Egypt Will Go To War With Ethiopia Over Grand Renaissance Dam, Says President Al-Sisi

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Photo courtesy Reuters.

once again banging the drums of war over the river Nile’s waters – while Ethiopia plans to build a mega-dam on the Blue Nile.

After failed talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early April to find common ground, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that Cairo would not allow a “single drop” of its water to be taken and that “all options are open” over a potential conflict. 

Meanwhile, on 23 April, Sudan threatened legal action against Ethiopia, including taking the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as the Ethiopian Government intends to proceed with the second-stage filling of the dam in July. 

Failed Talk Between Ethiopia and Egypt

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday warned of the risk of conflict over Ethiopia’s giant dam on the Blue Nile after talks involving the two countries and Sudan ended without progress.

Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Egypt fears will imperil its supply from the Nile. Sudan is also concerned about the impact on its own water flows.

Delegations from the three governments met earlier this week in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo but failed to bridge their differences.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks during a joint news conference with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee palace, France December 7, 2020. Photo Michel Euler/Pool via Reuters

Speaking at the opening of a new government complex, Sisi said Sudan and Egypt were coordinating on the issue and that “cooperation and agreement are much better than anything else”.

Referring to past regional conflicts, he said: “We have witnessed the costs of any confrontation.”

“I am telling our brothers in Ethiopia, let’s not reach the point where you touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open,” he said.

Ethiopia’s water minister Seleshi Bekele sought to defuse tensions.

“There is no need to enter an unnecessary war. A war can’t start because of water. Water flows if you fight today, it’ll continue to flow tomorrow,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Sudan Sides With Egypt

Egypt and Sudan, in statements after the Kinshasa meeting, accused Ethiopia of intransigence on restarting negotiations in advance of a second filling of the dam this summer.

Ethiopia said on Tuesday it could not enter into an agreement that infringed on its rights to utilize the Nile.

Sudan’s state news agency SUNA reported that the Khartoum government, which is also locked in a border dispute with Ethiopia, had asked that Ethiopian peacekeepers on a United Nations mission in the south of Sudan be replaced.

“There is a path of political escalation and all options are open to Sudan according to international law,” including turning to the U.N. Security Council, Sudanese irrigation minister Yasser Abbas told a news conference in Khartoum on Wednesday.

Failed UN Efforts

There have been desperate calls for mediation from the United Nations, United States and European Union, to help broker what is clearly a distant diplomatic solution.  

However, Egypt and Sudan in turn claim that Ethiopia’s plans are a matter of live or death. For Cairo, the Nile provides around 90% of its water needs. Sudan also says the GERD could threaten the lives of around 20 million of its civilians who depend on its waters. 

This is not the first time the Egyptian President has threatened conflict, and a former Egyptian defence minister also said that Cairo should use military force to stop Ethiopia’s dam. The failure of talks in Congo indicates that Ethiopia is determined to get its way, and that the threat of war is not off the table. 

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All things considered, however, Egypt would likely not act upon its warnings in the short term. One possible deterrent is the potential damage to neighbouring Sudan and regional stability. 

“There are some problems that could happen if Egypt did launch an attack, such as conducting an airstrike on the dam. If Ethiopia’s dam collapses, this could also do a lot of damage to Sudan’s dam, which is only about 15 kilometres away Ethiopia’s GERD,” Abubakr Abdelzarig, a Sudanese analyst.

He added that Sudan has been more conciliatory towards Ethiopia compared to Egypt. Sudan has undergone a democratic transition since 2019, with the civilian figures of the transitional Government more likely to oppose war, compared to the military wing. Cairo would therefore become isolated should it use force. 

A Diplomatic Vacuum

Egypt in particular faces internal pressure from sections of the general public, who oppose growing poverty and the military regime’s repressive and exploitative policies. Al-Sisi may therefore be deploying pro-war rhetoric to rally domestic support behind the regime, depicting Ethiopia as an external threat. Cairo could utilise military action against Ethiopia as a means of securing public favour. 

Although the situation is becoming dire, external mediation efforts have been minimal, particularly on the part of the United States, of whom Ethiopia and Egypt are strong allies.  

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on 23 April urged Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to “come together and resolve their disputes around the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam and their shared water resources,” according to a White House statement.

As a result, Nile countries are looking to other actors for further mediation, that may not have the region’s best interests at heart – instead simply looking to bolster their clout in the geo-strategic sphere of Africa and the neighbouring Red Sea. 

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry on 11 April said that Cairo welcomed any efforts from Russia to intervene and help mediate the dispute. 

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a tiny Gulf state which former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called “little Sparta” due to its expansionist vision, is jostling in the Horn of Africa. Mediating the Nile conflict could help expand its interests there. 

With these external powers looking to fill a diplomatic vacuum, tensions are likely to remain in the near term. If they are not resolved in the future, a conflict cannot be fully ruled out.

Sudan and Egypt had proposed including the European Union, the United States and the United Nations as mediators in addition to ongoing African Union facilitation of the talks. Both countries said Ethiopia rejected the proposal during the meeting, which Seleshi said was part of an attempt to cause delay, according to state news agency FANA.

Last week, Sisi said there would be “inconceivable instability in the region” if Egypt’s water supply were affected by the dam.

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