “affirms the administration’s commitment to lead a sustained diplomatic effort to address the interconnected political, security and humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa”. It also said that Feltman “will coordinate US policy across the region to achieve this goal.”

Some regional security experts emphasised that if international efforts did not succeed in breaking the deadlock, the Ethiopian dam could become a cause of a water war. This would then threaten the entire region, as the proposed negotiations are considered the last before the second filling of the dam in July.

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