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Egypt is making Africa a top priority as it prepares to take over chairmanship of the African Union (AU) in 2019. President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to take part in the 32nd African Summit to be held in Addis Ababa, becoming AU chair during the summit.
In his address to the summit, Al-Sisi will explain Egypt’s plan during its chairmanship of the AU to strengthen peace and security in Africa, topped by resolving conflicts and improving conditions in Libya, Somalia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He will also confirm Cairo’s determination to benefit from a long history of cooperation with the African continent in order to contribute to the development of its countries through joint projects.
Egypt will also intensify efforts to ensure realisation of the continent’s 2063 Vision with the aim of achieving comprehensive economic and social development.
One of the key economic projects Egypt has been working on with fellow African nations is aimed at establishing a land road between Cairo and Cape Town as part of a plan to develop Africa. The road would be about 10,300 kilometres long and would start from Alexandria Port on the Mediterranean Sea, passing Cairo, Sudan, Southern Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and finally reaching South Africa. Egypt’s part of the road, until the border with Sudan, has been completed and is ready to operate, according to Egyptian officials.
The security challenges facing Africa in the presence of terrorist groups such as IS in Libya, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda in southern Algeria must be overcome to ensure further expansion of the road network.
Considering that water is a matter of national security to Egypt, with the River Nile being the main source of drinking water for more than 100 million people, Cairo will continue developing ties with brotherly Nile Basin states. One of the ambitious projects Egypt has been working on aims at restoring transportation through the River Nile. A river connection project between Alexandria and Lake Victoria should make Egypt a gateway for river transport to Central Africa, a project costing nearly $18 billion. Benefiting from its long-standing positive relations with international finance institutions, Egypt will work hard to assure their support for such ambitious transportation projects in Africa. Another project that Egypt will be working on, confirming that it truly means to strengthen ties to the African continent, aims at linking railways with Africa at a total length of 8,715 kilometres, according to Egypt’s Transportation Minister Hisham Arafat.
Meanwhile, Egypt has been and will remain the link between the Arab and African worlds. The African circle was among the main political circles in the mindset of the architects of the July 1952 Revolution in Egypt. Since that time, Egypt’s solidarity with African countries amid their struggle to regain their independence was a paramount concern to its foreign policy.
Some years later, following the independence of some African countries, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was created in 1963 as a regional organisation that includes all the independent states in the region. The goal of the OAU was to help non-independent African countries to liberate themselves from the repression of colonialism and coordinate efforts of independent states to preserve their sovereignty and achieve economic sustainability and prosperity.
Egypt played a significant role in the formation of this organisation as one of its founding members. It hosted the first conference of an African summit in 1964 and the 29th African Summit in June 1993.
When Egypt chaired the OAU during the periods of 1989-1990 and 1993-1994, the OAU established the first African mechanism for preventing, managing and resolving conflicts. Egypt also contributed to the formation of the African Union (AU) that replaced the OAU. The Egyptian delegation participating in the Lomé Summit in 2000 presented some amendments to the Constitutive Act of the AU in terms of limiting the intervention of the AU in the affairs of member states to cases of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
Egyptian efforts in backing the establishment of the AU aimed at forming an African entity that promotes unity and solidarity among African states to achieve the joint political, economic and social interests of member states.
At the economic level, Egypt showed special interest in solving the issue of debt owed by African states to rich countries. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry presented several proposals that outlined a roadmap to solve the African continent’s debt problem, including cancelling some debt, rescheduling the remaining part and urging the World Bank to play a more effective role in financing economic development in Africa and reviving the economies of African countries.
Besides security, water and the economy, Egypt has also offered technical assistance and scholarships to all African countries.
This long history of close cooperation with Africa and President Al-Sisi’s determination to improve ties even further, will assure that the next year in which Egypt chairs the AU will be a fruitful one for both Egypt and the African continent that Egyptians belong to.
By: Dina Shehat
Egypt will assume the presidency of the African Union in February 2019. This comes as a culmination of extensive diplomatic efforts to revive Egypt’s Africa role since Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi assumed power in 2014. Under Mubarak, and especially since the assassination attempt on his life in Addis Ababa in 1995, Egyptian-African relations witnessed a significant deterioration which was reflected in worsening relations with Nile Basin countries, including with Sudan and Ethiopia.
However, the current administration has made relations with Africa a priority issue and has sought to revive Egypt’s role as a leading African nation by playing a more active political, military and economic role in Africa. Since assuming power, Al-Sisi has regularly attended the annual AU summits and has undertaken approximately 20 visits to African nations, including three visits to Ethiopia and four to Sudan. According to the Egyptian State Information Service, visits to African countries have constituted 30 per cent of the president’s overall international visits.
Moreover, Egypt has undertaken a number of important initiatives in the hope of restoring its leading role in Africa. These include the training of African peacekeepers and military personnel, and increasing security cooperation and intelligence sharing with African countries. On the economic front, Egypt has undertaken a number of new initiatives which have included convening three economic conferences in Sharm El-Sheikh to encourage greater inter-African economic and business cooperation, and the creation of the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development, a fund for guaranteeing investment in Africa, and an investment fund for building technological infrastructure in Africa. Finally, Egypt has significantly increased the number of scholarships extended to African students while African youth have been invited to participate in the youth conferences convened annually in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Egypt has a number of vital interests in the African continent, foremost among these is the issue of water security and the issue of peace and stability in Africa. Finally, the issue of social and economic development. On the water issue, in spite of relentless diplomatic efforts to sway Ethiopia and the Sudan and other Nile Basin countries away from undertaking projects that might affect Egypt’s overall share of the Nile water, Egypt has yet to make a break through on this one. Many analysts have argued that Nile Basin countries believe that Egypt has historically and unfairly received a disproportionate share of Nile water and that their own development projects now depend on their ability to harness the power of the Nile to produce energy. Thus, Egypt’s approach should focus less on trying to convince and/or pressure Nile Basin countries not to build new dams and more on envisioning joint alternative development schemes that fulfil their energy and development needs such as exporting electricity and natural gas to these countries at favourable rates or by investing in agricultural projects in these countries to benefit from their development schemes while also addressing Egypt’s chronic dependence on food imports.
On the question of peace and security, the situation in Libya, and the activities of terrorist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, and the security of the eastern Red Sea Coast constitute priority issues. Egypt has played an active role on all three fronts and has managed to make breakthroughs in some of these areas, especially the area of the security of Red Sea passageways and hence the security of the Suez Canal. However, the conflict in Libya and the activities of terrorist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa remain important challenges and Egypt continues to play an active political and security role in both of these areas.
The final issue is the question of economic and social development in Africa. Egypt has come to appreciate the importance of mutual support and cooperation between African countries, especially in the areas of infrastructure development, energy, agriculture and food security, and has undertaken a number of initiatives to encourage greater economic cooperation with African countries. In recent years, Egypt has begun to push for a greater role for the Egyptian private and public sectors in African development.
However, Egypt confronts a number of important challenges in its efforts to foster greater peace and economic cooperation in Africa. Foremost among these is growing competition between international and regional actors over influence in Africa, often in ways that could undermine Egypt’s interests in the African continent.
Unlike in the 1960s when Egypt was uniquely situated to lead the African continent in light of Nasser’s charisma and unique standing in the Third World, today Egypt is competing for a leadership role in the African continent with a number of regional contenders, including South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Algeria. In regional and international forums these regional powers often compete with — rather than support — one another, which leads to weakening the negotiating power of the African continent. A multilateral rather than a unilateral conception of leadership is more likely to succeed in modern day Africa. Rather than trying to lead Africa, Egypt could situate itself as a facilitator and consensus builder encouraging various regional powers to adopt a common agenda or perspective on regional and international issues.
In addition to growing competition between African powers, the continent has also witnessed a substantial increase in competition between external powers over the resources of the continent. External actors vying for influence in Africa include the US, Russia, China, France, Italy, Israel, and more recently Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. While this growing interest has provided African countries with greater resources for growth and development, it has also intensified competition for resources in the region and has undermined the political and financial autonomy of numerous African countries. More importantly, this race for influence in Africa undermines and limits Egypt’s own ambitions to play a more active role in the continent.
Egypt is also limited by its own economic and political troubles at home which have undermined its ability to project greater influence in the African continent. Egypt lacks the extensive financial resources available to some of the other countries competing for influence in Africa, and in fact Egypt, like most other African countries, is more often than not the recipient of foreign grants and investment rather than a grantor or investor in its own right.
A final weakness of Egypt’s position has to do with the lack of an integrated Africa strategy. While Egypt has initiated a number of important discrete initiatives over the last few years, these initiatives do not amount to an integrated policy or strategy vis-à-vis the African continent. Hence, it would be useful if the various Egyptian organisations working on Africa came together to draft a comprehensive and integrated strategy vis-à-vis Africa, tying in the various component parts, and setting clear short, medium and long-term goals to be achieved.
That being said, Egypt nonetheless possesses many important assets that it could use to its advantage in the African continent. In terms of hard power, Egypt possesses extensive military, security and intelligence resources that it could put to greater use in fostering greater peace and security in the African continent, both through the African Union and through its bilateral and multilateral relations with African nations.
In terms of economic resources, Egypt has extensive expertise and resources in the areas of energy and infrastructure development that could compliment the needs of African countries in these areas. Moreover, if a coordinated strategy is put in place, the Egyptian private sector could potentially act as an important source of investment in the agricultural, industrial and energy sectors in Africa. Also, Egyptian professionals and skilled labourers can provide important training and capacity building in Africa.
Finally, Egypt can — as in the days of Nasser — project greater soft power by using its extensive cultural and civil society resources in the African continent. Scholarships, collaborations on cultural projects, exchange programmes for Egyptian teachers and students, extending the role of Egyptian universities, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church in African countries can all help consolidate Egypt’s role as a leading African nation.