A region in flux

Dina Ezzat , Doaa El-Bey , Ahmed Amal , Wednesday 1 Dec 2021

Cairo is increasingly worried by the proliferation of conflicts across East Africa

photo: AP
WHAT started out as a conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People s Liberation Front (TPLF) one of whose fighters can be seen at the town of Hawzen has spiralled into a many-pronged clash undermining peace and stability all across east Africa. Having failed to contain Abiy Ahmed, in a futile display of patriotism, the prime minister is now joining the fight in person. (photo: AP)

Several countries have started withdrawing their citizens from Ethiopia as the war in the country moves from bad to worse and ethnic rebel groups close in on the capital. Israel, in addition, has plans to airlift close to 3,000 Jewish Ethiopians from the country.

“Though we don’t have many citizens in Ethiopia, we are closely monitoring the situation and it does not look good,” said an Egyptian government source who asked for his name to be withheld.

Staff at the Egyptian Embassy in Addis Ababa, added the source, are still in place but “it’s not a very big embassy to start with.”

“Though the overall situation leaves little room for optimism and we will do what we have to do as the situation develops, there is a possibility that ongoing political mediations may reduce the level of conflict.”

Late last week US Envoy to the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman said that there had been some progress in getting the conflicting parties in Ethiopia together. A few days earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had warned that without progress Ethiopia would be heading in a catastrophic direction.

The conflict in Ethiopia flared in November last year when, in pursuit of independence, the Tigray People’s Liberation Force (TPLF) began attacking federal government forces. In the last 12 months the TPLF has joined forces with other ethnic rebel groups and the war, which started in the northeast of the country, has expanded. Over the last two weeks it has become increasingly likely that the conflict will reach the capital, Addis Ababa, and there is widespread speculation that one of the land-locked country’s major gateways, the Djibouti Corridor, is already controlled by rebel forces.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed headed to the battlefront earlier this week, according to a statement from his office, and has since been overseeing operations against rebel forces from the frontline.

In Cairo, foreign diplomats who closely follow the Horn of Africa, say that the situation remains unclear and that the most that can be hoped for before the end of the year is for a political process to begin. Any agreement, they say, is currently out of reach.

Even should an agreement emerge, they add, it will take months for its terms to be properly tested.

“There is no immediate positive scenario for Ethiopia, unfortunately,” said one Cairo-based foreign diplomat. “The picture in Ethiopia does not just include the combatants, but the parties behind the combatants.”

Egyptian and foreign diplomatic sources speak openly of direct UAE, Saudi Arabian, Russian, Chinese, and French interventions in the country, and of how other regional and international players are positioning themselves vis-à-vis the conflict.

Cairo is aware that Ahmed is being armed and financially supported by at least one Arab Gulf state.

Egyptian official sources offered no comment on Cairo’s response to this, and declined to answer questions on whether Egypt is reaching out to any of the parties opposed to the prime minister of Ethiopia. Cairo is, of course, currently embroiled in its own conflict with Ahmed’s government over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) which Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

“We keep an eye on our interests, and a long conflict in Ethiopia is not exactly something we look forward to. Egypt’s interests in East Africa extend, after all, beyond an agreement with Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam,” says an informed Egyptian government source.

Cairo is concerned that any deterioration in security in Ethiopia, a country at the heart of East Africa and with links to the vulnerable Sahel and Sahara zones, will open up a space for Jihadis to operate. One Egyptian diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, put it bluntly. “We are not only concerned how developments will impact the GERD, but how they will influence the whole of East Africa.”

Jihadis are already active in the region, especially in Somalia, a country rent by political disputes and where President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo was recently forced to backtrack on plans to cancel elections and extend his presidency, but remains determined to expand his powers.

Somalia is also in the grip of a severe drought that is affecting close to a quarter of its population, according to UN figures. This week, the Somali Cash Consortium urged donors and governments to mobilise resources immediately to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in a country already reeling from decades of civil war.

Cairo is concerned that the conflict in Ethiopia, which already involves Eretria, could spill over into Somalia, which Ethiopia invaded in 2006, an action that led to the establishment of the radical Al-Shabab movement.

Meanwhile, Egypt has been closely following the fighting along Sudan’s border with Ethiopia. The conflict, which has been rumbling for several months, escalated this week. Sudan announced that Ethiopian forces had launched an attack on the Fashqa border zone, and that Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan had travelled to the battlefront.

Egypt also remains worried, according to the same source, over developments in Sudan and “what seems to be a frail agreement between the military and the civilians” brokered by the US. Despite the agreement allowing the return of Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok after he was removed on 25 October by the military, protests in Sudan have continued with demonstrators demanding more guarantees for the transition to civilian rule.

“The region is passing through a very sensitive time. There is growing foreign presence around the ports of East Africa which overlook Egypt’s strategic Red Sea zone; there is the fate of the negotiations on the filling and operation of GERD; and we have a lot to worry about when it comes to Jihadi movements, undocumented migration, arms smuggling, and human trafficking,” said a government official. “It does not look like the coming month, nor the coming year, for that matter, will be easy for this part of the continent.”

Egypt had been hoping to upgrade economic, trade, and development cooperation with countries across the region. Last week, for the first time in 20 years, Egypt hosted a COMESA meeting, and the government is offering incentives to the private sector to expand trade with countries across East Africa.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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