Egypt's Sisi continues to woo Addis Ababa: Says Ethiopians 'rescued' from Libya, receives them at Cairo airport

Unlike his predecessors, the Egyptian leader has courted sub-Saharan Africa rather vigorously.

EGYPT’S president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said his country “rescued” 27 Ethiopians from war-torn Libya.

It was not immediately clear how the Ethiopians were rescued, but Sisi’s office said the group flown in on an Egyptian plane was “liberated by Egyptian and Libyan security services”.

“All efforts were made to bring the Ethiopians to Egypt safely… Egyptian services participated in this effort to protect, rescue and secure our Ethiopian brothers,” Sisi told reporters at Cairo airport.

Clearly, though, there was more to the rescue of the Ethiopians than a rescue.

Their release comes weeks after a purported video released by the Islamic State jihadist group showed the executions of some 30 Ethiopian Christians captured in Libya.

Sisi said Egypt was “pained by the gruesome beheading of innocent Ethiopians in Libya” and that the rescued Ethiopians were living in dire conditions in the war-strewn country.

“What is happening in Libya is a matter that concerns us and we tell the whole world that Libya should return to be a safe and stable country for its people and even to its visitors,” Sisi said.

Libya has plunged into chaos since the toppling of long-time autocrat Moamer Kadhafi, with rival militias fighting for the control of country’s oilfields and territories.

The killing of Ethiopians came weeks after the jihadists posted a similar video showing the beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians, all but one of them Egyptians, on a beach in Libya.

The killing of Egyptian Christians had prompted airstrikes by Cairo targeting IS targets inside Libya.

It was, however, significant that  Egyptian state television showed Sisi greeting the freed Ethiopian group at Cairo airport on Thursday, suggesting that part of it was about broader Egyptian and Ethiopian relations. 

In addition, it underlines Sisi’s posture to look south to Sub-Sahara Africa, more than any of his predecessors since Gamal Abdel Nasser did.

The Cairo-Addis Ababa axis

In late March, Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn met and agreed to boost cooperation on the Nile river and turn a page on a long-running row over Addis Ababa’s controversial dam project.

The two, along with Sudan, signed an agreement of principles on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project.

It was Sisi’s first visit to Ethiopia. It marked a radical change of tone compared to Sisi’s predecessor Mohamed Morsi, who in June 2013 warned that “all options are open” in dealing with Ethiopia’s alleged theft of Nile water.

Egypt, heavily reliant for millennia on the Nile for agriculture and drinking water, feared that the Grand Renaissance Dam would decrease its water supply.

However Sisi said that Egypt has “chosen cooperation, and to trust one another for the sake of development”.

They also agreed to establish a mechanism to resolve future disputes.

Ethiopia began diverting the Blue Nile in May 2013 to build the 6,000 MW dam, which will be Africa’s largest when completed in 2017. The project to construct the 1,780-metre-long and 145-metre high dam will cost an estimated $4 billion.

Ethiopia had said that the project would not adversely affect Egypt’s share of the precious waters, but Egypt had maintained its “historic rights” to the Nile which it said were guaranteed by treaties from 1929 and 1959 which grant it 87 percent of the river’s flow, as well as the power to veto upstream projects.

Sub-Sahara Africa has in turn embraced Sisi.

At the big Egypt Economic Development Conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh,  held in the second week of March, at which Cairo raked in billions of dollars for the array of projects that Sisi is pushing, the former general ensured he had strong sub-Saharan Africa representation.

Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, Comoros president Ikililou, Mali’s president Ibrahim Keita, Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, Sudan’s Bashir, and Tanzania vice president Mohamed Bilal all put in a show.

The terrorist threat

But one the more immediate issue driving Sisi’s reach-out to countries like Ethiopia, is the growing threat of transnational terrorism on the wider continent.

Sisi has repeatedly called for a joint Arabic military force to fight jihadists in the north, and at an Arab League summit in March leaders of the region agreed to establish such a force.

But with Islamic State having spread beyond Iraq and Syria, to Libya, Tunisia, and linking up with Boko Haram in Nigeria, even a sub-regional counter-insurgency is no longer practical.

They are not the leading military spenders, or even the most sophisticated, but right now in terms of raw boots-on-the-ground might, Egypt and Ethiopia are undoubtedly the leading two military big hitters in Africa.

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