Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1346, (25 - 31 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Celebrating African ties

On the occasion of this year’s Africa Day, Assistant Foreign Minister for African Affairs Mohamed Idris explains the important role Egypt has to play in developing the African continent to Al-Ahram Weekly

Celebrating African ties

Why is this year’s Africa Day special?

25 May every year commemorates the establishment of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 in Addis Ababa with the participation of all the founding fathers, including former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

In Egypt, we aim to remember that day in African history, African struggle and African joint work together. That common history provides an inspiration for our vision for the future. The Foreign Ministry is keen, in the framework of Egypt’s strong interest in Africa and the priority of the continent in Egyptian politics, to coordinate with Egyptian parties that are active on the African continent, including parliamentary, academic and research parties and think tanks, in order to arrange activities to celebrate this day.

Various parties have been enthusiastic to take part this year, like they did last year. There are various celebrations including a visit of the African ambassadors in Cairo to the Egyptian parliament and their meeting with the chair and members of the African Committee.

Celebrating African ties

Cairo University and the various governorates have also seen celebrations to commemorate the day. The Foreign Ministry has invited Samia Nkrumah, daughter of former Ghanaian president and founding father Kwame Nkrumah, to take part in the celebrations on the evening of 25 May.

Earlier this month, the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Club organised an African cultural day in which all African missions in Egypt participated. In addition, the word “Africa” will be written in lights on the building of the Foreign Ministry on 25 May, as it was last year. There will be a fashion show this year organised by the African Union (AU) missions in Egypt in collaboration with the Supreme Council for Culture. Newspapers and TV channels have been invited to the celebrations. The British University in Egypt organised a conference on “Egypt at the Heart of Africa” earlier this month aiming to support economic cooperation, trade and investment among African states.

What are the challenges facing the African Union today?

The African continent has seen a lot of new developments on the economic, political and communal levels. When African joint work was initiated in May 1963, the pivotal and central issue facing most of the African countries was independence. All efforts were focused towards that end. Egypt had a principal role to play in the historic struggle against foreign occupation.

However, now the continent has moved on to another phase, and achieving development has become the main challenge facing the continent today in all its political, economic and social dimensions. It is development that can create better conditions for the coming generations of this youthful continent, given that two-thirds of its population is young. Thus, the main theme for the African Union this year is harnessing the demographic dividend through investment in youth.

In the same way that Egypt played a major role in the liberation of the continent, it is looking forward to playing a role in shaping the future of the continent today. Africa is facing various challenges at the peace and security levels: we see lots of conflicts on the continent today, some of them chronic. Egypt is playing an important role in addressing these conflicts through a multi-dimensional approach and through asserting the linkages between peace and security issues and development.

I refer here to the Egyptian Agency for Partnership in Development formed in 2014. This aims at enhancing cooperation with the African countries in the developmental fields.

In addition, there is the Cairo Centre for Conflict Resolution and Peace-Keeping in Africa (CCCPA) affiliated to the Foreign Ministry. This aims to address peace and security challenges by training peace and security personnel through workshops and seminars.

Terrorism is another challenge facing our continent. The Egyptian approach in facing up to terrorism is not only by addressing it through security measures alone, but also through comprehensive measures encompassing security issues, information sharing, and intellectual and religious approaches in order to rectify the wrong interpretation of religion that has contributed to extremism and terrorism.


Celebrating African ties

You mentioned that relations between Egypt and the African continent are continuously developing. What are the moves taken within the ministry to ensure that these relations develop?

Let me first share with you our vision in the Foreign Ministry and how we are approaching or tackling our relations with the African continent.

First, Africa for Egypt is a strategic choice. It is not an occasional or seasonal relationship, but a strategic relationship in the broad and comprehensive sense of the term. It is a choice for the future. We consider that we have a shared history and shared destiny with the continent.

What we are trying to do is to move from a one-dimensional to a multi-dimensional relationship, meaning that we cannot summarise our relationship with Africa in one way. Sometimes, the water issue takes centre stage. But our relationship with Africa is multi-dimensional and we are keen to enhance it. Economic relations, trade relations, investment relations, people-to-people relations, and parliamentary and cultural relations are all important dimensions of Egyptian-African relations. We deal with the relationship as a whole system rather than in a compartmentalised manner.

Second, we are keen to move from our historical role to our future one. We had our role to play in liberating the continent, and we are also looking forward to shaping a better future for the continent.

Third, we look for system-wide coordination at the national level. Different Egyptian ministries and institutions are working to enhance our relationship with Africa. Within this framework, we are moving forward on the right path towards robust relations with Africa. We can see this manifested in the enhancement of the exchanges and positive interactions on all levels between Egypt and the African countries: keenness at the presidential level to attend the AU summits and hold meetings with the African leaders on the margins of these summits; and presidential visits to many African countries and many African presidents visiting Egypt with more visits to come.

This interaction has seen different levels as well. Egypt has hosted various pan-African meetings in Cairo, as well as exchanges between the foreign minister and his African counterparts and the creation of a special African Committee in the Egyptian parliament for the first time. This was created after a proposal by the foreign minister before the parliamentary elections.

Egypt is also representing the continent in three important international forums: the UN Security Council, the African Peace and Security Council, and the UN Human Rights Council. It is an honour to represent our continent in these international forums, but it is also a huge responsibility because we are not only representing out national views but also pan-African views and interests as well. Fortunately, the record of Egypt in these different forums proves that it is up to these responsibilities.


What is the Foreign Ministry doing to develop economic and developmental relations on the bilateral and multilateral levels?

Relations between countries are not based on ceremonial activities alone, but have a core of joint interests as well as a network of interests among the various countries involved. The economic aspect is a very important link in building that network of interests.

We are trying to enhance this aspect of our relations. Egypt hosted in February 2016 the first conference of its kind for trade and investment in Africa attended by presidents, high-level officials and prominent private-sector representatives from across the continent with the aim of promoting African relations at the economic level. It also hosted in 2015 the tripartite summit meeting between the three main African trade blocs: the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), the East African Community (EAC), and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

On the bilateral level, the Foreign Ministry is coordinating with the different ministries in Egypt and the private sector in facilitating the activities of the business community in Africa. Many Egyptian trade missions have taken place to African countries, including Uganda and Kenya. We are also working to enhance cooperation between Egypt and the African countries in agriculture.

Trade exchanges have increased between Egypt and the African countries. More and more Egyptian businessmen are directing their activities towards Africa and are engaged in trade relations with the African countries. The Egyptian 2063 Agenda, launched in 2013, also has a comprehensive view for the 50 years ahead, echoing the transformation of the OAU to the AU in 2002. This was not only a change in name; it was an attempt to adapt to new realities and new challenges on the international scene, including environmental issues, women and youth.

The AU has eight commissioners reflecting the diversified interests of the Union. Egypt now occupies the position of commissioner for infrastructure and energy.


How can soft power complement Egypt’s official role?

The importance of our relationship with Africa exists on the official as well as the unofficial level. It is important that these two tracks work together in a complementary manner. All actors have their roles to play in promoting our relationship with the continent, whether official or non-official, governmental or non-governmental. So we are cooperating with different actors in this field, and we are also harnessing the potential of our academic institutions.

For example, the Foreign Ministry has launched an initiative interacting with the different Egyptian think tanks and research centres working in this domain, and we have had regular meetings at the ministry to discuss important issues, priorities and best ways forward.

The parliamentary track is also very important, as is enhancing people-to-people contact. The role of the religious institutions is vital. Egypt has of course great potential here, whether through Al-Azhar or the Coptic Church. Of course, coordination is not easy and it needs to be built up. We have not achieved all we want in this domain, but we have made progress in our system-wide coordination concerning our relations with Africa.


You were ambassador to Ethiopia from 2011 to 2015 and witnessed the Declaration of Principles and the Khartoum Agreement in March and December 2015. How do these developments contribute to resolving the problems between Egypt and Ethiopia?

Some relations are organic in nature, and some bonds are inseparable. The relations of Egypt with Ethiopia and Sudan are of this nature. Healthy relations between the three states are in the interest of each of them, as well as of their people and the whole continent.

My experience in Ethiopia was a very enriching one because working in Ethiopia is tripartite diplomatic work. First, there is representing Egypt in Ethiopia on a bilateral level; second, there is representing Egypt to the AU; and third, there is representing Egypt to the UN Economic Commission for Africa which has its headquarters in Addis Ababa.

Working at these three different levels is challenging, especially in years that witnessed dramatic political developments in Egypt after two revolutions and their consequences on bilateral relations with the host country Ethiopia and on relations with the AU. This necessitated a lot of diplomatic activities on these three levels in order to deal with these developments in a manner the preserved the interests of Egypt.

On the bilateral level, there was an absence of political interaction for a time. After that, we moved towards building more positive interaction between the two countries. We have exchanged visits in an unprecedented manner. The president visited Ethiopia on an official visit in March 2015, the first at bilateral level for 30 years. He delivered a historic speech in the Ethiopian parliament conveying the message of the Egyptian people that we are looking forward to a partnership in development that will serve the interests of both our countries and both our peoples and that do not encroach on the interests or harm either side.

The Ethiopian prime minister has visited Egypt on various occasions over the last three years. The two foreign ministers have exchanged visits as well.

We have chartered a course of direct, frank and positive interaction. Of course that does not mean that all aspects are a convergence of views or are a matter of agreement. This is natural in any healthy relationship: it has points of agreement and points that need to be addressed. There is now a political agreement between the three countries involved on the water issue that is sensitive, complex and vital and has to be addressed on a clear basis of political vision, mutual interests and shared benefits.

The ongoing technical talks are supposed to translate this political vision into a technical formula on the ground.


Looking back at these developments, how would you assess the current situation? The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is now a reality, and the studies have not proved that it will not harm Egypt or Sudan.

We have worked to reach a win-win situation. The three countries are working hard to translate the political agreement into technical reality. It is hard given the complexity and sensitivity of the issue and the historical background which this issue has seen over time.


Is there anything you want to say that has not been said?

In closing, I would like to highlight the African identity of Egypt. Egypt by nature is a country of multi-layered history and multi-faceted identities. We view our African identity as a source of wealth. It is very important that we Egyptians be cognisant of our African roots and identity in order to present the right image and give the right message about our African identity.

The other important aspect is the role of the media in our relations with Africa and the importance of sending the right message to the African continent. This positive media is not the media that says only what you want to hear, however. The media should be accurate, objective and show the different dimensions of each issue. At the same time, the media should be constructive and aim at building bridges and strong ties between countries.

Africa Day is a time to reflect on the road taken by our continent over the past year if we want to see where we are from, where we have been, and where we want to be. If we compare where we are now to our departure point, I think we have achieved considerable progress. But if we consider where we are now with the dreams of the founding fathers of African unity, we can say that we still have a long way to go, hard work to do, and a great responsibility to fulfil.


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