Red Sea spillover

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 31 Jan 2024

This week, during talks with Western leaders including US President Joe Biden, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi appealed for serious political action to push for a ceasefire in Gaza and greater access for humanitarian aid.

Khan Younis (photo: AFP)
Four months into Israel s relentless, inhumane assault on the Gaza Strip, civilians still fear for their lives as they evacuate Khan Younis with nowhere to go. (photo: AFP)


According to official statements issued by his press office, Al-Sisi also called for a clear path to Palestinian statehood.

In Paris, on Sunday, Egypt’s Chief of the General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel met with CIA Director William Burns, Mossad Chief David Barnea, and Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdulrahman. The four officials discussed details of the truce that Egypt, the US, and Qatar are promoting. They also tackled ways to bridge the gap between the Israeli and Hamas positions on a possible truce that mediators hope will come into effect within days.  

Ahead of the meeting, Cairo hosted representatives of Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza, including Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority to discuss compromises acceptable to the Palestinians though an informed source said neither Hamas nor Israel is showing the flexibility required to finalise a truce any time soon.

Ending the war is crucial to Egypt, not least because of the spillover effect it is having on Red Sea security. Houthi attacks on vessels passing to and from Israel have already prompted a US-led naval military operation against Houthi targets in Yemen. In response, the Houthis have expanded their attacks to include vessels associated with the US and its allies, particularly the UK.

“The Americans and British are aware that their attacks cannot fully stop the Houthis,” said an Egyptian official who asked for his name to be withheld. He added that Egypt “was well aware of this and declined an invitation to join” the so-called Operation Prosperity Guardian.

According to a paper published by the Washington Institute, Egypt refused because it did not want to be seen to be working against the Houthis. The paper quoted Egyptian officials as saying that this would be perceived as support for Israel.

The Egyptian official who spoke anonymously to Al-Ahram Weekly said Cairo has long exercised caution when it comes to the Red Sea. Just a few years ago, he explained, Egypt refused Saudi and Emirati requests to use its navy against the Houthis despite “high political and economic costs”.

The Red Sea is the gateway to the Suez Canal which provides Egypt with a large share of its foreign currency revenues. On its shores lie some of Egypt’s most popular beach resorts which also generate foreign currency through a steady influx of tourists.

Cairo had hoped both Suez Canal and tourism revenues, depressed by the pandemic and the Russian war on Ukraine, would rebound. With the Israeli war on Gaza and the subsequent Red Sea spillover things have now taken a negative turn. Traffic passing through the Suez Canal has dropped by 40 per cent as many shipping companies divert vessels around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the conflict zone.

Red Sea resort tourism revenues have also suffered considerably according to sources in the tourism sector.

“There have been a lot of cancellations since the beginning of the war on Gaza. Now, with the situation in the Red Sea, we are seeing yet more cancellations and it is very disappointing,” said a tour operator who asked for his name to be withheld.

This month rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch both downgraded Egypt’s outlook to negative on the back of the war on Gaza and its spillover effects on the Red Sea.

According to the official, the only way out of the current crisis is to engineer a truce, followed by a ceasefire, in Gaza. The source said Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri pressed this point at length during meetings with his European counterparts last week in Brussels. Shoukri pushed the same line during talks with the foreign ministers of China and Saudi Arabia both of whom visited Cairo this month.

Meanwhile, the source explained, Egypt has sent “a high-level message” to Tehran on the need to use its influence over Iran’s Houthi allies to persuade them to give diplomacy a chance. He said that Tehran made no promises, saying only that should the war on Gaza stop Houthi attacks will come to an end.

The source noted that for Egypt economic worries over the Red Sea spillover from Gaza are compounded by strategic concerns.

Last week, President Al-Sisi met Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Mohamud’s visit to Egypt came in the wake of Ethiopia signing an agreement with Somaliland granting Addis Ababa a port and military base on the Red Sea. During a joint press conference in Cairo following talks between the two, Al-Sisi said that Egypt would help Somalia maintain sovereignty over its national territories.

According to the source who spoke to the Weekly, Cairo’s concerns expand well beyond its unresolved legal dispute with Ethiopia over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and include growing apprehension over the expanded foreign presence around the Red Sea.

By foreign, the source explained, what is meant is any country not directly overlooking the Red Sea. Of the seven Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen — that control over 90 per cent of the Red Sea shoreline, three — Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen — are suffering from acute political instability, leaving them vulnerable to demands from other states to provide military and trade bases.

“I think it is safe to say that the Red Sea now has far too many foreign bases,” the source said.

As a consequence, in parallel to pushing a truce in Gaza, Egypt is pursuing an agreement among Red Sea states to promote greater stability. Cairo has dispatched envoys to all concerned capitals to underline the need for collective work to protect maritime security and promote shared responsibility for security between all countries overlooking the Red Sea.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: