Ethiopia – Tigray: What does Egypt stand to gain or lose from the one-year war?

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Ethiopia’s Tigray: New frontier for regional interests

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Friday, 5 November 2021 20:21, updated on Thursday, 25 November 2021 18:12

egypt ethiopia
Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, shakes hands with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in Cairo, Egypt in 2018. (MENA via AP)

As Ethiopian officials continue to claim that foreign forces have fought alongside Tigray fighters in recent battles in the Amhara region, questions arise about how Egypt could benefit from the ongoing conflict that has claimed thousands of lives. There is also the question of if the Egyptian state has been supporting dissenting forces.

This is part 3 of a 5-part series

In 2016 and 2021, Ethiopia blamed Egypt for providing financial support and training for militants with the agenda of “undermining the country’s stability”.

However, a *diplomat at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry who served several tours in Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia, before being stationed in Cairo, tells The Africa Report that the situation in Ethiopia is very complicated. “Stability cannot be predicted, even in the long run.”

In the year since the Tigray war began, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and an allied rebel group regained territory after they recently announced the seizure of three strategic towns in Amhara region, a development that could change the course of the conflict.

No Egyptian boots will touch Ethiopia’s territory, but rather what is taking place is logistical support to opposition movements against the Ethiopian regime.

“The conflict in Tigray might benefit Egypt in two ways. It might delay the repercussions of the GERD [Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam], and, along with international pressure, the conflict might force the Ethiopian government to return to the negotiating table with a less stubborn mindset,” says the diplomat.

Upper hand in GERD discussions via TPLF

Egypt, accompanied by Sudan, believes GERD will cut their historical dependence on their share of Nile water.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had said in 2020 that he understood the concerns of Egyptians over fears from the the dam describing them as “legitimate and natural” but warned the media against making “threats” of military action.

Despite the fact that the Egyptian army held joint drills with the Sudanese military dubbed ‘Guardians of the Nile’, Sisi ruled out through media statements any military action to settle the GERD crisis asserting that diplomacy is the only solution.

But a retired General and lecturer at the Egyptian Nasser Military Academy – established and run by the country’s Defence Ministry – tells The Africa Report that Cairo does entertain military options when it comes to dealing with the GERD crisis.

“No Egyptian boots will touch Ethiopia’s territory, but rather what is taking place is logistical support to opposition movements against the Ethiopian regime,” he says.

The retired General cited Egypt’s rejection of the sale that Turkey made to Ethiopia to provide Addis Ababa with armed drones. “That rejection can be argued to prevent the Ethiopian regime from acquiring technology to counter the insurgents.”

The source named the TPLF, describing it as “the force that will exhaust the Ethiopian regime and distract it from its plans to complete the GERD which threatens the water security of Egypt and Sudan.”

Support for TPLF

In the tightly controlled Egyptian press, reporting on the military advances of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and other allied rebel groups is relatively open.

Although Egypt has never publicly showed support for anti-Tigray or pro-Tigray sentiment, a look into the pro-state media and pro-military social media groups and accounts shows support of TPLF advances. For example, the pro-state media figure Nashat al-Dihy described the protests in Ethiopia against Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and his government as “Habesha [Abyssinia] Spring”, in reference to the Arab Spring.

“The ultra-nationalist talk of supporting the insurgency to end the Abiy government, is impractical and far from Egypt’s vision to stability and brotherly relations with its African neighbours,” Dihy added.

Asked whether Egypt coordinates with rebels from the Tigray and Oromia, the diplomat says that the Egyptian government has a policy of opening several channels of communication with different parties of interest.

He, however, refuses to comment on whether Egypt’s security apparatuses, namely the General Intelligence Service (GIS) and the National Security Agency, logistically or physically support dissidents in the Tigray.

The Africa Report did contact a GIS official who refused to comment on whether it is supporting militants in the Tigray region.

But, the retired general says he knows of intensive meetings held between the leaders of the security and intelligence services, during which an agreement was reached on how to support the opposition movements of the Ethiopian government.

He adds that Egypt avoided issuing any statements about the conflict in the Tigray region so as not to be accused of interfering in Ethiopia’s internal affairs, as well as not to antagonise the Eritreans who are hostile to the Tigray Defence Force (TDF).

On the field, Egypt has also given the Oromo population, who are not crucial players in the conflict, a platform to voice their agenda.

Abdo an Oromo activist who came to Cairo in 2016, escaping via Sudan says there are coordinations between members of his ethnicity and senior Egyptian security officials, namely the National Security Apparatus (NSA).

He explains that the Oromo community-based organisation in Cairo’s Maadi district, which has become a safe haven for African refugees over the years, has coordinated with police officers on several occasions to “name names” and report on possible agitators or potential jihadists.

“We assert in these meetings that we need the Egyptian government to support the revolution and to encourage different countries to do the same due to Egypt’s influence,” he says.

Abdo adds that the Oromo uprising against the Ethiopian government depends on raising awareness about peaceful protesters who face violent crackdowns. He, along with the other activists demand that the international community “stand by this massive revolution against the Ethiopian regime.”

Some of this coordination include contacting local politicians and activists on the ground in war-torn parts of Ethiopia. However Abdo refuses to indicate what kind of “coordination” goes on between the Egyptian security forces and certain local politicians in Ethiopia.

He and other activists in Egypt are trying to “internationalise the cause and provide content about the conflict in Arabic on social media.”

Although conditions for refugees in Egypt are not always ideal, and many try to escape to Europe for a better life, Abdo says more can be done from Cairo. “I don’t dismiss the sufferings of the Ethiopian community in Egypt…We face harassment by the police and racism from some people, but we have to endure this so that we and our families can return to our nation with pride.”

He adds: “If we [Oromo population] forget about our fight against Abiy Ahmed and only talk about it from Rome and France, we will not achieve any victory.”

Floodgates open to Islamists

While Egypt stands to gain from an intensification of Ethiopia’s civil war, the diplomat does point out a downside. Increased instability could in fact create more problems for the country and its neighbours. “Having a politically stable and an open-minded Ethiopia, that is not affected by war rhetoric, will be a benefit to Sudan and of course, [to] Egypt.”

The veteran diplomat speaks about the fear among Egyptian diplomatic circles of an all-out war between the “conflicting nationalities and tribal loyalties which may lead to more insurgencies, war crimes, and the worst scenario is the rise of ISIS and other jihadists in the area especially with the turmoil in Sudan.”

The Islamic State armed group has been gaining ground in several parts of the continent with fighters returning from Syria, Sudan, Egypt, and Libya finding refuge in Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia. Last month, four suspected IS-linked militants were killed during clashes in a raid Khartoum. 11 suspects of different nationalities were arrested in the attack.

The fighting in Tigray could provide an open door for the Islamist group to secure its base in the Horn region, giving them a chance to spread out into Sudan and then Egypt.

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