As Egypt and Eritrea come together, Sudan and Ethiopia wary of neighbours’ intent
Cairo - Tensions are rising in the Horn of Africa with Egypt and Eritrea consolidating their cooperation, although Egypt said it does not intend to harm other countries.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki visited Cairo on January 9, his fourth such trip in four years, raising concerns in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Egypt has been prioritising greater influence in southern Red Sea countries, particularly as Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project nears completion.
“Eritrea’s location near the southern entrance of the Red Sea makes it a very important country for Egypt,” said Salah Halima, vice-president of the Egyptian Council on African Affairs. “This is why Egyptian presence in Eritrea is a national security necessity, not a matter of choice.”
Over the past four years, the countries bolstered cooperation in all fields. Efforts by Cairo to cement ties with Eritrea are only a small detail of the larger picture of Egyptian efforts to restore its influence across the African continent.
Unconfirmed reports of the deployment of thousands of Egyptian troops in Eritrea near the border with Sudan alarmed Khartoum, which countered by ordering thousands of Sudanese troops to Sudan’s eastern border with Eritrea.
Sudanese Assistant President Ibrahim Mahmoud Hamid said there were “potential security threats from Egypt and Eritrea” and, by January 16, Sudan and Ethiopia deployed a joint military force on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
The fear in Sudan is that Cairo could seek to destabilise its government given anger in Egypt over its backing of Ethiopia regarding Nile waters and Khartoum’s claim to the disputed Halayeb Triangle.
“Sudan has proof that Egypt offered support to the rebels in volatile Sudanese regions, such as Darfur,” claimed Sudanese political analyst Wael Aly. “This is why Sudan views close relations between Egypt and its neighbours, especially Eritrea, as an alliance against it.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi sought to quell rising tensions by asserting, on January 15, that Cairo was not seeking to interfere in the domestic affairs of neighbouring countries.
“We will not enter a war. I tell this to our brothers in Ethiopia and Sudan: Egypt doesn’t conspire or interfere in the affairs of any country and is very keen on maintaining good relations between our nations,” he said in a televised speech.
One day earlier, Afwerki publicly denied the presence of Egyptian troops at a base near the border with Sudan, describing the allegations as “fake news.”
However, the accusations are symptoms of deep mistrust, analysts said.
The situation near the southern entrance of the Red Sea became more precarious because of growing collaboration between Sudan and Turkey as Ankara prepares to gain a foothold in the area through its presence in the Sudanese Red Sea island of Suakin.
“Apart from threatening Egypt’s interests in the southern entrance of the Red Sea, Turkey’s presence in this area also rings alarms in Cairo because of links between Ankara and terrorist groups active in Libya,” warned Talaat Musallam, a retired Egyptian Army general.
Greek authorities on January 10 seized a Tanzanian-flagged ship carrying hundreds of tonnes of explosives. The ship was heading for Libya from Turkey, Greek authorities said.
Many in Egypt have called for Cairo to take a stronger position regarding its share of the Nile water, which is expected to drop because of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.
Negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa over filling the dam have broken down and there is widespread dismay at Khartoum’s backing of the Ethiopian position.
“The dam is an existential threat to Egypt, which is why Egypt will not likely stand idly by and watch while Ethiopia works to deprive it of the water that keeps its people alive,” Musallam said. “Ethiopia does not demonstrate any cooperation on the technical studies, which means that the Egyptians may wake up one morning to find the dam a reality on the ground and water supplies from the Nile a thing from the past.”