Egypt and Ethiopia's battle for influence in the Horn of Africa

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7 min read
28 June, 2022
Analysis: Cairo has been developing a strategy to regain influence in the region, but Ethiopia's energy dominance will likely secure its geopolitical hegemony.

The festive atmosphere of newly elected Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s inauguration in early June did little to hide the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, whose prime ministers both attended.

Cairo and Addis Ababa are currently engaged in a struggle over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which Ethiopia says is essential for its development. Egypt fears the dam will reduce its share of Nile waters.

The participation of Egypt’s Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly, on behalf of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, reflected Cairo’s recognition of the importance of the region both in the Nile dam dispute and its own national security.

It also demonstrated Egypt’s attempt to revive its influence in the Horn of Africa and counter Ethiopia’s strategy of courting Cairo’s historical allies.

"The Egyptian strategy aims to counteract anticipated Ethiopian energy hegemony over the region as a result of the Renaissance Dam"

Cairo goes back to the Horn of Africa

Cairo’s high-level participation in Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s inauguration in Mogadishu came following a significant decline in Egypt’s influence in the region in recent years.

The repercussions of this absence were felt in June 2020, when both Somalia and Djibouti rejected an Arab League resolution in favour of Egypt which required Ethiopia to delay filling the dam.

This was followed several months later by a visit from Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki to the dam, the first of its kind by an African president, in a clear message of support following previous criticism of the project.

But Cairo has been developing a multi-dimensional strategy to regain influence in the region. In May last year, Sisi visited Djibouti to urge the importance of reaching a balanced legal agreement on filling and operating the Nile dam which protects the interests of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

In a similar vein, Sisi had a year earlier in 2020 become the first Egyptian president to visit South Sudan, which borders Ethiopia, affirming ties between the two countries.

Politically, these presidential visits illustrate the urgent need sensed by Cairo to clarify its position on a range of issues, foremost of which is related to its water security.

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Despite Egypt's awareness that cooperation between these countries could harm Ethiopian interests, Cairo hopes that they will understand its concerns and support its position at a later stage.

Cairo has also concluded several military and security agreements with Sudan and the Great Lakes countries in east Africa with the same aim.

After the Eritrean-Ethiopia peace agreement of 2018, Egypt embarked upon the establishment of the Berenice air and naval base located on the Red Sea in the southeast of the country.

Inaugurated in 2020 to much fanfare, the project cannot be separated from Ethiopia’s pledge in 2018 to rebuild the naval capabilities of the Ethiopian army.

The following year, a foundation stone was laid for the construction of a naval training centre at Bishoftu, with French supervision and training.

Although landlocked, Ethiopia had signed a deal to take a stake in the port of Djibouti.

ethiopia dam gerd
Cairo and Addis Ababa are currently engaged in a struggle over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia says is essential for its development. [Getty]

Building renewable energy projects

Supporting the construction of renewable energy projects is one of the most important axes of the Egyptian strategy in the Horn of Africa to build a foothold that will pave the way for geopolitical influence in the region.

In 2018, Egypt announced its approval of financing to establish three power plants in Eritrea, with a capacity of 4 megawatts, and an agreement to assign the Egypt-based Arab Organisation for Industrialisation to implement the project, with a value of more than $10 million.

While work is underway to inaugurate a solar power plant with a capacity of two megawatts in Somalia at a cost of $4.5 million, two solar power plants are also being established in Djibouti at a cost of approximately $26 million.

Most of these projects were sponsored by grants in cooperation between Egyptian ministries and government agencies.

This type of activity indicates Cairo's desire to use energy as an entry point to strengthen the relationship with the countries of the region, which suffer from severe electrical poverty.

For example, according to data from the World Bank for 2020, only 32.2% of Somalia’s rural population has access to electricity, and the percentage is even lower for Djibouti at 24.8%.

Looking ahead, the Egyptian strategy aims to counteract anticipated Ethiopian energy hegemony over the region as a result of the Renaissance Dam.

"The dynamism of Ethiopian foreign policy has succeeded in using multiple military, economic, developmental, and political tools to build supportive regional alliances"

How Egypt retreated and Ethiopia advanced

Through these plans, Cairo is trying to restore its ‘lost paradise’ in East Africa and change the rules of the game set by Ethiopia, which involved forming deep alliances with regional countries.

The 2018 Eritrea-Ethiopia Peace Agreement established a firm alliance between the two countries and cut off the path for Cairo, whose relations with Asmara reached their peak between 1998-2018.

Over the years, Egypt has always viewed Eritrea as an instrument of Ethiopia and bet on a renewed outbreak of border disputes between the two countries which could hinder the completion of the dam.

In 2013 and 2014, for example, there were several sabotage attempts targeting the construction of the dam by Ethiopian opposition forces based in Eritrea.

In Somalia, the absence of an effective Egyptian and Arab role in resolving the country’s chronic crises created a vacuum that Ethiopia filled, as Mogadishu became dependent on Addis Ababa's forces in the face of the extremist al-Shabab movement.

Moreover, Addis Ababa built close relations with the separatist regions of Puntland and Somaliland, which turned it into an indispensable mediator for the central government to deal with issues concerning the two regions.

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Economically, plans were drawn up to develop ties between the two countries through joint investment in four Somali seaports, so that landlocked Ethiopia would benefit from the extensive Somali shores.

Addis Ababa has also used the water card to pressure Mogadishu through establishing projects on the Shabelle River, which is considered along with the Juba River, both originating from the Ethiopian plateau, the main source of life in southern Somalia.

Ethiopia and Djibouti have also maintained close political, economic, and military relations. The port of Djibouti, for example, is a vital lifeline for the huge Ethiopian market, with 95% of imports and exports passing through it after Eritrean ports were closed to Addis Ababa after the 1998-2000 war.

In addition to cooperation in the field of electric energy, the two countries have been linked with infrastructure projects such as the 752-kilometre railway.

Ethiopia also supplies Djibouti with water through a project that was launched in 2017 and aims to deliver fresh water from the Ethiopian city of Adigala to the Ali Sobeih region in Djibouti, by pumping an estimated 104,000 m3 per day.

The dynamism of Ethiopian foreign policy has succeeded in using multiple military, economic, developmental, and political tools to build supportive regional alliances.

"The renewable energy projects adopted by Cairo cannot compete with the Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia is marketing as a regional lever in the field of electricity"

Egypt's strategy faces a tough test

Despite escalating Egyptian efforts in recent years, it is facing a difficult strategic test in its struggle for influence with Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa.

An Egyptian and Arab absence from the region has paved the way for Addis Ababa to consolidate its influence, even in a historically hostile country such as Somalia.

Furthermore, the renewable energy projects adopted by Cairo cannot compete with the Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia is marketing as a regional lever in the field of electricity.

The dam aims to generate 36,000 megawatts, which will turn Ethiopia into an energy-exporting country, according to a study issued by MDPI, the Center for Energy Affairs, based in Basel, Switzerland. Ethiopia has already signed agreements with some of its neighbours in this regard.

In other words, Ethiopia's ownership of the electric power tap so crucial to accelerating development will expand its geopolitical hegemony, and it is thus in the interest of neighbouring countries to maintain friendly relations with Addis Ababa.

In the end, Cairo’s attempt to expand its influence in the region requires supporting local economies in the Horn of Africa and developing Egyptian soft power tools.

But this raises questions about Cairo’s ability, amid its own economic difficulties, to move forward with such policies, as well as its capacity to challenge strong economic ties between Ethiopia and countries such as Djibouti.

Abdolgader Mohamed Ali is an Eritrean journalist and researcher in African Affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @AbdolgaderAli