Abiy’s hostility towards el-Sisi: Rising tensions over national sovereignty

  • +Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy’s power increases as the GERD begins to fill.
  • +Egyptian President el-Sisi looks for international support.
  • +A shifts in power dynamics is approaching in the MENA region.
Abiy rushes to protect the project that unites Ethiopia while El-Sisi’s looks outwards for allies.
Source: Tiska Negeri/Reuters

Why is Abiy hostile towards el-Sisi? 

Answer: Because the completion of the GERD comes with el-Sisi’s loss of control over the African continent. 

As the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) approaches completion,  Egyptian President, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, is struggling to find allies strong enough to deter Ethiopia from crippling Egypt’s access to its historic source of water, especially as drought is on the horizon. In the meantime, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, fights for nonbinding agreements as he tries to reconcile the price Ethiopia may pay for the project with the enormous benefits it will bring.

The dispute around the GERD stopped being about infrastructure a long time ago. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have spent decades negotiating how to fill the dam without increasing tensions with downstream nations. However, the rising tensions are not about the project itself but what it represents.

On one side, el-Sisi’s stances coincide with the general view that waters of the Blue Nile, which saw the birth of Egypt, belong to them. On the other side, Ethiopia, through which the river flows, now has the capacity to claim the Blue Nile as its own, especially as the project was heavily funded by the Ethiopian population. 

Tensions escalated this year after Trump’s mediation. Sisi and Abiy agreed to American mediation as both countries have a good relationship with the country. Abiy was hoping for impartiality; it soon became evident that Trump was to represent the interest of el-Sisi. 

Unable to reach their desired objective, Trump resorted to cutting part of its-non humanitarian aid to Ethiopia. Instead of acting as an incentive on the matter, this only served to further damage the relationship between Trump and Abiy, increasing tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt, and the removal of the American mediation. 

Sisi is now reaching out to former allies, including Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi, as he handles the next round of negotiation at the hands of the African Union. However, no matter how powerful el-Sisi emerges from this round, the agreement will be nonbinding. 

What does Abiy want?

Answer: To gain control over the Blue Nile. 

“The construction of the dam and the filling of the water go hand in hand,” said Ethiopia’s water minister, Seleshi Bekele, in July as Ethiopia began to fill the GERD during the rainy season. The project has the potential to pull millions out of poverty and decrease the need for foreign aid. Besides that, the project will provide steady jobs for thousands of Ethiopians, double its own production of electricity and export energy to surrounding countries.  

Earlier this year Ethiopia suffered a cyber attack from Egyptian hackers. What ensued was a flood of posts on social media from both sides. Egyptians began to tag their post with #Nile4all while Ethiopian officials encouraged the use of ##ItsMyDam. 

Both Abiy and el-Sisi are known for their nationalistic approach to politics. Both countries owe who they are to the Nile. The problem is that Abiy is using the Nile to unite Ethiopians at the expense of Egyptians; for Egyptians, the Nile is a source of national pride. Within Ethiopia, tensions between the Tigrayan minority, who used to rule the country, and the Oromo have been escalating.

Abiy rose to power with the promise to unite the Ethiopian people and the dam has been a large part of the effort. Many Ethiopians donated money and supplies for the project; the future it offers to the nation has led the population to set many grievances aside. Despite many ideological, religious and ethnic differences, Ethiopians overwhelmingly support the GERD, especially on social media. 

However, Abiy was slow in the fulfilment of other promises and tensions continued to rise in the Tigray region after the prime minister delayed parliamentary elections earlier this month while the Tigray region held its own polls. On November 5th, Abiy proceeded to declare war on the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) who controlled the region. Between stagnant negotiations and a possible diversion of funds from the GERD to the armed conflict, the events of the coming months could redirect Abiy’s current popularity.

Some now believe that Abiy’s political career is doomed, this conflict puts him in a new light which may provide el-Sisi with the opportunity he was searching for. Now, not only is the international opinion on his side but Sudan is also set to suffer the consequences of the conflict with a wave of refugees headed its way.

Despite el-Sisi’s best efforts, Abiy does not want to get into a binding agreement at this stage. Power dynamics are sure to change as soon as the GERD begins operations, and this sentiment continues to solidify as threats increase. President Trump tried to use aid reductions as an incentive for Abiy but the threat backfired as Abiy knows the GERD is Ethiopia’s chance at self-sufficiency. 

Abiy’s relationship with Trump started suffering at the beginning of the American mediation earlier this year, but besides aid cuts, Trump commenting that el-Sisi might “Blow up” the GERD has led Abiy to reinforce security around the dam, even airspace controls. It does not seem like Abiy has any intentions of severing ties with Trump.

Ethiopia’s foreign minister requested a meeting with the American ambassador for clarification and stated that “the incitement of war between Ethiopia and Egypt from a sitting U.S. president neither reflects the long-standing partnership and strategic alliance between Ethiopia and the United States nor is acceptable in international law governing interstate relations.” Other high ranking officials have taken to social media to criticize Trump’s comments but Abiy addressed the comments without naming President Trump at any point.  

What does el-Sisi want? 

Answer: To gain back control over the Blue Nile, and the stability it provides. 

The Nile provides Egypt 90% of its freshwater while the Blue Nile provides almost 86% of the water that reaches Egypt. The dispute between el-Sisi and Abiy extends far beyond water security though. Egypt already uses almost 80% of its water for agricultural purposes and for years, the country has allowed old and damaged canals to supply water to its thirsty crops. 

The fight over the Nile signifies a bigger goal is el-Sisi’s trajectory. His nationalistic policies have focused around a stronger MENA and Egypt. However, security and stability, the two fundamental things for el-Sisi, also include water security. The consequences of water insecurity are exacerbated by the possibility of stronger and longer periods of drought, but the prospect of Egypt depending on Abiy for a resource that it had historically controlled is what truly drives him.

Sisi feels power is beginning to shift and that Egypt’s influence is no longer as powerful as it was at the beginning of the negotiations. For this reason, he is now looking outwards for support and is consolidating alliances with surrounding countries and those who hold power in regional organizations. A perfect example is his expressed support for the upcoming president of the African Union, Congolese Felix Tshisekedi. 

Sisi is also at a slight advantage at the moment after Abiy declared civil war on the Tigray region. This incident may help him shift perceptions and therefore alliances in Egypt’s favor since Abiy’s reputation as a peace-maker suffered greatly after the declaration of war. 

What is el-Sisi doing? 

Answer:  He is expanding the scope of influence of Egypt to try to diminish support for Abiy’s ambitious project.

Sisi sees the GERD as an existential threat to Egypt. This is not news but the project is nearing its completion and he is looking outward for pressure. Sisi first tried to internationalize the dispute earlier this year by requesting American mediation. This had a severe impact on the relations of all countries involved and led to more serious hostile threats from Abiy, as Ethiopia left the negotiation table feeling betrayed and determined to finish the GERD.  

November 12th, el-Sisi hosted a high-level Congolese delegation. Congolese Felix Tshisekedi expressed his gratitude for el-Sisi’s support over the stability of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Additionally, el-Sisi expressed support during his upcoming role as president of the African Union. President Tshisekedi will take over negotiations come 2021 and as the representative of a country within the Nile basin, he seems eager to exploit the relationship with both countries to end the dispute; the DRC may have a more comprehensive and flexible approach to the negotiation. 

Nevertheless, it seems like el-Sisi does not truly believe these agreements will lead anywhere permanent. Sisi is trying a different approach, expanding Egypt’s realm of influence in the African continent especially countries with strong ties to the US. 

Mohamed Abdel-Karim Ahmed, research coordinator for the Africa unit at the Institute for Future Studies in Beirut, believes el-Sisi’s support for the DRC presidency also comes from Egypt’s negative experience with the African Union in the dispute during the South African rule as they “enabled Ethiopia to stage repeated maneuvers to dodge abidance by the rules set by the mediator.”

Ethiopia believed to have Sudan on their side of the argument as it would potentially benefit from the project. However, a recent agreement with Israel was achieved under American mediation, and Trump’s seal of approval is something Sudanese Prime Minister Hamdok aims to keep, which may shift Sudan to the Egyptian side of the argument.

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: Abiy is winning and power dynamics will change drastically.

Abiy and el-Sisi are power-wise in a similar position. Abiy’s power stems from Ethiopia’s future and el-Sisi’s, from Egypt’s past. However, Abiy is determined to finish the GERD as soon as possible while el-Sisi’s fight depends entirely on the GERD’s timeline. 

For you, this means that the MENA region and all its allies are about to experience a change in polarity. Sisi has spent years trying to reposition Egypt as the heart of the Middle East when that position clearly belongs to Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Saudi Arabia. This is yet another blow to Egypt’s international influence. But, once the GERD begins to deliver its promises, we will see if el-Sisi’s old and newfound allies stick around to watch him struggle or begin to mend relations with the new power in the region. 

In addition to that, we may have to start paying attention to transboundary rivers more closely. However, the way el-Sisi and Abiy resolve the situation will set a precedent for how we deal with projects along transboundary rivers. And, if predictions are true, a few years of drought may be approaching. Whatever happens may determine the fates of the River Jordan, the Indus Valley River, the Tigris and Euphrates, etc. and their surroundings. 

Clarisa Gorrín

Research and Analysis Intern