President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi meets with Eritrean President  Isaias Afwerki in Cairo - Press Photo President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi meets with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki in Cairo - Press Photo

OPINION: Dimensions and implications of the Eritrean President’s visit to Cairo

Tue, Jan. 16, 2018
CAIRO – 16 January 2018: President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi received his Eritrean counterpart, Isaias Afwerki, on January 9 during the latter’s two-day visit to Cairo in which he was accompanied by a high-rank delegation which included Yemane Gebreab, his political advisor, and Osman Saleh, the Eritrean foreign affairs minister.

Security issues were the center of the talks between the two presidents, where they stressed on the security of the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa (Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti) regions in regards to the security challenges of the present and the future. In addition, they also discussed the relations between Egypt and Eritrea and the ways to develop them.

Outcomes of the visit:
President Afwerki’s visit to Cairo comes as a continuation of President Sisi’s approach as well as that of Egypt’s foreign policy whereby Egyptian relations with various African countries are strengthened and fortified, thusly aiding in fortifying Egypt’s place in Africa both regionally and internationally.

The visit brought to light the fundamentals of the relations between Cairo and Asmara as the two presidents affirmed their desire to keep intact the coordination and consultation between the two countries. The two presidents also affirmed the congruence of their stances on various security-related issues in the Horn of Africa, and they discussed Asmara’s role and its implications on the security of the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb, one of the main windows of Egyptian national security. These issues were confirmed during the Eritrean president’s visit and they are outlined in details as follows:

Egypt’s position:
President Sisi stressed that Egypt is paying great attention to reinforcing Egyptian-Eritrean relations in all fields, in addition to establishing a sustainable partnership between the two countries in order to execute a number of strategic projects in the agriculture, electricity, health and commerce sectors, plus the animal and fish wealth sector which is distinguishable in Eritrea. That is also in addition to other strategic projects such as the continuation of technical support programs offered to Asmara by the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development.

In terms of security, both countries’ stances on the national security issues in the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa are congruent, with both having the desire to make peace and render stability in order to be able to fend off common threats, the most dangerous of which being terrorism.

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Eritrea’s position:
President Afwerki expressed his country’s high regard to the historical relationship and the prolonged strategic cooperation with Egypt, and he praised Egypt’s leading role in the region and its interest in pushing for the development, security and stability of Africa. Afwerki also praised the technical support Egypt is offering to Eritrea, and the mutual cooperation between the two countries in international assemblies.

Distinguished relations:
Relations between Egypt and Eritrea are among the most distinguished in Africa, and can be described as a strategic alliance that is founded on mutual respect and non-interference in the affairs of other countries. Both countries enjoy multi-faceted relations that span more than five decades.

Historical dimension: Cairo was one of the first countries to support the revolutionary movement in Eritrea. In 1954, Cairo established the first radio station for the Eritrean Evolution, and in 1955, an Eritrean student union was formed in Cairo under the name of the Charitable Organization for Eritreans. Cairo, moreover, was the headquarters and the birthplace of the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1960, followed by the Eritrean Club in Cairo in 1964.

The Ministry of Higher Education also granted separate scholarships to Eritrean students than those granted to Ethiopian students, and Egypt in the mid 1970s supported the proposition of Eritrean self-governance within a federal framework with Ethiopia.

After the independence of Eritrea on May 24, 1991, Egypt was one of the first countries to recognize Eritrea as an independent state and to establish diplomatic relations with Asmara, and soon after, in 1993, the Egyptian embassy in Asmara was opened. Egypt also had a prominent role to play in the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict (1998-2000).

Security dimension: Eritrea is an important strategic neighbor for Egypt, being one of the influential African countries with its coasts stretching more than 1,000 kilometers on the Red Sea, which allows it to control Egypt’s southern entrance. Eritrea is also situated on the mouth of Bab-el-Mendeb strait in Yemen, and thus lies opposite to Saudi Arabia’s coasts on the Red Sea.

Eritrea shares land borders with Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti, and this explains why Asmara is an active and an important agent in the security of the Red Sea, which is generally one of the fundamental national security circles for Egypt, the Gulf and Africa. Furthermore, Eritrea represents a strategic depth for Egypt in Africa, especially as far as Egyptian relations with the Nile Basin Countries are concerned.

Political Dimension: Eritrean President Afwerki had supportive stances for Egypt’s political and diplomatic moves in the region, especially the ones related to the Nile Basin. In most international assemblies, Asmara has supported Cairo’s positions.

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Afwerki visited Egypt four times, three of which were in the past four years; the first time he visited Egypt was in 1993, then again in 2014, becoming the first African president to visit Cairo after the inauguration of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi as president; and then again in 2016. The two countries also care to continuously coordinate their positions in international assemblies since they are both members in the African Union, the Nile Basin Initiative and the United Nations, in addition to Eritrea’s state as a non-member observer in the Arab League.

Economic dimension: Egyptian products in the Eritrean market sometimes amass up to 60 percent and are well-liked by the Eritrean citizen. In addition, Egypt exhibiting its products in Eritrea is probably the most successful mechanism of trade exchange with the country, for Egypt has created five exhibitions since Eritrea’s independence, the last of which was in July 2008. There are many other economic fields that can be developed between Cairo and Asmara, such as mining, energy, medicine and health, in addition to drilling wells, building dams, storing rain water, and using greenhouse technology in farming.

Common challenges:
There are numerous political and security challenges shared by Egypt and Eritrea, and the two countries have to continue their consultation and coordination efforts to face such challenges of which some are:

Security of the Red Sea: The Red Sea and its bordering states are facing numerous challenges that they have never faced before, such as the dominion of the Iran-backed Houthi militias at the Yemeni side of Bab-el-Mendeb Strait, the Turkish military presence after Ankara took administrative control of the Sudanese island of Suakin on the Red Sea coasts of east Sudan, and the Israeli presence on its coasts through the Israeli port of Eilat in south Israel.

All of these factors are threats for the security of the Red Sea bordered countries, Egypt and Eritrea included. Therefore, the Red Sea is no longer an ‘Arab sea’ because the rising regional states are bent on manipulating its security for their interests which conflict with those of their Arab and African counterparts.

The fight against terrorism: as there are many security threats which forebode the escalation of tension in the Horn of Africa region, the first of which is perhaps the presence of terrorist organizations that have destroyed Iraq and Syria, such as the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda, which are looking for a new habitat to destroy and which might find it in the Horn owing to its geographical nature and its proximity to Libya which, according to intelligence, is confirmed to foster IS factions. This probable new habitat for IS represents a threat to the countries of the region and necessitates continuous security collaboration to thwart the attempts of these organizations.

Military presence: Countries of the Horn of Africa are witnessing numerous forms of foreign military presence; China opened a military base in Djibouti in 2017, and so did Turkey who opened a base in Somalia in the same year. This military presence represents a security challenge for the region’s states, not to mention piracy operations which threaten marine traffic in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Regional competition: Some Ethiopian and Sudanese circles propagate the idea that the reinforcement of the Egyptian-Eritrean relations will be targeted against them, and that Cairo is seeking to create an African axis against Khartoum and Addis Ababa, especially since Afwerki’s visit to Cairo coincided with that of Imad Eldin Adawi, the Sudanese army’s Chairman of the Joint Operations Staff, to Addis Ababa. However, this is far from being true because Afwerki’s visit was scheduled before the present tension between Asmara and Khartoum broke out in the beginning of January 2018 as a result of Sudan’s mobilization of its military forces in Kassala, a Sudanese province on the borders of Eritrea, following Sudanese President Omer al-Bashir’s announcement of a state of emergency in the province and closing all crossings with Eritrea.

Sources in Khartoum affirm that the objective of the Sudanese measures is to curb the activity of smuggler gangs that trade in humans, goods, drugs and weapons, and that such measures are taken every now and then to control such gangs. Some sources also pointed out the probability that the Ethiopian prime minister could be visiting Cairo soon to look into the Renaissance Dam issue.

To conclude, Eritrean President Afwerki’s visit to Cairo has launched a strategic alliance between the two countries, especially since the common security challenges and threats that Cairo and Asmara are facing together necessitate the continuation of their mutual consultations and collaboration, the matter which can realize the national interests of both countries in addition to establishing security and peace in the Horn of Africa.

This article was originally published in Arabic on Al Siyassa Al Dawliya Magazine
Mona Soliman is a political science researcher.
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