Egypt's diplomatic reach grows further in Africa with no end in sight to Nile dam crisis

Egyptian leadership counsels against conflict to resolve dispute with Ethiopia and instead visits Addis Ababa’s neighbours

While praised for its diplomatic efforts to resolve regional crises, Egypt has yet to answer what is perhaps its most challenging foreign policy question: what can be done about the dam Ethiopia is building on the Nile?

“That’s the big one, the real test,” said Gehad Auda, a political science professor at Cairo’s Helwan University.

“Every Egyptian is waiting to see how this government will tackle it. It’s what’s on everyone’s mind.”

Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, with 100 million people, says the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could significantly reduce its share from the Nile, wiping out hundreds of thousands of jobs and decreasing its agriculture and drinking water supply.

Egypt relies on the river to meet more than 90 per cent of its water needs.

Frustrated by a decade of fruitless negotiations with Ethiopia, President Abdel Fattah El Sisi said Egypt preferred a diplomatic settlement of its dispute with Addis Ababa, but his nation was not prepared to be bogged down in indefinite talks.

He said there would be “unimaginable instability” in the region if Egypt were denied a drop of its share of Nile water.

Ethiopia has angered Egypt and Sudan, also a downstream country, by insisting that a second, much larger filling of the dam will go ahead in July and August regardless of whether a deal on the dam’s operation is reached.

Egypt has adopted several tactics to try to pressure Ethiopia into agreeing to its demand for a legally binding agreement on the dam’s operation and filling, and a system for handling future droughts and disputes.

Addis Ababa says guidelines should suffice, rather than a binding deal.

Egypt has put on shows of military force designed to back Mr El Sisi’s assertion that no nation should presume to be out of reach from his well-equipped and large armed forces.

Egypt and Sudan have forged close military ties in recent months, with Cairo capitalising on the traditional good-will Khartoum’s leaders hold for their larger northern neighbour.

On Monday, the two militaries wrapped up their third and largest joint war games this year, a six-day exercise that involved troops, air forces, navies, commandos and air defence.

At a ceremony for the end of the exercise, the Sudanese and Egyptian chiefs of staff left little doubt in anyone’s mind what message the “Guardians of the Nile” drills were meant to send.

Egypt’s chief of staff, Gen Mohammed Farid, said the drills were designed to protect the “legitimate rights to security, life and development” of the two nations.

Sudanese chief of staff, Gen Mohammed Al Hussein, said they were aimed at enhancing harmony between the two militaries to deter “enemies” and deal with “expected and potential threats".

Sudan shares a border with Ethiopia. where a dormant dispute between the two flared up late last year after Sudanese troops moved to wrest back control of a strip long settled by Ethiopian farmers backed by federal troops and militiamen.

The move led to deadly clashes. Both sides refuse to make concessions on the dispute.

While Mr El Sisi has called on Egyptians to have faith in diplomacy, some say time is running out.

In recent weeks, Egypt has sought to directly involve the US and other powers in mediating the dispute.

Its joint proposal with Sudan that a quartet of the US, UN, EU and African Union be involved in negotiations over the dam was rejected by Addis Ababa.

Egypt, meanwhile, has stepped up in recent months its diplomatic courting of Nile basin nations, and others in the East and Horn of Africa regions, in an apparent effort to reduce or neutralise any hostile reaction to possible military action against the dam.

Last week, Mr El Sisi made a surprise visit to Djibouti, which shares a border with Ethiopia and overlooks the strategic southern entrance of the Red Sea.

Also last week, Egyptian Gen Farid travelled to Rwanda and Kenya for talks on military co-operation.

Some analysts say Egypt’s diplomatic drive in Africa was partly designed to isolate Ethiopia and strip it of its self-styled role as a spokesman for sub-Saharan, Nile basin nations.

Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister widely regarded as one of the country’s most experienced statesmen, said Egypt would be within its legitimate right to “go as far as possible” to protect the life of its people, but warned that military action was not an easy choice to make.

“Going to war is a difficult choice for all of us,” Mr Moussa said late on Monday night.

"I fully understand those demanding that we go to war, but this is a grave matter whose calculations must be carefully made.

“It is not just a question of successful military action alone. We must think of the cost and consequences.

"We are one of four or five big nations in Africa. So it’s in our interest to ensure that every step we take is justified and understood."

Updated: June 2, 2021 03:33 AM

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