In Kampala this month Egyptian mediators brought together conflicting factions of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The objective of the mission, led by senior General Intelligence officer Khaled Fawzi, was to contain the deadly civil war that has raged in South Sudan four years ago.
This is the second round of announced Egyptian mediation. The first session was held in November in Cairo and managed to prepare the ground for a possible reconciliation.
Officials working on the file are fully aware this is one of the toughest mediation jobs. The warring factions have shown themselves resilient and their appetite to continue a war which has left seven million people in desperate need of humanitarian assistance appears unabated.
Cairo established close links with the leaders of the SPLA, the movement which spearheaded the South Sudan independence drive, more than a decade before the separation of Sudan into two states. Following independence Egypt established stable political contacts with Juba and has provided development assistance.
“East Africa, especially the Nile Basin, is one of our security priorities. We already have tension with several countries over the management of Nile water resources and their support for Ethiopian plans which undermine Egypt’s historic right to Nile water,” says a leading concerned diplomat. It is within this context, he added, that ending the civil war in South Sudan is seen as a key goal in Cairo.
The war can only hamper attempts to foster water cooperation or develop projects that might help Egypt compensate for the likely loss of its water share when Ethiopia begins filling the reservoir of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which it has said it will start next summer.
The same diplomat also spoke of Cairo’s growing concern over the refugee problem that is being fuelled by the war in South Sudan. “We have already taken a vast number of refugees and we cannot afford to take more,” he said.
The South Sudan mediation attempt has had its ups and downs and has still to yield tangible results, say international humanitarian organisations. They all agree, though, that efforts to put a lid on a simmering conflict and contain its potential for further destabalisation as South Sudan’s neighbours vie for control over the various factions must continue.
EYE ON THE RED SEA: Cairo’s mediation on South Sudan has been accompanied by growing engagement in managing the turbulent situation in Somalia where Egypt now provides police and military training as well as development assistance.
Somali President Abdullahi Faramjo was in Sharm El-Sheikh for the Africa Economic Cooperation Conference held in the second week of December. During a meeting on the sidelines of the conference, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi promised Faramjo Egypt’s support for efforts to stabilise Somalia. The Sisi-Faramjo talks also addressed the growing military cooperation that is bringing Egypt and Somalia closer, together with the UAE, one of Cairo’s closest Gulf partners.
“This is all about Red Sea security,” says a diplomatic source.
Cairo is particularly worried about the way the war in Yemen has allowed for “unprecedented manifestation of conflicting influences on the stability of this strategic area.
“In the face of Saudi disappointment we refrained from joining direct military combat in Yemen. Instead, we have opted to build political bridges with all the leading Yemeni groups, including moderate elements within the Iran-supported Houthis, in the hope this will help us to someday bring stability to Yemen,” he says.
Egypt has been working “quite closely” with the UAE and Somalia to limit the influence of terrorist groups which “have a strong presence in Somalia given long years of havoc,” says the same Egyptian diplomat, adding “this work” also includes Eritrea.
As Cairo seeks to consolidate its influence in the neighbourhood of states that are the focus of major strategic concern it has opened mediation channels between the ruling regimes and opposition groups in both countries. The concerned diplomat explains this is not just about Khartoum and Addis Ababa but also Djibouti. Djibouti’s military cooperation with Turkey and Qatar “could not have simply been overlooked by Egypt”, he says.
“It is perfectly legitimate for Egypt to want to calm civil unrest in its immediate neighbourhood. We are not claiming full success but we have managed to have a positive impact.”
STABILISING LIBYA: “A positive impact” is how Ghassan Salamé, the UN secretary-general’s envoy to Libya, qualified Cairo’s year-long attempt to unify the leading military factions in Libya under the umbrella of a national Libyan army which Egypt would like to see led by Khalifa Haftar.
Haftar, supported first by Cairo and later by Abu Dhabi and Moscow, is seen as a key figure in stabilising the eastern part of Libya, one of Egypt’s most urgent national security goals.
Egyptian officials have repeatedly expressed concern over the smuggling of arms and militants from Libya into Egypt and the way the chaos across Egypt’s eastern border has fuelled terrorist attacks on Egyptian soil.
In the summer of 2017 Egypt began pushing for a meeting bringing Haftar together with Fayez Al-Sarraj, chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya. The push led to indirect talks and culminated when the two men met head to head in the UAE.
Al-Sarraj, however, was far from sympathetic to Cairo’s wish to see Haftar as the head of the Libyan state and army.
“There has been a basic flaw in Egyptian mediation in Libya which otherwise has been relatively successful in promoting a process of unification among leading military factions which is a prerequisite for any political reconciliation,” says a Cairo-based European diplomat.
“Now Cairo realises it needs to be less ambitious in its expectations of what Libyan groups will accept in relation to Haftar.”
According to the same diplomat a recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and Al-Sarraj persuaded Cairo to be “more open” about the chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya.
“The way Egypt had snubbed Al-Sarraj over his openness to some Islamist political groups in Libya obstructed its otherwise influential mediation. As the year comes to a close I think it is fair to say Egypt now realises Libya is not Egypt and Haftar cannot be Al-Sisi,” says the same Cairo-based European diplomat.
Al-Sarraj met with President Al-Sisi in Cairo earlier this month. And according to press statements made by Salamé during his recent visit to Cairo, Egypt’s intervention is helping his drive to unify Libya’s factions in the hope of being able to hold presidential elections by September 2018.
Egyptian officials say that there are no illusions in Cairo about a resolution to the Libyan crisis being just around the corner. But they also note that as 2017 draws to a close the situation in Libya, in terms of security management and reconciliation possibilities, is much better that it was a year ago.
In the words of one official, “Egyptian mediation has been essential” in getting to this position.
“It is true we had financial support from the UAE and political support from Russia but it was our determined mediation that has opened up the possibility of greater stability in Libya and, hopefully, the eventual coming to power of a sympathetic regime,” says the same official.
SYRIA AND THE PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES — UNAPOLOGETIC CHOICES: The year saw growing openness towards Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad on the part of Cairo despite the fact that Saudi Arabia, Cairo’s close ally, continues to demand Al-Assad be toppled, and regardless of the undeniable brutality of Al-Assad’s crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2011, kick-starting the process that would evolve into a civil /regional and international proxy war.
According to an informed Egyptian government source, Cairo began formulating its current Syria policy in late 2014 and it has been executed gradually in the years that followed, though “with increased openness this year”. The whole world now realises what is happening in Syria – it is a civil war, says the source, and the reality is that Al-Assad “will be around for a while”.
It was Russia’s direct military intervention, he says, that “managed to defeat previously strong militant groups like IS in Syria”, tipping the balance in Al-Assad’s favour and encouraging Egypt to be more open about its “unannounced – I would not call them secretive” relations with the Al-Assad regime.
“It is an open secret that we have had high level talks and we are discussing security and intelligence cooperation,” says the source.
Another factor in the decision to be more open about ties with the Al-Assad regime is the “decline in faith in the Arab Spring and growing recognition of the importance of the stability and the territorial unity of states in defeating terrorist groups like IS”.
“We are not willing to see Syria divided. Our position is that Syrian territorial sovereignty must be maintained. It is the same position we adopted towards Kurdish calls for independence in Iraq. Despite our good relations with the Kurds and reservations over the Iraqi government we opted to support the territorial unity of Iraq.”
According to the same source, Cairo maintains communication channels not only with the Al-Assad regime but with opposition groups “who share our keenness on territorial unity and central government power”.
“These are not things we can compromise on. They are the pillars on which stability rests. All talk about democracy and human rights takes a back seat,” he says.
In tandem with hosting Syrian opposition figures and cooperating with Russia to create conflict free zones in order to staunch the flow of refugees Cairo has been supportive of the UN secretary-general’s envoy to Syria and the Geneva talks.
A similar pattern of intervention/mediation saw Cairo promote the role of former Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) member Mohamed Dahlan on the Palestinian scene.
Egyptian officials say the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and the dwindling influence of PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas there following a decade-long political battle with Hamas had rendered the situation explosive on Egypt’s eastern border.
The officials say that while Dahlan is not someone Abbas likes he is a figure Egypt’s security bodies could work with if, in cooperation with Hamas, he has a role in managing Gaza. They stress that nobody in Cairo has any illusions about the extent of his popularity in Gaza which has been suffocating under the siege imposed when Hamas took over the Strip in 2007 following its massive legislative electoral victory.
Gaza has long been the focus of national security worries, not least because of its impact on the volatile situation in Sinai. Cairo recognised it has no choice but to deal with Hamas, and opted to do so with Dahlan as a partner. This created a new situation Abbas had to deal with, allowing Cairo to push for reconciliation between Hamas and the Abbas-led Fattah. The push bore some fruit in 2017 but much more work remains to be done in 2018.
With Trump’s recent decision to acknowledge Jerusalem as the capital of Israel there is no telling how things will develop. But for now at least, Cairo seems determined to pursue its mediation efforts on the Palestinian front in the hope that 2018 brings a breakthrough.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly