Written by Evgeny Satanovsky; Originally appeared at VPK, translated by AlexD exclusively for SouthFront
Contemporary Egypt is the subject of sharp discord between Arabian monarchies. Some try to influence it; others try to bring down its economy or the ruling regime. In addition to Egypt, they fight each other over influence in Syria, Libya and Yemen.
For the past ten years, Egypt is the key country in the Arab world. The Egyptian Armed Forces are the largest and most powerful among Arab states. The population of Egypt is several times larger than any of them. Its geopolitical position at a junction of Africa and Asia is the most important one in the region, even if we forget about the Suez Canal. Egypt has complicated relations with near and far neighbours – the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Libya, Sudan and South Sudan, Eretria and Ethiopia. We will look into a few of these topics, basing on materials from experts of the Middle East Institute A.A. Bystrov, P.P. Rybov and V. Chernin.
Credits of Distrust
Russia enters as co-sponsor in the Middle Eastern “peace process”. Ideas periodically appear about her intensification in the mediation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In Moscow events are held (without any success), designed to achieve the restoration of the “Palestinian unity”, the symbol of which became the opposition Fatah and Hamas (Ramallah and Gaza). Meanwhile with the Palestinian Authority’s neighbours, not only Israel, but Egypt, Jordan as well, relations with local Palestinian organisations are more complicated which makes the restoration of the unity and the construction of the Palestinian statehood impossible.
Presently between Egypt and the Palestinian Authority (PA), headed by Mahmoud Abbas, relations are cool, arising after the coming to power of President Mohamed Morsi, president of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Islamist organisation Muslim Brotherhood, close to Hamas which controls the Gaza strip, the main opponent of Fatah on the Palestinian political arena. After his overthrow on June 2, 2013 and the coming to power in Egypt of President Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and treating Hamas with hostility, relations between the PA and Egypt began to improve.
Relations cooled once again after President al-Sisi tried to help Muhammad Dahlan (Abu Faid), the former head of the security services of the PA and Hamas enemy, to return to central positions of Palestinian politics. However for Abbas Dahlan is an enemy since November 2010 when he unsuccessfully tried with a group of highly placed functionaries of Fattah to sideline the head of the PA. In 2011, Dahlan was expelled from Fattah and emigrated to the United Arab Emirates. In 2014 the PA court sentenced him in absentia to two years of imprisonment for “spreading defamatory rumours” on Palestinian authorities. In 2015 Dahlan received citizenship in Serbia, and it was announced in 2016 that the PA courts found him guilty in the theft of 16 million dollars and sentenced him in absentia to another three years of imprisonment. The courts of Jordan also found Dahlan guilty in the theft of the PA’s money. Abbas did not respond to calls from Al-Sisi to reconcile with Dahlan. It looks like this was the beginning of a new crisis in the relations between the PA and Egypt.
Recently Egypt did not allow the member of the Central Committee of Fattah Jibril Rajoub (Abu Rami), who is close to Abbas, to enter Egyptian territory. The border guards did not allow Rajoub to leave the Cairo airport building, where he landed from Amman. He was forced back into the airplane and return to Jordan. The Egyptians refused to give any explanations to the PA on this occasion. The Israeli press reported with links to the Persian Gulf countries media that a few weeks back Abbas received from Cairo a “black list” of names whom President Al-Sisi will not allow to enter Egypt with links with the political crisis in the PA. At the top of this list are the names of Rajoub and others close to the head of the PA of Fattah functionaries.
Another reason for the cooling of relations is the desire of President Al-Sisi to fulfill Cairo’s agreement to control Hamas in the Gaza strip. Egypt needs its help for the war against Salafist fighters in the Sinai Peninsula, affiliated with the Islamic State (IS, organisation banned in Russia). Hamas has deployed military formations at the borders of the Gaza strip with the Egyptian Armed Forces to disrupt ISIS militants in launching rockets.
The London newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported by citing sources in the Gaza strip that the Hamas security forces detained organisation activists, identifying with IS. More than 550 civilians in the Gaza strip appeared in front of the Hamas military court. They were accused of producing rockets and firing them into the Israeli territory (Israel and the PA do not hide their cooperation in their fight against IS in the Sinai). The security forces of Hamas continue to search for suspects collaborating with IS in Gaza. Meanwhile cooperation between Hamas and Egypt is not all smooth, they do not trust each other, regardless of common tactical interests.
Cascade of Conflicts
In the near future, a real explosion threatens North Eastern African relations between Egypt and Ethiopia, which is building a hydroelectric unit on the Blue Nile. The dam project “Revival” is half completed. As writes “Egypt Independent”, Debretsion Gebremichael the Minister of Communications and Information Technology of Ethiopia announced this. “The construction of the dam is 56% completed. The energy receiving devices, transmission stations and power lines are built. Two turbines of 375 megawatts each need to be installed”.
The construction of the large Ethiopian dam “Revival” on the Blue Nile, consisting of 15 radial-axial hydraulic units, began in 2011. According to the project plans the capacity of the hydroelectric station, which will be presented as a cascade of four dams, will consist of 5250 megawatts. Its realisation provoked a conflict between Addis Ababa and Cairo, which fears that water quotas will decrease for Egypt which they are received from the Nile from the lower reaches of the river (for six years the reservoir was at 30 percent capacity, then 20 percent, while reducing power generation by 40 percent). The Egyptian authorities base their claims on the regional agreements of 1929 and 1959 where Cairo’s right to veto any project that may affect the Egyptian share of the flow of the Nile is prescribed.
According to the agreement of 2010, the countries of the Nile basin received the right to build on this river their projects without the approval of Cairo. After a few rounds of talks, Ethiopia and Egypt were able to reach a formal compromise – the countries signed a declaration, in which the principle of equitable and reasonable utilisation of resources of the Nile was secured without causing harm to the environment and damages to the economic interests of coastal states. Addis Ababa pledged that the realisation of the project “Revival” in the upper Nile will be carried out based on the concerns of Cairo and Khartoum. However Cairo does not trust the signed documents due to the fact that to consider the interests of Egypt and Sudan after the construction of the cascade would be difficult, while the seasonality of the climate would be impossible.
The construction of the “Revival” dam aims to make Ethiopia an exporter of electricity, reorganise and modernise the irrigation structures in the arid sectors of the country. Egyptians are worried and approached Khartoum and Juba with a proposal to modernise their irrigation structures, including through the construction of new channels, in order to minimise the interest of Sudan and South Sudan in the construction of the Ethiopian dam. Egypt continues subversive actions against Ethiopia, trying to derail the realisation of the project, emphasising on scaring potential investors. Because of the shortage of funds, which is a big problem for Addis Ababa, on February 28 under the slogan of saving the project of national wealth it launched a programme of selling Treasury bonds to the population.
In addition to subversive work, which should be noted, needs stimulation through Eritrean separatist Muslim Oromo and Christian Amhara movements and the creation in South Sudan an enclave of Ethiopian dissidents, there are possibilities of creating military bases together with the United Arab Emirates in the soft underbelly of Ethiopia in the territory of Somaliland. This is an allusion to the possibility of bombarding the construction site. Rumours of such negative scenario influence potential investors. At the same time emerges another obstacle for Cairo with the realisation of the diplomatic blockade of the construction plans of the dam “Revival” by the impact on the counties of the Nile basin. The agreement on the division of the Nile waters of 1959 touches not only Egypt and Ethiopia. The participants now are South Sudan, Uganda and Sudan. If a single anti-Egyptian front could be put together opposing the construction of the Great Dam, it would be possible to appeal for arbitration at the Arbitration Court as well as the UN and the African Union. However, Cairo had problems with Khartoum, which repudiated the support of Egyptian position on the question of the revision of the agreement on the division of the Nile waters.
It seems the reason was the cooling of relations between Cairo and Riyadh. The bilateral relations crisis in a few months changed into a strategic partnership in the cold war. Cairo refused to support the Saudi resolution on Syria. Riyadh answered with a refusal to transfer another tranche of financial help for supporting the Egyptian pound. Deliveries to Egypt of Saudi oil at preferential prices were blocked. In answer, Cairo challenged in court the earlier decisions on the transfer to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) the controversial islands of Tiran and Sanafir in the Red Sea. These islands from the 1950s were “under the protection of the Egyptian Army” according to the agreement between the KSA and Egypt. In the development of the territorial dispute Khartoum at the African Union Summit in Addis Ababa on January 30 and 31 announced the creation of a precedent and demanded from Cairo the return of the annexed Sudanese provinces of Halaib and Shalateen.
The move by Khartoum was clearly at Riyadh’s initiative. Sudan after the break with Iran, is among the closest allies of the KSA, takes part in the Arabian Coalition in Yemen (sending 1,200 of its troops) and supporting all Saudi foreign policy initiatives, for which it has financial support. This allows Khartoum to overcome the economic crisis and stabilise the exchange rate of the national currency. In this case the strategy is built from the principle of maximum economic advantage from the alliance with this or another international player. What the United Arab Emirates understood, and who are now handling the Sudanese president, so that he distances himself from the Minister of Defence of the KSA and heir to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, being the main counterpart of Omar Al-Bashir among the Saudi elite and the main problem for Egypt’s relations with Sudan.
During his recent sojourn in the UAE the Sudanese President met with the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahya. In January the UAE transferred to the Sudanese central bank 500 million dollars to support the national currency. On February 6 Khartoum was visited by the delegation headed by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the UAE Hamad Mohammed Rumaithi for consultation with the Sudanese colleague General E. Addavi and President Omar Al-Bashir. The UAE’s Crown Prince’s decision was announced on the allocation of the next tranche of 500 million dollars, after reaching an agreement on the direction of new contingents of the Sudanese military in the area of responsibility of the UAE in South Yemen.
In addition, Omar Al-Bashir confidentially reported that the removal of sanctions from the USA side could be expected in May. Before leaving office President Obama weakened the sanctions against Sudan, introduced in November 2007 against the country as terrorism sponsor. In gratitude Omar Al-Bashir through the brothers Abdurrahman and Issam transferred the use of a few hundreds of hectares of fertile soil to the UAE for free. And for Abu Dhabi, strategic partner of Cairo, all these moves must be considered as moves of the Egypt-UAE team.
The rivalry between Riyadh and Abu Dhabi unfolds in a broader format, with its dimension overtaking the traditional conflict of the “Salafi team” of the Gulf countries, between Riyadh and Doha. In addition to Egypt, Libya, Djibouti, Eretria, Sudan and Somalia it clearly manifested in Yemen, where their opposition of February 13-14 took a military character, despite the fact that both countries of the Arabian Coalition form the warring base against the Houtis and the forces of ex-President Saleh. While the conflict is between the KSA and the internationally recognised President of Yemen A.M. Hadi on one side and the UAE on the other, they were unable to keep it localised. The battles started when the forces under the command of the son of A.M. Hadi Nasser tried to take the Aden airport. His protection from the South Yemeni Harakat, controlled by the UAE, resisted. The UAE Air Force and mercenaries joined him later from the private security company Blackwaters. The airport stayed under the control of the UAE.
Attempts by the world to resolve the conflict through urgent three-sided negotiations in Riyadh, then in Abu Dhabi, came to nothing. Riyadh’s mediation, which sent the commander of the Special Forces to the UAE, did not work out. On February 27 another attempt was made for a compromise, A.M. Hadi was himself in Abu Dhabi. He brought a Saudi approved plan, providing joint protection of the airport with forces from the “legitimate government” and the pro-Emirate militia. The intermediaries were the American diplomats in the UAE. They attended the meeting of A.M. Hadi with the Crown Prince of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahya. The diplomats, included in this round of consultation at the request of Riyadh, noted the insurmountable difference of the positions of the parties.
The incident was the result of the different approaches of the KSA and UAE in the internal Yemeni settlement. For the UAE the main priority is the strengthening of the union of the southern Yemeni tribal group Bakil, its maximum consolidation and government separation of South Yemen under its aegis. The president and protégé of the KSA A.M. Hadi is considered by Abu Dhabi as a stumbling block in achieving this task. It is important to understand that the reason for the crisis around the Aden airport was Hadi’s plan to place, with Riyadh’s help, under the control (after the establishment of such by the Emiratis over the port of Moha) an important channel of arms contraband (primarily Ukrainian, bought by the Hadi government with Saudi money) and goods in high demand. The UAE from the beginning of 2017 do not pass arms shipments through the airport, justifying this by the fact that it goes to re-sale to countries in Africa and to the strengthening of the military potential of the Islamist party “Islah”, which positions itself as the Yemeni equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, considered in the UAE one of the main threats to its national security.
Controlling in this way two important contraband channels (the Yemeni market depends on them by up to 70 percent), the UAE cut Hadi from important financial sources, the presence of which is the determining factor in the viability of one or another Yemeni politician. This brings to zero Riyadh’s attempts to bring Hadi to an independent financial footing. It is the presence of money, the visiting card of any Yemeni politician. Hence Riyadh’s intentions to breathe life into the alternative organ from the Central Bank of Yemen (which is under Houti control) in Aden and attempts to establish control with Hadi over the important contraband sources.
The UAE blocks this, not trusting in the preservation of one Yemen under the auspices of Hadi. Their priority is the resolution of the local problem and strengthening and guaranteeing of its presence in the South of the country. Riyadh needs a handheld president who will be able to bring to the end the process of weakening the disputed territories of Najran and Amran in favour of the KSA. By agreement such transfer must be authorised by three presidents of the unified Yemen. So far only A.A. Saleh has the authority.
The USA noted the different aspirations of the two main countries, both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In this regard, the US State Department have no options. On the one hand, President Trump took the path on the revival of the strategic partnership with the KSA. Previous steps of such “partnership” ended up with the creation of Al-Qaida and the disappointment of American security forces in the interaction with Riyadh in the fight with jihadism in Iraq and Afghanistan. The path of convergence with the KSA can only be defined with the logic of anti-Iranian mood of the new American administration. But in any case the State Department needs to work on the Yemini direction line of Riyadh-A.M. Hadi.
On the other hand, Trump in contrast to Obama is negative towards the Muslim Brotherhood. This implies an orientation in Yemen towards the UAE. The task of the United States is fighting jihadists and Al-Qaida of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but according to the former head of the CIA George Brennan, Riyadh here appears as the unreliable ally. All this determines the long-term policies of the US in Yemen as ambiguous, without an explicit roll to one side of the conflict, while the equidistance in the resolution of the main problem of containment of radical Islam. This largely leaves the situation at the discretion of the local players and the alliances in which the axis of the UAE, Egypt will become in the near future one of the most influential players. And not only in Yemen, Libya or in the African Horn, but in the Arabian and Islamic world as well. But such players as the KSA, Iran, the team of Turkey and Qatar, do not intend to give in.
Evgeny Satanovsky, President of the Middle East Institute