When Egypt (re)asserts its military power in the region, Jeune Afrique


When Egypt (re)asserts its military power in the region

It is on January 21, 2024 that the recently re-elected Egyptian president welcomed his Somali counterpart, President Hassan Cheikh Mohamoud, at Al-Ittihadiya Palace in Cairo. The opportunity for Abdel Fattah al-Sissi to affirm his firm and frank support for Somalia, while opposing the agreement between Ethiopia and Somaliland, which should offer the former access to the Red Sea through the port of Berbera. The Egyptian position is not really surprising, the country itself being in conflict with Addis Ababa around the file of the great Renaissance dam, on the Nile. More broadly, these declarations also served as a reminder that Cairo intends to keep an eye on what is happening in the country which surround it. A desire that does not date from yesterday.

We first think of the 1801th century. Between the Napoleonic episode and the English protectorate, the period is rich in twists and turns. Egypt, in XNUMX, lived to the rhythm of modernization and reforms. Pharaonic projects follow one another at an insane pace. Some people think of the Suez Canal, the culmination of this societal upheaval, but this project is not the only one. The transformations will also impact geopolitics. And, at the time, Ethiopia will pay the price.


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The episode dates back precisely to 1875. The khedive (or viceroy) of Egypt, Ismaïl Pasha, was then in financial difficulty. The digging of the Suez Canal, financial pit for the country, does not keep its promises in terms of dividend entry. Raising funds from European banks does not seem to be a lasting solution. Also Ismail Pasha, already having a foot in Sudan, covets Ethiopia more and more openly. Which echoes the beginnings of the Egyptian colonial adventure in its southern neighbor, carried out in the 1820s.

At the time, it was Viceroy Mehmet Ali (or Muhammad Ali) who is in charge. He launched his army to attack Sudan, justifying his decision with three arguments. The first: we must put an end once and for all to the Mamluks, this Turkish dynasty which reigned in Egypt from 1250 to 1517 and which continued to influence Egyptian politics in the XNUMXth century.e century. Mehmet Ali put a number to the sword in 1811, but some found refuge in Sudan. Second argument: the Sudanese subsoil is renowned for its riches in precious materials (gold, diamonds and emeralds), but also in coal, vital for an Egyptian economy which is modernizing at all costs. Finally, Mehmet Ali hopes to enlist a black soldier, considered very valiant in combat. A decade later, Khartoum, the future capital, was founded.

Offensive on Ethiopia

When Mehmet Ali died, his successor, Ismaïl Pasha, continued his work. He even plans to go further, now turning his sights towards Ethiopia. The Egyptians first seize the ports of Zayla and Berbera, on the coast of Somalis. Objective: to ensure easier control over the country, then led by the negus John IV from Sudan. Three well-coordinated offensives were launched in October 1875, with two European officers at the head of the Egyptian armies, one Danish, the other Swiss. Colonel Soren Arendrup, at the head of a troop of 2 men, landed in the port city of Massawa (today in Eritrea). Simultaneously, Governor Werner Munzinger leaves Tadjourah (Djibouti) to advance inland. Finally, a third contingent is led by Arakil Bey Nubar.

The first offensives ended in victories, but in reality events did not unfold exactly as the Egyptians had imagined. One month after beginning hostilities, Munzinger falls into an ambush. Then came the two battles of Gunder and Gura. The first takes place on November 16. The Abyssinians, although poorly equipped, maneuvered skillfully and quickly got the better of the Egyptians. Bitter defeat for the khedive, who swears revenge.


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In March 1876, the game was replayed. To put all the chances on their side, the Egyptians dispatched an expeditionary force of 12 men. Against all expectations, the same catastrophic scenario is repeated for Ismaïl Pasha: his troops are defeated and his own son, Hassan Pasha, is captured, and 000 soldiers with him. After the defeat, the humiliation. The negus demands a gigantic ransom for the release of the prisoners. Thus ended, in the most complete opprobrium, the Egyptian intervention in Ethiopia.

A failure all the more shameful since the conquest of Sudan, which dates back to the beginning of the 19the century and had been led by Mehmet Ali, the grandfather of Ismaïl Pasha, had gone off without a hitch. The story, this time, dates back to 1811. At the time, and since the end of the XNUMXth century, a new radical reading of Islam, that of Ibn Wahab, caused crowds to rise up in the Arabian Peninsula. The Ibn Saud family will join the Wahhabis, which neither the Sublime Porte nor Cairo see favorably. So the viceroy decides to set up an expeditionary force, headed by his own son, Ibrahim Pacha.


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At war with the Sauds

“The campaign began in 1811. Egyptian troops established a foothold at Yanbu', the maritime gateway to Arabia, from Suez. A year later they are in Medina. Mecca fell in 1813. But the Wahhabis, who had taken refuge in the hinterland, resisted. […] King Saud died in 1814 of uremia. His son Abdallah succeeds him. He is experienced in the arts of war, but the disproportion of forces decides him to compromise. […] Ibrahim, brother of Tussan, takes it upon himself to reduce the Wahhabis to nothing. […] In the final battle, the Saud clan left twenty-one princes on the ground,” recounts historian Hamadi Redissi in his History of Wahhabism.

Ten years later, Egyptian troops se will plan even further by venturing to the other side of the Mediterranean. It was then a question of responding to the call of the Sultan of Istanbul, unable to quell the nationalist desires of the Greeks. Mehmet Ali had an entire war flotilla built and, in 1823, his troops bloodily suppressed the Greek revolt. They will then intervene in the Peloponnese, in the Morea as well as in the Cyclades Islands, always with Ibrahim Pasha in charge. The Egyptian expeditionary force took possession of the province which it occupied from 1824 to 1828. Three years later, historic Syria was in its sights. Ibrahim Pasha occupied it and gradually moved back towards Istanbul. He challenges the Ottoman Empire. Egyptian troops will only evacuate under the threat of armed intervention from the West.

Much more recently, in 1962, it was the Egyptian rais Nasser who sent his soldiers to Yemen, to the rescue of General Ali Abdullah Saleh. Having just come to power after a military coup, he found himself battling with the supporters of the monarchy (the Zaydist royalists), supported by Saudi Arabia. 70 Egyptian soldiers are going to Yemen, and the human toll will be heavy: 000 dead. This without mentioning the cost for the Egyptian economy, and, in the long term, the effects on the functioning of the army itself. Some analysts will also speak of "Egyptian Vietnam" to describe the war in Yemen, a quagmire which does not say consist of last name.

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