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Somalia's President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud speaks about the state of Somalia , as the country marks 55 years of indepedence on June 29, 2015. AMISOM Photo/Omar Abdisalan

Egypt treads cautiously with reelected Somali president

The May reelection of Hassan Sheikh Mohamud as president of Somalia for a second term has raised many questions about its potential impact on Egypt’s interests in the Horn of Africa.

Egypt’s security and political interests in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal directly are affected by Somalian issues, with intertwining and conflicting international and regional interests in the region and the recent emergence of new players such as Turkey, Iran and some Gulf countries as well as Russia and China.

Two days after Mohamud’s victory, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry issued a neutral press statement saying the election was an important step toward achieving stability in the country. The statement did not welcome the president nor address his policies but simply reiterated Egypt’s “support for peace and stability efforts and the eradication of terrorism.”

No official contacts between Egypt and the Somali president have thus far taken place. Meanwhile, Mohamud received greetings from presidents and officials in neighboring countries such as Ethiopia and Djibouti as well as from Gulf countries and the United States.

An Egyptian Foreign Ministry diplomat told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The Somali dossier tops the Egyptian agenda,” and added, “Egypt is closely following all political developments in Mogadishu, including the presidential elections. It is satisfied with the election of the Somali president and we look forward to greater cooperation on regional issues of common interest.”

He said that Egypt has taken “many dialogue initiatives … with Somali political actors and “worked at the institutional level with the African Union and the United Nations to achieve peace and stability in Somalia.”

During Mohamud’s first term from 2012 to 2017, he had close relations with Cairo, paying four visits to Egypt. Egypt reopened its embassy in Mogadishu in 2013.

Even after he left office, Mohamud continued to have a significant presence in Cairo. He maintained good relations with Egyptian academics and was hosted by government research centers.

Asked about the most important issues for Cairo with regard to Somalia, former intelligence official Mohamed Abdel Wahed told Al-Monitor, “Somalia plays a pivotal role in striking a balance in the Horn of Africa between the ambitions of regional countries to control the region, such as Ethiopia, and international interests in region.”

He added, “Egypt believes that stability in Somalia can lead to a balance, contrary to what Ethiopia is seeking by trying to weaken Somalia and interfering in its local affairs to dominate the Horn of Africa, especially considering its position as a landlocked country.”

Abdel Wahed went on, “Egypt has been supporting the Somali position since the fall of the Siad Barre regime [in 1991] and the achievement of the Somali reconciliation [in 1997] while maintaining balanced relations with all Somali regions.”

Egypt has also preserved a certain level of coordination with the Republic of Somaliland, an area disputed with the central government in Somalia. Cairo has provided support and grant programs to the Republic of Somaliland and has repeatedly tried to support a dialogue between Somaliland and the Federal Government of Somalia during the presidency of Mohamud since 2012.

Abdel Wahed explained, “Egypt faces many security challenges that require a strong presence in the Horn of Africa to protect its national security at the entrance to the Red Sea, in light of international and regional competition and the emergence of new powers in the Middle East such as the Gulf, Iran and Turkey.” He added, “Judging by President Mohamud’s old policies, he seems open to the Arab region, as opposed to the hostile policies adopted by former President Abdullahi Farmajo, who sought to ally with Turkey and enter the camp of Eritrea and Ethiopia.”

Mohamed Abdel Karim, a researcher specializing in African affairs at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “I expect the return of openness and strong coordination between Egypt and the new administration of Mohamud, especially considering that the previous Farmajo administration was the worst for Egyptian interests in the Horn of Africa amid his rapprochement with Ethiopia and Turkey against Egypt’s interests.”

He added, “I do not expect the new Somali president to pursue the Ethiopian-Eritrean alliance that [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Abiy Ahmed adopted, especially considering that Mohamud has an ideological vision in which Ethiopia is an invader, and this could play out in Egypt’s favor.”

Abdel Karim explained, “Somalia is awaiting an Egyptian initiative to increase cooperation at the political and economic levels, not just at the security level. Cooperation should not be limited to the official level alone, as there should be popular initiatives to increase rapprochement with Somalia,” concluding, “The situation allows for an independent Egyptian role as far as Somali issues are concerned, but the Egyptian response to the outcome of the Somali elections is still weak despite the many challenges lying ahead.”

Ahmed Askar, a researcher on African issues at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Monitor, “It is necessary for Egypt to act fast to be able to restore the Somalia card, as it is one of the historical pressure cards capable of enhancing the Egyptian influence in the Horn of Africa.” He went on, “The security issue may serve as a strong cooperation gateway between Egypt and Somalia, given Egypt’s distinguished expertise in the field of technical and military training.”

Askar allowed, however, “The Egyptian calculations when it comes to the Somali file may be complex in light of the Gulf interests strongly present in Somalia at the moment.”

Immediately after his victory, Mohamud met the ambassadors of Qatar, the UAE and Turkey, and his first decision was to return $9.6 million in Emirati funds that had been confiscated by the previous government.

The reelection of the president of strategically important Somalia has given Egypt some leeway, but Cairo remains cautious while stressing the importance of preserving peace and stability in Somalia.

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