Egypt, Eritrea boost coordination amid regional tensions, Sudan unrest

Healthy relations between Khartoum and Ethiopia can still cause worries in Cairo.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, January 9. (AFP)
Closing ranks. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (R) and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki during a welcoming ceremony at the presidential palace in Cairo, January 9. (AFP)

CAIRO - Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for talks on cooperation between the two countries and the situation in the Horn of Africa.

The leaders discussed developments in Sudan and Somalia and coordination efforts during their June 8 meeting in Cairo. Sisi said Egypt wanted to develop close coordination with Eritrea. He highlighted the need for specific plans to push cooperation with Asmara in all fields.

Afwerki’s visit to Cairo, his fourth in less than five years, came at a time of major change in the Horn of Africa, the Red Sea and in the vicinity of Egypt and Eritrea, analysts said.

“A lot is happening in the region, which is why these two countries are in dire need of coordination,” said Mohamed Hijazi, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister. “Nobody can speculate the specific reason behind the visit of the Eritrean leader but the fact is that the region bursts at the seams with important developments.”

Egypt was the first country to recognise Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991. The Eritrean flag was raised at its embassy in Cairo even before it was raised in Eritrea.

In recent years, Eritrea has become more important for Egypt because of changes in the region. The unrest in Yemen threatened to destabilise the southern entrance of the Red Sea and affect the prospects of the Suez Canal. Eritrea has an extended Red Sea coastline, only kilometres from the coast of Yemen.

“It plays a central role in the security of the region,” said African affairs specialist Heba al-Beshbeshi. “Eritrea’s Red Sea ports put it in a powerful position.”

However, Eritrea has been part of the route used by terrorist groups seeking to establish a presence in the Horn of Africa and North Africa.

Egypt, which shares a long border with Libya, has been affected by unrest in the North African country, especially with the presence of terrorist groups in Libya and some parts of Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula in particular. This is likely why both Cairo and Asmara are corresponding and meeting more frequently.

Eritrean Foreign Minister Osman Saleh Mohammed has visited Cairo twice in five years and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry travelled to Asmara two times in the same period.

Afwerki’s visit to Cairo was a day after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed led an ambitious mediation bid in Khartoum between Sudan’s revolutionary forces and the ruling Transitional Military Council.

Ahmed’s visit to Sudan was coordinated with the African Union. Close relations between Khartoum and Addis Ababa were always worrying to Cairo, especially under ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Al-Bashir used to have tense relations with Cairo and developed strong coordination with Addis Ababa at Egypt’s expense. This was true in the case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a multibillion-dollar

hydroelectric structure built by Ethiopia on the Nile, Egypt’s only source of water.

While the project would have deprived Egypt of a sizeable portion of its annual water share from the Nile, al-Bashir insisted that the project would benefit Sudan, which suffered an acute electricity shortage. Sudan planned to buy electricity generated by the dam.

Coordination between Cairo and Asmara used to send warning signals to Addis Ababa and Khartoum, given that Sudan’s and Ethiopia’s relations with Eritrea were strained. Tensions were partly alleviated in September when Eritrea and Ethiopia signed a peace agreement in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt was also given relief, thanks to developments in Sudan and Ethiopia. Ethiopia suspended work in August on the Renaissance Dam because of technical problems. In April this year, al-Bashir was ousted by his country’s army after months of street protests.

Nevertheless, healthy relations between Khartoum and Ethiopia can still cause worries in Cairo.

Analysts in Cairo said they did not see any links between Afwerki’s visit to Egypt and Ahmed’s trip to Khartoum. Sudan’s stability, they said, is in everybody’s interests, regardless of tensions between the countries of the region.

“Unrest in Sudan will have its toll on security in its neighbouring countries, which is why everybody is extending a helping hand to end the crisis in this country,” said Sayed Felefil, a member of the African Affairs Committee in the Egyptian parliament.

“I believe that changes happening in the region these days will end strains in relations between Cairo and other African capitals.”