Policymakers in the United States have a bifurcated approach toward Egypt. On the one hand, human rights abuse under President Abdel Fattah el Sisi upset scholars, Congress, and even privately some diplomats. On the other hand, the White House and Pentagon appreciate Sisi’s no-nonsense approach to deradicalization and counterterrorism operations. Whereas Mohamed Morsi, the late president ousted in a 2013 coup (or, as Sisi’s supporters would say, revolution), was a Muslim Brotherhood acolyte who flirted with both the Islamic Republic of Iran and Hamas, Sisi refuses to work with either regime. In Libya, Sisi also supports Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the more secular Libyan National Army, against the Turkey- and Qatar-backed Islamist regime of Fayez al Sarraj. While Egypt’s position contravenes official U.S. policy which continues to support the Islamists, more out of annoyance at Haftar’s antics and flirtation with Moscow than from any more principled stand, behind the scenes, both the CIA and Pentagon are more comfortable with Haftar and quietly applaud Sisi’s efforts.
U.S. support for Sisi and ambivalence toward Sarraj explain why the Trump administration downplayed a 2016 incident in which Egypt reportedly imported approximately 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades from North Korea in violation of an embargo on purchasing weapons from that country. While the incident occurred before Trump’s watch, the decisions about ramifications followed Trump’s inauguration. Initial press reporting suspected Egypt was the ultimate destination of that weaponry, but this likely was inaccurate: The Egyptian military largely uses American weaponry but, under late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan military relied on the Soviet Union and its satellites for its supplies. Even today, Haftar’s army prefers the old East bloc weaponry upon which their senior leaders were trained. East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union are no more, but North Korea has similar weaponry,
Libya was a morass and proxy war before Cairo threw its weight behind Haftar, but the latest alleged Egyptian weapons transfer is different: It risks not only upending security in the Horn of Africa but also could catalyze a violent blowback in Cairo. At issue are reports that Egypt’s Defense Ministry transferred more than a dozen types of weaponry to Somalia’s Ministry of Defense in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. Cairo is playing a naive game of the enemy of my enemy is a friend. Egyptian authorities remain furious that the Ethiopians are moving ahead with the Grand Renaissance Dam, the completion of which could severely affect Nile flow into Egypt.
Somalia and Ethiopia are rivals, if not enemies. The two countries fought a bloody war in the late 1970s, and Ethiopian forces have entered Somalia several times since to push back Islamist forces or prevent their entrenchment in government. There are two problems, however.
First, there is a question of what the Federal Government of Somalia might do with the weaponry. Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo, Somalia’s president, has not only diverted aid meant to counter al Shabab in order to better fight his democratic rivals, but he has also encouraged al Shabab to stage attacks outside Somalia. It is possible that the weaponry will destabilize Somalia further if not end up with al Shabab.
Second, there is Somalia’s broader diplomatic orientation. Despite the tens of billions of dollars the West and international institutions have invested in Somalia and its stability, Farmajo has reoriented Somalia’s foreign policy toward Turkey and Qatar, two states which actively fund the Muslim Brotherhood and more extreme groups, and remain hostile to Egypt. Farmajo has appointed Fahad Yasin, a former Al Jazeera journalist and an extremist himself, to be director-general of Somalia’s National Intelligence and Security Agency. Farmajo also welcomes SADAT, a Turkish private contractor group that also trains and supplies Hamas. Farmajo and Yasin can divert weaponry transferred to Somalia outside international controls more easily to radical groups, many of which make common cause with Egypt’s Islamist opposition.
If Egypt seeks to pressure Ethiopia over the Great Renaissance Dam, the best way for Cairo to move forward would be to take diplomatic or economic action against the dam’s foreign financiers. But Sisi’s current approach will fail: The weapons his government has allegedly provided the Somali government are far more likely to end up in the hands of anti-Egyptian radicals than those who seek to counter Ethiopia. Perhaps, for the sake of regional security, it is time for the Trump administration to stop turning a blind eye to Egypt’s weapons trade.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.