Egyptian officials have been pressuring the United States to delay a referendum on South Sudanese independence, a newly-leaked US Embassy cable has revealed. In the October 2009 cable, obtained today by Al-Masry Al Youm and not yet released by WikiLeaks, Egypt draws the United States’ attention to the “fatal implications” should South Sudan choose to secede in a referendum next January.
“The result would be the creation of a non-viable state that could threaten Egypt's access to the Nile waters,” says an Egyptian foreign ministry official quoted in the cable. The official suggested that the 2011 referendum be postponed for four to six years until the "capacity for statehood in South Sudan can be developed.”
The issue of South Sudanese secession has been a contentious one for Egyptian officials as Sudan remains a key Egyptian ally in on-going disputes with Nile Basin countries over water shares. A divided Sudan, Egypt fears, can compromise Egyptian water security interests and further tilt the balance of power in favor of upstream countries who want increased control over the Nile waters.
Ethiopia, which is at the helm of efforts to renogotiate water shares, has recently accused Egypt of supporting domestic Ethiopian insurgents to leverage control over the Nile dispute, a charge that Egypt has flatly denied. Ethiopia is the source of 85 percent of the Nile's river water, though Egypt receives a lion’s share of the water according to a 1929 agreement signed with the British government. Upstream states have criticized the agreement as a relic of colonialism.
Contrary to what Egyptian officials stated according to the cable, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said in August 2010 that Sudan's referendum should be held in January 2011 as scheduled. His remarks came after a meeting with the Sudanese State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Kamal Hassan Ali. According to the leaked cable, the Egyptian government also asked the US government to convince Sudanese leaders of the dangers of separation and to encourage them to advocate for unity.
More recent statements last month show some divergences between US and Egyptian visions for Sudan. State Department spokesperson Philip Crowley said in November that the United States had rejected a suggestion by Egypt for a "confederation" between North and South Sudan. Crowley asserted it was up to the people of South Sudan to determine their own fate. On general Egyptian-African affairs, the cable goes on to say:
“The GoE [Government of Egypt] views the Horn of Africa as vital to its national security interests. Instability in the region might result in an increase in the flow of African refugees into Egypt, threaten Egypt's access to Nile waters, and affect Egyptian Suez Canal revenues and security in the Red Sea.”
The cable includes lengthy discussions about Egypt’s role in attempting to stabilize Somalia. It confirms Egypt’s support for Somali President Shaykh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, head of the Transnational Federal Government (TFG), but notes that Egypt remains “skeptical the TFG can militarily defeat Hizb al-Islam or al-Shibaab,” two Islamist insurgent groups operating in the southern part of the country, the latter one being affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The TFG remains the internationally recognized federal government of Somalia. It was ousted in a 2006 military coup led by the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which then imposed Shari’a law. Shortly afterwards, Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers, backed by US air support, restored power to the TFG, causing the ICU to split into smaller groups, including al-Shibaab, which have conducted insurgency campaigns against the government since then. In the cable, Egyptian officials underscore their own efforts to train Sharif’s presidential guards and their willingness to train the Somali police and armed forces. They also recommend working with the US to encourage Islamist leader and former Ahmed ally Shaykh Dahir Aweys--who later became affiliated with the Hizb al-Islam insurgency--to join the TFG and have his name removed from international terrorist lists. For Egypt, instability in Somalia represents a threat to the Red Sea area, where maritime shipping though the Suez Canal constitutes an important source of state revenue. In the cable, Egyptian officials are also expected to propose more cooperation with USAID in the Horn of Africa to promote Egypt’s regional interests.