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Eritrea weighs role in Egypt-Ethiopia dispute over Nile dam

Eritrea’s president visited Cairo against the backdrop of the faltering talks on the Nile dam dispute, raising questions about Eritrea’s role in helping reach an agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.
(FILES) This file photo taken on December 26, 2019 shows a general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. - The Nile, Egypt's lifeline since Pharaonic days, faces massive strain from pollution, over-use and climate change -- and now the threat of a colossal dam being built far upstream in Ethiopia. When its London-sized reservoir starts to fill this summer, Egypt fears the mega-project will spell an existential threat to its teemin

CAIRO — During his two-day visit to Cairo on July 6-7, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki held bilateral talks with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, focusing on the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and security in the Red Sea, with the aim to support regional security and stability, spokesman for the Egyptian presidency Bassam Radi said.

This is the fifth visit Afwerki has paid to Cairo since Sisi took office in 2014. This time, however, his visit came as Egypt failed to reach a binding agreement with Ethiopia on the filling and operation of the GERD, which Cairo believes will damage its interests in the Nile waters.

Afwerki had previously visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on May 2, and Khartoum, Sudan, on June 25. Observers believe that such visits are part of Eritrea's mediation efforts to resolve the dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

The Egyptian-Eritrean rapprochement over the decades has always been a source of trouble for Ethiopia, which has repeatedly accused Egypt of using Eritrea as a pressure card and of destabilizing the situation in Ethiopia. This rapprochement has also furthered the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict that dates to the Eritrean War of Independence in the 1990s, while the situation of “no war, no peace” between the two countries has constantly fueled regional tension in past years. 

The historic conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea ended after the two parties signed a peace agreement in July 2018; as a result, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2019. 

Yet, following Afwerki’s visit to Cairo, the Eritrean Ministry of Information said July 11 that the peace agreement with Ethiopia had not met Eritrea’s expectations. The ministry added in a statement on its website, “Two years after the signing of the Peace Agreement, Ethiopian troops continue to be present in our sovereign territories. … Trade and economic ties of both countries have not resumed to the desired extent or scale.”

In this context, a diplomatic official specialized in African affairs told Al-Monitor, “Cairo is open to all regional and international initiatives designed to resolve the dispute over the GERD. Egypt and Eritrea have common interests that are not limited to bilateral files. There is ongoing coordination in handling the regional dossiers in the Red Sea region on the one hand, and the relations with Ethiopia on the other.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor on the role Eritrea can play in the conflict between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the GERD, Hamdy Abdel Rahman Hassan, a professor of political sciences at Cairo University, said, “Under the rule of Afwerki, Eritrea [became] a key actor in the power equation in the Horn of Africa given its important geostrategic position. President Afwerki is able to act at the foreign level and exploit the [disputes] to his own interests.”

Abdel Rahman Hassan added, “Eritrea’s president already announced his position on the GERD in 2016. He believes that the dam exceeds the development needs of Ethiopia. There are multiple signs indicating that the Eritrean position is in favor of Egypt, particularly after the tripartite negotiations [on the dam] have come to a crossroad.”

Since he took office in April 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has been seeking to resolve his country’s disputes with Eritrea and Somalia. Yet the tension and domestic challenges have prevented a genuine implementation of the rapprochement policies.

“Eritrea has been reluctant to rely on him [Ahmed] in light of the unstable domestic situation in Ethiopia, while Ethiopian forces continue to occupy the disputed areas,” Abdel Rahman Hassan said.

He noted, “Eritrea’s geographical location and relations with the Gulf countries — especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — can serve as strategic support for Egypt, particularly in case of escalation.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Eritrea’s Ambassador to Cairo Fasil Gebreselasie denied that Sisi and Afwerki touched on the aspects of military cooperation when it comes to the GERD crisis. He said, “There is focus on enhancing cooperation and coordination in handling the regional security and economic files.”

He added, “President Afwerki offered what’s within Eritrea’s ability to resolve the dispute over the GERD.” However, he refused to give details on the Eritrean initiative.

Suleiman Hassan, an Eritrean political analyst and expert on African affairs, told Al-Monitor, “The Eritrean president is aware of the nature and complexities of the political stage in Ethiopia, as well as of the stalled talks on the GERD. He can play an important role in bringing closer the views of the political regimes in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan in order for them to overcome the differences.”

Hassan added, “The Ethiopian opposition — which supports the former regime that belongs to the Tigrayan ethnic group, and which was the source of historical enmity with Eritrea — has used Ahmed’s policies of rapprochement with Egypt to oppose him. This will make it difficult for the current [Ethiopian] political regime to strike an agreement with Egypt on the GERD.”

However, it is in Eritrea’s interests to mediate the GERD dispute, according to Suleiman, who explained, “Eritrea is well aware that the return of the former regime to the rule in Ethiopia is not in its [Eritrea’s] interest. This is especially true in light of attempts to push Ethiopia and Eritrea into military skirmishes on the border, like what happened with Sudan in March.”

“Any Egyptian-Ethiopian interim agreement on the GERD that serves domestic peace and stabilization in Ethiopia will have a positive impact on Eritrea's interest,” he added.

The success of the mediation efforts led by Eritrea or the African Union to resolve the Nile dam dispute still depend on the Ethiopian current political regime’s ability to adopt a clear position and control the volatile situation — and this without using the GERD’s dossier to gain popularity and confront the opposition campaigns that believe any agreement on the GERD with Egypt goes against Ethiopia’s interests.

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