The long-protracted negotiations over a controversial Nile dam being built by Addis Ababa could be headed into uncharted waters, making the chance of a breakthrough more remote given turmoil in Ethiopia and a change of the guard in Washington.
Ethiopia moved a step closer to war when its federal troops began battling fighters loyal to rebel leaders in the northern Tigray region. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump – who has actively pursued a resolution to the three-country dispute over the dam – was defeated by former vice president Joe Biden.
These seismic events come at a time when downstream nations Egypt and Sudan have been voicing growing frustration over Ethiopia’s persistent refusal to commit to a legally binding pact over the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The turmoil in Ethiopia as a result of the fighting in Tigray was not beneficial to either Egypt or Sudan when it comes to the dam issue, said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ambassador to Washington who has dealt with the president-elect during his years as a senator.
"Ethiopia imploding will not help. Difficult and important decisions are not made by weak states," said in an interview with The National.
Egypt and Sudan want mechanisms to govern the operation of the dam during years of drought and to resolve future disputes. Ethiopia, which maintains that power generated by the hydroelectric dam would alleviate the poverty of millions of its people, has baulked at these demands, claiming they amounted to an encroachment on its sovereignty.
Sudan’s chief fear is that without the exchange of real-time data with Ethiopia on the operation of the GERD, its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile would be in jeopardy and repeats of the devastation caused by Nile floods this year could be repeated.
Egypt’s concerns are far more serious since it depends on the Nile for almost all its water needs.
A significant drop in its share of the Nile waters could cost Egypt hundreds of thousands of jobs and disrupt the delicate food balance for its 100 million people.
"I don't see Biden taking up the issue of the dam soon after taking office," predicted Mr Fahmy.
“It’s not a priority question for Biden,” he said, arguing that the former vice-president would be preoccupied with domestic political issues.
The latest round of the decade-long negotiations between the three Nile basin nations ended earlier this month with them again unable to agree on a new negotiating approach to resolve the dispute.
The impasse followed a meeting between their foreign and irrigation ministers at the invitation of South Africa, the current leader of the African Union that has sponsored the talks.
"Sudan demanded a new method of negotiations because the talks have been going in vicious circles," said Saleh Hamad Hamed, a senior Sudanese negotiator. "We are expecting South Africa to call soon for a tripartite summit to find a breakthrough," he told The National in Khartoum.
The failure of the latest round of talks came amid heightened tension over Mr Trump’s comment last month that Egypt, one of Washington’s closest Arab allies, could end up “blowing up” the dam, which Cairo has called an existential threat.
The comment angered Addis Ababa and raised questions about Washington’s credentials as a neutral mediator.
To the delight of Egypt, Mr Trump has actively pushed for a resolution of the dam dispute.
A draft agreement hammered out by US officials in February was rejected by Ethiopia, prompting Washington to suspend $100 million worth of aid to the Horn of Africa nation.
The current impasse, meanwhile, has revived talk in Egypt’s pro-government media about the possible use of military force to resolve the dispute, but Mr Fahmy and analysts in Egypt insist such action will have negative consequences.
Under President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, Egypt has spent billions of dollars acquiring cutting edge weapon systems from a host of countries, including
France, Germany and Russia.
These weapons include hardware, like sea troop-carriers equipped with helicopter gunships and German submarines, that could allow the military to operate beyond its borders.
Mr El Sisi, a former general first elected to office in 2014, has said his government intended to pursue a diplomatic solution to resolve the dispute, but he never categorically ruled out military action.
He has said Egypt would never tolerate anyone imposing a de facto situation.
“I would not completely rule out a military solution, but military action against a fellow African nation runs against Egypt’s image. We have a strong military, but it’s a conservative military that does not take foreign deployment lightly,” said Mr Fahmy.
Writing in Egypt’s English-language Al Ahram weekly, prominent Africa expert Attia Essawi said the Tigray conflict could also influence Addis Ababa’s handling of the dispute over the GERD in multiple ways.
He suggested, though, that the conflict in Tigray could tax the Ethiopian economy to the extent it is unable to complete the nearly $5-billion dam.
“The greater likelihood, however, is that the [Prime Minister Abiy] Ahmed’s government, keen to avert the impression that it is unable to pay for the country’s high-profile national mega-project, will come up with the money no matter what, even if this entails diverting funds from other development projects and essential infrastructure work,” Mr Essawi said.
The conflict, on the other hand, could weaken Mr Ahmed at home and so make him less likely to show flexibility in the negotiations with Egypt and Sudan.
“The crisis [in Tigray] presents a major challenge to the Ethiopian prime minister. If he is unable to resolve it quickly and wisely, it could inspire others among Ethiopia’s 80 ethnic groups to follow the Tigrayan lead.”