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Egypt: Balancing regional conflict with domestic issues

Written by Kevin Heller and Elena de Mitri


 

Egypt, known for its beautiful tourist attractions, its long history of civilization, and its role as mediator in the Middle East conflict, now faces acute political, security, and economic problems, both regionally and internally. Egypt shares borders with three countries involved in armed conflicts and has undergone an election in December 2023 which caused substantial protests. With tensions with Ethiopia, the war in neighboring Sudan, instability in Libya, and troubles with Israel at the Rafah border, Egypt currently has a lot on its plate.





Egypt and Ethiopia 


Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, photo credit: Ana E. Cascão, July 2016.

Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia has been particularly tense since the 1960s. A central point of tension is the disagreement about sharing the Nile River waters, rooted in competing claims over colonial-era sharing agreements. When Ethiopia announced the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, the most important Nile tributary, the Egyptian government raised concerns about the impact on its water needs, especially considering the future impact climate change will have on water reserves. Egypt heavily relies on the Nile for agriculture and worries that the filling time for the dam will reduce its water supply. According to Ethiopia, the construction of the dam is fundamental to sustaining the country’s economic development. In 2015, Egypt and Ethiopia, along with Sudan, signed an agreement to cooperate on matters regarding the shared use of the Nile Waters. Talks between the three countries ensued but never reached a definitive conclusion, with Egypt refusing to concede any right on the Nile waters to the other countries. When Ethiopia started filling the dam in 2020 to generate electricity, the tensions resurfaced with talks among the three countries but ultimately failed. In 2024, the ongoing tensions also led Egypt to support Somalia’s protests after the breakaway state Somaliland granted Ethiopia the use of part of its Red Sea coastline, a territory officially belonging to Somalia. In the last few years, there has even been some saber-rattling between Egypt and Ethiopia adding fuel to the fire. A military confrontation between the two countries could be disastrous for them and the wider region.


Egypt, Gaza, and Israel 



Rafah crossing Point
Rafah crossing Point, photo credit: Gigi Ibrahim, November 2012.

Gaza is another trouble spot for Egypt, especially since the start of the Israeli military operation in October 2023. While the Israeli offensive was focused mainly in the northern territory of Gaza, most Palestinian civilians moved towards the south, where Gaza borders Egypt. The border hosts the Rafah crossing, managed by Egypt. Since the first days, the Rafah border crossing has been a contentious point. While the crossing has been open for the delivery of humanitarian aid, Egypt has been unwilling to open it to allow people to exit Gaza. With the Israeli military moving its operations towards the south, there are many concerns about the future of the refugees in Rafah as there are limited options to ensure their safety. Nevertheless, Egypt has not shown a particular willingness to open the border and take people in. While the Egyptian Army has moved troops and armored vehicles to strengthen the border, Egypt has started building a tent camp, making it unclear whether or not the country expects an influx of refugees. Moreover, Egypt has threatened to suspend the Camp David Accords if Israel proceeds with the Rafah ground offensive, which would have important consequences for both countries. 


Egypt and Sudan

The situation in Sudan is deteriorating fast as the government forces of the SAF are still in conflict with the insurgents of the RSF. Egypt has a long history of supporting the SAF with training and equipment but has been hesitant to get involved in the conflict, possibly because the country is more concerned with the situation with Ethiopia and Israel. Until now, Cairo has been trying to get the warring parties to sit at the negotiating table but without any great success. With the Egyptian economy in decline and other Arab countries and the IMF not willing to lend Cairo any more money, the conflict in its southern neighbor has further impacted the economic situation. Egypt can no longer import or export goods with Sudan, which was a big partner in trade before the war, especially for foodstuffs, and the influx of refugees from Sudan and other southern African countries has reached over 260.000.


Egypt and Lybia

On the western border of Egypt, Libya has been an issue for Cairo ever since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 and the resulting civil war. The country is still divided into two separate parts that are ruled by military regimes who often make their living by smuggling weapons and drugs and regularly fight each other over territory. Egypt has throughout the years had to severely bolster its military presence on the border to keep the conflict from spilling over into its territory. The border region is also known for being a channel for migrant workers from Egypt crossing into Libya. After the recent floods that destroyed great parts of the Libyan coastline, however, many Egyptians were forcefully sent back by Libyan militias as work opportunities decreased suddenly.





Internal struggles and regional challenges

With internal issues being increasingly pressing, Egypt has strived to prevent conflict from bordering countries from spilling over into its territories. Inflation in the country is still high, while the economy is struggling, and Houthi’s attacks on shipments along the Red Sea further impact Egypt’s revenues. Climate change is also expected to heavily impact the economy, especially with water scarcity, along with rising tensions with Ethiopia. Protests have increased after al-Sisi’s reelection in December 2023 and are becoming an increasing source of concern for the government. It is no surprise that Egypt is pursuing a noninterventionist foreign policy to avoid a worsening of its economic and political conditions. But how long can it last?



 

2024 Egypt_Article
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