Last month, many Egyptians were surprised by Sudan’s reservation about a resolution by the Arab Council for Foreign Ministers supporting Egypt in its dispute with Ethiopia over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD).
This was followed by a declared desire by Sudan to “mediate” between Egypt and Ethiopia. Both moves were rightly seen in Cairo as a sign that Sudan is drifting towards Ethiopia in the GERD dispute.
Sudan and Egypt have had their political differences for a while. For starters, there is a border dispute between the two countries over the Red Sea’s Halayeb Triangle, which are currently under Egyptian control. Nonetheless, observers of the Sudanese issue will notice the extent of rapprochement that exists between the new leadership in Sudan and Ethiopia, following the ousting of Al-Bashir’s regime.
Moreover, many Sudanese consider the Ethiopian president a national hero. Although both Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders contributed to the negotiations of Sudan’s power-sharing agreement and both signed it as witnesses, many in Sudan consider President Abi Ahmed the central player, and his diplomatic efforts are the main factor behind its success. This sweeping popularity was reflected in the loud reception and intense applause the Ethiopian president received during the signing ceremony of the power-sharing agreement between the Sudanese military and civilian forces, compared to the lukewarm reception Egyptian Prime Minister, Mustafa Madbouly, received at the same ceremony.
Furthermore, there is a surge of populism in Sudan following the ousting of its dictator, Bashir, and new slogans, such as “Sudan first”, are emerging on the streets. Sudanese writer Mohamed Mustafa Jameh, who has criticized the Egyptian stance towards Sudan in the past, defended Sudan’s position in a recent article, stating “the youth of Sudan who blew up the blessed December revolution today raises the slogan of Sudan first.”
With this “Sudan first” mindset, Sudanese policy makers see the GERD project as adventurous for Sudan. As Attia Essawi wrote, Sudan not only stands to get cheap energy from the GERD, but the dam will also prevent flooding and the associated damage it would cause to large tracts of land on either side of the Blue Nile in Sudan. The Sudanese leadership is also hoping the Ethiopian leader will do more to promote a comprehensive agreement with the rebel movements in the Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur states.
Alarmingly too, the Egyptian outlet Mada Masr reported an alleged lack of agreement within the senior leadership in Khartoum over the dam dispute. According to that report, the military representatives of the Sudanese leadership, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, chairperson of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereign Council, and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, are more inclined to accommodate Egypt’s position regarding the text of the agreement, while PM Hamdok is more in line with Ethiopia. The report added how PM Hamdok lived in Ethiopia for years, as did many of his closest aides, and he has close ties with the Ethiopian PM.
To prevent Sudan from drifting towards Ethiopia, Egypt has increased its diplomatic efforts to win Sudan back. Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel visited Sudan twice recently, and his visits seem to have shifted the Sudanese stance in favour of Egypt. Early this month, Sudan’s Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, said Khartoum was committed to the Washington text “as a term of reference” to a final agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Egypt agreed to this text, but Ethiopia rejected it.
On the other hand, Addis Ababa has reiterated its pledge to begin filling the reservoir during the wet season between late June and September. Hailu Abraham, an official of the GERD’s Popular Participation and Mobilization Coordination Council said: “We have managed to build the GERD, and shattered the very foundations of Egypt’s reliance on colonial-era agreements.” Such a hostile statement is part of a coordinated PR campaign to stoke anti-Egypt feeling. Ethiopia is also trying to mobilize Nile Basin countries against Egypt, with the hope of winning hearts and minds in Africa in support of its GERD project.
For years, the Ethiopian leadership has managed to play its cards well by courting Sudan and winning the hearts and minds of many of Sudan’s policy makers. Now, Egypt is running out of time, particularly as the entire world is pre-occupied with the Coronavirus pandemic. The subtle favourable re-shift of Sudan’s stance towards Egypt is a good step, but more has to be done to re-push the GERD conflict back onto the international front. With less than two months before Ethiopia starts filling the dam in June, the Egyptian leadership cannot afford to let the GERD crisis fade from the global political scene.