Leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will hold a virtual summit on Tuesday to try to break a deadlock in efforts to strike a deal on the operation of the giant dam Addis Ababa has built on the Nile.

The summit will be chaired by South Africa, current chair of the African Union. It comes after 11 days of talks between experts and irrigation ministers from the three countries ended last Monday without an agreement.

 

The summit was announced by Sudan on Friday night. There has been no official word on the meeting from Egypt or Ethiopia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoke to his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday night, according to a statement from his office that made no mention of the summit.

The three countries have been negotiating on the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam since construction began nearly a decade ago. The hydroelectric dam is almost completed and Ethiopia says it will start filling the reservoir this month with or without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.

The two downstream nations are opposed to any unilateral action by Addis Ababa, fearing that it would be a dangerous precedent since Ethiopia has spoken of its intent to build more dams on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile and the source of about 85 per cent of its water.

Egypt fears the dam could significantly reduce its share of Nile water, while Sudan is concerned about widespread flooding in case of a breach in the dam. Ethiopia sees the dam as a flagship project that will alleviate poverty and propel the Horn of Africa nation to prosperity.

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Failure to make some progress towards an agreement would throw the entire negotiation process into uncertain territory, heighten tension and raise the prospect of armed hostilities.

Egypt has said its share of the Nile water is an existential issue and it would never accept a de facto situation imposed on it. Mr El Sisi has never spoken publicly about military action to settle the dispute, but that option was never entirely off the table.

Ethiopia has taken the possibility of an attack seriously, deploying an air-defence system and troops at and around the dam site.

Segments of Egypt’s state-controlled media and pro-government social media influencers have been egging Mr El Sisi on to strike the dam before it is filled. Those calls are being made against the backdrop of a nationalist narrative that portrays the country to be simultaneously facing grave threats to its national security.

Also on the rise recently is national pride in the capabilities of the Egyptian armed forces and its ranking as the world’s ninth strongest army. Mr El Sisi has since taking office six years ago spent billions of dollars purchasing cutting-edge weapons that, in theory, enable his military to operate efficiently outside its borders. These include submarines, high-seas troop carriers equipped with helicopter gunships and state of the art jet fighters.

But a military strike against Ethiopia would torpedo any prospect of a negotiated settlement, shatter years of work by Mr El Sisi to build closer relations with sub-Saharan Africa.

Ethiopia describes Cairo’s Nile policies as essentially an attempt to perpetuate the poverty of the river basin’s 10 other countries. Egypt denies the charge, saying it appreciates Ethiopia’s need for electricity to power its development and is ready to accept a manageable level of impact from the dam.

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