Border isuses boil with Tigrayan conflict, GERD stress looms, Commentary

Commentary by Rachel Brooks

December 30, 2020 

Image credit: “File:Adwa Tigray Ethiopia.jpg” by Jialiang Gao www.peace-on-earth.org is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Photographed region is where the Tigray conflict unfolds, adding stress and pressure to other major political issues of this region. 

As Egypt opens the door to stronger diplomacy with its neighbor nation of Sudan, the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam once more raises its head. The dam is integral to all life in East Africa. The politicization of the dam leads to escalations of the conflict in the region. 

On the one hand, Qatar, the Islamist media leader of the MENA region, continues to publish propaganda that spreads conspiracy theories about an Israeli role in the Egypt-Ethiopia-Sudan crisis over the dam.  Media propaganda added to the intense stakes of each nation near to the Nile adds to the potential of violent political escalation in the region of the GERD dam’s operations. 

In recent developments, Egypt backs Sudan over Nile dam impasse 

Al-Monitor reported on December 23, that Egypt’s foreign ministry had condemned Ethiopia’s cross-border encroachment of Sudan. This was termed by the Egyptian ministry as “an unjustified assault.” Egypt expressed grave concern following the regional updates. 

On December 30, Al-Monitor likewise reported that Egypt and Sudan have joined forces to “crackdown” on the Muslim Brotherhood. Al Monitor’s agency cites the overthrow of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir as the pathway to cooperation against the Muslim Brotherhood. 

From these developments, the international community observes that Egypt and Sudan are unified on one side of the escalations. Should escalations over the GERD dam intensify, Sudan would be more likely to come to Egypt’s aid, and vice versa. 

The complex process of Egypt’s response to regional normalization 

For Egypt, the issue is intensified by the difficult position that regional normalization puts it in. Egypt’s responsiveness to the process of Abraham Accords has been a mixed bag. Egypt has had “cool ties” with Morocco in previous years, yet, when it came to the Abraham Accords and Morocco’s motion to normalize ties with Israel, Egypt was accepting of the idea. 

A bit of background on recent events…

After reaching an agreement with Ethiopia’s government, Sudan will resume sovereignty over the disputed al-Fashqa region along the shared Sudan-Ethiopia border. This resumed sovereignty was reportedly granted in April 2020, but Ethiopian nationals have continued to violate the processes and “encroach” upon the land. Tensions in the region have been stoked by the conflict between the Ethiopian internationally recognized government and the political Tigrayan revolt. Likewise, border tensions have been heavy, as the Washington Post reported that a cross-border attack by Ethiopian forces had led to Sudanese casualties. On December 20, Washington Post reported that Ethiopia and Sudan’s Prime Ministers met in Djibouti to discuss the border region issue. 

 Sudan had sent 6,000 troops to the Tigrayan front as the conflict between Ethiopia and the Tigrayan rebellion continued. Even though the Ethiopian prime minister declared victory over the Tigray in November, the conflict has continued. Ethiopia’s federal government and the regional Tigrayan party continue to be at odds and clashes commence despite the declared victory. 

The conflict between the Tigray region and the Ethiopian federal government has displaced 52,000+ refugees of primarily Tigrayan ethnicity in eastern Sudan, citing Reuters. The Washington Post reports that these refugees have been pushed into Sudan, in primarily the al-Qadarif region. Mainstream media has reported that bloody clashes in the border region and the al-Qadarif locale have been ongoing since at least July 2020. In July, another cross-border attack launched by Ethiopia led to the casualty of a Sudanese soldier and a Sudanese child, increasing the tensions between the two nations, citing a report by Deutsche Welle. 

 This has led to a mass influx of internally displaced people, and disputes on agricultural lands in al-Fashqa. The al-Fashqa region is internationally-recognized as part of Sudan but has been settled by Ethiopian farmers for a long time. 

As border tensions continue to escalate, the issue of the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam, or GERD, continues to prevail in regional political thought. 

The concept of the GERD dam has existed for years, with Egyptians as well as Ethiopians working on the project. Yet, the dam talks went nowhere in Egypt. Egypt is heavily dependent on the Nile, from time immemorial, for its irrigation. Egypt, since the time of antiquity, has depended on the Nile for its agrarian economy. The Egyptian government cannot afford any severe water shortages that are an anticipated result of GERD. The construction of the GERD dam creates the risk of damage or destruction for 17 percent of Egypt’s arable land. With time and degradation, that percentage could rise as high as 51 percent. This would destroy the Egyptian economy and displace at least 30 million Egyptians. This is just under one-third of the Egyptian population, citing an op-ed article by human rights lawyer Irina Tsukerman which was published in The Algemeiner on August 4. 

As the situation over refugee spill-over develops, Republic Underground will explore the political tensions at the regional borders. The outlet will review how preexisting stressors come to a head with the critical debate over the GERD dam’s risk to arable land. Check back for developments.