Egypt-Sudan alliance shifting in row with Ethiopia over Nile dam

Local and regional uncertainties prevail about the next steps that Egypt will take if negotiations fail with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam.

Cairo had described these negotiations as a “last chance”, hinting at a possible recourse to the military option.

Talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia under the auspices of the African Union on the Renaissance Dam project failed to come up with a new basis for negotiations after three days of meetings in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa.

In view of current positions, there seem to be only two options: either the start of a quick military operation before the second filling of the dam or going along the Ethiopian viewpoint.

In the second option, which is the more likely,  the dam will become a fait accompli, making it difficult to use military force afterwards.

This option is  seen as the more probable especially since Sudan has not expressed support for Egypt’s hint at possible use of force.

Egypt and Sudan have held Ethiopia responsible for the deterioration of the situation because of its intransigence and insistence on completing the second filling next July, before a binding agreement is reached between all parties.

This led to the failure of the round that was supposed to determine the fate of the negotiations.

Despite the declared agreement between Egypt and Sudan, observers expect this rapprochement between Cairo and Khartoum to gradually dissipate.

They believe that Khartoum cannot follow in Cairo’s footsteps by escalating its attitude on the Renaissance Dam crisis.

Sudan may choose to edge closer to the Ethiopian position so as to mitigate the damage caused by the crisis, and perhaps seek to maximise its interests instead of clashing with Addis Ababa.

Egypt’s position was strengthened by Sudan’s drawing closer to Cairo, as it realised that the Renaissance Dam would severely harm its interests, contrary to  the past claims of  former president Omar Bashir’s regime.

Sudan’s rapprochement with Egypt reflected negatively on Ethiopia, which had bet on Khartoum’s continued support for its viewpoint.

Observers stress that the Sudanese are actually divided about the issue. One camp sees continued coordination with Egypt as a means of pressuring Ethiopia to influence the course of negotiations and push Ethiopians to solve the border crisis.

Another Sudanese camp believes that increased coordination with Cairo means that Khartoum will bear the consequences of Egypt’s  agenda  in terms of regional and international relations as well as domestically.

Sudan is leaning towards sticking with the political solution regardless of the level of Ethiopian intransigence.

Unlike Cairo, Khartoum has not at any previous stage hinted at escalation as a way to resolve the Renaissance Dam row.

But it was tempted to project a tougher stance as it tried to stabilise the situation in the border crisis with Ethiopia.

Sudanese sources say it is difficult to soften Ethiopia’s position in either of the two crises, as the dam is a crucial development goal in the country and a means of rallying the nation around the central government.

Departing from this equation would mean the fraying of the current system of government.

Sudan’s decision to extend its control over the Al-Fashaqa border region has led to tensions within the ruling coalition in Addis Ababa.

Balance within the coalition is based on the Amhara ethnic group, which has worked through Al-Shafta gangs on the Fashaqa territory where it seeks to return.

Furthermore, the gangs’ return to Sudan could fuel a dispute over the land of Benishangul, on which the Renaissance Dam is being built.

These factors led to a tightening of Sudan’s intertwined interests with Egypt, while Ethiopian intransigence also brought the two countries closer.

But Egypt’s threat to use force could now bring Sudan closer to Ethiopia.

Several regional and international powers have intervened to mediate between Sudan and Ethiopia to solve the border crisis, as a way to distance Khartoum from Cairo.

This has privileged  the US narrative which argues that border calm could bring calm in the Renaissance Dam dispute . Keeping Khartoum at a distance from Cairo is seen as a way to reduce the risk of continued escalation in the region.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi warned last week that “harming Egypt’s water is a red line and will affect the stability of the region totally”. The Egyptian leader used particularly tough language which he had hardly voiced before with Ethiopia.

This stance coincided with joint military exercises between Egypt and Sudan at the “Merowe” base, bearing the name of “Nile Eagles 2”.

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken stressed in a telephone conversation with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok on Monday the need to reduce border tensions between the two countries.

He also expressed support for the Sudanese government’s efforts to advance the peace process, address regional and economic issues and promote political reforms.

He was seen to be  hinting that Sudan had enough problems of its own and did not need the risks inherent in any military action against Ethiopia.

But Sudanese political analyst Muhammad Ali Torshin says that “any US pressure on the transitional authority to stand by Ethiopia will not be accepted, because the issue is related to national security and has nothing to do with political concerns, as there are priorities that impose options.”

Talking to The Arab ​Weekly, he added that Washington needs Khartoum in light of the intensifying competition for Sudanese resources as Russia and China position themselves to be  powerful rivals to US investments in the region.

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