Monday,20 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Monday,20 May, 2019
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Renaissance Dam — a chance to cooperate

The current water crisis can pave the way for new dialogues, writes Ayman Abdel-Wahab

The two articles below examine recent developments in Egyptian-Sudanese relations in light of recent moves by the two countries to end long-standing tension and to move to a more cooperative relationship.

The first article examines how Egypt’s negligence towards Sudan and Ethiopia’s efforts to court Sudan led to an alliance between Sudan and Ethiopia. In order to change this reality, Egypt needs to engage Sudan on the political, social and economic levels and to provide concrete incentives for the Sudanese regime so that it can adopt a more balanced position on the issue of the Renaissance Dam.

The second article examines the tensions that have plagued Egyptian-Sudanese relations since their independence. The article argues that Egypt has not sufficiently prioritised and nurtured its relations with Sudan and with Nile Basin countries in general. The time has come for Egypt to adopt a new strategic approach towards Sudan, which requires moving beyond the traditional instruments of diplomacy and moving towards a more comprehensive approach that engages not only the regime but also Sudanese civil society. The two articles were published in Egyptian Files, April issue, by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


The task of describing current Egyptian-Sudanese relations is a difficult one. This is because an illustrative description would require a deep analysis of the changes the relationship went through in terms of shared benefits and strategic vision. Moreover, it is vital to specifically look at the changes that occurred during the last 30 years since the ouster of Jaafar Numeiri in 1985. 

This is because Sudan’s change in leadership has created a substantial change in both states’ mutual understanding of issues and interests, which in turn has led to a sharp divergence of strategic visions of the two states. While the Egyptian and Sudanese people still share many commonalities and there are many more common interests that would bring both states together rather than divide them, there are still many factors that have prevented both states from having better relations. If we are to establish improved relations with Sudan, it is imperative that we take into consideration the barriers that bar us from having the best possible alliance. 


THE RENAISSANCE DAM CRISIS: When engineering firms BRL and Artelia published their prefatory report on the impact the Renaissance Dam will have on water supplies, Ethiopia and Sudan challenged the findings which were in Egypt’s favour. This is not surprising, for Sudan’s stance on the dam has been pro-Ethiopian ever since the plan was unveiled back in April 2011, despite its attempts to appear neutral or impartial in the crisis. Before going any further, it is important to note that the dam and the Nile’s water supplies do not represent the central issue that has diminished Egyptian-Sudanese relations, for there are deeper layers to our weak alliance:

The prefatory report’s findings focused mainly on the negative effects that the dam will have in relation to water security, its storage volume and the years it will take for Egypt’s part of the Nile to refill water supplies lost in the dam. While the report addressed Egypt’s concerns, it failed to address the concerns that Sudan is mainly focused on, such as the negative environmental and geological effects the dam will have. Though Egypt also shares the latter concerns, they are not its main priorities. 

Sudan recently decided to return and attend meetings of the Nile Basin Initiative, despite its rejection of the Entebbe agreement, which ignores the rights of Sudan and Egypt in water quotas. This shows that while Egypt and Sudan disagree on the means of achieving certain objectives, they don’t diverge on the main objective itself (Egypt refuses to return without negotiating the points of disagreement).

Egypt and Sudan’s current divergence in policy towards the rest of the Nile Basin countries is unprecedented. Historically, there has never been such a large disagreement between both states before in terms of diplomatic positions and visions. Evidence of Egypt and Sudan’s historical loyalty towards each other is plentiful. For instance, both parties collectively cooperated during the Andujo and Tyconile initiatives and during other negotiations held in the Nile Basin Initiative between 2000 and 2010. This confirms that the divergence is linked to factors other than the gains Sudan will garner from the Renaissance Dam. Furthermore, this demonstrates that Sudan thinks it can achieve its national, regional and perhaps global interests through a closer alliance with Ethiopia rather than with Egypt. 

The evolution of Sudan’s stance on the Renaissance Dam crisis has undergone three stages. In the first stage, Sudan acted as an impartial mediator between both Egypt and Ethiopia as it encouraged channels of communication and dialogue between the parties. Sudan also affirmed the importance of continuing studies on the dam’s impact while also taking security factors into consideration. 

The second stage consisted of complete and total support of Ethiopia’s plans. As such, Sudanese rhetoric focused on the benefits that the dam would reap for itself, and how it would not negatively impact Egypt. Additionally, Sudan called for changing the system that governed water cooperation in the Nile Basin Initiative. Simply put, the Sudanese government accepted Ethiopia’s vision for the region as its own. As a result, some Sudanese media outlets started promoting the idea that previous historical agreements on the Nile’s waters were in fact unfair and ignored the rights of other Nile Basin states. One particular agreement that the media criticised was the 1959 Convention which Sudan has historically benefitted from in terms of both water and material gains. 

The third stage began after the Egyptian people removed the Muslim Brotherhood from power in June 2013, which, despite Sudanese caution, resulted in cooling relations between Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, the political and media atmosphere within Sudan revealed a new cycle of tension and strategic divergence between the two countries. It is for this reason that the Sudanese government decided to widen its sphere of diplomacy by stating that the new dam will yield positive benefits for the East African region, while simultaneously implying that the dam will not impact Egypt’s water supply or interests. 


THE ROAD TOWARD A NEW DISCOURSE: When discussing the formulation of a new discourse regarding Egyptian-Sudanese relations, it is paramount that we take Ethiopia’s current internal struggles into consideration. Ethiopia is currently undergoing a state of emergency as both tribal and regional groups are fighting for power. The situation in Ethiopia highlights the importance of stability when dealing with a regional conflict over resources such as water. This is because it is preferred that such conflicts are dealt with in a civil manner as outlined through legal and diplomatic procedures. This is especially true in this case because the conflict that the Nile Basin countries are going through isn’t caused by water scarcity; rather poor management of cooperative operations causes it. Therefore, to ensure regional stability for the Nile Basin area, other states should not ignore the interests of Egypt or take advantage of its brief period of instability. 

The Egyptian president’s move to hold meetings with Sudanese President Al-Bashir and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegu at the African Union shows the importance of international dialogue. As it stands, Ethiopia will most likely not wait for the conclusion of the studies on the impact of the dam and is currently carrying on with building it. This means that time is of the essence and in these coming months Egypt needs to encourage quicker research on the dam’s impact. Moreover, the state needs to provide a political apparatus that is willing to go into deeper dialogue and cooperate with other states in the Nile Basin to reach a sustainable water supply compromise for all of East Africa. 

From here we can see the importance of building a comprehensive political framework for Egyptian-Sudanese relations, at least at a strategic level. If Egypt and Sudan are successful, they can be an example of sustainable cooperation for the rest of East Africa. This in turn could lead more East African states to a dialogue. From there, East African states could establish an institutional legal organisation that could help end the crisis once and for all. This could also pave the way for a shared water and electricity network between the states which can lead to the development of East Africa. 

The Renaissance Dam presents us with an opportunity to cooperate rather than clash with Ethiopia and come in the way of its ambitions. 

If such an Egyptian-Sudanese dialogue comes to fruition it can become the basis of new bilateral relations that would help the two states strategically both at a regional and an international level. This is especially true in these hard pressing times in which the conflict for natural resources is causing states to become unstable and weak. Additionally, foreign involvement in the region aims to ensure that such an alliance among the Nile Basin states and the states that make up the Horn of Africa never happens. So it is up to Egypt and Sudan to resist this by leading the way towards an alliance. To do this we need to narrow the gaps between us and try to establish new foundations for our interests.

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