Since the inauguration ceremony of Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud in June, Egypt has been stepping up diplomatic efforts to have more influence in the Horn of Africa country.
In July, Sheikh Mohamud visited Cairo and met with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to discuss the state of their bilateral relations. This included advancing economic and strategic relations, counterterrorism, and supporting the spread of moderate Islam (in keeping with Al-Azhar’s interpretation).
Sherif El-Gebaly, the chairman of the African Affairs Committee in the Egyptian House of Representatives, tells The Africa Report that Mohamud’s election marked an opportunity for Egypt to bypass the block between the two countries allegedly imposed by former president President Mohamed Abdullah ‘Farmaajo’, a close ally of Ankara and Doha. Farmaajo had also built stronger relations with Ethiopia and Eritrea during his time in power.
Void to fill
The lack of Egypt’s presence in Somalia in the last 20 years “gave rise to Turkey and Iran filling this void”, says a security source from the Egyptian administration who is close to diplomatic circles, but asks to remain anonymous. The source cites the large Turkish military presence in Mogadishu and the fact that Somalian soldiers receive training in Turkey.
In August 2020, Turkey’s Ambassador to Mogadishu Mehmet Yilmaz told Anadolu Agency that his country is on track to train one-third of Somali military forces, totalling around 15,000-16,000 personnel, most of them at the Counter-Terrorism Training and Exercise Center in the southwestern province of Isparta.
During their meeting, Sisi asserted Egypt’s readiness to continue providing support to Somalia to build and consolidate state institutions, and train Somali soldiers, officers, politicians, and bureaucrats.
Ambassador Salah Halima, the deputy president of the Egyptian Council for African Affairs, says the Cairo agenda in Somalia is also aimed at “preserving the Arabic and Islamic identity of the country [Somalia], as well as considering Egypt’s national security resulting from the militarisation of the Horn of Africa in light of foreign influences represented by the anti-terrorist forces, [and] multiple foreign military bases”.
Halima refuses to describe the presence of the Turkish influence as a threat, but refers to Libya as an example of “when foreign powers intervene in Africa and the mess they create”.
An ally against GERD and Ethiopia?
Diplomatically, Egypt has been calling for Ethiopia to return to negotiations by international bodies to halt the third filling of the GERD’s reservoir until a legally binding agreement has been signed. The third filling is expected to take place this month and in September.
During the joint press conference between the two presidents, Sisi added that they had agreed to warn against “the danger of unilateral policies in the file of the GERD”, as reported by local media and the Egyptian presidency statements.
The two presidents also agreed, according to Sisi’s statement, on “the imperative of adhering to prior cooperation between the countries bordering the river to ensure that no harm is caused to any of them, in line with the relevant rules of international law”, as per the Egyptian presidency statement.
In an interview with the BBC days after meeting with Sisi, Somalia’s presidential spokesperson Abdel Karim Ali denied that Mahmoud had tackled GERD and Egypt’s water rights during his meeting with his Egyptian counterpart.
Egypt’s foreign ministry has not commented on Ali’s statement.
A security source from the Egyptian administration, who is close to diplomatic circles but asks to remain anonymous, tells The Africa Report that the statement by Somalia’s presidential spokesperson may have been a strategy to minimise pressure from neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Egypt is looking for Somalia’s support in the African Union, hoping that the new administration will shift its bias towards Sudan and Egypt when it comes to GERD
He says the spokesperson’s statement is not intended to deny what took place during the talks, but more so to avoid any harassment from Ethiopia and to send a message that the new president will adopt a neutral policy. The source adds that “Somalia’s role in the [GERD] crisis is not immense and […] Egypt anticipates that the new administration will concentrate its efforts not to drag itself into conflicts with neighbouring countries and to maintain friendly relations.”
Gebaly says Egypt is looking for “Somalia’s support in the African Union, hoping that the new administration will shift its bias towards Sudan and Egypt when it comes to GERD”. However, he sees more points to be scored in securing the passage of ships and the international trade movement in the Red Sea, a crucial foreign currency source for Egypt.
Somalia’s strategic location means it straddles the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab Strait, acting as a secure entrance to Egypt’s Suez Canal.
READ MORE Red Sea Dynamics
The security source adds that the July visit between presidents included security discussions, such as Somalian efforts to counter Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabaab militant group and Egypt’s role in assisting the local security sources in counterterrorism. “Somalia can benefit a lot from Egypt’s experience in fighting terrorism in Sinai, the Western Desert, and the Delta,” the source says.
Al-Shabaab is the most active jihadist group in East Africa in terms of personnel, consistency, and number of operations. In the last two weeks, their operations reached Ethiopia and reportedly killed 17 Ethiopian police officers.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options