In two statements addressed to the opening and closing of the African Union (AU) summit this week, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi stressed Egypt’s commitment to working with the pan-African organisation and member states to consolidate national security, enhance development plans and promote moderation.
For officials working on Cairo’s Africa policy, the three tracks Al-Sisi highlighted are about “strong military and police forces”, “expanding and upgrading infrastructure” and “facing up to militant groups that promote radical religious views”.
“Egypt has traditionally dedicated considerable attention to help African states consolidate their military and police capacities. We have always done a lot of training but during the past five years, with concerns over terror growing, we have expanded our training and cooperation programmes with several African states, especially those in East Africa and the Sahel and Sahara,” said a government official.
He added that police, military and intelligence cooperation with most of the countries of East Africa and the Sahel and Sahara would be up-scaled in the next few years.
Amira Abdel-Halim, an expert on Egypt African relations and researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, says “it makes perfect sense that Egypt commits itself to promoting security in these two zones.
“These zones have seen several militant groups significantly undermine security and stability, not just in east Africa and the Sahel and Sahara but also in parts of west and north Africa.”
In June last year, Egypt saw the inauguration of the headquarters of the Sahel and Sahara Anti-Terror Centre.
“This centre is just one part of what Egypt is trying to do to help countries overcome the disturbing expansion of terror cells. It is a big project that we are committed to,” says the government source. He added that as host of the centre Egypt is not just bringing troops for training but it is also exporting “expertise” to concerned states.
Sahel and Sahara is a 29-member state grouping launched in the 1990s. The group’s headquarters was in Libya.
A retired Egyptian diplomat who served in Libya says ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi used the grouping to strengthen his presence in as many African countries as possible.
“Gaddafi had militias from many countries hosted in Libya and we were always worried about it,” he said.
“Following the fall of Gaddafi and the subsequent havoc that hit Libya things took a very disturbing turn,” says Abdel-Halim. “The enormous reservoir of arms that Gaddafi had built up became available to militant groups from Mali, Chad and Niger, threatening the stability and security of their own countries and neighbouring countries alike.”
Boko Haram in Nigeria, Harakat Al-Shabab Al-Mujahideen in Somalia and the Lord’s Resistance Army (RLA) in Uganda have all benefited from Libyan arms, says the government official. “There were other militias too,” he adds, “meaning we had to act promptly.”
“We worked with countries in the region and with concerned international powers and we are committed to continue working on this very crucial front.”
Increased cooperation, says the source, means these terrorist groups and militias have been weakened though they remain capable of functioning.
According to Abdel-Halim, the battle “against terrorism and drugs, arms and human trafficking” is not one Egypt can ignore.
“It is also about facing up to illegal migration, an issue that Egypt takes very seriously,” says the official.
Abdel-Halim argues that ending the threat posed by militant groups and militias will require more than the consolidation of military and police capacities. “It also needs major development plans because one reason that helps these groups take root and then expand is the lack of development. It causes anger and inevitably leads to violence.”
Sources at the ministries of foreign affairs and investment say that Egypt is trying hard to push development in Africa. Already, they say, Egypt has proposed closer cooperation between the three economic sub-regional groupings COMESA, ECOWAS and SADC that cover east, west and south Africa.
Cooperation is a key issue which Egyptian officials raise with their regional and international partners.
“We talk with the French, the Chinese and the United Arab Emirates and almost everyone who has an interest in Africa,” says an Investment Ministry source.
“We also talk extensively with the Egyptian private sector, encouraging it to pursue opportunities in Africa.”
Marwa Salem researches Egyptian policies on Africa.
“We are living through a new scramble over Africa,” she says. “Old colonial powers and new emerging economies are eying economic opportunities and for a good reason. Africa contains 30 per cent of the world’s natural resources and has a very young population. Seventy per cent of Africans are under 25.”
In its capacity as chair of the AU, Salem argues Egypt could help streamline the growing economic interest in Africa given “Cairo is in a good place to play this role because of its long and un-interrupted association with African states.”
Concerned officials agree that the last 10 years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule were not the best time for Egypt’s relations with Africa but they argue that during the past few years things have been picking up. President Al-Sisi has been keen to engage with African leaders, and Egyptian diplomacy has always focused on the continent.
“We work with African countries in the UNGA in New York and Geneva on matters related to trade and human rights. There is a clear role for Al-Azhar, and to a lesser extent to the Coptic Orthodox Church, in several African countries,” says one official.
The Orthodox Church of Egypt has traditionally had close ties with Ethiopia, links that have been used extensively, according to an Ethiopian source, to improve relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa since the two capitals have been at loggerheads over the construction of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.
Al-Azhar has a considerable constituency in more than 20 African states and has provided education, humanitarian assistance and spiritual leadership to Africa’s Muslims for decades. However, as an advisor to the grand imam said, during the past few years “we became very concerned about radical groups and have been providing guidance to imams in Africa to help them combat extremism.”
“Grand Imam Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb has even spoken with Pope Francis about the need for the Vatican to complement the role of Al-Azhar in defying violence and terrorism in constituencies that follow the Catholic Church.”
According to Salem, Al-Azhar could expand its work in and for Africa. Abdel-Halim agrees, saying the parallel paths of “consolidating states and their institutions, promoting sustainable development and advocating religious moderation could help Africa a great deal”.
Salem argues that to secure success on these fronts Egypt needs to continue its high-level cooperation with leading African countries.
“Clearly, one-on-one consultations between leaders are important to getting work done, and I think that President Al-Sisi is committed to making time to meet with African leaders,” she says.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt-Africa bonds; continental strategies