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The Blue Nile as it passes through the dam. Photo: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty

Ethiopia has crossed a critical threshold after years of tensions with Egypt and Sudan, by completing the initial filling of its massive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Why it matters: Egypt and Sudan warned Ethiopia not to proceed without a deal ensuring their access to the Nile’s waters, on which Egypt in particular is almost entirely reliant.

Driving the news: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was both triumphant and conciliatory, declaring Ethiopia had shown the world it can “stand firm with its two legs,” while adding that a “breakthrough agreement” with Egypt and Sudan was growing closer.

  • Egypt seems less confident on that second point. It has long accused Ethiopia — which holds most of the cards as the upstream country — of scuppering negotiations whenever a deal grows near.
  • The Trump administration seems to agree, particularly since Ethiopia rejected an agreement it drafted in February. According to Foreign Policy, the U.S. is considering aid cuts to Ethiopia if talks stall again.

Where things stand: Fears that the first filling would become a flashpoint are lessening, as both sides have recommitted to African Union-led talks.

  • Ethiopia has only impounded a relatively small amount of water — enough to test two turbines — and will take at least five years to fill the dam’s enormous reservoir (that duration is a source of intense disagreement).
  • Still, every milestone in this multiyear process carries the risk of a flare-up, and crucial issues — particularly around Ethiopia’s commitments during droughts — remain unresolved.

From Ethiopia’s perspective, the dam is both a source of national pride and a statement that it doesn't need anyone's permission to harness the Nile, says William Davison, an International Crisis Group analyst in Ethiopia.

  • “The dam is about the only thing that all Ethiopians agree on, so [Abiy] wouldn’t want to be seen as conceding on the filling of the dam in any way. It’s actually probably in his favor to be seen as standing up to Egypt and Sudan,” adds Mirette Mabrouk, the director of the Middle East Institute’s Egypt program.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, meanwhile, has called the dam dispute a “matter of life or death.”

  • Some voices in Cairo have occasionally warned of war, though the government insists it’s committed to negotiations.
  • “Armed conflict is sort of option Z-squared on everyone’s list. Nobody, nobody, nobody wants to go to war on this," Mabrouk says.
  • "The thing is, at some point, if Egypt is going to have 110 million people and no water, that changes the construct slightly."

Sudan is caught in the middle. It’s worried about its own water supply and the potential for catastrophic flooding should the dam fail, but it's eager to tap a cheap new source of electricity.

What to watch: “We are past a point in this long, drawn-out process when tensions threatened to increase. And instead, we are back into that long, drawn-out process,” Davison says.

  • Nearly a decade of such negotiations has come and gone. While Abiy claims to be nearing a breakthrough, it’s unclear what happens in the event of another breakdown.

Go deeper

Oct 23, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Trump removes Sudan from state sponsors of terrorism list

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump signed Friday an order to remove Sudan from the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list, senior U.S. officials tell me.

Why it matters: Trump’s signature paves the way for the U.S. and Sudan to move forward on a larger deal — which will also include a Sudanese announcement on normalizing its relations with Israel.

Trump's coronavirus adviser Scott Atlas resigns

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty

Scott Atlas, a controversial member of the White House coronavirus task force, handed in his resignation on Monday, according to three administration officials who discussed Atlas' resignation with Axios.

Why it matters: President Trump brought in Atlas as a counterpoint to NIAID director Anthony Fauci, whose warnings about the pandemic were dismissed by the Trump administration. With Trump now fixated on election fraud conspiracy theories, Atlas' detail comes to a natural end.

Dave Lawler, author of World
2 hours ago - World

Assassination in Iran sets stage for tense final 50 days of Trump

The funeral ceremony in Tehran. Photo: Iranian Defense Ministry via Getty

Iranian leaders are weighing their response to the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, known as the father of Iran’s military nuclear program, who was given a state funeral Monday in Tehran.

The big picture: Iran has accused Israel of carrying out Friday’s attack, but senior leaders have suggested that they’ll choose patience over an immediate escalation that could play into the hands of the Israelis and the outgoing Trump administration.