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Egyptian officials: Sisi’s visit to Djibouti part of East Africa ‘charm offensive’

One of Egypt's chief aims is to counter Ethiopian regional influence

May 28th 2021 · 4 min read
Egyptian officials: Sisi’s visit to Djibouti part of East Africa ‘charm offensive’

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrived in Djibouti on Thursday for talks with his counterpart President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. 

In Thursday’s meeting, Sisi and Guelleh are expected to discuss enhanced bilateral relations in security, military and economic affairs, according to a statement put out by the Egyptian presidential spokesperson. 

The visit, which is the first by an Egyptian head of state to Djibouti, is part of what two officials in Cairo familiar with the arrangements say is a “charm offensive” in the Horn of Africa, where Egypt has been at loggerheads with Ethiopia over the filling and operation of the mega dam project on the Blue Nile and has been concerned over its relative lack of influence in the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea, an area it considers its backyard both for potential resource management along the Nile and commercial trade in the waterway leading into the Suez Canal.

One of Egypt’s chief aims is to establish political relations at the highest levels and recast its image in the eyes of neighboring countries to the south to counter Ethiopian regional influence. “We are working to dispel all assumptions in these capitals [in the Horn of Africa] that Egypt looks down on them or is willing to engage with them at the ministerial level at best,” one Egyptian official says of the visit. 

Cairo’s image in the region took a hit when it sided with ousted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, according to two Egyptian officials, a move they say in retrospect was a mistake. Ethiopia, they add, sided with the Sudanese revolutionaries and used its position in the Intergovernmental Authority on Development trade bloc to sponsor a political intervention that favored democracy. And since 2019, Egypt has become aware that Addis Ababa has been presenting Cairo as a “North African, Arab country” that doesn’t care about the rest of the continent. 

Beside Egypt’s diplomatic push, Cairo is also keen to send a strong message to Ethiopia that it has a robust security presence with crucial countries in the region, from Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan to Somalia, Djibouti and Tanzania.

The Djibouti visit comes after a flurry of defense cooperation agreements with Nile Basin countries since the start of the year, including Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Sudan. These build on the framework provided by the Red Sea Council, of which Egypt formally became a member in November. The charter was signed by the foreign ministers of Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen in January 2020. Egypt and Sudan held joint military drills in Khartoum this week.

Beside relations with Ethiopia, Egypt’s foreign policy in the Horn is also about re-establishing a security presence over the Bab al-Mandeb, the strait leading into the Red Sea and Suez Canal, where Egypt had grown concerned about the increased presence of foreign powers. 

“All of East Africa has become dotted with military bases from countries that are not in the region,” an Egyptian official previously told Mada Masr. 

By establishing a presence in East Africa, Egypt will have the opportunity to cooperate with international powers that are trying to expand their presence in the region, including the US, Russia, and China, says one of the Egyptian officials, adding that this cooperation could take the form of trade agreements, combatting “terrorism” or controlling irregular migration.

Equally, it will allow Cairo to counter the challenges to its influence posed by other regional players, especially Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, who all have a strong presence in at least one East African country. 

Egypt has grown increasingly worried about the role of the Emirates, which has become a major power broker and the principal architect of the security framework in the fiercely competitive Red Sea, with bases in Berbera, Somaliland; Bosaso, Somalia; and several coastal ports in Yemen, where it had fought alongside the Saudi-led coalition since 2015.

And where it doesn’t have a base, Abu Dhabi has shown a willingness to facilitate a seat at the table of the Red Sea security arrangement for other countries.

In Sudan, the UAE shifted its diplomatic efforts from kickstarting a fragile normalization process with Israel to mediating between Khartoum and Moscow to establish a Russian naval base in Port Sudan, according to an Egyptian official. 

This base is now in limbo following reports that Sudan was freezing construction, a claim the Russian embassy in Sudan has denied. 

And while Turkey and Egypt have publicized their quiet rapprochement, Turkey has made its own prominent foray into East Africa: signing a military cooperation with Niger last year; being invited by Somalia, to whom Turkey has long provided aid, to explore for oil in its seas; and holding high-level talks with Ethiopian officials. 

A consultant for the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Africa policy previously told Mada Masr that Turkey’s “developing relations with Ethiopia is a direct answer to Egypt. There are two dimensions. We want to develop our relations with Ethiopia, and we want to develop our relations with an Ethiopia that is stronger against Egypt. A strong Ethiopia against Egypt is something that Turkey wants.”

In the midst of a deadlock in African Union-led negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, Sudanese officials told the press this week that Ethiopia had unilaterally begun the second filling of the dam’s reservoir, a move Egypt and Sudan insisted in earlier rounds of negotiations should not be made before the three countries reach a binding agreement on the dam’s annual operation and conflict mitigation mechanisms. 

Ethiopian officials denied the comments from Sudan. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry said earlier that the level of water in the dam was on track for the second filling to be completed on schedule, with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed saying previously the dam’s filling would take place over July and August.In an appearance on TV anchor Amr Adib’s MBC Masr show Al-Hekaya show last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Egypt can “deal with the second filling of the Renaissance Dam through tight procedures in management of water resources,” though he added that, if Ethiopia completes the second filling without a comprehensive agreement in place, it will violate the 2015 Declaration of Principles and become a “lawless and irresponsible state.”

last updated: 2021-05-28@02:05