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With Nile talks stalled, Ethiopia plans to fill dam, buy Turkish drones

Meanwhile, Sudan’s democratic transition faces ‘worst and most dangerous’ crisis.
Sudan Nile

Talks to resolve dam issue have zero traction….

Ethiopia is preparing for the third filling of the reservoir created by the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The dam, which is being built on an important tributary of the Blue Nile, could affect water supply to Egypt, which depends on the Nile for over 90 percent of its water, and Sudan.

But the dispute over the GERD is no longer just about water. Increasingly, it is a catalyst for regional alignments and realignments, as Ethiopia faces international scrutiny not only over the dam but for its conduct in in the restive Tigray region.

Meantime, Sudan’s political situation is fragile, following an attempted coup against the transitional government last month.

Ethiopia casts the dam as a matter of national right and pride, a potential source of regional influence that will enable it to export hydroelectric power. The dam’s third filling, as Mohamed Saied reports here, will likely take place during the rainy season starting in June, but the preparations have commenced.

Diplomats have been scrambling to keep the dam dispute from escalating. On Sept. 15, the UN Security Council called on Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to resume negotiations under the sponsorship of the African Union (AU), currently chaired by the Democratic Republic of Congo, for “a mutually acceptable and binding agreement.”

The AU talks have gotten zero traction, and left alone, it will be unable to get the parties on track.

Cairo is seeking a more active role for the US, the UN and the European Union in the negotiations; Addis Ababa, in keeping with its view of the dam as a matter of national pride, wants only the AU as mediator.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for making peace with Eritrea, now faces an insurgency in Tigray. Ethiopian and Eritrean troops and proxies have been accused of war crimes in the conflict, which has led to refugees into Sudan, as well as skirmishes with Sudanese forces.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly last month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called out Ethiopia for its "clear intransigence and unjustified rejection" of international diplomacy on the dispute and warned that it represents a "grave threat to the security and stability of the entire region."

…as Turkey proceeds with drone sale to Ethiopia

What has potentially alarmed Egypt further, beyond the threat of reduced water flow, has been the expansion of Turkey’s ties with Ethiopia, including the sale of drones which could be used by Ethiopian forces in Tigray.

Cairo and Ankara this year began a tentative rapprochement following years of acrimony after the military overthrow of former Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a kindred spirit to the Brotherhood.

“From Cairo’s perspective, a military dimension in Turkish-Ethiopian ties would be an unwelcome development that might weaken Egypt’s military deterrence in the region,” writes Fehim Tastekin. “The foremost factor that compelled Cairo to accept Ankara’s offer for normalization earlier this year was the decisive position that Turkey had gained in Libya by backing the Tripoli government. For Cairo, the Turkish presence in Libya became a national security issue.”

“A Turkish posture that would embolden Ethiopia in the dam crisis would be similarly challenging for Cairo,” adds Tastekin.

Meanwhile, envisioning the development potential of the GERD, Morocco last month announced a Coalition for Sustainable Energy Access with Ethiopia, as well as an agreement for the Moroccan state-owned OCP Group, a world leader in phosphate mining and fertilizer production, to build a $6 billion fertilizer complex in the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa, as Khalid Hassan reports.

….and Sudan’s transitional government is at risk

Sudan’s fragile democratic transition faces its “worst and most dangerous” crisis, according to Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets on October 21 to back civilian rule, denouncing an attempted military coup in September, and pro-military protests earlier this month.

US Horn of Africa Envoy Jeff Feltman is in Khartoum for his third visit in two weeks, a sign that the Biden administration has serious concerns about regional stability.

Sudanese dictator and convicted war criminal Omar Al-Bashir was deposed following a popular uprising in April 2019, and an interim “Sovereign Council” of civilian and military leaders was established to guide the country to elections in 2022.

The Sudanese military, whose leaders are carryovers from the Bashir government, have been impatient and frustrated with the transition and are therefore calling for the dissolution of the council.

Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the military and chair of the ruling Sovereign Council, claims that Hamdok’s reforms aren’t moving fast enough, and that the military is being excluded from the process, as Mohamed Saied reports here.

Hamdok, whose economic and political stewardship has been backed by the US and the World Bank, says the transition is now at risk of collapse.

The military call to dissolve the transitional government is backed by the Jeba tribes in eastern Sudan which, like the military, have felt excluded from the transitional political process, as Baher al-Kady reports.

The US removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism last year in return for a commitment to normalize ties with Israel. Sudan paid over $300 million to the US to settle lawsuits from Al-Qaeda victims. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) allowed Sudan to receive debt relief under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. World Bank President David Malpass visited Sudan to back reform efforts.

Egypt has built relations with Sudan since Bashir’s departure. Bashir was linked with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Qaeda, which had kept his ties with Egypt mostly acrimonious. Since then, Egypt has deepened security cooperation with Sudan and coordinated its policies regarding the GERD in Ethiopia.

“Cairo sought to boost the Sudanese army’s military capacities, and the two countries signed cooperation and training agreements,” Ayah Aman reports. “Egypt also started cooperating with Sudanese security forces affiliated with the transitional government in Sudan to pursue and capture tens of Muslim Brotherhood members who had escaped to Sudan.”

Sudan needs to stay on track...

Sudan has a potentially hopeful, if fragile, path to stability and growth. The last two years have been a turnaround, but the next steps are full of uncertainty.

Sudan’s economy, especially hard hit by COVID-19, contracted by an estimated 3.6% in 2020, the third straight year of contraction. Only 1.3% of Sudan’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID, among the lowest rates in the world. The IMF projects Sudan’s economy to grow this year by 0.9%, 3.5% in 2022, and 6.5% in 2023 — if it can keep to the program outlined by the HIPC Initiative, get some control over the pandemic, and avoid political turmoil.

The October 2019 demonstrations that deposed Bashir foreshadowed a kind of sequel to the Arab Spring, which also occurred in Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere.

As we wrote here in April, “Sudan’s role in the region is increasingly impactful. And its people, which in the past have suffered from chronic poverty, abusive and corrupt governance, and, in Darfur, genocide, deserve this opportunity for a new direction and social contract with their rulers.”

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