Egypt: Piracy and history

Jonathan Wright of Reuters has a great story on Egypt's attitude towards the Somali crisis, which is having an impact on Suez Canal income as ships begin to re-route around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the area off Yemen and Somalia where most of ships are being attacked. It covers the parallels between the fall of Mamluk Egypt to the Ottoman, when the Sultan al-Ghouriwas unable to face piracy on the Red Sea as he fought Ottoman advances in Syria, and today:

Egypt shows no signs of military response to piracy
Tue 25 Nov 2008, 10:57 GMT

By Jonathan Wright

CAIRO, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Marauding seamen infest the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, extracting tolls from shipping and disrupting an ancient trade route between Asia and Europe.

Egypt, one of the main direct beneficiaries of the transit trade, takes time to react. The government is in the hands of an aging leader, who looks to outside powers for help.

That was the challenge that Mamluk ruler Qansuh al-Ghouri faced in the early 16th century, when Portuguese ships appeared unexpectedly east of Suez and started to harass Egypt-bound shipping in the Red Sea and its approaches.

After centuries of peaceful trading, Egypt had no Red Sea fleet capable of countering the Portuguese menace. It may have underestimated the danger, despite diplomatic overtures from Venice, Yemen and the princes who ruled the west coast of India.

Egypt's first response to the threat from Somali pirates this year has also been cautious, given that it is probably the country with most to lose if more shipping companies avoid the Suez Canal and divert their fleets to the Cape of Good Hope.

Egypt, which has some frigates capable of patrolling the Gulf of Aden, has not deployed any warships to the area, where ships from India, Russia, NATO, the United States and the European Union are trying to suppress Somalia-based piracy.

"They (the Egyptians) have been slow to respond ... As yet, I'm not aware of them making any formal approaches to take part in the naval forces that are operating in the area," said Jason Alderwick, defence analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

President Hosni Mubarak, 80 years old and in power for 27 years, last week played down the gravity of the problem and gave no indication of imminent action by Egypt.

"The pirate operations threaten the whole international community, not the Suez Canal and Egyptian sovereignty," he told Egyptian newspaper editors last Thursday.

"This problem could come to an end if merchant ships arm themselves with heavy artillery to deal with the pirates," he added, quoted in the state newspaper al-Gomhuria.

A senior government official, who asked not to be named, said on Monday that the Somali-based piracy was "not a problem" and Mubarak had not received any proposals from the Ministry of Defence to intervene militarily.

REGIONAL MEETING

A Ministry of Defence official, who also asked not to be named, said that piracy was an international problem and had to be solved in an international framework.

A Defence Ministry spokesman referred questions on Egypt's response to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said it had no word of any military preparations.

Egypt and Yemen did organise a meeting of the Arab League states on the Red Sea littoral in Cairo last week but the senior officials also deferred to international initiatives.

The officials -- from Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen -- proposed setting up a regional information centre on piracy and joint training for their coast guard forces.

A military expert familiar with the Egyptian navy said the Arab country could make a significant contribution to the international campaign against the Somali pirates.

"If you look at what they have in the way of assets, then yes, they can. For this mission you need frigates with a helicopter capability, and they have that," the expert said.

Public information on the Egyptian navy lists 12 frigates, most of which can carry helicopters.

Alderwick of the IISS said: "They certainly have the assets in terms of surface combatants that are able to make a contribution. Smaller navies have already made contributions."

Although the Egyptian navy has not often ventured out of the Red Sea southwards, its warships could refuel and resupply from ports in Yemen and Oman, or rotate out of Suez, he added.

The naval expert said Egypt's immediate concern was to keep piracy out of the Red Sea, which lies within what the country traditionally sees as its sphere of influence. The effect of piracy on Suez Canal revenues is not yet clear, he added.

"Looking at Egypt's behaviour for the last 50 years, is it their habit, and do they have the interoperability, to go and fight further afield? It's difficult to say. It would be new for them to act against a new threat in that way," he said.

In the case of the Portuguese in the early 16th century, the Mamluk government of Egypt did eventually react. It drove them out of the Red Sea, where they were threatening the port of Jeddah, and launched a fleet far into the Indian Ocean.

But the economic challenge to trade and Egypt's growing dependence on the powerful Ottoman Empire for naval supplies and military technology contributed to the Mamluk collapse.

In 1516 Sultan Qansuh al-Ghouri, by that time 75 years old, died in battle against the Ottomans in northern Syria, and the Ottoman Turks ruled Egypt for the following 300 years. (Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Giles Elgood)
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.