By Teweldeberhan Gebre
H.E President Isaias Afewerki is on his visit to Egypt since 28 November 2016. According reports President Isaias is on diplomatic visit to Cairo at the invitation of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, President of the Arab Republic of Egypt. Although the main agenda of his trip is not exactly known, Eritrean media outlets close to his government as well as Egyptian local medias are indicating that the main purpose of the President’s tour to Egypt is to discuss the establishment of a new “command post” in the Eritrean part of the Red Sea. Isaias who is not devoid of understanding the region’s politics knows very well the intentions of the Egyptians long time ago. Listen to him here. To a certain extent, I believe his visit to Egypt at this time will increase his importance within the Gulf States’ circle that are themselves at odd with the Egyptians although we don’t know how the Saudis and their partners on the war in Yemen will react. In essence, if Saudi Arabia renews its relationship with the TPLF led Ethiopia there is no reason or justification to stop Eritrea and Egypt doing the same. But, sometimes it is not about justifying one’s action but about the power to bargain on matters laid down on the roundtable.
For his position in the Syrian war, where Egypt voted in favor of a separate Russian and French draft resolutions on Syria in the UN Security Council, President el-Sisi is at odd with the Saudis. His support to the Russian drafted resolutions has led Saudi Arabia to withdraw its fuel shipments to Egypt. As a result, Egypt has lost billions of dollars’ worth fuel shipments intended to stimulate the Egyptian economy and to lift its devalued currency following the removal of the Islamist Leader, Mohammed Morsi in 2013. Saudi Arabia’s decision has angered the Egyptian public and anti-Saudi sentiments are growing in Egypt. This could encourage President el-Sisi to search alternative sources of fuel shipments to fill the gap left by the Saudis including from Iran, an arch-enemy of all Sunny Muslim countries.
Now, Egypt is at odd with the Saudis and more recently the Saudis have established close ties with Qatar and Turkey which both have problems with Egypt. If the Saudis insist in their decision of halting the fuel shipment to Egypt it will not be too far for President el-Sisi to openly align with the Russians and Iranians on the issues of Syria and Yemen conflicts. As a said above, the Saudis’ action has angered the Egyptian public and el-Sisi might soon react by bringing Iran into the equation which is another problem for the Saudis and its allies not only in Syria but also in Yemen. For the Saudis Syria must have not been a priority over Yemen. Its decision of halting the fuel shipments is a premature decision and did fail to weight their interest on Syria over the conflict in Yemen which is next door and located at the strategic Bab-el Mandeb or the Mandeb Strait.
Our seasoned power broker President is now in Egypt to discuss the Red Sea security via the establishment of a ‘command post’ in the Red Sea according to the semi-official websites’ reports. Eritrea has already one ‘command post’ in Assab although Eritrea’s position in the Assab ‘command post’ by the UAE is not clear yet partly because of the armies embargo by the UN Security Council, a branch of the US State Department in New York. Egypt is also participating on the war against Yemenis Houthis militia including through ground troops as reported by Reuters in 2015. I don’t know how the Saudis are going to reconcile the Egyptian role in Yemen with their recent decision that halted the concessional fuel shipments to Egypt. If Egypt’s deal with Iran on fuel shipments works it would only work provided Egypt withdraws its ground forces from Yemen to please the Iranians in concession to fuel shipments while creating a loud cry among the GCC members.
It is a tricky situation for Eritrea. If Eritrea agrees with the Egyptians to establish a new ‘command post’, possibly close to Assab, Saudi Arabia and its allies including the UAE and Qatar will be disappointed by Eritrea’s decision which is also adds a fuel to the already burning subregion. As we all know, the GCC military campaign in Yemen didn’t work yet. It is not hard to imagine that diplomacy is the nastiest thing to do and we will see how our president is going to adjust to the shock and play his role in this delicate situation. For sure there are many invisible hands at work but bringing two forces (Egypt and Saudi Arabia and its allies) who are now neck-to-neck at one another into one basket is certainly not a wise option for Eritrea.
Egypt was and is a willing partner on the war in Yemen and should not try or pressure Eritrea to pull itself from the partnership because Egypt has an issue with the Saudis. From the stand points of economic cooperation and strategic proximity leaning too much towards Egypt will not be a wise decision. Also, at the international arena, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have greater diplomatic leverages than Egypt which Eritrea can take advantage of it.
Good luck Mr. President.