For nearly three years, Egypt has worked hard pivoting to Africa and smoothen its ties with the continent.
Listening to its foreign policy establishment and intellectual class, their pitch revolves around one message: Egypt is an African State with Arab ties rather than the hitherto image as an Arab country tethered to Africa by the inconvenience of geography. Egypt’s diplomats and historians insist that Cairo’s sharp turn to reface Africa is not new.
They point out the role Egypt played under the country’s second post independence president Abdel Nassar in the 1950s and 1960s in supporting Africa’s struggle against colonialism.
In fact, they add, Egypt was a co-founder of the Organisation of African Union (OAU), now called African Union (AU)—demonstrating its longstanding African identity. That may well be true, but we all know that for decades, Cairo was turned to everywhere, but Africa.
Several reasons can be cited for this. The attempted assassination of then president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in June 1995 as he arrived for a summit could be one of them. Mubarak just didn’t want to visit African countries anymore.
Second, Cairo’s preoccupation with the Israel-Palestinian question within the context of its Arabic identity left little room for meaningful engagement with Africa. And we all know about Mubarak’s successor—the divisive Muhammed Morsi couldn’t care less; his true north was always Arabic.
Current president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who controversially came to power after the 2013 revolution that ousted Morsi, is probably the game changer.
Soon after coming to power, Morsi initiated shuttle diplomacy with Africa, dispatching his foreign affairs minister to a number of African countries, including Sudan, Burundi and Senegal.
Why the new strategic direction that emphasises Egypt’s African identify? Listening to several experts Cairo and reading between the lines; I see at least three reasons for the shift.
Survival: The Nile River is Egypt’s life blood. Without the Nile, Egypt’s survival is suspect. Yet, the river—covering 6 650 kilometres—first gushes out of Lake Victoria at Jinja in Uganda from where it begins a nine-country upward meander to the Mediterranean Sea.
Apart from Egypt and Uganda, the Nile also sways through territories of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Burundi, DRC and Sudan. For a long time, Egypt—backed by colonial era agreements that gave Cairo veto power over activities on the river—has monopolised it.
Countries that kiss the Nile basin upstream have ganged up to change the rules so that the lion’s share claim Cairo has enjoyed—including deciding whether or not any of the other eight countries can build infrastructure for power and irrigation on the Nile—is curtailed.
Such a free-for-all usage of the Nile could damage the river’s catchment areas and water levels. A drying Nile is equal to a drying and dying Egypt. Cairo cannot have a situation in which the fate of the Nile, and therefore, its own fate, is in the hands of other nations.
But how does Egypt stop eight countries that have had enough of it over the Nile? I doubt it would go to war with them. Thus, diplomacy, with “Egypt is your African brother” message, is now the strategy. And it is working. Egypt has reached some sort of agreement with the most influential countries along the Nile—Ethiopia and Sudan—and is now working on the others.
Geopolitics: The domino effects of the Arab spring that started in 2012 and Egypt’s successful bid for membership of the United Nations Security Council have reminded Cairo that Africa is a circle whose support it must always have.
Leadership vacuum: Look around Africa—there is no single country that has shown interest to lead the continent. South Africa, under president Jacob Zuma, is so in-ward looking that no African country looks up to it for leadership. That died with Thabo Mbeki’s ouster. Nigeria, despite being the continent’s biggest economy, is too confused by terrorism, a lack of vision and credibility to step up. Egypt has seen the opportunity to assert political and economic influence—and has seized intelligently.
Such strategic maneuvering is aptly explained by Alaa Ezz, director general of the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Commerce, when he said: “Egypt is the one trying to bind them [African countries] together. Egypt is trying to reprise the role in Africa that it had under Nassar.”
That strategic machine is on course, swiftly. In July 2014, Cairo set up the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development (EAPD), a development arm of Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to spearhead Egypt’s new cooperation push.
Through EAPD, Egypt is building the capacities of various African countries in the areas of diplomacy, transportation, ICT, health care, agriculture, security and defence; tourism, energy and industrialisation, among others.
Recently, Egypt held an African Investment Forum in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheik, gathering leaders from several African countries. It was the first Africa-to-Africa investment conference to strengthen business within the continent.
Egypt is also leading in several other African-centric initiatives that further projects Cairo’s African leadership.
But where will Egypt lead Africa? That is the question that deserves a continental conversation. n