25.7.2022: Mogadishu, Somalia
President Hassan Sheikh Mahmoud has taken his seventh visit abroad in which he travelled to Cairo to meet his Egyptian counterpart, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
The foreign policy movements by the President has demonstrated a major shift from previous foreign policy. Hassan Sheikh entered office with a bulldozer, ready to completely reconfigure Somalia’s foreign policy to resemble a vision more resonating with his image of Somalia on the global stage.
Some have expressed outrage that President Hassan Sheikh has met with President Al-Sisi to discuss the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the conflict between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan which could lead to Somalia being politically dragged into an increasingly intensifying cold war between Ethiopia and Egypt.
Others have praised the President’s decision as a robust response to the constant and blatant disregard by Addis Ababa of Somali territorial sovereignty as Ethiopian Government officials met with Puntland leader, Said A. Deni to sign ‘bilateral’ agreements as well as its relations with Hargeisa.
Before we understand which argument is most plausible, let’s take a look at Somali-Egyptian relations.
Historical Somali-Egyptian Friendship
Somali-Egyptian relations have been quite ambiguous and increasingly tense as of late. This is a direct result of Somalia’s previously unclear official policy and position on the issue of GERD despite Egyptian concerns.
Alongside Djibouti and Qatar, Somalia expressed reservations and rejected two Arab League resolutions that outlined Arab support for Egypt on the issue which sent Egyptian media on a frenzy.
“Somalia supports… an agreement through talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia… based on give and take principles”, said then Somali Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad.
Conversely, Egypt has angered the Somali government due to its blatant disregard of Somali sovereignty and the government in Mogadishu when dealing with regional member states of the Federal republic. For instance, a delegation from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry visited Hargeisa and Garowe while also hosting delegations from the said Federal Member States (FMS) in Cairo without consultation or coordination with Mogadishu – essentially acting as if these FMS are independent countries.
This would directly result in the cancellation of the educational cooperation protocol between Somalia and Egypt by the Farmaajo administration.
Nevertheless, historically Somalis and Egypt have had close and warm relations. For instance, Egyptian diplomat Kamal El-Din Salah who served as the chairman of the UN Advisory Council on Italian Somaliland was a strong advocate for Somali independence and unity before he was assassinated by Italian colonists in his home in Mogadishu in 1957. In honour of his name, Salah was posthumously awarded the Star of Somali Solidarity, and a street and a cultural centre in Mogadishu were named after him.
Upon independence, Egypt was one of the first nations to recognise Somalia and two nations would have strong political and military ties. For instance, Somalia fought alongside Egypt during the Arab-Israeli in 1973, sending an artillery battalion. Equally, Egypt financially and militarily supported Somalia during the Ogaden War of 1977 in which Egypt sent large supplies of armaments and weaponry.
However, it begs the question: Why is Egypt interested in Somalia?
For Egypt, Somalia’s geopolitical location is of strategic value and is vital due to its influence and control of the Bab El-Mandeb Strait that acts as the gateway to the Suez Canal. It historically shared an adversary with Somalia in Ethiopia. However, such policies would begin to slowly change from 1991 onwards as Egypt began to shift support away from Somalia by the end of 2006.
For instance, a UN report released in November 2006 accused Egypt of training and funding the Somali Islamic Courts Union prior to the Ethiopian invasion. In fact, the report went further, stating that a senior retired Egyptian officer, who is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was aboard a vessel carrying arms to Somalia. However, by January 2007, Egypt would express solidarity with Ethiopia during its invasion of Somalia, with the Egyptian President being described as saying he “understood” the need.
The confusing political and diplomatic situation between the two countries would remain the same for the decade to come.
Tripartite Alliance & Ethiopia
For centuries, Somalis and Ethiopia have been at conflict. From Ahmed Gurey in the 1530s to contemporary world history during Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006.
Since 1991, Ethiopia under the TPLF have had an interventionist policy in Somalia which would be a direct hindrance to its political stability and recovery. This would range from fuelling conflict by funding particular militias to sending troops illegally into the border regions of Gedo, Bakool and Hiiraan on numerous occasions. Following the formation of the Federal republic, Ethiopia would summon FMS leaders to Addis Ababa to sign deals, push policy and encourage division if it suited Ethiopian interests.
The level of Ethiopian influence in Mogadishu was so bad that it was rumoured the Supreme Commander of the Ethiopian military forces in Somalia, General Gebre Heard resided in the Somali Presidential palace, Villa Somalia. Gen. Gebre was the top party official of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and was nicknamed “the Butcher of Mogadishu”.
Such actions were further underpinned by the Ethio-Kenyan security pact against Somalia.
However, the removal of the TPLF and the introduction of a new government in Addis Ababa led by PM Abiy Ahmed would change the direction of Ethiopian policy in Somalia. Following a peaceful diplomatic resolution between Asmara and Addis Ababa, Mogadishu would enter this peace accord which would see an end to Ethiopian interventions in Somali internal affairs. Albeit, we have seen Ethiopia continue a de facto relationship with the separatist administration in Hargeisa for business reasons rather than political which has angered many Somali unionists.
This change in the political winds of the Horn of Africa would give the Somali government more room to manoeuvre and strategically remove an old foe from Somalia’s longest land border, only leaving a hostile and isolated Kenya in the south.
Consequently, we saw Ethiopia remain neutral and covertly supportive of Somalia against Kenyan claims of Somali waters in southern Jubaland.
What is best for Somalia?
Having an enemy at our border is not what is best for Somalia. As outlined above, a hostile Ethiopia at Somalia’s longest land border is not in the interest of Mogadishu. We have seen the detrimental effects Somalia has suffered as a direct result of TPLF interference in Somali internal affairs over the past three decades.
Ethiopia has thousands of soldiers in Somalia fighting under the banner of ATMIS as well as simply representing Addis Ababa. Whereas Egypt has virtually no interest in Somalia aside from the simple fact that it needs another angle to attack Ethiopia, its current arch enemy.
The Egyptian President Al-Sisi told reporters yesterday that he and President Hassan Sheikh jointly condemned Ethiopia’s “unilateral policies”.
“We were in agreement on the dangers of unilateral policies regarding projects on international rivers, as well as the inevitability of commitment to the principal of co-operation and prior consultations among littoral states to ensure no damage is done to any of them,” the statement read.
The reality is that Somalia cannot join a side in this conflict because it will be the biggest loser.
For Somalia, the best outcome is to act as a mediator between both nations to find a solution that works in Somalia’s interest rather than the interests of Ethiopia or Egypt which is peace and positive relations with both nations.
Somalia is both in IGAD and Arab League. It can be the gateway between the Arab and African world.
That’s only if both parties accept.
The Bigger Geopolitics
Recent reports by Al-Jazeera Arabic that Egyptian intelligence conducted mass surveillance of communications at Turkiye’s military base (TURKSOM) in Mogadishu demonstrates that the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt is the least of Somalia’s worries.
The Middle Eastern Cold War between UAE, Egypt and the GCC against Turkey, Qatar and others has rattled Somalia with each group picking a political representative to sit in Villa Somalia.
The recent article released by the Emirati National News regarding claims that Somalia ‘condemned’ Ethiopia were categorised as untrue by Villa Somalia spokesman, Abdikarim Ali Kaar during an interview with BBC Somali.
It is clear the blocs are now fighting for influence.
President Hassan Sheikh is yet to visit Ethiopia or Qatar despite being within close proximity.
Somalia must tread carefully if it wishes to survive.