CAIRO – Following reports that the United Arab Emirates cancelled a military training programme in Somalia, Egypt’s political parties have called for Cairo to pursue “aggressive” diplomatic efforts amid fears that the Horn of Africa country could become a security threat.
Egyptian observers view recent developments in Somalia, including the increasing influence of Qatar and Turkey, with trepidation. Although Egypt does not share a border with Somalia, it occupies a strategic position along the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Red Sea, across from Yemen.
“Somalia is important for security in Egypt and other Arab countries, especially in the Arab Gulf,” said Nagui al-Shehabi, chairman of Egypt’s liberal Geel (Generation) Party. “This is why Egypt should not fall silent, while regional powers harrow to abort every serious attempt to stabilise it.”
Somalia fell into lawlessness in 1991 with the downfall of the Siad Barre regime. The country’s subsequent civil war allowed for the emergence of terrorist groups, including al-Shabab, which swore allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2012.
Combining brutality, military skill and financial support from regional powers, al-Shabab overran large parts of Somalia, killed hundreds of people, including civilians. Somalia had been at the centre of interest for terrorist groups, especially al-Qaeda, since the mid-1990s when the terrorist organisation was forced to leave Sudan.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was swayed by one of his military commanders to consider Somalia as a refuge. Somalia was competing with Afghanistan, where the Taliban had just taken over, and welcoming bin Laden and his comrades. Bin Laden chose Afghanistan.
Since then, Somalia has been ravaged by al-Shabab, which sought to apply sharia law on the resource-poor east African state. The Islamic State (ISIS), losing ground in Syria, Iraq and Libya, has also sought to increase its presence in the country.
In addition, Turkey and Qatar have shown increased interest in Somalia. Qatar has been accused of offering to fund al-Shabab through neighbouring Djibouti. Doha is also known to support Somalia’s Islah Movement, an ideological offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that is designated as a terrorist organisation in Egypt.
News that the UAE ended its military training programme in Somalia in response to the grounding of a plane carrying Emirati officials, which was preceded by Somali security officials seizing an estimated $10 million in cash, is considered a result of increasing Qatari and Turkish influence in the country.
Emirati writer Khalid bin Daha al-Kaabi accused Qatar of trying to prevent the UAE from securing a role in Somalia.
“Some countries have (an) interest in undermining the Somali state and making chaos reign in this country,” Kaabi said. “Somalia is an intrinsic part of Arab national security and its stability is essential for this security.”
Calls by Egyptian political parties for Egypt to curb Qatari and Turkish influence in Somalia were fuelled by tensions between Mogadishu and Abu Dhabi. Egyptian observers have expressed concern that unrest in Somalia could jeopardise security in the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea and consequently Egypt’s Suez Canal.
“Security in Somalia has a direct influence on security in Egypt, the Arab Gulf and North Africa,” Shehabi said. “We cannot leave this important part of our national security in the hands of others.”
Egypt has several reasons to act on Somalia. Cairo, which is engaged in an all-out conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood, cannot tolerate the rise of a Brotherhood party in a country so close to its vital interests, Egyptian analysts said.
Turkey and Qatar, viewed as regional rivals by Cairo, have been seeking to increase their presence in Africa. Turkey established its first military base in the Gulf of Aden region in 2017.
In Egypt, Turkish attempts to gain a toehold in Somalia are viewed as part of wider attempts by Ankara to secure a presence along Egypt’s borders. During a visit to Khartoum in late 2017, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to take administrative control of the Red Sea island of Suakin, 400km south of Egypt.
Egypt, which is fighting terrorism at home and in neighbouring Libya, is afraid that Turkey and Qatar’s presence in the southern part of the Red Sea and in the Horn of Africa will ease the movement of terrorists in the region.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi spoke with Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed by phone in mid-April to discuss Cairo offering technical support to Somalia in the war against terrorism.
“Interference by regional powers in Somalia aims to destabilise the country, which will at the end harm Arab security,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This makes it necessary for the Arab anti-terrorism camp, namely Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to move to stop this interference.”