Friday,24 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1121, 8-14 November
Friday,24 November, 2017
Issue 1121, 8-14 November

Ahram Weekly

The new Egypt looks south

Nanis Fahmy looks at how the Egyptian revolution has impacted relations with Africa

Al-Ahram Weekly

After more than 30 years, the Egyptian people rose up in a glorious revolution that ended a long era of corruption. The revolution was triggered by the suffering of Egyptians from poverty, unemployment, tyranny and the suppression of political and social freedoms at all levels. The Egyptian revolution was greatly admired by the world especially because it maintained a peaceful nature and involved participation by all the people.
The revolution paved the way for political, economic and social transformations that challenged Egypt on the domestic and international fronts as well as its foreign policy, which will lead to critical changes in the foreseeable future. This article will answer the key question of whether the Egyptian revolution model can be copied in Sub-Saharan African countries, since those to the north are already undertaking similar revolutions to Egypt.
The people of Sub-Saharan Africa have closely monitored the revolutions north of the continent, especially since these societies have similar regimes to the despotic ones that were prevalent in the north. Unemployment, the high cost of living and poverty are also widespread. High food prices triggered protests in the southern part of the continent such as in Mozambique at the end of 2010.
Although the people of Sub-Saharan societies suffer from injustice, poverty and tyrannical regimes, they do not have the requisites of revolution or protest to overthrow these regimes. The elements that helped the Egyptian revolution reach its goals are several.
- Media presence in Egypt is much more prevalent than in the south of the continent in Benin or Gabon, for example, because of Egypt’s global cultural status, unique geo-political location and large population, which explains interest by international media. So much so that the unfolding of the Egyptian revolution overshadowed coverage of the Tunisian revolution that preceded it.
International interest by world leaders and monitoring of the Egyptian revolution as seen in statements supporting the revolution, included statements by US President Barack Obama and Austrian President Heinz Fischer who suggested that the people of Egypt should be given the Nobel Peace Prize.
- Social networks such as YouTube, twitter and Facebook played a key role in organising protesters as well as broadcasting information, photographs and video footage.
- Civil society groups that organised and channelled people’s feelings into positive action. Civil groups later played a role in supporting the revolution and earning world admiration and support for it. The Egyptian Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an NGO focussed on foreign policy, contacted Norway’s Nobel Prize Committee to nominate the Egyptian people and their 25 January 2011 Revolution, as a unique uprising in Egypt’s history and the history of the world, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for that year.
The ECFR sent letters to Egyptian and world Nobel Prize recipients, the deans of political science colleges and chairmen of peace institutions, and professors of international relations, history and philosophy, asking them to write to the Norwegian committee to support Egypt’s nomination for the prize. They also sent letters to world leaders to endorse the nomination.
- Societal cohesion or national unity in Egypt made the entire nation come together during the revolution and blocked any attempt to drive a wedge or cause sectarian tension between Muslims and Christians. This is the core of Egypt’s internal power. This high degree of cultural and social cohesion empowered the revolution to succeed. Egyptians are a national unit, speak the same language, 90 per cent of them are Muslims and it is difficult to categorise Copts and Nubians as minorities because their lives are closely intertwined with the rest of society.
Although Sub-Saharan societies suffer the same problems as Egyptians, they lack the necessary requisites for sustained revolution, which makes it difficult to reproduce the Egyptian revolutionary model in their countries. They lack information technology and communications, and the governments in some of these countries such as Djibouti, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Equatorial Guinea have full control of state media and blocked it from broadcasting the events of the Egyptian revolution. Access was only available through satellite channels that are watched by a few. In Ethiopia, a reporter was arrested when he tried to compare Egypt and Ethiopia and the possibility of applying the Egyptian model of revolution.
These conditions were instead available in several Arab states that emulated the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions demanding freedom and democracy against despotic regimes.
Meanwhile, the populations and events in these countries are ignored by international media. World leaders comment on events in Egypt, Yemen and Syria, but do not issue statements on developments in Djibouti or Cote d’Ivoire, for example.
Sub-Saharan countries lack NGOs that play a crucial role in transitioning into democracy, although there have been several attempts in these countries to shift towards democracy since the 1990s. There is now a link between political and economic conditions. African states have taken big strides in applying political reform, most prominently by espousing democracy and liberal mechanisms, and holding elections at different levels (parliament, presidency, local), as well as rotation of power.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, most African countries adopted democratic systems based on competitive elections in a pluralist setting, as demonstrated in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development which enforce Africa’s overall shift towards democracy and translating it into specific commitments and clear rules for application, evaluation and revision.
It is also in the founding statute of the African Union (AU) that states in its goals and principles respect for democracy and boosting popular participation in the AU’s activities. There are other African documents and agreements to this end since democracy has become a demand of the people that cannot be ignored in today’s African political environment, which corresponds to the priorities of the world order towards the African continent.
Sub-Saharan states also suffer sectarian, racial and ethnic divisions that are manipulated by their governments to end any protests through adopting the principle of “divide and rule”, as well as a tight security grip and violent confrontation of any protests. This makes it unlikely that the Egyptian revolution model can be applied in Sub-Saharan countries even if they share the same key issues that triggered the revolution, including corruption, poverty, unemployment, injustice, tyranny and absence of freedoms.
This begs the questions what can Egyptian foreign policy do after the revolution especially to influence its African milieu. Over the past few years, Egypt’s foreign policy has faced serious problems and challenges; it was criticised for the way it handled some issues especially since there was a clear retreat in Egypt’s regional and international role, and absence on issues and problems that affect Egypt’s interests.
Since the revolution restored the dignity of the Egyptian citizen and was a victory over corruption and a despotic oppressive regime that neglected most of the nation’s interests, the expectation is that Egypt’s foreign policies after the revolution will recover Egypt’s regional and international status to match its history, stature and resources. This will require Cairo to revise its foreign policies to move in the standard three spheres: Arab, African and Muslim. These are the critical fronts for Egypt, but this does not mean other domains should be ignored but at least not overtake the importance of these key areas.
Africa is especially important to Egypt because the country’s security is linked to the continent’s security whether in terms of geographic affiliation or River Nile water. Therefore, any events in Africa affect Egypt directly and it cannot remain immune to them or neglect Egyptian-African relations, especially key regions such as Nile Basin states and the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea.
When Egypt distanced itself and ignored its African identity it suffered serious repercussions such as the Nile Basin dilemma when six countries signed a framework agreement without Egypt and Sudan. Also, with Ethiopia’s declaration that it will build the Millennium Dam without consulting Egypt could threaten Egypt’s current quota of Nile water and represents a real danger.
Egypt’s distance from Africa also became apparent in another key issue, namely the Sudanese problem and settling the dispute between North and South. Egypt was not involved in any negotiations between the two sides which were held entirely under Kenyan auspices. After the Machakos Framework Agreement was signed, it was apparent that Egypt was unaware of developments in negotiations and not briefed by either the Sudanese government or mediators. In fact, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher admitted that “Egypt found out about the deal through news agencies”, and asserted that Egypt supports the unity of Sudan.
After the January 2011 referendum following the transitional phase in Sudan, Egypt was confronted by a new entity that threatens the country’s national security in terms of the Nile Water Treaty of 1959 and its quota, because this nascent state was not party to this agreement and others. This happened, despite the fact that North and South Sudan constitute a strategic depth for Egypt in the south, and their disintegration or instability would destabilise the strategic balance in the region whether in the Horn of Africa or the Red Sea. This could negatively impact Egypt’s security, its role and stature.
After the 25 January Revolution, despite foreign policy transitioning through difficult challenges at home and abroad, it is clear that Egypt’s foreign minister — and there have been many of them of late – is working diligently to restore the Africa issue as a priority in Cairo’s foreign policies. In fact, Africa was the first overseas trip by former prime minister Essam Sharaf when he toured several countries including Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan.
People diplomacy also plays a substantial role in boosting Egyptian-African relations, since the revolution promoted a key mechanism that greatly influences understanding and cooperation. People diplomacy with the participation of civil society, political parties and youth forces has succeeded on several fronts with African countries. An unofficial delegation toured Nile Basin countries 28 April-10 May 2011, including Uganda and Sudan, meeting with leaders of North and South Sudan to discuss ways of promoting cooperation and economic integration through joint investment projects.
The people’s delegation also visited Ethiopia and met with the political leadership, including the president, prime minister and several cabinet members who reassured the group that Ethiopia would never harm Egypt. They also explained that the Millennium Dam is not a water dam but used to generate electricity. A significant outcome of the visit was a promise by Ethiopia’s prime minister to form a team of Egyptian, Ethiopian and independent experts to study the Millennium Dam and its effects on Egypt.
Several people diplomacy delegations have visited Ethiopia, most recently a group of the ECFR on 26-29 February 2012, to discuss all aspects of cooperation between the two countries to boost and cement bilateral ties. This indicates that interest in Egyptian-African relations has been restored and should continue on several fronts to boost Egypt’s presence in Nile Basin states, through development and economic projects that target the interests of both sides. Also, it is necessary to boost ties with other African states through trade, economic, scientific and cultural agreements either through the Egyptian Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa or African organisations such as the AU, as well as regional economic blocs. This would ensure Egypt an effective role in dealing with problems, resolving conflicts, keeping the peace and rejecting foreign intervention in the continent’s affairs.
The 25 January Revolution launched a new era for Egypt that is unlike any previous era, one that corrects what the former regime corrupted and neglected in terms of Egypt’s strategic and vital interests. Therefore, Cairo’s foreign policy must focus on restoring Egypt’s regional and international standing to match its history, moral and material resources so that it can achieve the goals of the revolution and aspirations of the Egyptian people by recovering the country’s regional and international influence.
If Sub-Saharan countries lack the requisites for revolutions similar to the Egyptian one, Egypt’s foreign policy must focus on these countries and establish partnerships that serve the interests of both sides. This would once again establish Egypt’s influence on the African continent, especially since the Egyptian revolution earned Egypt extensive international respect and enabled Cairo to move on regional and African issues.

The writer is a political science researcher at Cairo University.

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