Egypt was unanimously elected next year’s chair of the African Union (AU) during the AU summit in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa in January 2018.
The AU was created in 2002, following the disbanding of the Organisation of African Unity, counts all 55 African countries as members and holds an annual summit in Ethiopia. Egypt has never before been elected head of the AU.
President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who is due to visit Ethiopia next month, will be chairman of the 31st round of the assembly of the AU, replacing the President of Rwanda Paul Kagame.
Ahead of Egypt assuming leadership of the AU, a two-day Africa 2018 Forum was organised in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. Focused on promoting economic growth across the continent, the event closed on Sunday.
Egypt, in collaboration with the African Development Bank and the African Export-Import Bank, has also organised an exhibition for inter-African trade.
The event, which kicked off on Tuesday and will continue until next Monday, has attracted more than 1,500 participants from some of the largest companies in Africa and the world.
Between 13 and 15 December, Egypt is also scheduled to host the seventh conference of African trade ministers.
Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said on 10 December that the conference will focus on eliminating all obstacles in the way of trade between African states. He
informed reporters that in a meeting on Tuesday with Chileshe Kapwepwe, the Zimbabwean secretary-general of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), President Al-Sisi said Egypt was set on recovering its leading role in Africa and will use its presidency of the AU in 2019 to advocate for the continent economically and politically.
Tarek Radwan, head of parliament’s African Affairs Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that all state institutions have been mobilised to ensure 2019 becomes a landmark year in terms of Egypt’s foreign policy.
“The African Affairs Committee, and parliament as a whole, are closely coordinating with the Foreign Ministry and the government to finalise our strategy in Africa in 2019,” said Radwan.
“The strategy will specify the role each ministry and government institution will play in Africa next year. For example, the Ministry of Agriculture is currently reviewing all of Egypt’s deals with African countries and discussing how it can help them boost African farm exports.”
The African Affairs Committee is holding a series of meetings with ambassadors from African countries to set the stage for 2019.
“All of them said they welcome Egypt playing a leading role in Africa and revealed that they are under instructions from their governments to do everything possible to facilitate this,” said Radwan.
In a meeting with Radwan on 5 December, Djibouti’s Ambassador Mohamed Zohr Harsi revealed his country had decided to grant Egypt one million square metres to establish a logistic base to facilitate continental exports.
During the closing ceremony of the Africa 2018 (Business for Africa and the World) Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh Sunday, President Al-Sisi announced the creation of an investment fund for IT infrastructure in Africa and a risk insurance fund to promote Egyptian investments across the continent.
“Egypt will be back in Africa with all the strength and force required,” said Al-Sisi.
“We are proud to be part of this continent and it is high time for us to be a major player and partner. Egypt will use 2019 and its chairing of the AU to push for economic, legislative and political reforms in Africa in order for the continent to have a greater say in world affairs.”
“The world is finally recognising that Africa as a continent promises mutually beneficial business deals and high economic growth rates. It is a continent rich in natural and human resources.”
Al-Sisi vowed that Egypt will boost its own investments in African countries in 2019.
“Egyptian investments in Africa increased by $1.2 billion in 2018 to reach a total of $10.2 billion and are expected to grow even more in 2019,” said Al-Sisi.
Radwan says the reaction of African leaders, governments and businesspeople to Egypt’s growing role in Africa was clear during the Africa 2018 Forum Conference.
“Five presidents, 41 prime ministers and more than 3,000 entrepreneurs were keen to participate in the conference,” said Radwan. “This would have been unthinkable just three years ago when Egypt was struggling to recover its membership in the African Union.”
Hassan Abu Taleb, a strategic analyst with Al-Ahram, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “there is no question that President Al-Sisi’s four years in office have seen Egypt recover its leading role in Africa.”
“Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser Egypt was the continent’s most influential state,” said Abu Taleb. “Unfortunately, under Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, Egypt lost most of its influence.”
“When Mubarak escaped an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in June 1995 he decided to all but ignore Africa and after he was ousted from office in 2011 the damage of this policy became clear to all.”
“Ethiopia was able to begin building its Renaissance Dam without consulting Cairo, and relations with Sudan plummeted.”
“Now,” said Abu Taleb, “Al-Sisi’s dynamic engagement with Africa has stabilised Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia and Sudan. Both governments have vowed to do their best to support Egypt’s new strategy for Africa in 2019.”
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said in a forum held by the Egyptian-Canadian Business Association on 6 December that “the fact that Egypt was unanimously elected chair of the African Union in 2019 sends a strong message that the continent is looking forward to Egypt playing an influential role again.”
“Egypt had been isolated from Africa since the assassination attempt on Mubarak in 1995. Now, we are returning with full force. We are entering a new epoch for Egypt’s continental relations.”
Shoukri insisted Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia are strong.
“Negotiations between the two countries have slowed down in recent months, largely due to a cabinet reshuffle in Addis Ababa, but we hope soon to reach common ground on the issue of Nile water and the Renaissance Dam,” said Shoukri.
Shoukri said Egypt’s relations with Sudan have also improved.
“After a brief period of misunderstanding the two countries have embarked on a new strategic relationship, greatly facilitated by President Al-Sisi’s historic visit to Sudan in October.”
Egypt’s interest in Africa in 2019 will not be confined to economics and business. President Al-Sisi told the Africa 2018 Forum that there is a pressing need for institutional reforms in the AU.
“I am proposing AU decision-making passes through different levels within the union for review and auditing before being endorsed by state leaders instead of being the sole prerogative of the assembly,” said Al-Sisi.
Informed sources also say Egypt may use its chair of the AU to press for Africa to have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
Abu Taleb notes that Egypt’s interest in Africa extends to facilitating greater cooperation in military and counter-terrorism matters.
“Egypt, which has been engaged in a war on terror since 2013, is keen that sub-Saharan African countries join the battle given Islamist terrorist movements like the Islamic State have established a foothold there.”
This week, for the first time, Egypt hosted military exercises for Sahel-Saharan states at the Mohamed Naguib military base west of Alexandria. The exercises are scheduled to end on 14 December.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt in Africa