At the end of November, Ethiopia’s war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front saw federal troops press on towards Mekelle, the Tigrayan state capital. The TPLF’s fortunes are at their nadir. From 1991 to 2018, the party was the dominant force in Ethiopian politics. Tensions with the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, had been building steadily since he sidelined the TPLF from government two years ago, part of a centralising drive that put in question the regional autonomy of Tigray and other federal states, supposedly guaranteed by the constitution. For the past few months, there had been talk of possible transfers of territory from Tigray to the neighbouring region of Amhara. At the beginning of last month, the TPLF captured the federal army’s Northern Command, describing it as a pre-emptive measure against attack.
Ethiopia’s latest civil war is being closely observed by Ethiopia’s neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, but also – from further afield – by Egypt. For Cairo, water is the issue, and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. On 28 November, Egypt’s president, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to meet with his counterpart, Salva Kiir. Sisi was accompanied by the head of his intelligence service. Egypt had just completed two high-profile joint military exercises in Sudan. At the Marwa air base near Khartoum, the Sudanese military chief of staff had vowed to deter the country’s enemies and protect its borders.
In Juba, Sisi emphasised the need for a legally binding agreement on the minimum outflow from the dam. South Sudan has no direct stake in this colossal hydropower project, which could eventually allow Addis Ababa to control flows to Sudan and Egypt: the White Nile, which flows through South Sudan, does not meet the Blue Nile until it reaches Khartoum, nearly 400 km downstream. Sisi was signalling to Abiy: ignore us at your peril.
Tripartite negotiations about the dam have largely stalled since Ethiopia earlier this year rejected demands from Khartoum and Cairo for a legally binding treaty. Filling – which will take several years – began in July, without any agreed framework having been reached. Egypt was humiliated and apparently powerless to intervene. There were threats of air strikes by the Egyptians during construction, but the dam is now built, the water level has risen, and unilateral military action seems a remote possibility.
Egypt has been the loser in recent regional realignments. Its former ally Issayas Afeworki, the Eritrean president – who went to war against Ethiopia in 1998-2000, when the TPLF was in power in Addis Ababa – made peace with Abiy when he became prime minister in 2018. The deal left Cairo without an ally in the Horn of Africa. Weeks before the outbreak of the current war in Tigray, Issayas visited the Renaissance Dam with Abiy. Egypt could only look on.
When the war in Tigray began, the United Arab Emirates – one of the brokers of the truce between Eritrea and Ethiopia two years ago – favoured firm action by Abiy. The UAE, which has a military base at Assab in Eritrea, has since joined the international clamour for dialogue, which Abiy has rejected. Cairo now has its eyes on a new approach: cementing relations with Sudan and South Sudan to increase the pressure on Addis. Regime change in Khartoum last year has made this a realistic option.
Among the troops Abiy deployed to Tigray were divisions that had been stationed in a non-demarcated zone of Sudanese land west of the colonial frontier between Sudan and Ethiopia, cultivated by Ethiopian farmers. There were skirmishes in the area at least twice this year. The Sudanese immediately advanced into the farmland vacated by the Ethiopian army. The war in Tigray entered a new phase after the TPLF was forced to abandon Mekelle at the end of last month. When Abiy claimed victory, the TPLF insisted that fighting continued on three fronts around the city. They said they had destroyed eleven tanks and were up against several Eritrean infantry and mechanised divisions as well as the Ethiopian army. They also showed footage of a downed Soviet-era fighter jet and a captured pilot. They have since gone eerily quiet about details on the battlefront. On Monday, a contact in Mekelle told us over satellite internet that residents of the city have organised to try to stop looting; on Tuesday, another contact told us Abiy’s soldiers were searching private residences for weapons. The electricity, water and phone networks, as well as bank services, are down.
As the fighting intensified and casualties mounted, more than forty thousand refugees fled from Ethiopia to Sudan. But then Abiy’s military redeployed along the frontier, closing off their escape route. The Sudanese military and security apparatus has vowed to welcome refugees, but has handed deserters over to Ethiopia’s government, and is otherwise signalling that it is ready to ‘protect the borders’. Military clashes between Ethiopia and Sudan are not out of the question.
As for South Sudan, Egyptian gauging stations have monitored the flow of the White Nile and its tributaries since the 1940s. In the last few years, Egypt has been rehabilitating its old gauging and pumping stations, installing new ones, and constructing new docks (its headquarters for this work, in Malakal, burned down during the South Sudanese civil war). Sisi’s visit to South Sudan in November signalled an expansion, including riverbed dredging and rain-harvest dams, built and funded by Cairo.
Then there is the matter of the Jonglei Canal, first proposed more than a century ago, begun in 1978 and abandoned five years later. Bypassing the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan – with potentially catastrophic environmental consequences – it would deliver more water downstream to Egypt and Sudan. Many in Egypt see the project as a possible solution to water rights disputes, but it’s unacceptable to a lot of people in South Sudan. Many in Juba have historical affinities with Ethiopia and see prospects for cheap electricity in the Renaissance Dam. No government in South Sudan could dare resume the Jonglei Canal without riskingmajor upheaval.
Ethiopian diplomats and some South Sudanese officials worry that water and economic projects could serve as cover for the Egyptian intelligence operations. Unfounded rumours circulated earlier this year about plans for an Egyptian base at Pagak, near the Ethiopian border. As Sisi arrived, there were fantastical claims that some TPLF leaders had fled to South Sudan. In the past six months, a number of Egyptian ‘businessmen’ have set up shop in Juba, giving out ‘loans’ that can be repaid in information, under the watchful eyes of their South Sudanese counterparts. Some were pushed back from trips to border areas.
The Sisi-Kiir joint communiqué mentioned military and security co-ordination, but Kiir is reluctant to antagonise Ethiopia. When the TPLF was in power in Addis, it supported South Sudan’s rebels in their fight against Khartoum. In recent days, Abiy has sought to conciliate Kiir, criticising Ethiopia’s previous mediation efforts in South Sudan’s civil war, which Kiir saw as favouring his opponents. But there’s an old habit in the region (as elsewhere) of supporting rebels in neighbouring states, and if Kiir were to align himself too closely with Cairo, Abiy might look to destabilise South Sudan by courting Kiir’s opponents. At uneasy peace with itself only since February, the country can ill afford further internal turmoil.