Egypt moves to cement ties with Eritrea, enhance presence in Horn of Africa

Egypt’s efforts to return to the region are part of wider attempts by some Arab countries to secure a position of influence.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) meets with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, on September 13. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)
Breaking the ice. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (L) meets with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, on September 13. (Egyptian Foreign Ministry)

CAIRO - Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s recent trip to Eritrea marked another attempt by Cairo to get closer to a vital Horn of Africa country, part of a diplomatic rapprochement that Egypt has been pursuing with several African countries.

Egypt hopes to restore relations with Eritrea to where they were before the 2011 uprising in Egypt and the resulting chaos in which Egypt’s foreign relations, particularly in Africa, were often neglected.

“We have made a lot of effort in the past few years to bring relations with all Horn of Africa states back on track,” Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid said. “We are so keen on the stability of and security in the southern Red Sea region.”

Shoukry met with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki on September 13 and then went to Addis Ababa, another Horn of Africa capital with which Cairo strives to cement relations.

Abu Zeid described the region as an “inseparable part” of Egyptian national security.

“Egypt aims to have strong presence in the southern part of the Red Sea,” Abu Zeid said. “There is an urgent need for us to also have strong relations with countries in this region.”

Egypt’s efforts to return to the region are part of wider attempts by some Arab countries to secure a position of influence in the region, analysts said, particularly given competition from Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

The main fear focuses on security to the southern entrance of the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait, vital to shipping via Egypt’s Suez Canal

In recent years, Turkey has gained influence in Sudan while Iran and Qatar targeted Eritrea and Djibouti as countries where they could gain a presence in Africa.

Iran signed a military cooperation pact with Asmara in 2008, taking advantage of the state of isolation Eritrea suffered because of its disputes with Ethiopia. The agreement gave Iran a military presence in the area and analysts said that proved vital to Iranian support for the Houthi militia in Yemen, just across the Red Sea.

The Houthis have threatened navigation in the southern entrance of the Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb Strait. This has proven a major issue, not just for Egypt, which wants to ensure secure shipping lanes through the Suez Canal, but to petroleum-producing countries in the Arabian Gulf that rely on the routes.

Qatar has an increasing presence in the region, including mediating border disputes between Djibouti and Eritrea. The United Arab Emirates, which has deep economic and political interests in the Horn of Africa, especially in Djibouti and Somalia, has viewed Doha’s increasing presence in Africa with unease.

“This made it necessary for moderate Arab states to start acting,” said Egyptian MP Hatem Bashat, a member of parliament’s African Affairs Committee. “We cannot stand idly by and watch enemy states gaining presence in a region whose importance to our national security is immeasurable.”

This might explain why Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are becoming a new source of support for Horn of Africa leaders. On September 16, Saudi Arabia hosted the leaders of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti for a meeting during which a reconciliation deal between Ethiopia and Eritrea was signed. Talks also considered ending tensions between Eritrea and Djibouti.

Saudi Arabia had been instrumental in reducing tensions between Eritrea and Djibouti, even as Somalia and Ethiopia appeared to play a major role in this regard.

The United Arab Emirates also had a significant part in helping Ethiopia and Eritrea end years of fighting that left tens of thousands of people on both sides dead.

“Egyptian and Arab presence in this region means an end to Iranian and Qatari presence in it,” said Tarek Fahmi, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “The absence of moderate Arab states from the region in the past years has had very negative consequences for Arab security.”

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