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Analysis: Egypt's crucial borders, and beyond

Egypt’s current engagement with Sudan and Libya is part of a wider regional strategy

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 11 Mar 2021
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Sudan and Libya have been very much in focus during the past few weeks. Cairo has received senior political figures from both countries, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi visited Khartoum, the new UN envoy on Libya visited Cairo, and security and military delegations have been yo-yoing back and forth.

The outcome has been fruitful. Egypt has established “security understandings” with the new prime minister of Libya on Cairo’s pressing border concerns, and concluded a military cooperation agreement with Sudan. Egypt’s relations with Sudan and Libya may have seen many ups and downs: this year, however, Cairo has opted for sustainable cooperation with security and military relations at its heart, beneath a thick coating of trade and economics.

The management of Egypt’s borders with Libya and Sudan are crucial concerns for Cairo. In the past Egypt has suffered serious consequences from the infiltration of militants and undocumented migrants, and the smuggling of arms and drugs. According to government officials, the talks that Egyptian officials, political, security and military, have conducted in recent weeks have established a basis for a much more efficient management of border issues, including patrolling.

Libya and Sudan are just one element in what a government source says is “a broader regional context”, stretching from the Sahel and Sahara to the Horn of Africa. “This is why we have been working on expanding our engagement with many of the countries across this area; we are working to promote the security front,” he said.

Mohamed Abdel-Wahed, an expert on security issues with experience in both the Sahel/Sahara and the Horn of Africa, says Egypt has no choice but to work on enhancing security cooperation across this zone. “First of all, there is the issue of terrorism. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have cross-border operations, and there are local terrorist cells affiliated to the big two, many of which are more or less off radar, engaged in inter-fighting.”

Cairo, say official sources, is involved in security and intelligence deals and in national and international operations to combat these terrorist groups, and has increased its intelligence and training cooperation with several countries in the Sahel/Sahara zone.

“In 2016 we consolidated cooperation with Sahel and Saharan countries when we hosted a meeting for ministers of defence. Simultaneously, we were working closely with Libya, first with military leaders in the east, more recently with political and security leaders in the west and tribal representatives in the south, the goal being to prevent Libya becoming a transit route for terrorist cells,” says the government source.

Egypt’s determination to combat militias operating independently in Libya, he argues, is not only about the cross-border infiltration of militants, but fuelled concerns over the clustering of terrorist activities in Chad, Mali, Niger, and Libya.

The situation, according to Abdel-Wahed, was compounded by Turkish schemes to strengthen Islamic State associated-groups in Libya: “Cairo could hardly turn a blind eye to an Islamic State clustering point in one of its most strategic neighbourhoods,” he said.

He believes the agreements signed last week between Egypt and Sudan place the two countries in a much better position to coordinate their counter-terrorism strategies. “We are seeing indications of a possible surge in the activities of terrorist groups from West Africa to the Horn of Africa, from Boko Haram to Al-Shabab,” he argues, leaving Egypt with no option but to expand its security and military cooperation.

According to one informed security source, in recent weeks Egypt has received delegations and sent envoys to both Chad and Somalia. Chad, he said, is crucial to the security situation in Libya, while Somalia is an essential partner in managing the ongoing border conflict between Sudan and Ethiopia, into which Eritrea has been drawn, siding with Ethiopia.

Eritrea has already been involved in Ethiopia’s campaign in the Tigray region, and has now got involved in the border conflict Addis Ababa has fomented against Sudan, says Hani Raslan, an expert on the Horn of Africa at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS). “And this spot could see more military confrontations which threaten the security of the Red Sea, something Egypt cannot afford.”

Cairo-based foreign diplomats say Egypt is increasingly uneasy about the role some Gulf and other countries are trying to play in the Red Sea, from Yemen to Somalia and beyond, a dynamic that lies behind Cairo stepping up political consultations with Somalian political leaders at a time the country is facing a looming political crisis given the failure of Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullah Mohamed (Farmajo), and the political opposition, to agree on the next phase of the political process.  

The International Crisis Group has identified many reasons to worry about the situation in both the Sahel/Sahara and the Horn of Africa, including the impact of the “heavy handed military operations prompting animosity among ethnic communities”, the ability of jihadists to exploit security vacuums, of cross-border jihadism, possible famine in the Tigray region, power struggles in Ethiopia, and political and security failure in Somalia. It has called for an all-inclusive political dialogue to manage the multiple political and security conflicts, something which Raslan says is easier said than done. And while waiting for political, and in some cases tribal, reconciliation, Raslan argues Egypt has no choice but to defend its interests, from security to access to Nile water.

Saniya El-Fiki, a political economist at ACPSS, believes that in order to secure its strategic depth Egypt must expand economic cooperation across the Sahel/Sahara and the Horn of Africa. Through all the ups and downs in its relations with Sudan and Libya, El-Fiki notes both countries remained important markets for Egypt’s exports.

Abdel-Wahed points out that Egypt’s security and economic interests across the zone are intertwined: “Cairo chose to host the Sahel and Sahara Anti-Terror Centre in 2018, and has been pursuing security and military agreements with countries, and at the same time has been working to promote Egyptian investments across the Sahel/Sahara and Horn of Africa, paying special attention to Libya and Sudan.”

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Crucial borders, and beyond

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