Global Information System/Defense & Foreign Affairs
Egypt’s Morsi government has initiated a return to covert war against
Ethiopia, which controls the source of the Blue Nile, Egypt’s and
Sudan’s principal source of water.
The result will almost certainly lead to an increased level of
insecurity in the strategic Red Sea/Suez sea lane and in the upper Nile
riparian states, such as South Sudan, with some impact on global energy
markets. Certainly it promises to see greater instability in the Horn of
Africa at a time when Western media portrayals hint at a return to
stability in, for example, Somalia.
Significant, mounting public unrest in Egypt during May and June 2013
(with more promised), expressing discontent with the economic and
social policies of the government of President Mohammed Morsi caused him
to search for a major foreign distraction — a perceived threat to Egypt
— to turn public attention away from the worsening domestic social and
economic climate. The campaign includes a major media offensive at the
alleged threat, and also included the commitment of major political,
intelligence, and military resources to a trenchant reversal of Egypt’s
brief period of rapprochement with Upper Nile riparian states,
This amounts to a full — even expanded — resumption of the indirect
war to isolate Ethiopia politically and economically and to ensure that
it cannot attract foreign investment and political support. It also
attempts to ensure that Ethiopia’s main avenues for trade, through the
Red Sea ports in Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somaliland, become closed to it.
This, in particular, means that the Egyptian campaign to prevent
recognition of independent Somaliland (former British Somaliland) has
been reinvigorated, and military aid given to Somalia (former Italian
Somaliland) to help overrun the Republic of Somaliland, thus cutting
Ethiopia’s trade link through Somaliland’s port of Berbera.
The discontent in Egypt — and Morsi’s search for a foreign
distraction — coincided with the start of work on Ethiopia’s major Great
Millennium Dam (aka the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam), which some
Egyptians have claimed, without evidence, would take Nile waters away
from Egypt. The coincidence of the timing has proven explosive, although
the Morsi Government had already initiated discreet steps to reescalate
indirect hostilities against Ethiopia.
The Egyptian military knows that Egypt is not in a position — even
allied with neighboring Sudan — to take direct military action against
Ethiopia, but President Morsi had begun returning to the confrontational
approach with Ethiopia which had characterized the former governments
of President Hosni Mubarak. The move away from this approach, which had
failed to gain any traction against Ethiopia or other upstream riparian
states, began under the postMubarak military Government of Field Marshal
Mohammed Hussein Tantawi with an initiative aimed at achieving
Morsi, on assuming power in Egypt, discovered during his visit to
Addis Ababa for an African Union summit in 2011, that the Great
Millennium Dam project would proceed, although Ethiopian officials
assured Egypt that this would not interfere with the flow of water to
Egypt. The dam was expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of power, and its
reservoir was scheduled to start filling in 2014.
An independent panel of experts concluded that the dam would not
significantly affect downstream Sudan and Egypt, but Younis Makhyoun
(Zakaria Younis AbdelHalim Makhyoun), leader of the ultraconservative
Salafist alNour party, said on June 3, that Egypt should back rebels in
Ethiopia or, as a last resort, destroy the dam.
The Morsi Government, in fact, had already begun that action, using
the allied Sudanese Government of President Umar Hasan Ahmad alBashir to
support Ethiopian radical Islamist leaders sitting in exile in
Khartoum. These leaders prompted major anti-government demonstrations to
take place in Addis Ababa in the first days of June. One, on June 1,
involved some 10,000 demonstrators, mostly Muslim, calling for increased
religious freedom, the release of political prisoners, and so on.
[Reports claiming that there were 100,000 demonstrators dramatically
overstated the reality.]
What was significant was that the demonstrations attracted the
support of urban, Christian youth, who saw the demonstration as a chance
to protest against the government. But it was the extreme Islamist
elements which, with considerable Egyptian backing through the Khartoum
connection, made the protests significant. The rally was formally
organized by the secular Semayawi (Blue) Party, which received official
permits for the rally, but the event was coopted by the Islamists,
making it just the event which Cairo had sought.
Not coincidentally, a senior Egyptian Ministry of Defense delegation
arrived in Mogadishu, Somalia, on June 4,, officially to begin
discussions on an Egyptian project to rebuild the headquarters and
offices of the Ministry of Defense of Somalia. However, the Egyptian
delegation made it clear to its hosts that it also intended to equip,
train, and rebuild the Somali Armed Forces, with the intent to support a
Somalian move to assume control of the Republic of Somaliland, to its
North. The independent and internationally recognized Republic of
Somaliland had joined with the former Italian Somaliland to create
Somalia, on June 1, 1960. Following a massive brutalization of
Somaliland by southern “Somalian” forces, Somaliland on May 18, 1991,
withdrew from the union.
The Egyptian Government, however, has, since that time, ensured that
the African Union (AU) and Arab League did not recognize the return to
independence of Somaliland, largely in order to ensure the isolation of,
by now, landlocked Ethiopia, and to limit Ethiopia’s economic viability
and therefore its ability to engage in major projects on the Blue Nile
headwaters. Egypt’s pressure within the (then) Organization for African
Unity (OAU), later the AU, the Arab League, and on its US ally, ensured
that no bid for recognition of Somaliland made headway.
That process was beginning to be reversed when elections in
Somaliland on July 26, 2010, installed President Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo
and the Kulmiye party. Significantly, Silanyo, beset by advanced
diabetes and probable dementia, has relied increasingly on Minister of
Presidency Hersi Ali Haji Hassan (Somali: Xirsi Xaaji Xasan), who is
essentially an ally and front for the salafist jihadi movement,
alShabaab. He has essentially taken control of the government. Thus,
progress by the outgoing Somaliland government with the governments of
the U.S., Britain, and Germany for de facto recognition ended.
Egypt, then, is now advancing on several fronts in its campaign to
isolate Ethiopia: through Somalia; through Sudan; through its
sponsorships via a number of channels of Ethiopian Islamist and other
opposition movements (including the Oromo Liberation Front: OLF); and
via Eritrea (although the Eritrean option has become limited because of
the paralysis of the government there, under the ailing President,
Significantly, Cairo actually has no real national security case on
which to base its new war. There is no evidence that the Ethiopian dam
would constrain Nile water flow to Sudan and Egypt, and, anyway, there
is little Egypt could do, either legally or militarily if the flow was
threatened: other than to bring Ethiopia into a state of chaos.
But the major reason for the Egyptian initiative was, according to
sources in Cairo, to mobilize Egyptian public opinion around President
Morsi. Significantly, however, by posing such a threat to Ethiopia,
Egypt risks actually galvanizing Ethiopian public opinion around the
government in Addis Ababa, and perhaps creating a reason for Ethiopia to
consider using water flow as a weapon against Cairo.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Dessalegn, who was elected as a
stopgap leader following the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in
mid2012, has only a modest power base of his own. But his one option now
may be to do what Meles had been dissuaded from doing before: to
formally recognize the sovereignty of Somaliland. Hailemariam, in May
2013, promised in Parliament to defend Somaliland. Other African states
have promised to recognize Somaliland, but did not want to be the first.
Somaliland’s senior military officials, meanwhile, flew to Addis for
talks on June 5.
The war has begun, but it may not save President Morsi from the
collapsing Egyptian economy, even bigger demonstrations of unrest, and
even opposition to his policies of antagonizing upper Nile states.