Egypt is taking a central role in the design of what may become a “Nile River security organization” or similar body to enforce freedom of water use.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi is creating not only a regional grouping around the perennial issue of water rights and transit but also a “web” around Ethiopia because of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project. Other security issues that Egypt is pursuing include recovery from the pandemic and investment in logistics. The theme seems to be “security, life and development.”
To be sure, in the wake of Egypt’s success in the Gaza-Israeli negotiations, combined with support from the Biden administration for that effort, Egypt is continuing to pursue a string of defense agreements around Ethiopia, encircling the country as part of its water security strategy.
Ethiopia angered Egypt and Sudan, also a Nile downstream country, by insisting that a second, much larger filling of GERD will go ahead in July and August 2021 regardless of whether a deal on the dam’s operation is reached. This has incensed Cairo, and El-Sisi is now receiving more international and regional support for Egypt’s position on water rights. Support from African states for Egypt is critical, too, as Cairo seeks to work closely with the African Union on key projects throughout the continent, as well as distribution of pandemic vaccines.
There is more to the agreements being signed by Egypt and its new African security partners. Egypt signed defense pacts with Uganda and Burundi, two key states that have long been sought after for Gulf infrastructure ideas and investments. El-Sisi also made a surprise visit to Djibouti, which shares a border with Ethiopia and overlooks the strategic southern entrance of the Red Sea. Cairo’s most recent defense agreements are with Kenya and Eritrea, two key states, as part of an effort to influence outcomes in Addis Ababa and the Tigray war.
Egypt’s biggest partner, literally, is Sudan following a defense agreement signed in March 2021. After the signing, an Egyptian statement said that both countries face common challenges and threats to their national security. The two militaries this year wrapped up their third and largest joint war games — Guardians of the Nile, a six-day exercise that involved troops, air forces, navies, commandos and air defense.
Moreover, Cairo is supporting a Gulf strategy to refurbish and develop other regional ports, including Port Sudan in Sudan, Berbera in the Somaliland region of Somalia, and Mombasa in Kenya, while also competing over significant oil and gas deposits on both land and sea.
For Egypt and its Nile River partners, this activity can be either beneficial or detrimental. The construction of the DP World Hargeisa bypass road between Berbera and Ethiopia is underway, backed with British funding. This road is key for throughput from landlocked Ethiopia. With attention also on Eritrea and its support for Ethiopia, the two countries are increasingly not only surrounded but also now under sanction from the West. Ethiopia’s “out” now likely rests with Russia, whose long relationship with Addis Ababa can come into play.
Added to the Nile River basin mix are Turkish and Russian interests. Turkey’s interests in Somalia bring Cairo-Ankara relations into a new light with El-Sisi’s sudden regional leadership. Turkish train-and-equip programs in Mogadishu are first rate, but the output coverage in the country is hampered by internal divisions.
Nevertheless, a real test is coming on how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan builds on his political capital in this part of Africa based on fighting Al-Shabab. As a member of NATO operating in Mogadishu and Libya, Ankara’s moves can also be seen in a unique light as Egypt’s defense agreements with African states lead to more Egyptian-African combined exercises. Where Turkey fits into this equation is to be determined by Cairo. Russia, with its own military agreements, is moving with agility via private military companies and malign networks. Moscow’s options are now being tested in Sudan, with the outcome subject to whether the US special envoy to the Horn of Africa can convince regional actors otherwise.
Egypt is doing the heavy lifting on what appears to be an emerging Nile Basin Security Organization. Cairo has used several tactics to try to pressure Ethiopia into agreeing to its demand for a binding agreement on GERD’s operation and filling, and a system for handling future droughts and disputes. Now the tables have turned with the arc of security agreements El-Sisi has signed with African states around Ethiopia.
To be sure, Ethiopia is already under pressure from cross-border crossfire with Sudan over property rights. El-Sisi is also turning to the US for help on the Ethiopian dispute, but the clock is running on the filling of the GERD in the coming months. How Egypt and African states operate together, in a potential Nile River security organization, on resolving the use of water may set an example, either positive or negative, for other areas of the region and perhaps the world.