Recently, a Yemeni news agency, Alhadath, claimed Egypt is seeking a joint defense agreement with Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia. According to the report, the defense pact would include Egypt building military bases in Eritrea and Djiobuti, and would help defend these countries from foreign forces, presumably, Ethiopia.
While Yemeni news agencies are infamously known for fabricating news, there is some evidence to suggest this story could have some truth to it. Last summer, two Egyptian generals visited Somalia to study ways to rehabilitate the Somali National Army facilities. Similarly, in 2012, Wikileaks leaked files from the Texas-based global intelligence company, Stratfor, which quote an anonymous high-level Egyptian source saying they were talking to the Sudanese government to build a military base in the border of Sudan and Ethiopia.
Even with the limited evidence available to support this claim, the information provided is still very plausible when you consider time is not on Egypt’s side. By 2017, the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be completed. If talks fail, which appears they will, then Egypt must destroy the dam before Ethiopia starts filling it with water or risk flooding Sudan’s flat eastern territories upon its destruction. So this leaves Egypt with a 3-year window to find a political solution to this crises before the military option is used.
Once the military option is decided, distance will be the only obstacle left for the Egyptian military. Currently, Egypt can not attack Ethiopia because it is beyond the combat radius of all Egyptian aircraft staging from Egyptian airfields. Therefore, Egypt needs one of Ethiopia’s neighbors to provide an airfield to launch its attacks against the dam and other military targets within the country. Naturally, Sudan and Eritrea would be the best fit, due their proximity to the dam, and other military targets. Thus, signing a military defense agreement with either of these countries becomes a top priority for Egypt.
Signing a defense pact with Eritrea could also potentially shield Egypt from international scrutiny if it decides to use military force. For instance, since the regime in Addis Ababa is allergic to peace and has a track record of attacking Eritrea every few years or so, Egypt could use any future minor border disturbance by Ethiopia against Eritrea as a pretext to not only destroy the dam but bring about a regime change in Addis Ababa on the guise of bringing peace and security to the region.
While most bigwigs in Egypt would certainly prefer to end this dispute peacefully, a few observers have noted that some of the top brass in Cairo could be looking for a fight with Ethiopia for reasons other than the dam. Egypt’s domestic crises, coupled with its diminishing international clout, could make war a costly necessity in the minds of Egyptian generals. For them, Egypt is in a state of political uncertainty and finding an external threat to rally the country behind could bring much needed stability to the country.
In many ways, Egypt of today mirrors Ethiopia of the 1990s. During that period, the TPLF regime was trying to convince Amhara elites, the traditional rulers of Ethiopia, that they were not the puppets of EPLF. In order to prove their political independence and solidify their rule, they attacked Eritrea. Seemingly overnight, those who were calling TPLF leaders traitors and puppets of Eritrea were volunteering to become canon fodders for them in the name of defending their country from an external threat that never existed.
Whether this rumor is true or not remains to be seen. One thing that is certain is Eritrea will not allow Egyptian troops to have a military base inside the country. Egypt was never a friend of Eritrea, nor will it be one in the foreseeable future. Despite this however, Eritrea’s and Egypt’s national security are under threat by a wayward regime in Addis Ababa that has no regard for international law. Signing a defense pact would be in both countries’ immediate and long term interests.