“African solidarity can move situations and impose itself on the events. It is not just a theoretical slogan,” President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said in his address to the opening session of the African Union (AU) in February when he was handed the chairmanship of the African organisation.
One aim of Egypt’s foreign policy has been to establish more balanced international relations. Given Egypt’s historic role in Africa and its 12-month chairmanship of the AU promoting the development priorities of the continent in the framework of the Africa 2063 agenda was a priority for Cairo throughout the last year.
Egypt played an unprecedented role in Africa, in 2019 says Ali Al-Hefni, a former deputy to Egypt’s foreign minister.
“Egypt has managed to present African problems to the world in a clear way to send important messages about the needs of the continent,” he said.
The year ended with two important meetings: the first round of the Aswan Forum for Peace and Sustainable Development, a regional and continental platform gathering together political, intellectual and opinion leaders, and the G20-Initiative Compact with Africa summit (CwA).
THE G20-INITIATIVE COMPACT WITH AFRICA SUMMIT
The CwA summit of G20 members and African states convened in Germany in November.
It seeks to coordinate action to face challenges like terrorism and illegal migration and boost African investment by the G20’s private sectors. Twelve African countries have joined the initiative so far: Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo and Tunisia.
Rakha Hassan, a member of the Council for Foreign Affairs, says that throughout the year Egypt has used international forums to argue that Africa needs massive infrastructural development.
“We present the problems during summits but in the end the ball is in the court of donor nations. They need to do more to develop the continent,” he said.
AFRICAN FREE TRADE AREA
Twenty-two African countries have now ratified the African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).
“Should the agreement be implemented and all the countries take part, it will represent a great economic leap for the continent,” says Hassan.
AfCFTA is expected to create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc. The free-trade zone which includes 1.3 billion people should be operational from July 2020.
AfCFTA was officially launched during the African leaders meeting at the AU Summit in Niamey, the capital of Niger, in July.
“AfCFTA is an important step that will reinforce our negotiating position on the international stage,” President Al-Sisi said at the summit’s opening ceremony.
The trade agreement will create jobs across sectors, from services to manufacturing, which are badly needed in a continent where 60 per cent of the population is under 30.
A functioning continental trade zone will see Africa more attractive for European investors.
The deal still faces obstacles — border restrictions, poor road and railway lines, corruption, poverty and areas of conflict.
Nigeria, one of the strongest economies on the continent, and Benin were the last two states to sign the free trade agreement.
JUNE 2019: DELIVERING AN AFRICAN MESSAGE FROM OSAKA
In June the G20 summit convened in Osaka, Japan. Egypt attended, giving Cairo the chance to cast light on African worries and once again underline the importance of infrastructure projects and increased efforts to resolve conflicts and combat terrorism.
During the summit President Al-Sisi highlighted two ambitious projects: linking Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea and building a Cairo-Cape Town highway.
A China-Africa mini summit, held on the sidelines of the Osaka meeting, discussed the China’s Belt and Road initiative which aims to consolidate trade, investment and infrastructure in 150 countries across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America.
THE FIRST RUSSIA-AFRICA MEETING
In October the first Russia-Africa Forum was held in Sochi, Russia. Boosting Moscow’s role in developing Africa and combating terrorism were discussed.
President Al-Sisi met Moussa Faki, chairperson of AU Commission, on the sidelines of the forum.
Faki praised Egypt’s promotion of development efforts in Africa and the important role it played in establishing the AU.
In an attempt to foster closer ties many bilateral and multilateral visits took place. Among the most important was President Al-Sisi’s tour of west Africa in April which took him to Guinea, Senegal and Côte d’Ivoire.
The visit reflected not only Egypt’s keenness to find new markets for Egyptian exports, but Cairo’s determination to intensify contacts and coordination with African states in order to push development forward.
Al-Sisi held bilateral talks with the leaders of the three states to discuss ways of maximising the benefit of Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU.
In April, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Jean-Claude Gakosso, foreign minister of the Republic of Congo-Brazzaville.
Gakosso chairs the AU High-Level Committee on Libya, and ways to tackle the Libyan crisis was high on the agenda of Shoukri’s talks.
In the past year Shoukri has also held a number of meetings with his South African counterpart Lindiwe Sisulu to discuss matters of bilateral concern and wider security issues, including ongoing developments in Libya.
South Africa is currently a member of the UN Security Council.
EGYPT, ETHIOPIA AND SUDAN
There are hopes that the end of this year, or the beginning of 2020, may bring a fair and balanced agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
The failure of the last round of tripartite talks in October prompted Egypt to ask for international mediation. The US subsequently invited the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to attend a meeting in Washington in November attended by US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass.
The parties decided to hold four technical sessions to resolve outstanding differences over the dam and the three foreign ministers reaffirmed their commitment to reaching a “comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement” on the filling and operation of GERD.
Two of the four technical sessions have now been held, the first in Addis Ababa in November, the second in Cairo earlier this month. A meeting was held in Washington on 9 December to review the outcome of the first two rounds. A third session was due to convene on 20 December in Sudan with the fourth and final session scheduled for 9 and 10 January.
FROM THE OAU TO THE AU
The foundation stone of the Organisation of African Union (OAU) was laid in Addis Ababa in May 1963. Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Ghanaian leader Kwame Nkrumah were among the founders of the organisation which was replaced by the AU in 2002.
In 2020 Egypt will hand the rotating presidency of the AU to South Africa.
The end of Egypt’s chairmanship will not reduce its contribution to the development of the continent, says Rakha.
“Egypt is one of the founding members of the OAU. It played a pioneering role in the liberation of various African states and it will continue to give everything it can to developing the continent.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: African solutions for African problems