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Egypt looks to Somalia for more influence in Red Sea, Nile dam dispute

Egypt Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly attended the inauguration of new Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud, who faces a wide array of challenges.
Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly attends the inauguration of the 10th president of Somalia in Mogadishu, Somalia, June 9, 2022.

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly attended June 9 the inauguration ceremony of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in the capital Mogadishu, in a rare visit by an Egyptian official of this caliber for several years.

Madbouly attended on behalf of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, along with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

In his inauguration speech, Mohamud asserted that he will focus on achieving popular reconciliation and political stability during his four-year term. Somalia is plagued by civil war, rebellion and conflict between armed clans amid the absence of a strong central government since the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre's autocratic rule in 1991.

Mohamud vowed to adopt a neutral foreign policy, not to engage in international conflicts and improve relations with neighboring countries. He also affirmed his quest for security cooperation with the international community, especially the countries of the Horn of Africa, to counter terrorism.

Mohamud took office following a vote of parliamentarians in mid-May, defeating the outgoing President Mohamed Abdullah, who also is known as Farmaajo. This is the second time Mohamud gets elected president, a position he had held from 2012 to 2017.

This comes as Somalia, with a population of more than 15 million people, suffers repeated attacks by Islamic militias on state institutions. The pivotal country in the Horn of Africa is also bearing the “deadly consequences" due to the worst drought in 40 years, which threatens the lives of 3.5 million Somalis, according to the United Nations.

One of the most critical challenges, for Mohamud, is that he will have to wrest control of much of Somalia from the al-Qaeda powerful affiliate in East Africa more commonly known al-Shabab, which has consolidated its control by taking advantage of the country's intense political and military conflict.

Madbouly delivered a speech on behalf of Sisi during the inauguration ceremony, congratulating the new president and praising the historical and strategic ties between the two African countries.

He also reiterated Egypt’s support to Somalia's efforts under Mohamud's rule to promote peace and security in the country, achieve sustainable development and erradicate terrorism. “Egypt has been in the forefront of the countries that recognized the independence of Somalia in 1960,” Madbouli said, affirming his country’s aspiration to enhance joint cooperation with the Somali government across all fields.

At a meeting that brought them together on the sidelines of the inauguration ceremony, Madbouly invited Mohamud to visit Egypt. He indicated that Sisi had issued directives to provide all possible support and assistance to Somalia in several areas, most notably development and security.

Two days after Mohamud's election, Egypt hailed the successful completion of the Somali elections. A statement on this occasion by the Egyptian Foreign Ministry affirmed this step is important to achieving stability in Somalia.

Although the statement did not officially congratulate Mohamud on his victory, Madbouly's attendance at the inauguration ceremony echoes Egypt’s desire to strengthen its relations with Mogadishu, according to experts who spoke to Al-Monitor. 

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor that Egypt has had two core interests in the Horn of Africa, including Somalia: water security of the Nile River and freedom of navigation and strategic access in the Red Sea.

Mohammed Ezzedine, head of the Nile Foundation of African and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor that Somalia is of geopolitical importance to Egypt and its national security.

He said, "Egypt hopes to build bridges of communication with the new Somali administration, in an effort to secure the passage of ships and the international trade movement in the Red Sea.”

He argued that Egypt wants peace in the East African country because of its importance, as Somalia is located on the roads leading to the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which is the southern gate to the Red Sea and from there to the Suez Canal.

Although Egypt rejected the attempt to divide Somalia, it maintained a good level of coordination with Somaliland, an area disputed with the Somali federal government.

Somaliland broke away and has been acting as a country independent from Somalia since 1991. However, it has yet to be internationally recognized. Cairo has repeatedly tried to support dialogue between the two sides of the conflict in an attempt to settle the crisis.

Over the years, Somalia has served as a nexus for arms trafficking and militant activity affecting the Middle East and Africa, including Egypt. The activity of al-Shabab in the Red Sea stirs fears of closure of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which threatens movement and safety of international maritime navigation.

Ezzedine said that Madbouly's visit to Somalia reflects Egypt's keenness to cement ties with Mohamud's administration after a period of apathy under Farmaajo’s rule. 

Joshua Meservey, senior policy analyst for Africa and the Middle East at the Heritage Foundation, told Al-Monitor that Farmaajo was close to Ethiopia and Turkey, both of which Egypt has problems with.

"For Ethiopia because its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] could threaten Cairo's Nile River water supplies, and Turkey because Egypt believes that [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is spreading the type of Islamism that threatens the Egyptian state," he explained.

Meservey said that Farmaajo was also a close ally of Qatar, one of Egypt's greatest geopolitical foes.

In June 2017, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing Qatar's alleged support for terrorism. Farmaajo decided to side with Qatar, which he believed had financed his electoral campaign in the 2017 elections that brought him to power.

“During Farmaajo’s rule, Egypt and its Gulf allies had lost influence there,” Mohamed Kheir Omer, an Eritrean-Norwegian political analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa, told Al-Monitor.

But it seems that Mohamud will go in a different direction. On June 19, he visited the UAE, in his first foreign visit since taking office.

The UAE, a strong ally of Egypt, has vital interests in the Somaliland region. Dubai state-owned port operator DP World is developing and expanding a strategic port in Berbera, located in the breakaway region.

During his previous presidency, Mohamud had good relations with Cairo, which he visited several times, and kept visiting even until the end of his term, albeit unofficially.

He also attended Sisi's inauguration in the summer of 2014. A year before, Egypt had reopened its embassy in Mogadishu after years of operating from the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.

Omer said, “With a new presidency and orientation Egypt had to capitalize on this opportunity to assert its influence. Moreover, Egypt’s relations had deteriorated with Eritrea, an important ally in terms of security of the Red Sea as Somalia can compensate for that.”

Since his advent to power in 2018, Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed has solidified his relations with Eritrea and Somalia, with which he forged a tripartite alliance. Ahmed later held several tripartite summits that brought him together with the then-Somali President Farmaajo and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki. Eritrean forces fought alongside Abiy in the civil war with the Tigray rebels at the end of 2020.

This rapprochement further materialized when Eritrea and Somalia adopted a biased stance in favor of Ethiopia in its dispute with Egypt and Sudan over its hydroelectric dam, the GERD, that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile.

Felbab-Brown said that the coldness between Egypt and Farmaajo was already manifested in the last year of his rule, when Egypt hosted Somali Prime Minister Mohamed Hussein Roble who is a major political rival to Farmaajo.

Accordingly, Meservey sees that Farmaajo failure to win reelection is a positive for Egypt.

Omer noticed that Egypt needs the support of Somalia during Mohamud's rule in the African Union (AU), UN and other regional bodies regarding its position on the GERD. 

Talks held under the auspices of the AU since June 2020 have failed to broker an agreement to end the crisis between the three parties. Rather, Cairo and Khartoum demanded Addis Ababa to stop filling the dam’s reservoir until an agreement is reached, a demand Ethiopia refuses.

Ethiopia seems to be proceeding with filling the dam’s reservoir unilaterally for the third consecutive year in August and September, in a move that is expected to heighten tension with Egypt and Sudan.

“On the other hand, Egypt has also much to offer to Mogadishu in terms of investment, support in fighting al-Shabab militants and in promoting Somalia’s interests internationally,” Omer concluded.