Egypt-Ethiopia-Somaliland: New Strategic Maneuvering

Egypt-Ethiopia-Somaliland: new strategic manoeuvring
President Al-Sisi of Egypt and PM Abiy of Ethiopia

Somalilandsun: Egypt has long been known for its opposition to Somaliland’s quest for independence.

As a dominant political force both at the AU and Arab League, Egypt has blocked all AU-led initiatives about the case of Somaliland. A good example was the 2005 AU-driven fact-finding mission led by the former Deputy Chairperson of the African Commission, H.E Patrick Mazimhaka, whose findings were that the case of Somaliland had to be seen from a historical perspective and that the AU should find a special method to deal with this outstanding African issue; Egypt blocked this when it was presented to the heads of the state and governments.

Egypt has long been an adversary of Somaliland’s long-awaited independence because of two main driving factors: Egypt’s dependence on the Nile and Ethiopia’s growing economic power, both of which require Egypt to take preventive measures against Ethiopia’s growing ambition regarding the Nile. As part of its strategic calculus, Egypt has long been a supporter of the unity of Somaliland and Somalia to counterbalance Ethiopia’s hegemonic regional ambitions.

On the other hand, Ethiopia’s ruling party under governments preceding those led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed maintained a close, non-formal diplomatic relationship with Somaliland. With Ethiopia, Somaliland shares a significant border and has a trade relationship that rivals its other neighbors combined, Djibouti and Somalia.

In addition, cross-border trade and security cooperation between the two countries have been the foundational factors for their diplomatic relationship for the last three decades. For Somaliland, Ethiopia is its gateway to the rest of the world, and a silent ally for its quest for international recognition. However, with the election of the new prime minister, and a new regional integration process led by Abiy, the President of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmajo,’ and Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki, the Ethiopian alliance was about to change, and Somaliland was pushed to the sidelines.

President of the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) Mohammed Abdullahi Mohammed ‘Farmajo,’ Eritrean President Isaias Afeworki, and Ethiopian PM Abi Ahmed

On request from FGS, Ethiopia relegated its diplomatic relationship with Somaliland by not appointing its diplomatic representative to its Liaison Office in Hargeisa, a sign that Addis Ababa had changed its policy towards Somaliland and Somalia.  For Somalia, Abiy was a good friend and ally, and Somaliland felt that its long-time partner has abandoned it and sided with its rival in Mogadishu.

With the growing dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt on the GERD, Somaliland has become an important player for both Ethiopia and Egypt.

In July 2020, a high-level Egyptian delegation arrived in Hargeisa for talks with Somaliland government. In a press statement, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Liban Yusuf Osman, said that Egypt and Somaliland had discussed bilateral trade and investment in areas of livestock and fisheries. But the real story behind the Egyptian visit in the midst of its escalating dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile waters is yet to be disclosed.

It was reported that the Egyptian and Somaliland officials had agreed to set up offices in Hargeisa and Cairo. For Egypt, establishing a physical presence gives it a vantage point to closely watch Ethiopia, and for Somaliland to have Egypt present in its territories is signal of Somaliland’s disgruntlement over Ethiopia’s Mogadishu-focused policy.

Both Egypt and Ethiopia have long been interested to have a naval base in Zaila, Somaliland’s historical coast town.

For Ethiopia, Zaila would serve as an alternative to its dependence on Djibouti’s port and also prevent Egypt from having a physical presence on its doorstep. For the last two decades, Ethiopia has been keen to sway the Somaliland government to lease to Zaila in exchange for more trade and formal diplomatic recognition. But Somaliland viewed this as a national security threat, fearing that Ethiopia would use gunboat diplomacy to annex parts of its territory to gain permanent access to sea; a red line in Somaliland’s sovereignty over its territory.

Somaliland and Egyptian officials pose after meeting in Hargeisa

By contrast, Egypt is interested to lease a naval base in Zaila, ostensibly to safeguard sea lines of communication to the Suez Canal, but really as a deterrence to Ethiopia’s growing influence in the Horn of Africa.

With Egypt establishing a diplomatic relationship with Somaliland, Addis Ababa has realized it had made a gross strategic mistake in neglecting Somaliland’s interests.

L8tr  9Consequently, on 21 July, Abiy sent a high-level delegation led by Finance Minister Ahmed Shide to Hargeisa. It was agreed that Ethiopia should resume its normal diplomatic relationship with Somaliland by sending its ambassador to Hargeisa. This new engagement of Ethiopia with Somaliland is presumably to prevent perceived Egyptian interests in Somaliland.

The Ethio-Egyptian dispute over the GERD has worked in the favor for Somaliland: it has shown the Ethiopians that Somaliland’s geostrategic location cannot be ignored, that Ethiopia’s national interests lie with Somaliland even as Abiy has courted Farmaajo, and that Ethiopia’s regional strategic competitors would establish diplomatic relations with Somaliland should Ethiopia fail to balance its relationship between Somaliland and Somalia.

Continue to read entirely the Article