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Egypt, Sudan hold joint military drills as Nile dispute with Ethiopia drags on

The naval drills come at a time of heightened tensions with Ethiopia as Addis Ababa works toward completing the filling of its controversial Nile dam without reaching an agreement with its downstream neighbors.
Egyptian officers monitor as fellow crewmembers unload pallets containing food sent by Egypt for people displaced during ethnic clashes in the Blue Nile State, from a plane at a military base in the capital Khartoum, on August 4, 2022. - Ethnic clashes in a deadly land dispute that erupted in Sudan's Blue Nile state in July have killed 105 people and wounded 291, according to the state's health minister. Fighting broke out in the southern state which borders Ethiopia and South Sudan on July 11 between membe

Naval forces from Egypt and Sudan have completed joint military drills at the naval base of Port Sudan on the Red Sea, amid mounting fears of military escalation in light of the deadlocked talks on a controversial dam Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River.

Besides conducting military exercises, the multi-day drills included lectures and workshops on maritime security, illegal immigration, counter-terrorism and atypical threats, the Egyptian army said in a statement published Monday on Facebook. 

“The training falls in the framework of the joint training plan of the armed forces with friendly countries to boost partnerships and military cooperation in various fields,” the statement added.

The training is the latest sign of deepening military ties between Cairo and Khartoum. In March 2021, the Egyptian and Sudanese armies signed a military cooperation agreement covering training and border security. The two armies have conducted several air and ground exercises. 

Egyptian-Sudanese relations surged after the overthrow of former President Omar al-Bashir in 2019. After President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2013 in a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood, relations between Sudan and Egypt took a nosedive with Cairo accusing the Sudanese regime of harboring Brotherhood members and leaders. 

Bilateral ties strengthened further after the October 2021 military coup led by Sudanese leader Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against the civilian component of a transitional government.

During a meeting with Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hani Sewilam in Khartoum in January, Burhan praised the strong relations between the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples and vowed to promote them at various levels.

In addition to military cooperation, Cairo has previously dispatched several aid packages to Khartoum in times of crisis. During last summer’s devastating floods that swept several regions in Sudan, Egypt sent medical and humanitarian aid to support the Sudanese.

Egypt under Sisi is working to grow its role in Africa, which had faded after the failed assassination attempt on President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. It is also promoting various projects in the continent to expand its influence, particularly in the Nile Basin region, at a time Egypt and Sudan remain deadlocked with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

Ethiopia says the $4.6 billion project, which was launched in 2011, is important for its economic development in hopes of pulling millions of people out of poverty. But the dam has raised serious concerns from its downstream neighbors, Egypt and Sudan. Cairo fears the dam will affect its share of the Nile water, on which it depends almost entirely to meet its drinking and agricultural needs.

Khartoum, for its part, believes it could benefit from the electricity generated from the GERD, which could also help regulate the flow of the Blue Nile waters during flood seasons. However, it seeks guarantees from Addis Ababa regarding the dam’s safe and appropriate operation in order to preserve its own dams, including the Roseires Dam, Sudan's largest.

More than a decade of negotiations between the three Nile Basin countries have failed as Ethiopia refuses to agree to a binding legal agreement on the filling and operation of the dam during periods of drought, when the amount of water released toward the two downstream countries will be lower. Ethiopia insists on an agreement that includes non-binding guidelines.

Meanwhile, Ethiopia has unilaterally completed three phases of filling the dam’s reservoir since 2020. It is now preparing to begin the fourth stage with no prospects for the resumption of talks that have been suspended since April 2021. Egypt has tried to take the matter to the United Nations after the AU-sponsored talks failed, as Ethiopia resists.

Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonen said over the weekend that his country was ready to resume talks under the AU umbrella. The remarks came days after Addis Ababa announced that the dam’s construction was 90% complete.

In mid-March, Egypt renewed its threats against Ethiopia over the GERD. 

“All options are open and all alternatives remain available,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said in a phone interview on the local al-Qahira wal Nas TV channel. 

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