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The Restoration of Stability Along the Red Sea is a Global Priority


Article by His Imperial Highness Prince Ermias Sahle-Selassie Haile-Selassie in “DEFENSE & FOREIGN AFFAIRS STRATEGIC POLICY” Journal, 2, 1999

It may be easy to see why the European powers and the United States are preoccupied with the conflicts of the Balkans. They are physical squabbles being undertaken in the front parlor of their societies, where tranquility has reigned for 50 years. They are boisterous and dangerous and threaten — right in the face of the world’s most powerful media and political bodies — to expand into crises which could destroy or at least harm that peace and prosperity, and therefore the economic engines of the world.

The greater Horn of Africa crisis now underway in “the boiler room” of the global economy is, however, of even more immediate concern to the United States and the West. It is a crisis which is little understood globally, and which — when it is viewed at all — is seen in fragmentary terms and without any understanding of history or broader strategic ramifications.

The current Eritrea-Ethiopia war — still not fully concluded at the end of February 1999 — and the radical external forces bent on breaking up Ethiopia are part of the regional human tragedy which affect me and my compatriots personally with the destruction of our very homes and cultures, but there are broader and very real strategic issues which make the situation of immediate concern to the United States and the other major world powers.

There are numerous interlocking pieces to the strategic mosaic, all of which affect the global economy and the relative position of the United States as the world’s remaining effective force capable of sustained power brokerage. In broad terms, these include:

The security of the Red Sea/Suez Canal Sea Lane of Communication (SLOC), which vitally affects East-West trade (not just the oil trade) between Europe and Asia, including particularly Japan and Australia. Within this context, the ability of Israel and Jordan to maintain adequate maritime access to the Red Sea (and therefore world trade) is significant;
The containment of organized transnational radicalism as a structured antagonist toward the global trading community;
The destabilization of Egypt, a country which, apart from its vital geopolitical position controlling the Suez Canal/Red Sea SLOC, is the cornerstrone of the Arab-Israeli Peace Process;
The management of the Nile waters, critical to the stability, prosperity and growth of Sudan, Egypt, and now the Palestinian areas, and therefore, again, the Peace Process;
The containment of the spread of radicalism down into Africa, a process currently occurring from Sudan’s National Islamic Front (NIF) Government, and with the assistance of Iran, but which is also being fostered by, for example, Eritrean support for radical separatist Oromo forces designed to break up Ethiopia still further;
Ensuring the freedom of Israel and Jordan to have access to the Red Sea SLOC, vital to their security and prosperity.
There are many subsidiary aspects to all of these points, particularly involving the costs of the human tragedies of wars, repression and ignorant policies on the peoples of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia. But let us dwell on just one question to begin with:

What would happen to the West’s position if the Government of Egypt was overthrown and a radical Islamist state created in its place? (And there is a direct causal relationship to such an eventuality as a result of the success of the radical initiatives which have been sponsored out of Sudan and backed by Iran, despite the current ptial rapprochement between Egypt and “official” Sudan, as opposed to the “unofficial” Sudanese leadership.)

In Ethiopia, the revolution against the Dergue did not succeed because of victories on the battlefield. We cannot forget that it was the collapse of the Soviet Union which forced the consequent collapse of the extremist Dergue leadership of Ethiopia in 1991. When the West was preoccupied with Iraq and the break-up of the USSR, it was Sudan which fielded two divisions of armor into Ethiopia with the aim of putting its own allies, the Tigré Popular Liberation Front (TPLF) into power in Ethiopia, and its then allies in Eritrea, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front (EPLF; now PFDJ) into office in a newly-created break-away independent state.

As noted earlier, the two communist groups, the TPLF (now EPRDF) and the EPLF, did not come into power because of their great successes on the battlefield. They achieved power because of the collapse of the USSR and the timely support of a country which has as its stated aim the radicalization of the region. Sudan intends, according to the NIF’s spiritual and philosophical leader, Dr Hassan al-Turabi, to break up Ethiopia into a patchwork of Islamist states, and to overthrow Egypt and bring it under radical Islamist leadership. Ethiopia is currently the only country in the Middle East to have a harmonious balance of Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

Dr al-Turabi and his colleagues did not assist in the overthrow of the Dergue and the break-up of Ethiopia in 1991 to help the Ethiopian and Eritrean peoples, but as part of an ongoing program of the export of radicalism which has already extended throughout Africa, even into South Africa.

If Egypt’s moderate Government was overthrown and replaced by radicals, it is likely that the peace accords with Israel would be disavowed, and Saudi Arabia would face increasing radical pressure without the back-up of the major regional power, and the US would lack the Egyptian facilities (which it had for the 1990-91 Gulf Crisis) to support Saudi Arabia. The Red Sea-Suez SLOC — which was closed down completely in 1974 by the dropping of four sea-mines from the Libyan minelayer Ghat — would become, once again, a “no go” area for world shipping. Ethiopia and Eritrea would become further isolated, and radicalization would spread more easily down through Kenya and into East and Central Africa.

In other words, the hope of an African economic turnaround would be further jeopardized. There would be a trend toward radical, anti-Western positions being taken from Iran, down through Arabia, the Horn and North Africa, into sub-Saharan Africa. Major sea traffic would be re-routed around the Cape of Good Hope, once again, adding significantly to the costs of international trade.

All of this is developing at a time of growing polarization between the West and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There is little doubt but that the PRC has already been of significant strategic assistance to Iran, and this assists Iranian support of Sudan and the overall export of radicalism. The fact that the PRC has a treaty alliance with North Korea (DPRK) adds to the texture and substance of an emerging new radical, or at least anti-Western, bloc. It would be easy to sensationalize this as a coherent, planned development of a new bi-polar world. Clearly, it is not: it is a situation which is evolving organically.

The world is by default drifting into new alignments by the coincidence of activities.

My Grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie I, warned the League of Nations in 1935 of the emergence of the then-newly-emerging tyranny of fascism. He received too little support, too late. Ethiopia was invaded by Italy in part because Britain and France at first indicated their disinterest in Italy’s intentions. The result was that once Italy had invaded, it took years of hard fighting to remove them. Ethiopia was rescued only as a result of World War II, which galvanized the international effort against fascism and nazism, and gave support to the Ethiopian resistance which had fought the Italian invasion since 1935.

A new process of strategic imbalance is occurring again today, and once again the warning signals come from the broader Middle East, and area which includes not only Arabia and the Levant, but also the Horn of Africa, as well as North Africa, and the Northern Tier.

The restoration of unity, peace and economic growth in Ethiopia, and the suppression of radicalization exported from the Sudan (and aided currently for tactical reasons in some aspects from Eritrea) will go a long way to ensuring peace for Egypt. The stability of Egypt is of vital concern to us all, but it cannot occur if the upstream Nile countries of Sudan and Ethiopia are in chaos or are radicalized.

It is difficult for observers outside the region to comprehend the absolute importance of the Nile to this equation. Egypt has said that, short of invasion by a foreign power, only interference with the flow of Nile waters would be sufficient to provoke the nation into a new war. Officials from the current Ethiopian civil Administration have already called for a reconsideration of the 1959 Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters, which allocates the entire flow of the river to the Sudan and Egypt.

Ethiopia is already beginning work on a strategy to develop a range of micro-dams which could reduce downstream flow of the Nile by some seven-billion cubic meters (bcm) a year. Egypt already uses all of its 55bcm/year quota and is working on new irrigation schemes for the Sinai desert (which would require some 5.5bcm/year) and is considering projects which would feed Nile water to the Palestinian lands.

The Nile question, then, is already one which provokes great concern. But it would provoke still more concern if Ethiopia was to be further dismembered and those patchwork new states which would be created were radicalized, as Dr al-Turabi and his allies wish. There would be little hope of achieving a balanced water-useage consensus then.

Threats to the Red Sea SLOCs jeopardize half od Egypt’s foreign exchange earnings. Threats to its tourist trade threaten the other half of its foreign exchange earnings. Threats to constrain the amount of Nile waters which Egypt can use jeopardize Egypt’s internal prosperity, growth and stability.

Ethiopia, until 1974, played a key role in ensuring free access to the Red Sea SLOCs by the international community. Today, that role is constrained because of the war which Eritrea began against Ethiopia and the fact that — despite some 3,000 years of harmonious marriage of Ethiopian and Eritrean interests — Ethiopia is currently denied its traditional access to the Red Sea. Because of the hostility from Eritrea, Ethiopia is forced to expand its relations with Djibouti, upgrading the road and rail communications links so that Ethiopian exports can reach the international market.

But the war which Eritrea began with Ethiopia in 1998 may well see Eritrean elements spurred in their rebellion against the Government of President Isayas Afewerke. Already, the Afar peoples — a largely Muslim group on the Djibouti border, extending into Eritrea and Ethiopia — have begun to rebel, and their territory, including the port city of Assab, could well opt out of the fragile Eritrean state and elect to throw its lot, once more, in with Ethiopia. Certainly that appears to be the direction which Bitwoded Ali Mera, Sultan of the Afars, is taking.

So in the end, the current war between Ethiopia and Eritrea may restore Ethiopia’s access to the sea. Already, it has forced a new alliance with Djibouti which effectively restores Ethiopia’s sea access. In one way or another, Ethiopia will have access to, and influence over, the strategic control of the Red Sea.

Even the Eritrean Labour Party, which has been suppressed by the Isayas Government, said on February 20, 1999: “We are open to Ethiopia’s legitimate right of access to the sea…We cannot think or dream of denying the other people of Ethiopia their natural right of ownership and access of the Red Sea. We cannot either deny the people of Eritrea the right to live in harmony and peace with the other peoples of Ethiopia with whom they share the same blood, religion, alphabet and language, culture and custom as well as an interwoven economic and political life from time immemorial.”

The longer the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea continues, the more damage it does to the infrastructures, economies and social adjustment of all the peoples of the region. Furthermore, while Ethiopia and Eritrea sap their energies in a futile conflict, other factors are at work which could lead to a further deterioration in Ethiopia’s unity, and in the overall stability of the region.

We know from history that any conflict in a region affects more than the directly warring parties. In the case of the current crisis in the Horn of Africa, we see the security of the Red Sea jeopardized; we see a failure to resolve the ongoing crisis in Somalia because there can be no focus on this problem while Ethiopia and Eritrea are at war.

We have seen, thus far, a failure of all international efforts aimed at bringing about a mediated end to the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. As a result, the prestige of the United States has suffered enormously in Africa, as has the prestige of the Organization for African Unity (OAU) which is based in Addis Ababa.

There are Ethiopians and Eritreans who actively wish for peace and a new harmony between our peoples. What we are witnessing today is, in one part, a legacy of the colonial era, during which Italy worked to divide Eritrea away from its co-religionists and historical partners further inland. We are also witnessing a legacy of the Cold War, because the parties now in power in Addis Ababa and Asmara are there as a result firstly of the Soviet support for the Dergue, followed by the collapse of the Dergue when the Soviet Union collapsed.

What was occurring in Ethiopia before the Soviet-backed Dergue siezed power was the peaceful and successful evolution of a traditional state, steeped in customs and traditions dating back 3,000 and more years, to a Constitutional Monarchy, with an elected, democratic Parliament, a free press, with the freedom of its citizens to worship and assemble as they pleased. We saw the wellbeing of the society modernize from 1930 to 1974 at a pace which was dizzying. And the coup occurred in 1974 not because of the failure of Ethiopia to progress under Emperor Haile Selassie, but because many entrenched elements in the bureaucracy and society refused to advance at the pace which the Emperor wished. If there was a revolutionary in Ethiopia, then it was my Grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie.

What we are witnessing today is a society led by people who arrived on the scene by accident; who are mired in divisive, petty squabbling. The result is that the region is divided and at risk. And the risk is one shared by the entire world: a further breakdown in the region could lead to the collapse of the pivotal powers, and a total disruption of the trade routes and the Middle Eastern oil trade. But worse than this, by not seeing the Ethiopia-Eritrea dispute in the broader context — and acting accordingly — the world may be condemning the peoples of the region, including those of Egypt and North Africa, Arabia and the Northern Tier, to many more years of despair.

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