President Isaias Afwerki has been a busy man.
- On the 5th of May he returned to Asmara after seeing Prime Minister Abiy in Addis Ababa.
- Then on 27 June he was landing at Asmara after spending three days with the Sudanese leadership, including Lt. Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo.
- Now he’s in Egypt for a three day visit, where he will meet President Sisi.
So what’s going on? At the end of each trip there are bland press releases that tell the Eritrean public precisely nothing.
But it is not that difficult to join up the dots.
What do Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have in common? The Nile and the standoff over Ethiopia’s GERD dam, which it is scheduled to begin filling within the next two weeks.
Egypt appealed to the UN Security Council, but got little more than verbal support. Talks between the three parties are reported to have continued over the weekend, with discussions on Saturday.
But Egypt continued to complain there was no progress. The Egyptian irrigation ministry said “fundamental technical and legal differences” remained unsolved.
Meanwhile, the situation in Ethiopia is tense, following the death of the popular Oromo singer, Hachalu Hundessa. Clashes with the security forces by protesters left at least 166 people dead.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed blamed the killing of the singer, and the subsequent violence, on “coordinated attempts” to destabilise the country, hinting that a foreign power was involved. Egypt swiftly denied any responsibility, with Egyptian diplomats saying that “Ethiopia should not blame its problems on external factors.”
President Isaias, who has been in Ethiopia, Sudan and is now in Egypt – all in the last two months, would love to see himself as a mediator. He has always seen Eritrea as playing a regional role, and this fits perfectly into his self-image.
The Libyan situation
But there is another reason for President Isaias to be in Egypt and that is the crisis in Libya.
The situation in Libya is nothing if not complex, with Russia, France, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states all backing one or other of the key players. This is a simplified list of who is backing whom.
Government of National Unity in Tripoli General Khalifa Hafter in Tobruk
United Nations Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE
NATO, USA, Italy, Turkey, Qatar Russia, France
In this situation it is not difficult to see where Eritrea fits in.
President Isaias has been in league with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, assisting them in their war in Yemen against the Houthi rebels.
The port of Assab provides the UAE with a base, with Asmara airport also occasionally being used.
In March the Guardian newspaper carried this report:
The United Arab Emirates, which is backing Khalifa Haftar, the warlord commander of the self-styled Libyan National Army, is thought to have sent more than 100 deliveries by air since mid-January, according to flight-tracking data…
Most of the suspect UAE flights leave military bases in the UAE, while some appear to depart from a base run since 2016 by the UAE in Eritrea, where an authoritarian regime is in charge and there is minimal international monitoring.
In all, the flights are thought to have carried about 5,000 metric tons of cargo into Libya in very large chartered transport planes that land at an airport close to Benghazi, Haftar’s coastal stronghold, or in western Egypt, from where their loads are thought to be trucked into Libya.
The Bloomberg news agency reported that the UN had information about these UAE airlifts.
At least 37 flights in early January are being investigated by the UN panel of experts responsible for monitoring sanctions on Libya, according to two diplomats briefed on the report that was presented to the Security Council this month. Excerpts of the report were also shared with Bloomberg. The flights were operated by a complex network of companies registered in the U.A.E., Kazakhstan, and the British Virgin Islands to disguise the delivery of military equipment, the diplomats said.
The panel found an increase in secret flights from the U.A.E. and its airbase in Eritrea to airfields under the control of Haftar, who is fighting to defeat the internationally-recognized government based in Tripoli, the report said. Some of those flights, which transfer high volumes of weapons, were operated by two Kazakhstan operators, according to the diplomats.
Egypt became very concerned about the threat to General Haftar’s position in Tobruk, as the UN backed government forces advanced.
President Sisi declared that a red line existed beyond which Egypt would not tolerate any further advances. Egypt could intervene in Libya with the intention of protecting its western border, he said.
Eritrea (with its links to the UAE and Saudis) and the role of Assab as a base from which military equipment and munitions can be sent to General Hartar, clearly has a stake in the Libyan conflict.
There is a good deal for President’s Sisi and Isaias to discuss in the coming days.