Back to Africa
The decision of African states to maintain their original position on UN Security Council reform may constitute a genuine opportunity for Egypt to strengthen its ties with Africa, reports Magda El-Ghitany
The African Union's (AU) emergency summit -- held last Thursday in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa upon the behest of the current AU chair Nigeria -- rejected the Nigerian proposal to compromise the initial African position on the UN Security Council expansion. The proposal was adopted at last month's African summit in Sirte, Libya.
The Sirte resolution suggested that Africa acquires two permanent seats with the right to veto. In addition, the continent, according to the Sirte proposal, will have five non-permanent African seats. Nigeria -- which was opposed by Egypt -- aimed at garnering African support to reach a common ground with the G4 -- Brazil, Germany, India and Japan -- a proposal, which provides Africa with two permanent seats without the veto powers and only four non- permanent seats.
The fact that such a majority supported the decision -- including Algeria, Libya, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Congo and Mali -- agreed with Egypt's demand to maintain a unified African position was perceived by high ranking diplomats as a signal that Egypt wields much influence in Africa.
Indeed, following the emergency summit, Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit told reporters that the main drive behind the African rejection of the Nigerian proposal was "the intensified dialogue between President Hosni Mubarak aand his African counterparts, which aimed at underscoring the necessity of adhering to AU laws and resolutions."
According to Ibrahim Ali Hassan, the foreign minister's adviser on African Affairs, such an Egyptian-African consent proved "Egypt's keenness to maintain the continent's overall interests instead of focussing on its own narrow interests." Being "fundamentally African", Egypt will always step up its efforts to attain "the best for Africa".
Indeed recently, Egypt has been keen to refute accusations that it has lost its influence in Africa and that it perceives Africa as a fourth priority, after the Middle East, the US, and Europe. Actually, Africa's place in Egypt's foreign agenda would have to strive much harder to approach the heydays of the 1950s and 1960s, when Egypt's sense of its African identity was stressed by the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who forged strong ties with the leaders of the African liberation struggle such as Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah, the Congo's Patrice Lumumba and Algeria's Ahmed Bin Bella.
Cementing ties with Africa on all fronts, Egyptian diplomats emphasise, has been an Egyptian foreign policy priority in the last couple of years. The first of Abul-Gheit's tour after he took over his post was to Africa. It was followed by three similar trips in less than a year. During these trips, Abul-Gheit tried to convey "Egypt's message that building on historic Egyptian-African ties will always be a priority."
Further, diplomats stated that Egypt is working on developing economic and technical cooperation with Africa. That includes putting its expertise, technical aides, and school and university professors "under the disposal of its African brethren," diplomats said . For instance, the Egyptian Fund for Cooperation with Africa -- founded in 1981 -- provides African states with the needed technical assistance in as various fields as agriculture, industry, medical industries, information technology and irrigation to help boosting the development process. Last week, for instance, the fund had welcomed Nigeria's request to provide it with technical expertise to meet its social and economic developmental needs.
Further, Egypt is now taking the lead in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa, the diplomat added. It hosted a number of seminars on trade and cooperation with Africa to encourage its private sector to invest in Africa. Egypt also now imports African products, like Ethiopian meat.
Meanwhile, on the political level, Egypt has actively participated in resolving the Darfur crisis and in ending the Great Lakes conflicts. It has participated extensively in conflict resolution and peace- keeping activities in Africa.
Contrary to criticism on the part of several African countries, Egypt believes it has never lost its edge in Africa, Mohamed Shaaban, adviser to the foreign minister and former assistant minister of African affairs, told the Weekly. Although its presence has dwindled somewhat in the past few years, Egypt "is strongly back on the African scene. And there is more to come."
Commentators agreed that it is "unfair to compare Egypt's role now with that during Abdel-Nasser's." Abdel-Malek Ouda, political science professor at Cairo University, told the Weekly that the international, regional, and domestic contexts of the 1960s differ dramatically than that of today. "Africa's needs in the 1960s were limited to its demand for Egypt's support of its liberation movements, which was possible, as Egypt was one of the first African countries to gain its own independence." Today, however, Africa is struggling to improve social and economic development." In that context, Egypt is genuinely supporting Africa "as much as it can afford to".
In addition, Ouda added, during the 1960s, Egypt was the only key player on the African scene. Now, due to several international factors, there are other pillars -- like South Africa -- that are competing with Egypt to gain an influential role in Africa, which is "normal".
Still, Ouda believes that Egypt's presence in Africa is on the rise. "Any influential role of a state requires strong economic relations and not only political." That said, Egypt can regain its strong presence in Africa through expanding trade relations with African states.
Meanwhile, other commentators view Egypt's efforts to cement its African ties as "insufficient". Although it is "incorrect" to say that Egypt totally lost its presence in Africa, it definitely lost a "major part of its leading role there", commented Ahmed El-Rashidi, international law professor at Cairo University. The reasons are many. "The lack of high-level Egyptian representations at major African events" is a major factor. It makes African leaders think that "we are not true partners."
Also, the lack of strong cultural bonds has definitely weakened. "Egypt's radio programmes used to reach Africa in all the major African languages. This does not exist any more. At the same time, Egyptians hardly know anything about African cultures," El-Rashidi told the Weekly.
Further, Helmi Shaarawi, director of the Arab-African Research Centre, stated that the relationship between a state and a region is cumulative. When a serious rupture occurs, it cannot be mended immediately because then other powers will have emerged and exerted greater influence."
According to Shaarawi, Egypt has, since the 1970s, been intensely embroiled in resolving the Middle East crisis. It "neglected" Africa. It was normal then for other powers, such as South Africa, Ethiopia, Senegal, Nigeria, and Kenya "to rise and assume Egypt's influential role in Africa".
That said, commentators agreed that now is the time for Egypt to adopt "an African oriented policy". Such a policy, according to Ouda and El-Rashidi, should be adopted first by the economic sector through encouraging businessmen to invest more in Africa. It should then cultivate other ties with the civil society -- education, media, industrial, and most importantly, cultural -- and not just the political links.