A chat with Major General (retd) Dr. Sayed Ghoneim, Chairman of the Institute for Global Security & Defense Affairs (IGSDA) in Abu Dhabi, on the Egyptian reality, power relations in the region and the interest of international actors.
When Egypt was shaken by internal political events in 2011, on the southern border, Ethiopia opened a war front with Cairo by beginning the construction of the “Dam of Renaissance”. Let us briefly reconstruct the historical and political relations between the two African countries.
“Egypt used to have very good relations with Africa after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 lead by President Nasser. Nasser stayed in power for almost 16 years, and during this time he supported all African revolutions and those took place in Arab countries.
Horn of Africa is very important for the country for two reasons:
- the Horn of Africa is composed of four countries: Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti. Two of them became part of the Arab League, which are Somalia and Djibouti. Egypt has very strong influence in Somalia at that time and ‘normal’ relations with Ethiopia too, while always being sure that something would happen soon between the two because of the second reason.
- the Nile River: the Nile comes from Ethiopia and Ethiopians consider themselves as the source of the Nile.
I remember that in 2004 I was studying “Managing Defence in Democratic societies” in Cranfield University in UK and one of the British professors asked me in front of all my colleagues “What will happen if Ethiopia starts build a dam and stops the water?” Before answering, a Ugandan Major said in a funny way: “Egypt will just send four F16 aircrafts to finish it very quickly”. Just to tell you that this is not a new issue, in fact we expect it to go on for decades to come. However, the Ugandan officer’s answer was to indicate that the Egyptian response was legitimate, this was expected of Egypt!”
What happened in 2011 and during the Arab springs?
“Most of the Arab countries were really in a bad situation because of the revolutions, Egypt, also, was not immune! 2011 was, for sure, the right time for Ethiopia to begin the construction of the dam or, in any case, lay the foundations for the construction of the dam. In the Ethiopian intentions, the dam represents a development project while for Egypt it represents a security issue. The projects of the two countries develop in parallel, but do not meet. For Egypt, it is a national security issue; when it discusses the issue internationally, it always imputes it to a national security issue. Water and Red Sea, these are the Egyptian concerns regarding the project. Ethiopia insists, however, that it is a project that contributes to the country’s development, not something dangerous to its neighbours.
I remember after 2011, I was a Brigadier General responsible for securing Grand Cairo during the chaos; at that time, the country was led by The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood was very influential, it had a good percentage of the seats in Parliament. The problem with the Muslim Brotherhood is that they are good at intercepting problems, but they do not have the ability to solve them. They do not have government experience; they cannot run a country like Egypt.
I know President Al-Sisi personally, he is a man of values, he believes in his word and trusts people and their intentions. But this policy of good intentions between the two countries (Egypt and Ethiopia) does not work on a practical level”.
What do you tell us about Egypt’s neighbours in the region? What do they think of the Ethiopian action?
“I do not think they think at anything. I am serious. If we talk about neighbours of Egypt, who are they? Libya which still is in big trouble, then we have Sudan, which is in an interim political period now, we have Palestinian Authority which still are divided between Gaza and the West Bank, even after the May conflict, and finally Israel. I think Israel will never support anything against Egypt because Israel is interested in normalization with Arab and Muslim countries now. Egypt was the first country normalized its ties with Israel, both countries need each other. The entire region benefits from the peace and stable relations between Egypt and Israel. There are fields of cooperation between the two countries specially exchanging information during Egypt’s confrontation against terrorism, etc. If things fall apart between Egypt and Ethiopia, Israel will side with the former because there will be dramatic consequences such as a drought and heavy immigration. This is about the neighbours individually; at the regional level Europe is very attentive to the matter. And it could not be otherwise:
Egypt, in the eyes of Europe, is a reliable country that has kept its promise to stop illegal immigration and all the illegal activities derived from it. That is why in 2019 there was the first meeting between Europe and the Arab League held in Egypt, a meeting that will be repeated in 2022 in Europe.
Regarding the Gulf region, we find Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the most influential states. There is a relationship of mutual exchange and interest: we, Egyptians, offer huge number of labours to the three countries. They do not want Egypt to become a source of problems for the whole region. The three Gulf countries mentioned above support Ethiopia because the country poses food and water to them. Here we return to the paradox of before: the dam is a project aimed at the development of the country, but the Gulf countries must support for security purposes beside developmental purposes”.
Egypt is between two fires: Libya is in the West; Sinai and the Palestinian Cause are in the East. What role did and does Egypt play in Libya?
“When we talk about Libya, we must distinguish between pre-2021 Libya and post-2021 Libya. Before 2021, the relationship with Libya was declined in military terms and politics and diplomacy were the weapons available to counter the war component. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates were on the same side at the time. Egypt did a lot economically and militarily in Libya because of its proximity to the country, while also isolating Turkey. In Trump’s time, Egypt has benefited greatly from the problems between Turkey and the U.S. Today Egypt has abandoned the military route to embrace the diplomatic one. The Emirates, instead, have not.
Now we also have Russia. Egypt is the actor that has benefited the most due to its alliance with the USA and Europe as well.
From my point of view, Europe can be divided in two: on one side we have the European Union interested in stability, on the other side we have the European countries in conflict against each other on interests”.
The Egyptian role in the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel. Why did Egypt succeed where the U.S. failed?
“We are used to seeing the US as a mediator everywhere, in every conflict, but not this time. The US confronts several issues, it has lost credibility in front of the Palestinians and the change of power from Republicans to Democrats has yet to be metabolised. Therefore, the country of stars and stripes was happy with the Egyptian intervention. Egypt did exactly what Biden wished to do. Biden initially supported Netanyahu – ‘Israel has the right to defend itself’ – but as the conflict unfolded, he was forced to revise his position because of discontent and protests within his own country. Protests from the Palestinians and from the Jews themselves who live in America, and many are part of his party! He was attacked by them in Congress. Slowly he has watched his tone, trying to be as neutral as possible.
This is not the first time Egypt has had to deal with Hamas or Israel, and the US has exploited this well. Egypt considered Hamas a terrorist organisation until 2015 – then an Egyptian court had defined Hamas as such – after only four months, the same court overturned the decision. A new era began between Hamas and Egypt.
During the last confrontation between Hamas and Israel, in 2014, Hamas had a negative reputation internationally unlike Israel; now the situation seems to have reversed by virtue, in part, of this closeness between Egypt and Hamas. Moreover, for the first time, Egypt and Qatar are on the same side. Both participated together in the mediation between Israel and Hamas, this may isolate Turkey, which is a good ally of Qatar”.
What about Turkey? Why are Cairo and Ankara at odds?
“We cannot speak in terms of the relationship between the two countries, but rather between their respective presidents, Al-Sisi and Erdoğan. I consider Erdoğan to be one of the best presidents of the moment, but I fear that he has failed on some issues of strategic importance. He failed in his policy of “zero problems with neighbours”, now he has millions of them. He has problems with Russia, with the US, with Egypt, with Greece, with the EU and the list is long. How do you protect your country when you do not talk to your neighbours? The two countries cannot be on good terms because of Erdoğan. I am not saying that his intentions are wrong, he is wrong in choosing and, consequently, implementing his policies. Also, regarding the issue of the eastern Mediterranean: he is trying to show that he is right, but his actions must consider the international law, he must not impose himself and his will by force. In Libya, the Turkish intervention has not contributed to the stability of the country, indeed it seems to have only created more divisions.
Turkish expansion in the Eastern Mediterranean does not scare Egypt, it may only disturb it. But Ankara is not foolish enough to fight Egypt. Or if there ever is a conflict, it will not be in the East Mediterranean. NATO will not allow it. Egypt has good relations with NATO countries; Turkey is part of NATO, but it is not a European country. Egypt uses military force as deterrence, not provocation, so no one can condemn Cairo. In Libya, the US is with Egypt not because it really supports it, but because it is anti-Turkish intervention in Libya. Egypt needs more guarantees from the Turkish side in terms of Libya and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Now, with Turkey, the situation is ‘negotiable’ because Egypt must deal with the threat from the south. To be successful you must deal with only one front at a time and Egypt has done it: the situation in Libya is relatively stable as well as in Gaza. These successes have allowed it to attract international support and increased its credibility. Trump has contributed a lot, indirectly clear, to Egypt’s success. Trumpian policies have allowed the country to focus more on itself and its borders”.
The Chinese, Russian and Turkish presence in Africa. Can we talk about a new colonisation?
“Of course, yes. The Chinese strategy can be summarised as follows: ‘I am not here to replace the US’. China wants to share the profits, the benefits, with African countries, but does not want to take on some responsibilities. In the dragon’s vision, African countries can solve their problems on their own.
Russia, on the other hand, is willing to take some responsibility – even if it tries to avoid this as much as possible – and share the profits.
Europe, for its part, has taken steps forward: it has started to take more responsibility for African countries. Biden’s trip to Europe served this very purpose. China is considered an enemy only by the US, not by Europe; Russia by both – the US and Europe. The Chinese presence, especially in the Middle East, is aimed to attract the allies of the US. Not to turn them against the US, but to curry favour with the USA. What is the evidence? The Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. I like to call Russia a ‘street fighter’ or ‘opportunistic’. It is very capable of adapting everywhere and facing the most adverse situations. China and Russia are complementary to each other. The dragon serves the bear because it has a lot of liquidity at its disposal, while the bear serves the dragon because it is a ‘street fighter’, especially in the face of the US. Chine does not want to fight, especially not the US. They are complementary countries, but that does not mean they like each other; on the contrary, they are competitors in Asia, in the Middle East and in Europe, even in Latin America. Asia is where the future is at stake. This is written in the National Security Strategy  2015, in the paragraph “We will advance an international order that promotes peace, security, and opportunity through stronger cooperation to meet global challenges“. The Middle East ranks fourth in importance and priority for the US. First is Asia, then Europe, then Africa and only in fourth place is the Middle East. The Middle East is no longer convenient for the US: too many problems to solve.
The clash of powers can be summarised as follows: USA vs China, Europe vs Russia and between the latter two is Turkey, which due to its geographical position belongs neither to Russia nor to Europe. In the Middle East, the main rivalry remains that between China and the US, but in Syria, for example, there are also Russia in the middle of the two great powers and NATO allied to the US. In the Gulf region, the confrontation is directly between China and the US. Europe is the American priority now – and Biden’s trip proved it – because it is the least complicated arena of confrontation (US-China).
The Chinese presence in the Horn of Africa, mainly Djibouti, scares the US a lot. On the other hand, if problems may start between Russia and China, it could be in the Horn of Africa first. The reason is that Russia exports a huge number of arms to the Horn of Africa countries, while China wants stability to do its giant strategy (Belt & Road) pursuing its vital interests”.
- The National Security Strategy (NSS) is a document prepared periodically by the executive branch of the United States that lists the national security concerns and how the administration plans to deal with them. On February 6, 2015, Obama issued a new NSS to provide “a vision and strategy for advancing the nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership.” “Fact Sheet: The 2015 National Security Strategy”.