Will Egypt Start a Horn of Africa War with Sudan and Ethiopia?

There is plenty of tinder just waiting for a spark to ignite an armed conflagration between Egypt and its two Horn of Africa neighbors. Some of it is rooted in colonial history. All the same, President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi said firmly on Tuesday, Jan. 16: “We’re not prepared to go to war against our brethren or anyone else, for that matter. I am saying this as a clear message to our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia.”

Nonetheless, all three armies were this week concentrating troops on their common borders and the highly volatile Red Sea region. Egypt deployed the Mistral-class Gamal Abdel-Nasser helicopter carrier on the Red Sea. It carries a Ka-52K helicopter force and has troop landing capabilities. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates likewise boosted their fleets in the strategic oHorBab El-Mandeb Straits, and watchers in Eritrea spotted an Israeli buildup at its small, long-held naval and surveillance station on Dahlak Island.

One of the sparks flying over the region is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which threatens to reduce the flow of Egypt’s share of Nile water at source by 22 billion cubic meters a year.

The other one is more recent: As the last DEBKA Weekly reported, Sudan has leased a strategic Red Sea island to Turkey, providing Ankara with its third Middle East military base. Khartoum’s hobnobbing with the Turks and Qataris raises deep concern in Cairo and fear that Omar Al-Bashir is secretly promoting the Muslim Brotherhood and granting the banned Islamist group a rear base in Sudan for aggression against Egypt.

The Nile water dispute goes back to the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which granted Egypt 50 billion cubic meters of Nile water and Sudan only four. A new agreement with Sudan in 1959 increased Sudan’s share but left the lion’s share of Nile waters to Egypt, which depends on those waters for the agriculture to feed its teeming population along with hydroelectric energy. The other riparian states, which have since gained independence, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and South Sudan, never got a look in. Sudan tried to broker the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia in 2015, but made no headway. Addis Ababa rejected Cairo’s claim to the largest share of Nile water. Its dam, when completed, will reduce that share by nearly half.

Egypt is moving in two directions to save its Nile lifeline: It has called on the World Bank to help push the parties into overcoming the impasse and working on a solution. At the same time, Cairo has vowed to protect Egypt’s share of Nile waters. But the World Bank doesn’t have the resources for taking a hand in a dispute of this kind. Neither does any party in the region. The Trump administration in Washington might be able to push the parties towards a deal. But this not appear to be on its agenda. Judging by US diplomatic ineffectiveness in resolving the Saudi-UAR dispute with Qatar and smoothing over its friction with Turkey over Syria, the administration does not have the will to intercede in the conflicts building up in the Horn of Africa.

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