Somaliland: Egypt’s Instability Triggers a New Proxy War against Ethiopia and its Allies


By Gregory R. Copley

Somalilandsun -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 Ikhwani Government of Pres. Mohammed Morsi caused the President 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, particularly Ethiopia.

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 re-escalate 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 Pres. Morsi had begun returning to the confrontational approach with Ethiopia which had characterized the former governments of Pres. 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 post-Mubarak military Government of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi with an initiative aimed at achieving negotiated results.

Pres. 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 Abdel-Halim Makhyoun), leader of the ultraconservative Salafist al-Nour party, said on June 3, 2013, 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 Pres. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir 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 2013. One, on June 1, 2013, 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 co-opted 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, 2013, 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 Pres. 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, al-Shabaab. He has essentially taken control of the Government. Thus, progress by the outgoing Somaliland Government with the governments of the US, Britain, and Germany for de facto recognition ended.

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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, Isayas Afewerke).

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 Pres. 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 stop-gap leader following the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi in mid-2012, 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, 2013.

The war has begun, but it may not save Pres. Morsi from the collapsing Egyptian economy, even bigger demonstrations of unrest, and even opposition to his policies of antagonizing upper Nile states.