Egypt turns to Africa in fight against terror
CAIRO - Deep beneath steps taken by Egypt to strengthen military cooperation with Sahel and Saharan states is the Arab country’s desire to prevent militant groups in eastern, western and central Africa from coalescing with those in northern Africa, experts say.
Egypt also wants to return to Africa after decades of absence and prevent Israel, an active player in the continent, from gaining more influence in it, they add.
“A merger between militant organisations active in western and central African states and others active in North Africa is a reality already,” political researcher Abdel- Monem Halawa said. “This raises alarms in Cairo.”
Egypt recently hosted a two-day meeting of the defence ministers of 28 Sahel and Saharan states amid reports that Cairo strives to form a shield that keeps North Africa apart from the rest of the continent.
The Egyptian effort comes after reports that militant organisations are sending fighters to Libya to join those operating with the Islamic State (ISIS), which has been gaining presence in Libya for months, capitalising on the country’s turmoil and the fact that its political and military rivals are fighting each other.
ISIS has appealed to the members of al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked organisation in Somalia and Kenya, to join its branch in Somalia.
This has created concern in Cairo, where anti-ISIS fears are high. Egypt already fights an ISIS-linked group in the Sinai peninsula. Egyptian military planners, working to beef up security along the country’s border with Libya, loathe seeing ISIS gaining more strength in Libya through additional fighters from western, eastern and central Africa.
At the end of the two-day meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Sahel and Saharan defence ministers announced the creation of a counterterrorism centre in Cairo. The centre is to devise plans to prevent terrorism from metastasising and coordinate efforts to do so.
Halawa said Egypt can help the militaries of other Sahel and Saharan states in many ways.
“Egypt can offer training, arms and military technologies to the armies of these countries,” he said. “It can also help them in terms of strategic and military planning.”
Nevertheless, Egypt, which is trying to recover from a long political torpor in the wake of two popular uprisings, has political motivations behind the African drive, analysts say.
Egypt’s absence from Africa is costing it dearly and bringing about catastrophic consequences at home.
Five years ago, Ethiopia started construction of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile. The dam would deprive Egypt of billions of cubic metres of water.
When it diplomatically protested, however, Egypt had few Nile basin supporters. Now, it can only comply with Ethiopian efforts to build the dam.
“Egypt paid little attention to its relations with other African states for a long time in the past, which caused extreme harm,” said Mohamed el-Shazly, a retired diplomat and an expert on Egyptian-African relations. “Now, however, it is trying to make up for this by taking intensive measures to mend fences with the same states.”
Over the past few months, Egypt has turned into a new mecca for African leaders. In February, it hosted an investment conference of the Common Market of Eastern and Southern African States.
Many African leaders are travelling to Cairo for consultations. Local experts say Egypt’s Africa reawakening seeks to prevent Israel from gaining presence in the continent.
Israel provides development aid to a large number of African states and is said to have offered Ethiopia engineering and technological support for the Nile dam.
In February, six members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development requested military assistance from Israel in the fight against Islamist terror, according to Israeli media. The request was reportedly presented to the Israeli government during a visit to Tel Aviv by Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta.
However, Cairo does not apparently want the African states to co-opt Israel to their struggle against terror. It is introducing itself as a strong backer in the struggle.
“African countries need support in this tough battle and Egypt can offer it,” Halawa said. “In doing this, our country will be serving its own national security interests in the first place.”