Horn of Africa Simmers: Egypt-Somalia Solidarity Counters Ethiopia’s Red Sea Ambitions

Mohamed Samir
8 Min Read

The Horn of Africa, once again, simmers with tension. At the epicentre lies a contested port deal, a landlocked nation’s yearning for maritime access, and the unwavering solidarity between Egypt and Somalia. This complex cocktail threatens to spill over, potentially engulfing the region in a maelstrom of political and military conflict.

Egypt’s Unwavering Stand: A Shield for Somali Sovereignty

Cairo’s strong stance against the Ethiopia-Somaliland port agreement reverberates through the region. President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s unequivocal condemnation of the deal, deeming it “unacceptable,” is a powerful message of support for Somalia’s territorial integrity. This solidarity, cemented during a recent joint press conference with Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud, serves as a shield against Ethiopia’s Red Sea ambitions.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi stressed on Sunday that Egypt stands with Somalia against any threat to its security and stability.

In a joint press conference with Somali President Hassan Sheik Mohamud in Cairo, Al-Sisi said: “Egypt supports Somalia and respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” adding that the agreement between Somaliland and Ethiopia is unacceptable to Egypt and Somalia.

This newfound solidarity between Cairo and Mogadishu presents a united front against Ethiopian ambitions in the region. Egypt, a regional powerhouse with significant military capabilities, serves as a strong deterrent against any potential Ethiopian aggression.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi at the signing of the agreement on 1 January 2024, which sparked Somalia's outrage. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Somaliland President Muse Bihi at the signing of the agreement on 1 January 2024, which sparked Somalia’s outrage. Photograph: Tiksa Negeri/Reuters

Ethiopia’s Sea Access Quest: A Spark Igniting Regional Tensions

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s October 2023 declaration, demanding maritime access through diplomatic means or even force, sent shockwaves through the region.

Abiy Ahmed, once lauded as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for his efforts in ending a decades-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea, now finds himself embroiled in a different kind of battle – one for access to the Red Sea. His recent remarks, invoking a 19th-century warrior‘s claim to the Red Sea as Ethiopia’s “natural boundary,” have sent ripples of alarm through the Horn of Africa, raising concerns about a potential regional conflict.

His invocation of a historical Ethiopian claim to the Red Sea added fuel to the fire, raising fears of potential conflict. The controversial port agreement with Somaliland, granting Ethiopia access to the Berbera port, was seen by many as a first step towards realizing this ambition, albeit at the expense of Somali sovereignty.

Somalia’s Swift Retaliation: Defending Territorial Integrity

Mogadishu’s swift nullification of the deal, branding it an “illegal Memorandum of Understanding,” showcased its unwavering commitment to preserving its territorial integrity. President Mohamud’s decisive action resonated with widespread condemnation within and beyond Somalia, highlighting the fragility of the region’s geopolitical landscape.

Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud visited Eritrea in early January, seeking strengthened ties and fostering cooperation amid rising tensions in the Horn of Africa. The visit follows a controversial agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland, granting Ethiopia access to the Red Sea through Berbera port.

Members of an Amhara militia gather in the village of Adi Arkay, northeast of Gondar, Ethiopia, on July 14, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Members of an Amhara militia gather in the village of Adi Arkay, northeast of Gondar, Ethiopia, on July 14, 2021. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Ethiopia’s Internal Turmoil: A Complicating Factor

Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, faces a mounting crisis as Abiy Ahmed seeks to forge a new unifying narrative in the wake of failed political initiatives and escalating regional tensions.

Abiy’s “Medemer” campaign, launched in 2018 with the aim of fostering national unity after decades of ethnic strife, has fallen short. Now, amid a climate of political violence, hunger, and worsening religious tensions, the Prime Minister appears to be pivoting towards a potent nationalist narrative.

This comes as anxieties swirl around the Amhara region, Ethiopia’s second-largest state. In August 2023, clashes between federal troops and Amhara forces resisting disarmament orders erupted, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency and place the region under military control.

The Amhara crisis has sparked fears of a wider conflict, given its proximity to the war-torn Tigray region, the epicenter of Ethiopia’s brutal civil war that ended just a year ago. The war, marked by ethnic undertones, massacres, and mass displacements, has left deep scars on the nation.

“Forced displacements and massacres targeting ethnic Amharas have continued under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s watch since 2018,” the article notes, highlighting the precarious ethnic dynamics at play.

Further compounding the challenges, Ethiopia in 2019 held the dubious distinction of topping the global list of countries with internally displaced people, surpassing even war-torn nations like Syria, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

The Tigray war itself remains a festering wound. Launched in November 2020, the conflict has dragged on for two years, leaving its mark through alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Estimates suggest over half a million civilians have perished, while rape, displacement, and starvation have ravaged the region. Tigray remains under a de facto siege, cut off from vital land and air connections, communication avenues, banking services, and humanitarian supplies.

Moving Forward: A Delicate Dance of Diplomacy

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s recent nationalist rhetoric has raised alarm bells both within the country and across the wider Horn of Africa region. Critics warn that his bold language, intended to galvanize domestic support, could instead backfire spectacularly, leading to heightened tensions, escalated conflicts, and further strain on Ethiopia’s already fragile economy and military.

Abiy’s pronouncements have put neighboring Eritrea on high alert, with reports of troop movements near the shared border. This comes against the backdrop of a continued political discord within Ethiopia itself.

Navigating the intricate web of regional tensions requires a delicate dance of diplomacy. Egypt’s firm backing for Somalia offers a counterpoint to Ethiopia’s assertive stance, but finding a peaceful resolution hinges on addressing internal issues and building mutual trust. The international community must play a constructive role in facilitating dialogue and encouraging de-escalation before the Horn of Africa plunges into further turmoil.

The future of the Horn of Africa remains uncertain. Will diplomacy prevail, or will the region succumb to the forces of conflict? Only time will tell, but one thing is clear: Egypt’s unwavering support for Somalia, Ethiopia’s internal struggles, and the haunting legacy of the Tigray war are critical pieces of the puzzle that will determine the fate of this volatile region.

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Mohamed Samir Khedr is an economic and political journalist, analyst, and editor specializing in geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. For the past decade, he has covered Egypt's and the MENA region's financial, business, and geopolitical updates. Currently, he is the Executive Editor of the Daily News Egypt, where he leads a team of journalists in producing high-quality, in-depth reporting and analysis on the region's most pressing issues. His work has been featured in leading international publications. Samir is a highly respected expert on the Middle East and Africa, and his insights are regularly sought by policymakers, academics, and business leaders. He is a passionate advocate for independent journalism and a strong believer in the power of storytelling to inform and inspire. Twitter: https://twitter.com/Moh_S_Khedr LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mohamed-samir-khedr/
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