Ethiopia’s latest civil war is being closely observed by Ethiopia’s neighbours, Sudan and South Sudan, but also – from further afield – by Egypt. For Cairo, water is the issue, and the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. On 28 November, Egypt’s president, Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi, arrived in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, to meet with his counterpart, Salva Kiir. Sisi was accompanied by the head of his intelligence service. Egypt had just completed two high-profile joint military exercises in Sudan. At the Marwa air base near Khartoum, the Sudanese military chief of staff had vowed to deter the country’s enemies and protect its borders.
The refugee camp at Hitsats, an hour’s drive through the mountains from the town of Shire, in the Ethiopian province of Tigray, consists of simple block structures with corrugated iron roofs. Skinny cows congregate in the shade of the buildings, oblivious to the humanitarian agency traffic lumbering past. Tigray lies along Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, and Hitsats now accommodates at least 12,000 Eritreans, fleeing the regime in Asmara. Last August, during the rainy season, the number stood at 34,000. New refugees were arriving daily, following a 2018 peace deal between the two countries, which threatened to choke off prospective Eritrean asylum seekers.
The masters of Egypt’s arcane bureaucracy are still using ‘special funds’, or extra-budgetary slush-fund accounts, to siphon off state revenues for private gain and dispersal to patronage networks. Before he was deposed and locked up, Mohamed Morsi made a few half-hearted attempts to reform the special funds system and repatriate money to the treasury. But Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who recently announced a ‘national anti-corruption strategy’, has made no serious move against this idiosyncratic levy, which flourished under Sadat in the 1970s and increased dramatically under Mubarak in the 1980s. The secret gardens of Egypt’s bureaucracy and deep state may be harder to intrude on than Sisi claims to believe.