El Sisi warns Ethiopia over Somaliland Red Sea deal

Egyptian President tells Somali PM 'we are behind you' amid deepening row over breakaway region

Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi at the Al-Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo, Egypt. Photo: @TheVillaSomalia / X
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Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has warned Ethiopia over its preliminary deal with Somalia's breakaway region of Somaliland to gain access to the Red Sea.

Making his first public comments about the deal signed on January 1, Mr El Sisi on Sunday said Cairo would not tolerate anyone threatening or breaching Somalia's security.

“Let me state this very clearly; Egypt will not allow anyone to breach or threaten Somalia’s security … no one should test Egypt’s resolve or try to threaten its brotherly nations, especially if its brothers asked for its support,” he said.

He made the comments after hosting Somalia’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud for talks in Egypt's capital, less than three weeks after landlocked Ethiopia and Somaliland signed an agreement that would lease to Addis Ababa a 20km stretch of its Red Sea coastline.

Somaliland broke away from Somalia in 1991 but remains internationally unrecognised despite its claim to independence. It sits at a strategic location close to the Gulf of Aden and the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Somalia opposes the independence of Somaliland and has reacted furiously to its deal with Ethiopia.

Addressing Ethiopia directly, Mr El Sisi said Addis Ababa should aim to secure access to the Red Sea through “traditional channels” with Djibouti, Somalia and Eritrea.

“No one will object to that but no one will tolerate anyone trying to pounce on the territory of others and control it one way or another,” he said, alluding to the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal.

Turning to the Somali President, Mr El Sisi said: “Be reassured that, with the grace of God, we are behind you.”

The Somali President said Mogadishu viewed Egypt as a historic ally and thanked Cairo for what he called its swift condemnation of Ethiopia's illegal action.

“The partnership between Egypt and Somalia should not be viewed as a threat to anyone,” Mr Mohamud said. "It's meant to strengthen stability and security in the Red Sea region."

The Ethiopia-Somaliland agreement was strongly condemned by the Arab League – of which Somalia is a member – during an emergency meeting of its foreign ministers last week.

Somalia says the deal has also triggered protests across Somaliland, with citizens divided over the deal. Some see potential economic benefits, while others fear compromising their sovereignty.

Somalia said last week the deal betrayed Ethiopia's ambitions to hurt Arab national security.

With a population of more than 120 million, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world. It relies heavily on ports in Djibouti for foreign trade since Eritrea achieved independence in 1993, depriving Ethiopia of a coastline.

The Ethiopian government maintains that access to the Red Sea is an existential necessity for the Horn of Africa nation.

Egypt has clashed with Ethiopia over the latter's construction of a massive Nile dam. Cairo says the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will reduce its vital share of the Nile's waters.

More than a decade of on-and-off negotiations have failed to resolve the dam dispute, with Addis Ababa rejecting Cairo's proposals for a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Addis Ababa, to whom the dam is key to its development, has also rejected proposals for international mediators, insisting only the African Union should play that role.

Egypt also fears if Ethiopia gains access to the Red Sea via the Somaliland deal, it could be tempted to establish a military presence that could potentially threaten Egyptian interests in the strategic waterway.

Egypt’s state-controlled media has been espousing the theory that Ethiopia, which wields significant influence in the Horn of Africa region, has been seeking to undermine Egypt’s interests on behalf of other nations, with Israel always mentioned as a prime suspect.

Egyptian security officials have said Cairo wants to help Mogadishu unify Somalia and upgrade its capabilities.

The Somali President on Sunday said he and Mr El Sisi had discussed ways to bolster economic, political and military co-operation between the two Afro-Arab nations, but gave no details.

Updated: January 21, 2024, 5:37 PM