CAIRO — Political relations are rapidly changing in the Middle East and Africa — including Egyptian-Somali relations, which seem to have chilled with the neutral Somali position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) crisis.
On March 8, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi received the new Somali ambassador to Egypt, Ilyas Sheikh Omar. On the same day, Omar issued a statement expressing Somalia’s willingness to initiate a rapprochement with Egypt.
“It is a great honor on this historic day to present my credentials to President Sisi,” Omar said at the beginning of his statement. He subsequently conveyed his country’s keenness to strengthen relations with Egypt and work in various fields through the activation of the memorandums of understanding signed between the two countries in 2015 and 2019 in the fields of health, education, agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and trade.
The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had issued March 5 a statement in which it expressed Egypt’s condemnation of the suicide bombing in Mogadishu, Somalia, that targeted a popular restaurant on March 4 and killed and wounded more than 50 people.
The statement stressed Egypt’s solidarity with Somalia’s efforts to combat terrorism and extremism in order to restore security. Since 2020, Al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization in Kenya and Somalia, has been intensifying its operations in Somalia against civilians and the Somali army.
Many observers believe that Egypt’s solidarity with Somalia in the efforts to combat terrorism at a time when many Arab and African countries paid no heed is evidence of Egypt’s intentions to provide support to Somalia in the face of extremist and terrorist groups.
Zakaria Othman, a former researcher at the Arab and African Research Center, told Al-Monitor that the transfer of Egyptian expertise to African countries in the field of combating terrorism has become a basic pillar of Egyptian foreign policy.
He said the Egyptian support to African countries in their fight against terrorism is becoming more important by the day in light of Egypt’s progress in that field, “as terrorist operations have almost completely disappeared after they had been significantly spreading since 2013."
Othman said what proves Egypt’s keenness to transfer its experience in combating terrorist and extremist groups is its signing of military cooperation agreements with Sudan and strategic and security cooperation agreements with South Africa.
However, strengthening cooperation and consolidating relations with Somalia specifically through the transfer of security expertise in the field of combating terrorism or increasing economic cooperation may acquire special importance for Egypt compared to other African countries, given that Somalia overlooks the Ethiopian border.
Since 2012, Ethiopia has been engaged in the longest and most complex conflict with Egypt over the conditions for filling and operating the GERD and its impact on Egypt’s share of the Nile water.
Egypt has boosted in recent years its ties with Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea, all of which border Ethiopia. Media outlets published in 2020 unconfirmed reports that there were Egyptian efforts to establish military bases in South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia.
These reports came despite the fact that Sisi has repeatedly stressed that Egypt excluded the military option in dealing with the GERD crisis and emphasized that the crisis with Addis Ababa is a long-term negotiating crisis.
For his part, an Egyptian researcher specializing in African affairs at the Democratic German Center (a nongovernmental organization) told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that Egypt’s endeavor to expand its influence among Ethiopia’s neighbors, including Somalia, is not aimed at using the neighbors’ lands as military bases or for any military purpose as some might be inclined to think.
He pointed out that Ethiopia's neighbors, including Somalia, are members of the Arab League and/or the African Union, and they can support any sanctions against Ethiopia through their membership in the two unions if Ethiopia keeps insisting on filling and operating the dam without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.
He added, “Even if Egypt will not succeed in pushing any regional body or countries to impose sanctions on Ethiopia, gaining actionable support from its neighbors for both Egypt and Sudan can impact Addis Ababa's economic and trade ambitions, as Ethiopia is a landlocked country that relies heavily on Somali or Eritrean ports for trade. Also if [Ethiopia’s] neighbors stop importing electricity from Ethiopia, the dam will lose much of its expected profits, putting another pressure on Addis Ababa, especially since Egypt had announced its intentions to build power stations in Somalia, Eritrea and South Sudan.”
In March 2020, Somalia’s Foreign Ministry said in an official statement that Somalia and Djibouti have taken neutral stances regarding the conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on the operation and filling of the GERD. The ministry said Somalia is ready to participate in resolving the conflict only as a mediator to calm the tensions between the three countries.
In 2020, Egypt managed to have several regional and global official decisions and statements issued against Addis Ababa’s intention to unilaterally fill the dam. Chief among these was a March 2020 statement by the Arab League.
The statement was signed by all members, except for three that included Somalia amid alleged tension between Egypt and Somalia due to rumors whereby Egyptian authorities are establishing contacts with the authorities of Somaliland, which is a separate region from the legitimate government of Somalia.
In this regard, Abdul Aziz al-Karsi, a Somali security expert who specializes in Horn of Africa affairs, said in press statements back in April 2020 that both Turkish media outlets and Somali journalists loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Turkey, have played a pernicious role in promoting rumors of Egypt’s intention to recognize Somaliland with the aim of establishing a military base there.
Although he partially agrees on the importance of Somalia for Egypt in the GERD crisis, Karsi believes that by boosting its ties with Somalia, Egypt is mainly seeking to curtail the expansion of Turkish influence in Somalia. Turkey opened one of its largest military bases in Mogadishu amid mounting fears over “the secret use of that base to support the Houthis in Yemen to please Iran, which is an ally of Turkey, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which began to approach the Houthi militia,” he added.
Egypt is seeking to maintain or expand its cooperation with Somalia in the face of Turkish influence in several fields other than the military and economic fields.