Egypt forms new response force to tackle terror threats in Africa

September 10, 2017
Strong enough. Soldiers stand guard in the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria. (Reuters)

Cairo- The agreement between Egypt and several other African countries to form a rapid response force is part of Cairo’s efforts to cut supply routes from central and western Africa to terrorists in North Africa, specifically Libya, experts said.

“Terrorist groups in Nigeria, So­malia and Mali have managed to es­tablish links with and send recruits to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) in Libya,” said Sameh Abu Hashima, a retired Egyptian Army general and an adviser at Nasser Military Academy. “This is a major security threat for Egypt and for the rest of Africa.”

African defence ministers in Au­gust agreed to the formation of a rapid response force that could be deployed anywhere on the conti­nent.

The force would operate under the umbrella of the African Union and its Peace and Security Coun­cil. Each member country would contribute troops and funds to its formation. The force’s command centre would be in Egypt’s Defence Ministry headquarters, which is un­der construction in the new admin­istrative capital being built on the outskirts of Cairo.

African defence ministers agreed to meet in October to discuss an op­erational budget for the force, sec­ond officers and pledge capabilities.

Egyptian military analysts wel­comed the establishment of the rapid response force, particularly given Cairo’s longstanding efforts to recruit other African countries to participate more strongly in a broader fight against terrorism.

In April 2016, African defence ministers agreed on future strate­gies and tactics against terrorist groups in their countries.

African states that have also been struggling to combat terrorism, such as Somalia, Nigeria and Mali, also welcomed the establishment of the new African-wide military force.

Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, is battling the So­mali central government for control over national territory, while Boko Haram in Nigeria, which is affiliated with ISIS, has carried out deadly at­tacks against civilians and govern­ment troops. In Mali, which shares a northern border with Algeria, an al-Qaeda-linked coalition of jihad­ist groups controls northern parts of the country.

Behind Egypt’s plan to unite Afri­can forces in a broader fight against terrorism is a desire by Cairo to shield itself against the danger ter­rorist groups in those countries pose to its national security, experts said.

Egypt is fighting a branch of ISIS in Sinai, its north-eastern peninsula that shares borders with Israel and the Gaza Strip. Egypt is also heav­ily involved in neighbouring Libya where it is supporting Libyan Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Lib­yan National Army, which is bat­tling Islamist militias, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, for control in eastern parts of the country.

“This is why I say Egypt’s fight against terrorism cannot be re­stricted to its own territory or its immediate vicinity,” said Mokhtar al-Ghobashi, vice-president of Egypt’s Arab Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “To be more se­cure, Egypt needs to take this fight to other countries in the continent.”

The defence ministers of the countries forming the new African rapid response force are from Al­geria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Egypt, Rwanda, Senegal, South Af­rica, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

The force, which is to be officially announced in 2018, will need an ini­tial budget of $30 million.

In Cairo, experts said that, de­spite the difficult economic condi­tions facing Egypt, the government will readily contribute a significant amount, as well as provide for the logistical requirements of the force’s operations.

For Egypt, the central role it is to play in the African rapid response force represents a return to African Union politics.

“Foreign policy planners in the past did not give enough priority to relations with other African states,” said Mostafa el-Guindi, a member of the African Affairs Committee in the Egyptian parliament. “This was a miscalculation and it caused us to lose a lot.”

One of the losses Egypt sustained because of neglect of ties with other African countries was the lack of Af­rican support it received in efforts to convince Ethiopia regarding con­struction of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is nearing completion, will greatly affect Egypt’s water security and has been a major point of con­tention between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

Egypt, which has the strongest military in Africa, as rated by the US-based Global Firepower Index, has sought to market itself as a prime arms manufacturing and export des­tination for other African countries.

The factories of the Arab Organi­sation for Industrialisation, Egypt’s military production hub, have be­come a major draw for visiting Afri­can officials.

“The new policy line in our coun­try is to open up to fellow Africans,” Abu Hashima said. “True, closer coordination and cooperation with other countries in the continent will help them address their security problems but it will serve our secu­rity interests first and foremost.”