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Al-Sisi in Djibouti: Consolidating Egypt’s presence in the Horn of Africa

On 27 May President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi made a first-ever visit to Djibouti. The visit, which carries considerable implications, has several strategic dimensions that come within the framework of Egypt’s keenness to establish strategic and political ties with countries in the Horn of Africa. The timing of the visit is critical as the Horn of Africa is witnessing mounting tensions that threaten its stability.  

Djibouti is one of the major countries in the Horn of Africa. It has a strategic location that is of critical importance to global trade – it has access to Bab Al-Mandab Strait and is located at the gateway of the Suez Canal which handles 10 percent of global oil trade and 20 percent of commercial trade. Djibouti works to make use of its privileged geographic position by strengthening its standing as an outlet to East Africa and opening the country’s maritime facilities for passage of goods from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia as the Djibouti port serves as a trading hub. Djibouti also hosts military and logistical facilities of several regional and international countries.

Goals of the Egypt-Djibouti summit

The visit of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to Djibouti carries a number of messages which can be clarified as follows: 

Establishing fraternal relationship between the leadership of the two countries: This has been evidenced by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s eagerness to congratulate his Djiboutian counterpart, Ismail Omar Guelleh, on winning a fifth presidential term in April 2021, earning 98 percent of votes.

Promoting Egypt’s developmental role in Djibouti: Talks between President Al-Sisi and the Djiboutian president included a thorough discussion on enhancing joint bilateral cooperation, where it has been agreed on increasing the volume of trade between the two countries, scaling up Egypt’s investments in Djibouti, and establishing a logistics zone in Djibouti to facilitate exports of Egyptian goods, all with the aim of promoting Egypt’s presence in Djibouti. The two presidents further agreed on strengthening bilateral cooperation in the medical and banking sectors by Egypt establishing a hospital and opening a branch of Banque Misr in Djibouti. In the same context, the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development is planned to play a role in capacity building through providing training programs. 

Collaboration on issues of common interest

 Cooperation on security in the Red Sea: Given the growing unrest and increasing tensions in some regional countries, security of the Red Sea becomes a significant issue. During the summit, an understanding was reached on promoting security and stability in the Red Sea, protecting trade and maritime transport in the area, forestalling control of terrorist groups on shipping lanes or threatening energy security, and countering any attempts of non-region states to impose their vision on the region. Bilateral cooperation between the two countries was evident in the Council of Arab and African States Bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden formed in December 2018 comprising eight countries (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Eritrea, and Djibouti) whose charter was signed on 6 January 2020.

Cooperation on countering terrorism and extremism: The terrorist Al-Shabab movement operates largely in Somalia and is trying to establish a foothold in Djibouti. This has been evidenced by the video clip circulated on 27 March 2021 of Al-Shabab leader, Ahmed Umar (Abu Ubaidah), calling on the movement’s members to set the American and French targets in Djibouti among the priorities of the movement, noting that Djibouti has turned into a military base for foreign countries to target Muslims in East Africa. 

In view of the foregoing, we find that broad agreement was reached between the Egyptian president and his Djiboutian counterpart on intensifying efforts in areas of combating extremist ideology and rehabilitating preachers by scaling up of Al-Azhar’s activity, which would contribute to drying up the sources of extremism.

Egyptian politics and facing challenges in Africa

The visit of President Al-Sisi to Djibouti comes in a very tense and unstable regional context due to a number of issues including the Sudan-Ethiopia border dispute, the GERD crisis, the Tigray conflict, and the political crisis in Somalia. Egypt seeks strengthening its presence in Basin countries with the aim of unifying the stances of those countries in the face of challenges. To that end, Egypt’s foreign policy adopts a “geostrategic encirclement” strategy and uses a number of diplomatic, developmental, and military tools which could be clarified as follows:

Diplomatic activity: Egypt’s Presidential diplomacy underscores Egypt’s eagerness to strengthen ties and promote relations with Nile basin countries toward a unified stance on issues of mutual concern. The following are the most notable foreign tours of President Al-Sisi to Nile Basin countries:

  • A visit of president Al-Sisi to South Sudan on 28 November 2020, which was the first of its kind since its establishment and secession from Sudan.
  • A Visit of President Al-Sisi to Sudan in March 2021, which reflects the leadership eagerness to intensify cooperation with Sudan. Presidential visits contribute to bringing closer the stances of the two countries on mutual challenges, foremost among them is the GERD crisis and the necessity of reaching a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. 
  • A number of meetings have been held between President Al-Sisi and the Congolese president, Félix Tshisekedi. It is worth noting that the Congo is the current head of the African Union; thus, the Egyptian coordination with the Congo becomes very significant, being the sponsor of GERD negotiations directed at reaching a legal binding agreement on filling and operation of the dam.

Developmental efforts: Egypt works to promote and strengthen its relations with the Nile Basin countries towards achieving integration with those countries by implementing development projects that serve the African people. The most prominent development efforts of Egypt in the Nile Basin countries include:

  • Egypt supporting Tanzania on the completion of the Julius Nyerere dam provides an ample evidence that Egypt doesn’t stand in the way of development in Nile Basin countries. The dam’s project receives substantial support from President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and the Egyptian side was particularly keen on attending the signing ceremony of the dam’s construction contract in December 2018. The contract was signed in the presence of late Tanzanian President, John Pompe Joseph Magufuli and the Egyptian Prime Minister, Dr. Mostafa Madbouly. The Julius Nyerere Dam will provide hydroelectric power to the Tanzanian people, which clearly demonstrates that Egypt doesn’t oppose other African countries’ establishment of dams and achieving development.
  • There is also many cooperation projects between Egypt and Kenya in various fields including health, agriculture, and livestock, all of which help strengthen strategic partnerships between the two countries.
  • Egypt supports the Ugandan economy by strengthening partnership in industry, agriculture, construction, health, and energy sectors.

Military cooperation

President Al-Sisi’s visit to Djibouti coincides with Egypt signing military cooperation agreements with the Nile Basin countries and carrying out joint military drills with Sudan, which reflects Egypt’s resolute determination to promote military cooperation with Nile basin countries to counter joint challenges. These military agreements and drills could be clarified as follows:  

Concluding military pacts

  • On 2 March 2020, Egypt and Sudan inked a military agreement in Khartoum, in the presence of commanders-in-chief of both countries.
  •  On 7 April 2021, Egypt and Uganda signed an intelligence sharing pact.
  • On 10 April 2021, Egypt and Burundi militaries signed a joint military training pact.
  • On 27 May 2021, Egypt and Kenya signed a technical agreement on defense cooperation to deepen partnership between the two countries in mutually beneficial matters.

Conducting military drills

  • The Egyptian-Djiboutian summit coincides with the launch of “Guardians of the Nile” military drills between Egypt and Sudan on 26 May 2021. The drills aim at addressing potential threats and ensuring joint coordination to defend the vital strategic interests of both countries.

It is worth noting that there is constant military coordination between Egypt and Sudan. It started with a joint aerial drill “Nile Eagles 1” in November 2020. These drills come in the context of strengthening the bilateral joint military cooperation between the two militaries in areas of rehabilitation and training, exchange of expertise, border security, countering terrorism, technical security, and military industries.

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