Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Egyptian Hands in the Ethiopian Crisis

Egyptian Hands Ethiopian Crisis
A man holds a candle during a memorial service for the victims of the Tigray conflict organized by the city administration, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on November 3, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/ AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

The recent warning issued by the commander of the United States Africa Command “AFRICOM” was not unreasonable at all since the continuation of the conflict in Ethiopia may provide an opportunity for the adversaries to launch an attack. That includes the perception of Egypt carrying out a military strike targeting the Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile, disregarding Egypt and Sudan’s vital and strategic interests.

While Abiy Ahmed’s government is suffering from real dangers that could lead to dividing the country that has more than 100 million people, as a consequence of the civil war waged by the Ethiopian army against the rebels in Tigray, the question about an Egyptian role in this crisis is only reasonable.

There are undeclared Ethiopian concerns that Egypt is manipulating the current situation in Tigray, where the Ethiopian army and its Eritrean ally are suffering from the repercussions of successive attacks launched by the rebels, directly threatening the authority of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. That indicates a possible secession of Tigray, which could lead the Ethiopian state, which is based initially on a diversity of races and ethnicities, to fragmentation.

The Official Stance

Egyptian Hands Ethiopian Crisis
Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (L) and the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn give a press conference following their meeting in Addis Ababa on 24 March 2015. AFP/ Zacharias Abubeker.

The Egyptian government didn’t make any statements about the current situation inside Ethiopia because Egyptian discourse is constantly focused on the status of the Renaissance Dam within the framework of Egyptian-Ethiopian relations.

Cairo refrained from making any official or media comments or statements that might be misinterpreted. Also, Egypt only showed concerns about the possible effects of the Ethiopian dam on the future and lives of Egyptians.

Cairo’s silence about the war that is threatening the future of the Addis Ababa regime did not prevent some from repeating speculations that there are hidden Egyptian hands in the developments of the Ethiopian conflict.

The discussion here clearly indicates a role for the Egyptian intelligence in provoking ethnic conflicts in the Ethiopian state and its involvement in providing support to the rebel forces from the Tigray’s front.

But in fact, Cairo actually realises more than others that that front made the problem of the Renaissance Dam and that getting involved in regional conflict hundreds of kilometres away would not be simple.

Exaggeration and Wishful Thinking

Egyptian diplomatic and political sources believe that the official Egyptian position is only satisfied with closely observing the ongoing events without direct nor indirect interference.

Sources, who asked to remain anonymous, considered that talking about an Egyptian role in Ethiopia is an exaggeration and somewhat wishful thinking, given that the Egyptian public opinion is affected by what is happening there.

In his article “Dark portents over Addis Ababa!“, Abdullah al-Sanawi asks about the Egyptian position in all of this, pointing out that the Ethiopian Prime Minister only hints at an Egyptian role in supporting and arming Tigray.

From this point of view, “It is in Egypt’s interest for Ethiopia to stabilise and prevent spreading armed chaos at the sources of the Nile, Egypt’s lifeline”, as it is an axiom in the Egyptian national security.

However, al-Sanawi points out that Meles Zenawi, the historical leader of Tigray, claimed the Ethiopian dam project was initially his project since he was the one who laid its foundation stone in his era and proceeded to build it under his supervision. Before Abiy Ahmed, Zenawi was the one who thought that the dam would be the catalyst for the new Ethiopian role in leading the continent by controlling the Nile River.

Therefore, “faces and policies change, but the dam project, with its dimensions and objectives, remains almost a single point of consensus in a country torn by its ethnic conflicts”. Also, there isn’t “any indication that the potential new rulers will adopt another policy if there is no Egyptian deterrent in place for any transgressions that may undermine the country’s right to life”.

Far from the official Egyptian position, the investments of some Egyptian businessmen in Tigray are exposed to apparent troubles due to suspending operations because of the ongoing war.

The complicated developments of the situation threatened Egyptian investments in the region after Alaa Al-Saqati, vice-president of the Egyptian Federation of Investors Associations, threatened to liquidate his $10 million business and sue for $40 million in compensation for the losses incurred to his investments.

Al-Saqati had established two factories in the region in 2015 with some Egyptian investors and an Ethiopian partner. The first factory manufactures power transformers, knowing that its production is being delivered to a company affiliated with the army. The other factory manufactures wooden furniture.

According to Saqati, who heads the Egyptian Industrial Zone in Ethiopia, the company was subjected to harassment in residence and treatment at the airport. Its factory also started exporting its products to Kenya and other countries after the company affiliated with the army stopped receiving the power transformers.

Saqati withdrew the entire crew of 17 Egyptians from the relatively richest and least populous region among other Ethiopian regions, which includes only 6% of the nearly 110 million population count.

Also, he rejected the Ethiopian proposals to set up his business in alternative industrial sites away from the warzone and hired a French law firm to file lawsuits against the Addis Ababa government before the Commercial Court in Paris.

The volume of Egyptian investments in Ethiopia amounts to $750 million, while the volume of trade exchange amounts to $170 million. Most of the Egyptian investments are concentrated electrical cables, infrastructure, timber, packaging, and others.

Fears of the Ethiopian State’s Collapse

Egyptian Hands Ethiopian Crisis
A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia, on December 26, 2019. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. EDUARDO SOTERAS/ AFP

The Ethiopian mosaic can be undone. This is indicated by the announced US developments and concerns of the division of the giant country residing in that vital region of the African continent.

Although US Secretary of State Antony Blinken started an African tour to Kenya, Nigeria and Senegal, he did not include the Ethiopian capital on the list. This is a clear expression of American dissatisfaction with the Ethiopian government’s policy.

The Ethiopian civil war file occupied a significant place on Blinken’s agenda. In a press conference held with the Kenyan Foreign Minister Raychelle Omamo, Blinken again called for a cease-fire in the Ethiopian conflict. He considered the war a “growing risk to the unity and the integrity of the Ethiopian state”.

Blinken pledged to support the mediation efforts of former Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, in his capacity as the Union High Representative for the Horn of Africa region. According to him, there is an “opportunity and absolute necessity” for all parties to stop and pull back and sit at the table together so that humanitarian aid can flow.

The speech came after his country imposed sanctions on the army and the ruling party in Eritrea for their interference in the Ethiopian conflict.

The sanctions target the top of Eritrea’s military and intelligence services, including the Eritrean Defense Force (EDF), the head of the Eritrean National Security Office Abraha Kassa Nemariam and the Hidri Trust, a holding company of the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ). In addition to Hagos Ghebrehiwet W Kidan, the economic advisor to the PFDJ, the sole legal party in Eritrea to which Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki belongs. The Eritrean regime is one of the world’s most isolated and subject to international sanctions.

Under these sanctions, the United States included six targets on the sanctions list, linked to the Eritrean government and its ruling party under the executive order signed by US President Joe Biden in September 2021, in response to the conflict in Ethiopia.

It was evident that these measures aim to force those who prolong the crisis to pay the price for their intervention. Especially since the outbreak of the conflict in the Tigray region in 2020, the Eritrean forces, disguised in old Ethiopian military uniforms, have participated in fueling violence and committed bloody massacres, looting, and sexual assaults all over Ethiopia.

In anticipation of the possibility of Ethiopia’s implosion and the possible repercussions on other countries in the region, the USA is committed to creating room for negotiations between Addis Ababa and the rebels. Washington is also awaiting the mediation results by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo after the recent significant victories of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its attempt to advance towards the capital.

History of the Egyptian-Ethiopian Relations

Egyptian Hands Ethiopian Crisis
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (C) smiles and salutes government officials who welcomed him “safe and sound ” on arrival at Cairo airport 26 June 1995 after an assassination attempt against him in Ethiopia in which his car was ambushed by unidentified gunmen. Mubarak was to attend the OAU summit of African leaders in Addis Ababa. MONA SHARAF/ AFP.

According to a report published by the Egyptian State Information Service, Egypt and Ethiopia have a history of political, religious and cultural relations that date back to ancient Egypt. Religious ties began in the fourth century AD since the Ethiopian Church was associated with the Egyptian Church.

The Jabart Residence Hall for Ethiopian students in the Al-Azhar Mosque witnessed the graduation of historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti and the author of the book “The Marvelous Chronicles: Biographies and Events”.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries began around 1930, and they were at their peak during the era of the late President Gamal Abdul Nasser and the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. Expressing the value of the relation between the two countries, Abdul Nasser wrote in the foreword of the book Lights on Abyssinia: “We are partners in this immortal river that overflows with goodness and blessing on its two banks, from the Abyssinian plateau to confluence, through the Muqrin in Sudan to the downstream in the Mediterranean”.

During the late president Anwar al-Sadat era, tension flared because of Eritrea, after Khartoum supported the Eritrean Liberation Movement and Ethiopia’s support for the South Sudan Movement (Anyanya).

After Sadat announced his intention to divert part of the Nile water to irrigate 35,000 feddans in the Sinai in 1979, Ethiopia announced that this project was against its interests and submitted a complaint to the Organisation of African Unity accusing Cairo of misusing the Nile.

After Ethiopian President Mengistu threatened to divert the course of the Nile, Sadat escalated his tone toward Ethiopia and declared that the Nile is a line that cannot be crossed and that it is a matter of Egypt’s national security.

During the late President Hosni Mubarak era in 1984, Egypt sought through continuous contacts with Sudan and Ethiopia to end the conflict related to the Eritrean crisis. Cairo followed a neutral policy until 1995 in the disputes between Ethiopia and Somalia over the Ogaden territory.

But following the failed assassination attempt on Mubarak by terrorists fleeing Egypt in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa in 1995, the relationship between the two countries and the work of the Egyptian-Ethiopian Business Council stopped for 17 years.

After the January 2011 revolution, a relative rapprochement occurred between Egypt and Ethiopia. The current Egyptian President, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, sought to form cooperative and mutually beneficial relations, which was interpreted as a rise in Egyptian projects that obtained permits from the Ethiopian government since 1992 until now, to 58 projects, with investments amounting to about $35 billion.

According to 2017 estimates, the trade exchange between Egypt and Ethiopia averaged about $1 billion annually. Ethiopian exports of meat and live cows to Egypt rose to about $400 million.

This report failed to include that Cairo has always adhered to a clear policy regarding relations with Ethiopia, which is establishing ties with the ruling authority without getting involved in Ethiopian internal affairs.

This consistent strategy necessarily requires Egyptian decision-makers to focus on keeping Ethiopia unified. For that could have a direct impact on Sudan and thus on Egypt, with the consequential military and economic problems that would arise if the worsening situation pushes hundreds of thousands of people to flee towards Sudan’s borders.

Pending progress that may not necessarily occur in the file of the Renaissance Dam, Cairo believes that Ethiopia’s internal problems are sufficient to hinder continuing its construction and operation.

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