Geopolitics: Dormant Territorial Tensions in North Africa Reignited


A major geopolitical crisis is set to erupt over who controls the world’s longest river. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

In early January 2018, reports of Egyptian troops moving into Eritrea sent shock waves through the Northern African region, prompting the Sudanese government to shut down its border with Eritrea and deploy troops. What may seem a very sudden move on behalf of the Egyptian government has actually been long in the making. Representing one of the most contentious territorial conflicts in this region, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia’s relationships have been complicated by their shared natural water resource  – the Nile.  In addition to the contention over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, other resting tensions resurfaced in 2016 over a series of factors including the Hala’ib Triangle border, associations with the Gulf Coast Countries (GCC), and the influences of foreign powers. In order to fully understand why Egypt has resorted to threatening its neighbouring countries with physical force, one has to acknowledge its complicated history.

The tensions between Sudan and Egypt have steadily grown over the past few years. With dissension coming from multiple sides, Sudan and Egypt have a background of historical, political and economical differences. The Hala’ib Triangle border dispute is a major reason that tensions have recently flared, as this border represents an area on the Egyptian-Sudanese territorial divide that both countries have claimed since the independence of Sudan from the British in 1956. Small conflicts occurred over the region in the 1990s when Egypt decided to station troops there.

However, since that initial conflict, contentions appeared to be frozen in time until their re-ignition  in 2016 as a result of an agreement undertaken by Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In this agreement, Egypt signed away two strategically positioned islands in the Red Sea. This mere existence of this agreement implies that Egypt has control over the disputed area. The Sudanese government quickly lodged an appeal to the United Nations, claiming that Egypt’s actions were an infringement of Sudanese territorial water claims.

Sudan decided to retaliate against Egypt by signing a naval agreement with Turkey last December,  whereby the two countries agreed to both rebuild a ruined Ottoman port on Sudan’s coast, and construct a dock on the island of Suakin – a key island in the Red Sea. On Jan. 4, the Sudanese government withdrew their ambassador from Cairo which prompted Egyptian troops to present themselves in Eritrea. Sudan responded by shutting down its Eritrean border and relocating troops to the vicinity. Their reaction was not only based on the growing threat that presented itself by the Egyptian troops, but also by the overwhelming sense of nationalism that would ripple through the Sudanese population as a result of this decision. A move of this caliber would help the Sudanese government distract their people from the domestic problems currently affecting the country.

Despite this issue being a prominent cause of the tensions in the region, a bigger source of concern has been the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile. It is estimated that it will become the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa, but its construction has slowly degraded the relationship between the three countries around the river, creating disputes over the control of different sections of the Nile. The water extracted controls the economic livelihood of each country’s citizens and comprises the majority of their water supply.

Egypt’s main concern is that the dam’s construction  will severely reduce the amount of water it will receive. If their claims are true, Egypt could face severe water scarcity, putting the country in an incredibly vulnerable position given the issue of water shortages already present in other parts of the country. The Egyptian government has released a statement stating that the creation of the dam will reduce the water flow of the river, affect drinking water, and impact irrigation for nearby agricultural industries. Ethiopia’s response has been to claim that the dam will have no impact on the country’s water supply and that it has no intention of putting Egypt in a compromising position. Despite Egypt’s concerns lacking factual backing, Ethiopia’s response must also be taken with a grain of salt. With this dam project, Ethiopia hopes to become Africa’s leading nation in energy resources which gives them financial incentive to continue.

Egypt has made several remarks, stating that it is under the assumption that Sudan is aligning itself with Ethiopia in the tensions over the construction of the dam. The Egyptian government has taken matters into its own hands by using its political connections to deter financial aid that could help other Ethiopian power projects. Sudan stands to gain from the project through the planned transmission line that will be connecting the Ethiopian electrical grid to Sudan’s capital Khartoum and has heavily invested in this $5 million project. Additionally, the dam will have features that might stop future flooding of the Blue Nile, located in Sudan, and would allow their farmers to have an increased crop cycle per year. It has been reported by Sudanese local media that Egypt has proposed to leave Sudan out of the negotiations regarding the progressions of the dam building but Ethiopia responded by stating it had no intentions of doing so. Despite Ethiopia’s response, however, the damage is done and Egypt has felt the consequences of being seen as a non-diplomatic actor is this situation.

The external influences from the likes of Turkey and Saudi Arabia on the ever-straining relationship between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are only adding salt to the existing wounds. In addition to Turkey’s naval treaties and security agreements in the area, it has been known to support Qatar, an ally of Sudan. This brings lingering sentiments over the GCC’s latest actions into play. With Egypt being a key player in the blockade against Qatar, alongside Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E., Turkey’s actions send a clear message to Sudan’s neighbour. The country is driving Egypt to the brink with its 12 agreements, including  agreements to help with the port of Sudan in the Red Sea and temporarily lease the Red Sea island of Suakin. President Recep Tayyip of Turkey visited Sudan in December, leading to speculations about the intentions of the agreement made between the two countries. It is said that his presence in the area is because of Turkey’s plans to  develop a military base on this leased land. Egypt – often in an alliance with the Gulf States – has been in strong opposition to Turkey’s involvement, vocalizing their opinions about Turkey’s attempt, “to undermine the stability and security of the so-called ‘Sunni moderate alliance’, which includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE.”

Despite these factors affecting the relationship between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the three countries arranged a meeting in November 2017 to negotiate and analyze an independent report made by French nationals regarding the dam’s implications on the neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, these talks failed. The three states could not agree on the initial report and blamed each other for the blocked process of moving forward with the construction of the dam.

It is hard to predict future relations given the failed talks, but one can analyze the trends that determine where the involved countries stand. There will be a series of telling events unfolding over the next few weeks that should give a clearer idea of future relations. Primarily, there are indications that Sudan is trying to escalate the conflict with Egypt. Besides clear signs of wanting to confront the Egyptian army by moving troops to the Eritrean border, Sudan’s government also might try to appease the Sudanese population and use it as a tool to divert their attention from the critical domestic problems currently present in their country. On the other hand, Egypt’s upcoming presidential elections mean that a new leader could de-escalate tensions. However, while El-Sisi is on rocky grounds, there is a strong chance he will remain in power given the lack of opposition to the presidency.

Another term of El-Sisi as president could cause history to repeat itself, once again freezing the conflict until it is provoked within the next few years. With that said, the future remains uncertain, and it is unclear whether a war will break out between Egypt and Sudan in the near future.

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