Friday,24 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Friday,24 May, 2019
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Making the best of Asia

It will need more than a presidential visit for Egypt to get the most out of relations with Japan and South Korea, political scientist Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed tells Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

“The potential is certainly large, but it has been there for a while, and it will take a systematic and clearly conceptualised effort to turn this potential into mutual economic and political benefits for Egypt as well as for Japan and South Korea,” professor of political science Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayed said.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly as President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi embarked on a three-leg tour to Kazakhstan, Japan and South Korea, Al-Sayed said it was clear that the visits came as part of a growing Egyptian realisation of the need to reach out to Asia.

Al-Sisi has already been pursuing cooperation with China and Singapore in an exchange of high-level visits over the past few months.

The Egyptian diplomatic approach towards Asia comes at a time of growing interest in the economically expanding continent that has been catching the economic interest of the world’s leading countries.

However, it is not the first time that Egypt has eyed the leading Asian countries, since this happened during the extended rule of former president Hosni Mubarak and during the brief rule of former president Mohamed Morsi. In both cases, it failed to yield concrete benefits, despite the potential seen by economists and political commentators.

“I think the time has come to realise that what we are lacking in order to get the true benefits out of these relations is a solid and institutional framework of relations that builds on the high-level contacts in a detailed and operative fashion,” Al-Sayed said.

Japan has been eyeing Egypt for a while with considerable interest for bilateral and multilateral cooperation, especially with other African partners. Last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Cairo for talks, and later this year Japan will be in Nairobi for the Sixth African Development Summit, a mechanism established over two decades ago.

As the world’s third-largest economic power, Japan is in a position to provide important development assistance and cooperation for Egypt in several sectors, including infrastructure, especially mega-projects like the Suez Canal, IT transfers, especially in the area of anti-terror technology, human resources development, especially in education and tourism.

“We need to have our objectives straight and our priorities clear. There is a lot we could do with Japan, but we have to convince the Japanese that we are pursuing a serious development plan that can help endorse the chances of stability in a key regional state whose stability is crucial for that of the entire Middle East, a region Japan sees as a crucial source of energy,” Al-Sayed said.

“When we go in the middle of a hard currency crunch and serious development challenges to tell the Japanese that we are keen on building a new administrative capital that might not be immediately ready, as opposed to telling them that we are keen on securing a serious upgrade of our industrial capacity,” there may be doubts about intentions, Al-Sayed argued.

“Our priorities should be about securing considerable and relatively prompt direct investment, and I am confident that Japan would be keen to reach out on this front if we managed to revamp our confused investment regulations. Bureaucratic complications and corruption have had a negative influence on previous attempts to stimulate economic interest from Japan in large developmental schemes in Egypt,” he explained.

Al-Sayed said that whatever the international apprehensions about the government in Egypt, this did not amount to scepticism that could block investment. What counted, he added, was that potential foreign investors should not question the efficiency of the regime.

“This is something that could be challenged by an incident like the recent kidnapping and killing of a European researcher in Cairo,” he said.

What counted also, he added, was that the role of the military in managing the economy and mega-projects should be streamlined in a way that could dispel the fears of foreign investors.  

Al-Sayed said that no matter the challenges it was facing, Egypt was a leading regional power that Japan could not ignore. Japan, he said, was also aware of the chances for growing cooperation between Egypt and China, and it would not like a leading Arab and African capital like Cairo to tilt too much towards China, given the competition between Tokyo and Beijing.

Egypt, Al-Sayed added, was an obvious market for countries with large export capacities like Japan and South Korea.

“Of course, these two countries are keen on stability of oil supplies from the region, and their political interests rest largely on their immediate neighbourhoods, but when it comes to economy and trade they certainly have a fast-growing interest in Africa. At the end of the day, Egypt remains a leading asset in this respect,” Al-Sayed said.

Beyond its internal battle with Political Islam, Egypt has a leading role to play in the fight against terror that makes leading countries willing to help, Al-Sayed said. This was a particularly important issue for Seoul, which has been attempting to show its involvement on this front in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Egypt will need to focus on consolidating relations with South Korea in view of what Seoul perceives as the historic ties between Cairo and North Korea in the 1960s, especially since Cairo was much more forthcoming about pursuing diplomatic ties with North Korea than South Korea in the past.

“It is true that there has been a considerable development of bilateral relations over the past two decades, but consistent and systematic institutional work is required,” Al-Sayed argued.

Egypt is keen to secure IT transfer and direct investment from South Korea, and South Korea has been supportive of Egypt’s desire to declare the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction since it is hoping for an equal interest from Cairo regarding its desire to come to an understanding with North Korea.

According to Al-Sayed, what is significant about the possible avenues of cooperation between Egypt on the one hand and South Korea and Japan on the other is the latter countries’ “great success in building development without counting on large natural resources.”

 “This is where Egypt needs to get the expertise of both countries,” he stated.

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