On Monday in Khartoum, the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed an initial accord on mutual water rights to the Nile River, removing another obstacle to Ethiopia’s massive Grand Renaissance Dam, which has been a source of tension with its neighbors since construction began just 10 miles from Sudan’s border in 2011. But the agreement is about a lot more than water. It may signal a seismic shift in the politics of northeastern Africa and could lead to a new axis of cooperation to manage, if not resolve, conflicts in one of the world’s most turbulent regions.
The accord’s details are not yet public, and it is likely that Egypt is still not ready to accede to an earlier 2010 agreement reached under the auspices of the Nile Basin Initiative, a partnership among all the riparian states, that increased upstream countries’ share of Nile waters, at Egypt’s expense. But no matter: The real significance of the deal is that the door is now open for Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to cooperate on many more pressing political and security issues around them.
Four crises top the list: Libya, interlinked problems in Yemen and Eritrea, and the civil war in South Sudan.
For Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in particular, the deal helps secure his activist foreign policy, aimed at stabilizing Egypt’s neighborhood so that the Muslim Brotherhood, whether at home or abroad, and Islamist militants in the Sinai Peninsula on one side and Libya on the other no longer threaten his regime. Improving Egypt’s ties with its African neighbors offers strategic depth to that policy, and for that Ethiopian cooperation is necessary. Ethiopia is the strongest state in the Horn of Africa and the seat of the African Union, from which Egypt was suspended following el-Sissi’s 2013 military takeover. Egypt was reinstated last year after ratifying a new constitution and holding presidential elections, which el-Sissi won easily.
In an address to the Ethiopian parliament Wednesday in Addis Ababa, which he visited after Khartoum, el-Sissi declared that Egypt wanted “to turn the page in the history of relations between the two countries,” referring to the two countries’ long history of rivalry. El-Sissi stressed the need for cooperation against the “epidemic of terrorism.” But for that, el-Sissi first had to settle the Nile waters dispute. With the new deal, Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir have shown they are ready to work with him.
Libya is Egypt’s foremost security challenge, and to achieve his goal of a victory for Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s proxy war, el-Sissi needs Sudanese cooperation. It was a little-known fact that Sudan provided essential military support to the Islamist rebels fighting Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and still has an influential role in the country, including reports of continued support for the coalition of Islamist militias currently fighting Haftar. El-Sissi neither likes nor trusts Bashir’s Islamist regime in Sudan—and Bashir, for his part, has criticized Egypt’s involvement in Libya—but el-Sissi knows Bashir is set for a comfortable win in next month’s presidential election and believes he can work with his Sudanese counterpart.
Meanwhile, Yemen’s slow-motion meltdown, which accelerated Thursday with Saudi-led, U.S.-backed airstrikes and talk of a ground invasion against Houthi rebels, is not just an Arabian Peninsula crisis. It is also a Red Sea crisis, as whoever controls the country’s coast and islands also controls the shipping lanes from the Suez Canal to Asia. Both Egypt and Sudan are keenly aware of that, and both have joined in the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen—with Cairo providing four naval vessels to secure the Gulf of Aden and possibly even ground forces, and Sudan promising air support and combat troops, too. Signing the preliminary water deal Monday, el-Sissi declared “We have chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development.” This trust might also extend to regional security issues much sooner than he had expected.
For Ethiopia, the water deal is a way to turn longtime rivals into partners as it tries to become a kingmaker in its own backyard. That was evident last weekend, when Ethiopian fighter jets attacked two strategic sites—an arms depot and a copper mine—in Eritrea. Since the Algiers accords that ended the bitter and costly border war between the two countries in 2000, the two neighbors have been locked in a local cold war in which Eritrea has tried to destabilize Ethiopia, and Ethiopia has tried to isolate Eritrea. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki had been trying to leverage his country’s strategic position across the Red Sea from Yemen to become the favored recipient of Egyptian-Saudi largesse for their interventions in the region. Afewerki recently restored diplomatic relations with Yemen—severed since a 1995 war over the Hanish Islands in the Red Sea—but also received a Houthi delegation in Asmara earlier this week. Eritrea’s military base on the lesser Hanish Island near the Yemeni coast has suddenly acquired huge strategic value. Last weekend’s air raid served as a signal from Addis Ababa that Ethiopia can stand in the way of Afewerki’s gambit.
Finally, the water deal also has implications for South Sudan, where peace talks to end that country’s civil war have broken down. The mediators, representing the neighboring African countries, are profoundly frustrated with South Sudan’s leaders, who have proven themselves incapable of even modestly working together. Despite common support for the peace talks, there is a danger of the war becoming a theater for regional rivalries, particularly between Sudan and Uganda, which has already deployed troops in support of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir. The prospect of a common, regional security strategy between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia could help avert that danger.
Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have long histories of mutual suspicion to overcome, from tensions over sharing the Nile to being on opposite sides of many of the region’s conflicts. But the turmoil on their borders threatens them all, and the Nile water deal is the first sign that all three recognize the need for cooperation to face those hazards.
Alex de Waal is executive director of the World Peace Foundation and a research professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.