Donald Trump once again demonstrated his unwavering support to his “favorite dictator” Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after claiming Egypt could “blow up” Ethiopia’s dam along the River Nile. With previous fears of a conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia in a long-standing dispute over access to the Nile’s waters, Trump was criticized for stoking war sentiment. And Sisi may take advantage of the US President’s bombast to contain domestic pressure at home.
“It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way,” Trump told reporters in the White House on October 23 during his phone call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sudan’s leaders over their normalization deal.
“They’ll end up blowing up the dam. And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something,” Trump said.
“They’ll end up blowing up the dam. And I said it and I say it loud and clear – they’ll blow up that dam. And they have to do something.”
“They should have stopped it long before it started,” Trump said. He expressed regret that Egypt was going through its Arab Spring revolt in 2011 when the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project began.
The following day, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew summoned US Ambassador Michael Raynor to clarify Trump’s comments and later warned that Trump’s words were akin to warmongering.
“The incitement of war between Ethiopia and Egypt by a sitting US 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,” his ministry said in a statement.
Ethiopia has often felt that the US favors Egypt in the Nile dispute, and such comments from Trump can only confirm these beliefs, as Trump has overtly taken Cairo’s side in an extremely sensitive regional matter.
The US State Department cut aid to Ethiopia in September after it began filling its dam before reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan over the disputed Nile waters.
“I had a deal done for them and then, unfortunately, Ethiopia broke the deal, which they should not have done. That was a big mistake,” Trump said.
“They will never see that money unless they adhere to that agreement,” he added.
Sudan hosted three-way talks on October 27 with Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam project. However, tensions are still far from cleared.
Egypt and Ethiopia’s antagonism over the Nile grew after Ethiopia started construction on the US$4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011.
Egypt and Ethiopia’s antagonism over the Nile grew after Ethiopia started construction on the US$4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, raising concerns within Egypt and Sudan which both have interests in maintaining their own water flow from the Nile.
Despite protests from both Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia has still pursued construction of the dam which is now more than 70 percent complete.
Cairo fears that Addis Ababa’s dam building efforts will cut off water entering Egypt and severely impact its economy. Mohamed Abdel Ati, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources, said during an interview in July that a natural drought could intensify this issue. The United Nations has also warned that Egypt could face severe water shortages by 2025.
On the other hand, Ethiopia has opposed Egypt’s stance in the dispute, arguing that Cairo claims an unnecessary amount of water from the Nile.
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have tried to solve the conflict diplomatically, under close African Union (AU) mediation, yet negotiations have seen fruitless results.
After the three countries held fresh rounds of talks on July 22, the dispute escalated further in August when Ethiopia announced it had started filling GERD’s reservoir on August 2. Talks faltered later that month following the failure to satisfy each country’s concerns.
“As long as the Renaissance Dam remains an instrument in Ethiopia’s bid to control the Blue Nile, negotiations are doomed.”
A Foreign Policy article argued that “as long as the Renaissance Dam remains an instrument in Ethiopia’s bid to control the Blue Nile, negotiations are doomed.”
Despite efforts to resolve the Nile dispute, Mohamed Abdel Ati, Egypt’s Minister of Water Resources, also echoed Trump’s sentiment, and blamed Ethiopia for the failure of US attempts to achieve a settlement.
With tensions still high, Trump’s unconditional support potentially enables Sisi to use this dispute with Ethiopia as a domestic distraction, by containing growing discontent towards his regime and rallying public support behind his government.
Egypt has faced growing unrest under Sisi’s rule since a military counter-revolution coup in 2013 later saw him assume power. People are mostly frustrated at worsening economic circumstances and increasing poverty, while there is also opposition to government repression. Now the coronavirus crisis, which has devastated global economies, has left Egyptians even more on the verge of despair.
Protests erupted across the country in September, a continuation of anti-government demonstrations since September 2019. While security forces have responded with another crackdown, the government is aware that this growing deep-seeded opposition towards it will continue.
“What these protests tell us is that Egyptians have not given up on their human rights, despite living under a government that makes it very costly to exercise those rights,” said a Human Rights Watch statement on October 13.
Sisi has already demonstrated that he could use the prospect of war to distract public opinion.
Sisi has already demonstrated that he could use the prospect of war to distract public opinion. On July 20, Egypt’s Parliament approved possible military intervention in Libya against the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord’s (GNA) forces if they pushed closer towards eastern Libya, which borders Egypt, in support of warlord Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA). This clear act of “beating the drums of war” was to distract public sentiment away from opposition towards the regime.
It falls under the age-old tactic of using an external “enemy” to rally public support behind the government.
Having already called Ethiopia’s policies on the Nile an “existential threat,” this could eventually lead to Sisi threatening military action as a means of easing domestic pressure against the regime. Egypt has also warned of “consequences” should Ethiopia proceed with the dam construction.
While Egypt has reasonable concerns over access to the Nile’s waters, any conflict with Ethiopia could be a tactic of Sisi’s government to win over public support, even as it violates diplomatic initiatives. Should Egypt take a more hostile position against Ethiopia, the reasons for doing so would therefore be clear.
Though Washington could prevent the possibility of a conflict, due to its leverage over Egypt and Ethiopia, Trump has rubber-stamped the possibility of such a dispute through his brash words, rather than acting as a fair mediator.
This once again should serve as a stark reminder that Trump’s obsession with “strongmen” leaders and subsequent impunity for Sisi could further endanger regional stability.