In January next year, Egypt will begin its one-year stint as chair of the African Union (AU). It will be keen to leave an imprint on the organisation commensurate with its status, and Africa as a whole is looking forward to benefitting from the leadership of a country that it regards as a cornerstone of the continent with its wealth of resources, skills and expertise.
What initiatives can we look forward to during Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU? Some have been initiated earlier, and then abandoned, while others are ripe for revival, helping to make Egypt’s year at the head of the AU a year of unprecedented achievements.
Egypt’s African policy is about to embark on a practical course that will steer the continent towards greater mutual benefits, closer interdependence and a brighter future.
One idea is to create a fund to finance projects by Egyptian companies in Africa. This could function in the manner of the Export-Import Bank of India (EXIM Bank) or its Chinese equivalent, and with a budget of at least $500 million it could offer loans for projects carried out in Africa on the condition that they are by Egyptian firms.
The initiative would open African markets to Egyptian companies, and Egypt’s support for the new bank would attract African countries to it.
All countries that have launched successful initiatives in Africa have drawn on ideas of this sort. In addition to India and China, South Korea, Turkey, Russia, Japan, France, the US and Germany have all opened lines of credit that prioritise funding for activities undertaken by their companies in Africa.
These loans are one of the instruments these countries have used to establish their economic and political presence in the region.
A second idea is to create an African swap fund that would allow the direct exchange of goods on the basis of their value on international markets, thereby alleviating pressures related to foreign currency payments.
The fund would value African goods and handle the shipping arrangements between the countries striking the deals. The idea could be expanded to enable collective purchasing by countries keen to reduce costs and to counter monopolisation.
All African countries need to purchase the same medicines, for example. If they pooled their resources to purchase supplies collectively, it would bring down the costs for each.
Egypt proposed other ideas during previous rounds as chair of the AU that could have had a significant impact. One was to establish an Egyptian satellite channel to Africa broadcasting from Cairo and providing information about Africa’s cultures and civilisations before the Western colonialist invasion.
The channel could air programmes on the continent’s music, cinema, literature and arts and on other awareness-raising and inspirational subjects.
When Egypt proposed this initiative in 2006, a delegation headed by Alfa Oumar Konare, then chair of the Commission of the African Union, visited Cairo.
Along with officials from the national broadcasting sector, I met with Konare at the Radio and Television Union in Maspero before he visited Cairo’s Media Production City.
Konare said that after having learned of the facilities in Cairo, he thought the proposed satellite television channel could be “launched tomorrow”.
A meeting of African media ministers was organised to discuss it, but just at the point where it seemed that this splendid project would in fact be realised it ground to a halt.
The reasons for this remain a mystery, especially given the benefits it could have brought to Egypt. The idea should be explored again today, particularly as such a station, if well implemented, could raise awareness of the dangers of extremism, illegal migration and other ills across the continent and serve as a beacon of education and enlightenment.
Another important initiative that Egypt has proposed for Africa, and one that was energetically supported by former health minister Mohamed Awad Tageddin, was the creation of an African Centre for Infectious Diseases.
This would conduct research on the dangerous diseases that threaten the lives of millions on the continent, including malaria, AIDS and Ebola.
Egypt even earmarked premises for the new centre in facilities belonging to Alexandria University, but following a cabinet reshuffle the project lost the backing necessary to follow it through in spite of the welcome it had received among African ministers of health.
There was also an excellent exhibition by Egyptian pharmaceutical firms in the hope of opening African markets to these companies’ products.
In addition to rehabilitating this initiative, we can now add research on the Hepatitis C virus, given the success that Egypt has had in treating this dangerous illness. Effective regional and international publicity for the treatment programme that has been set up in Egypt could generate an excellent source of revenues and become a branch of medical tourism.
While it could be useful to promote this conventional type of medical tourism, an important trend today that is being applied successfully by some countries in the Arab region such as Jordan is to promote specialised healthcare and medical facilities.
Former health minister Mohamed Awad Tageddin was a supporter of this concept, which entails preparing a catalogue of the specialised medical centres and facilities in Egypt together with the services they offer and their costs and to market these in the African countries.
These services, including heart surgery, kidney transplantation and laser eye surgery, could be the object of agreements with health organisations or government bodies in these countries, including insurance companies or ministries of health, interior or defence.
Sending patients to be treated for such conditions in Egypt could spare the African countries the huge amounts of money they spend in sending patients to the US or Europe for treatment.
An initiative of this sort could also be promoted in the Arab region, augmenting revenues as well as mutual benefits.
Such initiatives, which are all very feasible, almost got off the ground during earlier rounds of Egypt’s chairing the AU. However, for various reasons they were shelved.
The hope today, as Egypt once again takes up the chairmanship of the organisation, is that they will be revived and relaunched to the benefit of Africa and ourselves.
Two further challenges on which Egypt should take the initiative can be met through the proposed coordinating mechanism for the fight against terrorism that was approved during the meeting of ministers of defence of the Sahel and Sahara countries in 2016.
Egypt should study the ways in which we can offer our expertise to help Africa overcome the challenges of terrorism, and in the same way it should take the lead in supporting Africa in the fight against illegal migration.
As AU chair, Egypt should take the initiative on the economic front, organising conferences on Africa along the lines of the economic and trade conferences it has hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh, the latest of which is being organised by the Ministry of International Cooperation and the Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Due to open on 12 December, this will be the fourth conference in what we hope will remain an African tradition.
Equally important is the need to reach out to African youth. In this regard, Egypt will be hosting the next African Youth Conference in Aswan, which will be declared next year’s Capital of One Africa.
Venues for dialogue and exchange should be extended beyond hotels and assembly halls into a variety of public spaces dedicated to presentations of African arts.
The Aswan event will conclude with an excursion to Luxor, the cradle of Egyptian and African civilisation, where the closing ceremony will be held in the court of an ancient pharaonic temple.
As we look forward to Egypt’s year as AU chair, every government ministry must assume its responsibilities. Let us work together to explore the possibilities in Cairo or elsewhere of hosting further meetings of African ministers.
A coastal city such as Alexandria might host a conference of African immigration ministers on illegal migration, for example, and Sharm El-Sheikh or the Red Sea governorate could host a conference for African ministers of tourism.
As for Cairo, this could host the next conference of the UN United Cities and Local Governments of Africa (UCLG Africa) Organisation or the next council meeting of that organisation, as was decided in the summit that was held in Marrakech two weeks ago.
Thanks to the effective participation of Egypt’s minister of local development, Cairo was chosen as the organisation’s headquarters for North Africa and the governor of Cairo was elected to its executive committee.
Each Egyptian minister, in collaboration with his counterparts in Africa in health, education, irrigation and other areas, should try to arrange a conference in his area of specialisation at some point during the year of Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU.
This would help Egypt to author an array of new initiatives for Africa that will confirm that chairing the AU is not just a routine affair for Egypt that will end after a year, but instead is a means to manifest its ongoing commitment to addressing the continent’s most challenging issues and advancing its welfare.
* The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Egypt’s initiatives for the African Union