Date: Monday, 16 March 2020
There have been unconfirmed reports that Egypt may be moving close to an agreement with Eritrea, with which ties have been warming in recent years, to host a new Egyptian naval base on Nora island.
Cairo traditionally dismissed the idea of overseas regional bases owing to political sensitivities but has been investing in a new strategy to bolster its maritime power.
The reports suggest an agreement between Cairo and Asmara over an Egyptian deployment to Nora, an island on Dakhla Peninsula off the Eritrean coast. Egypt is believed to have a contingent of forces in Sawa, Eritrea, stationed at an Arab base reportedly secured by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for a 30-year period.
Eritrea’s location at the southern entrance of the Red Sea gives it a growing strategic value. Rising international interest and competition in and around the Red Sea, with the Bab el Mandeb choke point to its south and the Suez Canal to its north, generated a renewed effort by Cairo and Riyadh to coordinate on the region’s maritime security architecture.
In January, Saudi efforts to build a new Red Sea bloc moved forward when representatives from eight countries signed a charter to establish the Council of Arab and African States bordering the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
For Egypt, this development comes as part of a multipronged strategy to restore its influence and take on a greater security role in the region — particularly within the maritime sphere.
Egypt has seen new risks emerge with Yemen’s implosion, instability in Libya and earlier with maritime piracy off the Horn of Africa. Cairo’s policies are being driven by a new military build-up in the wider region that has featured a growing footprint for Iran and Turkey.
Turkey, which in December concluded a maritime border delimitation agreement with Libya, has its largest overseas military base in Somalia and secured a long-term lease for Suakin port from Sudan two years ago. More recently, massive gas finds in the Eastern Mediterranean raised tensions as Ankara lays claim to resources off the coast of Cyprus.
Egypt has agreements with Israel and Cyprus for the supply of natural gas by ship and via pipelines from their offshore fields, which it processes and re-exports from gas liquefaction stations in Idku and Damietta.
Last year, Egypt convened the East Mediterranean Gas Forum with the participation of Jordan, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Israel and the Palestinian territories in a bid to establish regional cooperation for the region’s expanding gas market.
Geological surveys suggesting potential gas reservoirs under the Red Sea’s seabed could signal an added maritime security significance for the basin beyond freedom of navigation.
In response to the region’s evolving security dynamics, Cairo has been investing in a major modernisation of its ageing, largely Soviet-era naval fleet to reassert itself as a true blue-water navy. In 2016, Cairo added two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to its fleet to serve as command centres for the Egyptian Navy’s newly created North and South fleets.
Cairo added a FREMM multipurpose frigate and is said to be finalising the purchase of two more from Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri. Earlier, it concluded orders for six German-made MEKO A-200 frigates, four Gowind-class corvettes, three of which are to be built in Alexandria, and is awaiting delivery of 20 Falaj 2-class patrol boats.
Egypt has also been developing strategically positioned joint bases in Gargoub, on its north-western coast near the border with Libya, in Ras Banas on its south-eastern coast overlooking the Red Sea and at Port Said, close to the Suez Canal.
Increasing strategic premiums attached to overseas bases could well mean Cairo may soon need to revise its traditional policy on the issue and consider developing a strategic presence that enables extended power projection capability through arrangements with partners such as Eritrea.
Eritrea’s growing alignment with Egypt is, however, causing concerns with Ethiopia and Sudan. Cairo and Addis Ababa have been locked in a dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the continent’s biggest hydroelectric dam being constructed on the Nile River’s main tributary that could threaten Egypt’s water security.
Sudan, which backs GERD, has had complicated ties with Cairo and an unresolved dispute over the Egyptian-controlled Halayeb Triangle, which is near Egypt’s new Ras Banas base.
On the other hand, Ethiopia has been landlocked and without a coastline since Eritrea seceded from it in 1993 following a violent conflict that has killed more than 80,000.
Ethiopia and Eritrea technically remain at war and last witnessed major clashes in 2016. Having built one of Africa’s most capable air and ground forces, Addis Ababa’s confessed desire to reconstitute a naval capability to protect its interests at sea is giving rise to anxiety in Eritrea.
Sudan and Ethiopia have formed a joint military operation along their border whereas Sudan dispatched thousands of troops to its border with Eritrea in response to Egypt’s reported troop deployment to the country three years ago.
Egypt dismisses any intent to interfere in Ethiopia and Sudan as conspiratorial and “fake news.” Despite resolving key disagreements related to GERD with Ethiopia earlier this year when Washington hosted talks that involved the World Bank, symptoms of mistrust between the African neighbours linger.
As Egypt assumes an enhanced regional maritime security role, its future strategy may well need to feature deeper engagement on military matters with security partners such as Eritrea but it will also have to contend with the same traditional rivalries that opened up space in the region for an international military build-up in the first place.