Somalia. Cairo strategic ally in the Nile dispute and against Turkey.

Somalia is becoming Egypt strategic ally in the Nile dispute against Ethiopia and to block Turkey political and economic expansionism in the Horn of Africa. Despite the fact that Egypt has an army superior to the Ethiopian one, the current economic situation would not give the possibility of starting a regional war. Yet General Al-Sisi could use regional warfare as a tool to unify the country, divert attention from its internal problems and sanction the return of Egypt as a regional power. In both scenarios (diplomatic or military one) Somalia became a focal point country for Egyptian geostrategic games in Horn of Africa.

The dispute over the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) is now at a standstill after 10 years of negotiations. The dam rises in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, recently the scene of worrying ethnic clashes that contribute to weakening national unity and cohesion. Once functional, the waters of the Nile in Sudan and Egypt will decrease by 20 to 30%, causing extensive damage to agriculture and the populations of the two states. Egypt opposed the mega project from the very beginning. The then president Hosni Mubarak had even threatened to bomb the construction site entrusted to the Italian construction company Salini Impregilo, which subcontracted various stages of construction to Chinese firms. The German company Voith also participates in the deal thanks to Salini with the supply of turbines.

The approximate known cost is around $ 5 billion. The Ethiopian government has never disclosed the details of the agreement with Salini Impregilo, a company that enjoyed a strong friendship with the leadership of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front TPLF which governed the country from 1991 to 2019. Friendship renew by P.M. Abiy Ahmed Ali in order to complete GERD dams works.

The history of the GERD mega dam is studded with deceptions and regional war risks. The main purpose of the dam is the production of electricity for export to neighbouring countries and for internal consumption. With a capacity of 6.45 gigawatts, the dam once completed will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. The works began after a summary feasibility study where the environmental and social impact of the dam on the Ethiopian, Sudanese and Egyptian territories was underestimated. Salini received the commission through direct negotiations without the Addis government launching an international tender.

Before starting the work, the federal army forcibly forced over 200,000 people to abandon their native places intended to house the dam and the connected artificial lake — hydroelectric basin. The Arab Spring favoured Ethiopia. Cairo was too busy stabilizing the new political arrangements after the Mubarak regime fall to put the issue of the GERD dam at the centre of its foreign policy. The dispute resumed in 2014 when General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became President thanks to a coup against the democratically elected government of Mohamed Morsi (leader of the Muslim Brotherhood), who died in prison in June 2019 during the trial for high treason.

In the three years of “calm” the Ethiopian government has accelerated the work to make irreversible GERD construction works. Faced with the fact of the existence of the mega dam, Cairo and Khartoum focused on the timing of filling the reservoir (the artificial lake). In order not to create immediate negative impacts on agriculture and the populations of the two countries, the basin should be filled in a period of 7 years. On the contrary, Addis Ababa will begin the second phase of filling the artificial lake in July in order to start the production of electricity by the end of 2021. A too rapid procedure that is already creating a disastrous environmental and economic impact in Egypt and Sudan. The target to start electricity production on 2021 is vital in order to permit Abiy Administration to don’t collapse because of the huge financial expenditures engaged in Tigray civil war.

Talks are currently stalled again. The Ethiopian government rejected the Sudanese proposal for mediation carried out by a committee composed of the European Union, the African Union, the United States and UN. In response, the Sudanese government warned that the start of the second phase of filling the reservoir scheduled for next July would be a clear violation of international law in the absence of agreements. The head of the Sudanese technical negotiation team in the Renaissance dam file, Mustafa Hussein Al-Zubair highlighted Sudan’s warnings that “Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the Renaissance dam poses a direct threat to the lives of the 20 millions of citizens living on the banks of the Blue Nile and the Nile River “.

The risks of a regional war increase with each passing day. Sudan and Ethiopia are already involved in an undeclared border war. Egypt is suspected of fomenting social and ethnic tensions in the dam’s Benishangul-Gumuz region and of supporting the rebellion in Oromia. According to some regional observers, Cairo intends to take advantage of the ongoing civil war in Tigray to facilitate new rebellions with the target to seriously weakening the Addis Ababa government. Sudan and Egypt are also suspected of providing assistance to the TPLF armed forces by enabling them to withstand the military offensives of the federal army, Eritrean soldiers and Fano Amhara fascist militias.

In the context of this serious regional crisis that could lead to the first water war in Africa, Somalia becomes a key country for Egypt. From 2020, General Al-Sisi tries to consolidate relations with Somalia for his important role in the crisis of the great Ethiopian Renaissance dam and to counter the Turkish influence in the Horn of Africa.

Political relations are rapidly changing in the Middle East and Africa, including Egyptian-Somali relations, which appear to have cooled with Somalia’s neutral stance on the GERD dam crisis. On 8 March, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received the new Somali ambassador to Egypt, Ilyas Sheikh Omar. On the same day, Omar released a statement expressing Somalia’s willingness to initiate rapprochement with Egypt. Mogadishu expressed his country’s willingness to strengthen relations with Egypt and to work in various fields through the activation of the memoranda of understanding signed between the two countries in 2015 and 2019 in the fields of health, education, agriculture, livestock and fishing and trade.

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on March 5 expressing Egypt’s condemnation of the suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia, which targeted a popular restaurant on March 4 and killed and injured more than 50 people. The statement underlined Egypt’s solidarity with Somalia’s efforts to combat terrorism and extremism in order to restore security. Since 2020, Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization in Kenya and Somalia, has stepped up its operations in Somalia against Somali civilians and the Somali army.

Many observers believe that Egypt’s solidarity with Somalia in efforts to combat terrorism at a time when many Arab and African countries have not paid attention is evidence of Egypt’s intentions to provide support to Somalia in the face of extremist groups. and terrorists. Zakaria Othman, a former researcher at the Arab and African Research Center, told the Al-Monitor newspaper that the transfer of Egyptian expertise to African countries in the fight against terrorism has become a fundamental pillar of Egyptian foreign policy. Othman said that what demonstrates Egypt’s willingness to transfer its experience in fighting terrorist and extremist groups is the signing of military cooperation agreements with Sudan and strategic and security cooperation agreements with South Africa.

However, the strengthening of cooperation and the consolidation of relations with Somalia in particular through the transfer of security competences in the field of counter-terrorism or the increase of economic cooperation may acquire special importance for Egypt compared to other African countries, as Somalia faces the Ethiopian border. Egypt has strengthened its ties with Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea in recent years, all of which border Ethiopia. Media published in 2020 unconfirmed reports that there have been Egyptian efforts to establish military bases in South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.

These reports came despite the fact that Sisi has repeatedly pointed out that Egypt has ruled out the military option in dealing with the GERD crisis and stressed that the crisis with Addis Ababa is a long-term negotiation crisis. An Egyptian researcher specializing in African affairs at the Democratic German Center (a non-governmental organization) told the media on condition of anonymity that Egypt’s effort to expand its influence among Ethiopian neighbours, including Somalia, it is not aimed at using neighbouring countries such as military bases to attack Ethiopia. Cairo would be more interested in Somali support in the Nile dispute as a member of the Arab League and the African Union.

In addition to the GERD dispute, the Egyptian courtship of Somalia is motivated by the need to counter the influence in the Red Sea of ​​Egypt’s main enemy: Turkey, nullifying the ambitions of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the region. In November 2020 senior Egyptian, Israeli and Sudanese military officials held a closed-door meeting to discuss security coordination in the Red Sea Region and plans to limit Turkish influence in the region.

Commenting on the growing Turkish influence in Somalia and Egypt joining the alliances, Maj. Gen. Hatem Bashat, member of the Egyptian Parliamentary Committee on African Affairs, said on November 16, 2020 that Egypt is well aware of Turkish “ malign” moves in Somalia to control the Red Sea. Bashat said in a press release that Egypt will protect the Arab world from these ambitions through alliances and agreements, to form a lobby capable of countering any threats, as it did in the Mediterranean Sea through the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum.

The Turkish influence in Somalia it has increased recently. Turkey announced it has taken on nearly $ 2.4 million in Somalia’s debt to the International Monetary Fund. Turkey also has a military base: the Turksom military training center in Mogadishu where Turkish military advisers are supporting the Somali government in rebuilding the national army. According to the Sundanese analyst Altaqi Mohamed Othman, Turkey has resorted to Somalia to compensate for the influence lost in Sudan following the fall of the dictator Omar Al-Baschir, a strategic ally of Erdogan who granted the administration of the island of Suakin on the Red Sea.

The fall of Bashir ended Istanbul’s ambition to control Sudan. This has prompted Cairo to move closer to Sudan and to establish military, economic and strategic alliances with various countries in the Horn of Africa to preserve Arab security in the region. “, Explains Othman. In November 2020, units of the elite Saiqa Force and the Egyptian Air Force arrived at Marwa Air Base in Sudan to participate in the joint Egyptian-Sudanese combat exercises dubbed Nile Eagles — 1, for the first time in the history of the two countries.

Cairo is also trying to play the Israeli card through the normalization of Israel — Sudan relations to build an Afro Middle East alliance capable of countering Turkish ambitions in the Red Sea. Somalia and Saudi Arabia were also involved in the alliance. The strategy of involving Tel Aviv has received full support from the Trump administration, reconfirmed by the new US president Joe Biden

“Egypt is building a strong economic, political and military lobby that includes pro-Western Middle Eastern regional powers. Cairo’s effort to involve Israel is facilitated by Tel Aviv’s need to protect the region from any Iranian or Turkish threats in the Red Sea. ”, Explains Amani al-Tawil, an expert on African affairs at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic. Studies.

Last January, joint Egyptian-Saudi maritime exercises called Morgan-16 were held in the Red Sea, with the aim of increasing maritime security in the region and addressing any threats. In the same month, Egypt inaugurated the Berenice military base, the largest in the Red Sea and Africa with an area of ​​almost 155,000 acres, on the Red Sea coast.

Somalia is considered by Turkey as a strategic country for its policy of economic and military expansion in North Africa and the Horn of Africa. “Erdogan took advantage of Somalia’s poverty and weakness to consolidate his influence by controlling the economic and military aspects of Somalia which holds enormous oil resources while Turkey suffers from a shortage of oil resources. Add to that its strategic position on the Gulf of Aden and at the entrance to the Red Sea, and you will understand the Turkish target. “, Added Amani al-Tawil. Trade between Somalia and Turkey grew 37% in the past year, reaching $ 206 million, compared to $ 150 million in 2017. Turkey’s energy imports in 2019 amounted to nearly $ 41.1 billion according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. On January 20, Erdogan announced the start of oil exploration in Somali waters

How real is the risk of a regional conflict for the waters of the Nile?

The risk of the dispute over the waters of the Nile leading to the first conflict over water in Africa depends on the Egyptian moves. General Al Sisi supports Sudan’s proposal for internationally mediated negotiations on the project. In a press conference in Sudan earlier this month, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi expressed the desire of the two states to reach a binding legal agreement before the next Nile flood season on the management of the Ethiopian dam. Sisi warned Ethiopia against attempting to extend control over the Nile, noting that the Horn of Africa country unilaterally announced its intention to begin the second phase of filling the GERD basin, which could cause immense damage. to Egyptian and Sudanese interests. Sudan has already said that such a move would threaten its own security.

In recent decades, Egypt has viewed the flow of the Nile as a matter of national security, with a former Defense Minister calling for military intervention in the Nile basin countries in case the Egyptian part of the river is threatened. On the contrary, Sisi has repeatedly used diplomatic language instead of the threat of force. A forced tactic given the already delicate Egyptian situation regarding democracy, press freedom and human rights, hindered by the regime of General Al Sisi. At the moment, a direct conflict with Ethiopia would not be recommended. Egypt has its problems on the Libyan front. He had no choice but to accept the new internationally advocated status quo despite his support for General Haftar. Realpolitik forces Cairo to move closer to Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh’s new national unity government. An Egyptian delegation was sent to Tripoli to offer support in the reconstruction of the country and to sign a series of bilateral economic agreements. The Egyptian Embassy in Tripoli could reopen soon.

Cairo remains concerned about the Turkish military presence in Libya, which has tilted the balance of power in Libya and considers the rise to power of General Al Sisi as illegitimate thanks to the 2013 coup. Before the formation of the government of national unity, Egypt and Turkey were one step away from the war. General Sisi had drawn a demarcation line in Libya which, if crossed by the forces supported by Turkey, would have triggered the Egyptian military response. Egypt has developed the largest land military base in the Middle East and North Africa at Sidi Barrani, about 90 km from the Libyan border.

The new arrangements in Libya have taken momentary precedence over the Ethiopian dam issue, although it remains one of Cairo’s main problems. Somalia’s courtship is aimed at weakening Turkish influence in the region and strengthening the anti-Ethiopian camp in the dispute over the waters of the Nile. Turkey is also focusing its attention on Syria where its soldiers are currently engaged in fighting the Kurdish guerrillas supported by the Syrian regular army.

Ethiopia is already in a vulnerable position, due to the ongoing civil war in the Tigray region, which has created a refugee crisis mainly in Sudan. There have been numerous credible reports of serious human rights violations during the war, with Ethiopia facing international isolation. The EU suspended aid to Ethiopia for its violations in Tigray, while the US last year suspended aid over the GERD dam controversy.

For Egypt and Sudan, the Nile is a matter of life and death. Egypt appears to have done its regional homework and, together with Sudan, is preparing to take a conflict against Ethiopia seriously considering that till now all efforts to resolve pacifically the Nile dispute have been stack by Addis Ababa doubles games. Ethiopia and Sudan had already reached a point of high tension last month, exchanging allegations of territorial violations on a disputed border.

Despite the fact that Egypt has an army superior to the Ethiopian one, the current economic situation would not give the possibility of starting a regional war. Yet General Al-Sisi could use regional warfare as a tool to unify the country, divert attention from its internal problems and sanction the return of Egypt as a regional power.

For decades, political scientists have debated the “water wars hypothesis,” which sees states that share water become more war-prone in the future. While it may seem unlikely, a disastrous military confrontation should not be ruled out. Given Ethiopia’s vulnerability, coupled with Egypt and Sudan’s willingness to negotiate, hope for a peaceful solution soon.

The duty of a journalist is to write down the truths which the powerful keep secret. Everything else is propaganda. Italian Jounalist Economic Migrate in Africa