News | War / Peace - North Africa - East Africa Egypt: A Regional Hegemon in Decline

Escalating tensions in the Red Sea have exposed Cairo’s dwindling influence in the Horn of Africa


Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a press conference during his state visit to the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, 18 July 2022. Photo: IMAGO / snapshot

There is an old Arabic proverb that states, “Misfortunes never come singly.” Incidentally, this line probably best describes the seemingly never-ending challenges Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime finds itself in.

Hossam el-Hamalawy is an Egyptian journalist and socialist activist currently based in Berlin. His posts appear regularly on Substack and Twitter.

Egypt’s autocrat had already been embroiled in an economic crisis before 7 October, with foreign debt spiraling out of control and local currency values dropping to unprecedented lows. The war between Israel and Hamas only exacerbated the country’s political and financial woes. Regardless of assurances from the Egyptian authorities that revenue losses could be absorbed, the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are already translating into a sharp reduction in income from shipping transit in the Suez Canal.

Amid this regional instability, alarm bells went off in Cairo, as its officials nervously watched their archrivals in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa secure a strategic win by gaining access to the Red Sea via a deal with the breakaway republic of Somaliland. This coup reveals what observers have long known to be true: Egypt today has remarkably little geopolitical clout. It lacks both the soft and hard power to contain Ethiopia on its own, let alone change the balance of forces in the Horn of Africa.

Cairo’s Eclipse

The more regional turmoil brews, the more Egypt is exposed as a regional hegemon in decline, with no power to project even in its traditional spheres of influence.

This is particularly visible in the ongoing war in Gaza, where Sisi operates the Rafah Crossing, essentially an Egyptian-Palestinian border controlled by Israel, deciding who gets in and out and the amount of aid allowed in. Even Cairo’s traditional role as the key mediator between the Palestinian factions and Israel is now being outshined by Doha.

To the south, Cairo’s political influence is also declining. Relations with the Nile Basin countries have always been a strategic file overseen by the Egyptian General Intelligence Service (GIS). Cairo enjoyed strong political influence across the continent in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly due to the late Gamal Abdel Nasser’s support for anti-colonial struggles. Africa was also one of the arenas for spy wars between the Israeli Mossad and the GIS, which were lionized in Egyptian pop culture.

That influence went into a steady decline under Nasser’s successors, who were only interested in garnering US and European support for their regimes. The decline accelerated exponentially after the 2013 military coup, which saw the regime become completely dependent on the financial and political backing of foreign powers seeking a swift end to the Egyptian revolution.

Successive Egyptian regimes have treated the Red Sea like a strategic backyard, where maritime traffic flow is a matter of life or death for the state’s income and regional influence.

In Sudan, Egypt failed to exert any influence on the outcome of the 2019 uprising that toppled Omar Bashir. This was dramatic from their point of view, as the Egyptian authorities feared that the civilian protests would spill over into their country. Instead, it was Ethiopia that brokered a political settlement between the Sudanese opposition and the military.

Cairo backed the 2021 coup against the civilian government by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which failed to stabilize the country. By April 2023, Sudan was engulfed in a civil war that pitted the army against the RSF. Cairo backed the SAF, which faced catastrophic defeats in one city after the other. Meanwhile, the ongoing diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict are hosted in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Djibouti — not Egypt, which has zero influence on the process.

To add insult to injury, videos emerged at the start of the civil war of RSF soldiers capturing Egyptian jets and humiliating Egyptian soldiers stationed in Merowe airbase. The Egyptian military spokesman announced those soldiers were in Sudan for “joint training” with their Sudanese counterparts, but it was no secret that Egypt wanted an advanced position from where its jets could threaten Ethiopia. This position has now been lost.

Red Sea Blues

Since Yemen’s Houthi forces began attacking cargo liners in the Red Sea in retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza, most shipping giants have decided to suspend their operations and reroute their vessels around the Cape of Good Hope. As a result, Suez Canal revenues declined by 44 percent in January compared to the same month last year.

The Suez Canal connects the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, a vital route responsible for 12 percent of global trade. It is also one of the main sources of the hard currency that Cairo so desperately needs, along with worker remittances and tourism. Although the latter sector has witnessed a steady recovery since the pandemic, its future remains uncertain should regional instability persist. Remittances sent home by Egyptian expats have also declined by 29.9 percent according to the Central Bank’s report on the first quarter of the fiscal year.

Successive Egyptian regimes have treated the Red Sea like a strategic backyard, where maritime traffic flow is a matter of life or death for the state’s income and regional influence. Egypt fought Britain, France, and Israel in 1956 to gain control of the canal. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, the Egyptian navy closed Bab el-Mandab strait to impose a blockade against Israel.

Cairo is thus unsurprisingly concerned by the Houthi intervention in the regional turmoil, launching attacks against ships destined to or affiliated with Israel, before expanding the campaign to target other ships affiliated with the countries conducting air and naval strikes in “self-defense”, such as the US and Britain. Its regional decline is now on full display, with little recourse to reverse it.

A Controversial Agreement

On the first day of 2024, a pact was declared and signed by Addis Ababa and the breakaway statelet of Somaliland, whereby the latter would grant landlocked Ethiopia access to the Red Sea. This was followed by talks to strengthen military cooperation between the two.

The exact details of the agreement have not been publicly disclosed, but the declaration was enough to arouse the anxieties of the Egyptian regime and some local powerbrokers in Somaliland itself. The defense minister of Somaliland, for instance, resigned in anger.

Although both countries have official diplomatic relations, in effect Egypt and Ethiopia have developed a rivalry over the past decade, which has morphed into outright hostility at least in diplomacy and public rhetoric.

Today, under Sisi, Egypt is largely irrelevant to the world order.

The Nile River is the primary source of water for Egyptians. Over the past decade, Egypt has been trying to stop Ethiopia from building the Grand Renaissance Dam, which Egyptians perceive as a strategic threat to their water resources. Ethiopia, for its part, sees the dam as essential for its development efforts and denounces Egypt’s quota of Nile water as an unjust relic of the colonial past.

After several rounds of prolonged negotiations, the Egyptian government announced last December that talks over the dam had failed, asserting that “Egypt reserves its right, under international charters and accords, to defend its water and national security in case of any harm.”

Transparency is hardly a trait we can attach to the Egyptian regime. That said, it appears that Sisi had no other option.

Sisi’s Depleted Diplomatic Arsenal

In the 1950s, Egypt supported Somalia’s national liberation struggle and was the first country to recognize its independence. Under Sadat, Egypt was part of the anti-communist Safari Club that armed Somalia in its war with Ethiopia. Relations weakened in the following decades, which already saw a steady decline in Egypt’s influence in the continent.

Eyeing the Ethiopian-Somaliland pact with concern, Egypt immediately sent a senior diplomatic delegation to discuss the matter with Somalia’s president. Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was also dispatched to Eritrea. Cairo is trying to mobilize its (rather depleted) diplomatic arsenal in support of Somalia. The latter’s President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was invited to Cairo for a two-day visit, during which Sisi declared “Egypt will not allow any threat to Somalia or its security.” The following month, Eritrea’s President Isaias Afwerki was also invited to Cairo for talks.

Cairo is also behind the Arab League’s denunciation of the pact. Yet, it’s a largely hollow move, since the league has zero impact on policymaking in any of its member states. One explicit example is the United Arab Emirates. While the league does not recognize Somaliland, the latter enjoys close military, diplomatic, and economic relations with the Emiratis. Dubai Ports World operates in the breakaway statelet, part of the UAE’s quest for maritime hegemony.

There was a time, under Nasser, when Egypt was a regional hegemon challenging the world order. After that period, it was a regional hegemon serving the world order under Sadat and Mubarak. Today, under Sisi, Egypt is largely irrelevant to the world order. Due to its relative size, and after the turbulence it unleashed with the 2011 revolution, it remains a country that is “too big to fail” –no less, and no more.