Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1281, (4 - 10 February 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Beyond summit diplomacy

Cairo is working hard to build ties across Africa, writes Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Preparations are well underway for Egypt to host a conference on investment in Africa later this month. Scheduled to open in Sharm El-Sheikh on 20 February, the conference is expected to attract high-level delegations to discuss intra-African investment and foreign investment in the continent.

Official press statements say Egypt is eyeing mega-projects in several African states, and government and business-sector sources say they are discussing potential “common interest” projects that, if pursued, will enhance Egypt’s position in Africa.

East Africa in general, and Nile Basin countries in particular, are expected to receive the greatest attention from Egyptian investors, working either independently or in partnership with other foreign investors.

Though the conference will be opened by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, it will be the private, rather than state, sector that takes the lead, said Minister of Investment Ashraf Salman.

At a time when water security has become a priority and Cairo is spearheading the battle against Islamists, the conference is part of a wider strategy to consolidate Egypt’s influence in Africa.

The conference will convene less than four weeks after Egypt began a three-year term as a member of the African Union Peace and Security Council. It is being held against the backdrop of growing concern in Cairo on the impact of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam on Egypt’s share of Nile water.

Egyptian diplomats argue that rebuilding Egyptian influence in Africa Cairo will promote a “win-win” solution not only to the water problem but a host of issues that hamper development across the continent.

“Pursuing development is a crucial step in Egypt rebuilding its position in Africa,” said political commentator Hassan Abu Taleb.

“In Africa today, development is as crucial as liberation from colonization was in the 1950s. Back then Egypt supported liberation movements across the continent, and gained much leverage in Africa as a result.”

Abu Taleb was in Addis Ababa for last year’s African Union summit. The two things he recalls most strongly about the event was the way African officials paused to take selfies next to a large picture of Nasser hanging in the AU’s Ethiopian headquarters, and complaints voiced by African diplomats that Cairo ignored continental development in favour of pursuing its own development goals.

During the last 12 months government officials say that, despite severe financial challenges, Cairo has worked hard to free up funds for development projects in Africa.

“We are sending more medical missions, more teachers and preachers than before, and we have been trying to help with infrastructure schemes. But the simple fact is that we are facing serious economic challenges and our means are limited,” said a government source.

He believes more needs to be done by the private sector to access “what is a large and attractive market”, and complains that civil society is contributing little to the building of bridges across Africa.

Abu Taleb believes Cairo has been sending positive messages about its engagement with Africa since the removal of Hosni Mubarak, not least by ending the decade-long non-attendance at African summits by Egypt’s president.

Diplomats who were part of the Egyptian delegation to the African Summit held earlier this week in Addis Ababa say the attendance of Al-Sisi sent a clear message that Egypt is keen to improve its relationships across the continent.

“The president’s leading of the Egyptian delegation has ended the dismay we would always encounter at summits when Mubarak failed to attend,” said one diplomat.

Following an attempted assassination in Addis Ababa in 1995, Mubarak accepted the recommendations of his security officials and generally refrained from visiting African states.

African diplomats in Cairo have taken note of the renewed Egyptian interest in reaching out to Africa.

“We just hope it is for real and not just about the Nile,” commented a West African diplomat.

Abu Taleb argues it will take time and effort to convince African states that Cairo’s interest extends beyond securing its share of Nile water.

“This is why we need more than presidential visits. We must encourage Egyptian businessmen to invest in Africa and at the same time pursue closer coordination with African countries under the umbrellas of regional, sub-regional and international organisations.”

He continued, “We can no longer afford to act on the bases of limited agendas. We need to expand, and we need to expand fast, because the field is quickly filling with competitors.” Among the states Cairo needs to watch are Turkey, Iran and Israel, said Abu Taleb.

But to really consolidate its influence in Africa, Abu Taleb warns, Egypt will first have to resolve tensions with a number of African capitals over what boils down to a struggle to lead the continent.

“We have to realise that the days of uncontested leadership are long gone. Now we need to work in close partnership with states such as South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria. True, there are outstanding issues that have to be settled, and these need to be urgently works on.”

Said Abu Taleb, “We cannot be expected to work closely with Nigeria on the file of radical Muslim groups, for example, if we are not able to overcome earlier disagreements on who should contest the Security Council seat on behalf of Africa once the Security Council is reformed.”

Egyptian diplomats say bilateral cooperation is being pursued with as many African states as possible in an attempt to cultivate more positive engagement.

Cairo was particularly happy when the AU reversed its suspension of Egypt following the removal of Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. Today, though, it is facing attempts to re-open the file.

“We are not putting everything on hold pending a resolution of this matter,” said a senior Egyptian diplomatic source. “We know that the best way to resolve the issue is to build our economic interests with as many African countries as possible.”

It is now up to parliament, said Abu Taleb, to project a more positive image of Egypt across Africa through the newly established House of Representatives Africa Committee, headed by Sayed Felifal, an expert on African affairs. Felifal was among the MPs appointed by the president.

“I think we still have some explaining to do, especially over the three-year suspension of parliament, but I don’t think it will be too difficult a mission,” said Abu Taleb.

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