Egypt will assume the presidency of the African Union in February 2019. This comes as a culmination of extensive diplomatic efforts to revive Egypt’s Africa role since Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi assumed power in 2014. Under Mubarak, and especially since the assassination attempt on his life in Addis Ababa in 1995, Egyptian-African relations witnessed a significant deterioration which was reflected in worsening relations with Nile Basin countries, including with Sudan and Ethiopia.
However, the current administration has made relations with Africa a priority issue and has sought to revive Egypt’s role as a leading African nation by playing a more active political, military and economic role in Africa. Since assuming power, Al-Sisi has regularly attended the annual AU summits and has undertaken approximately 20 visits to African nations, including three visits to Ethiopia and four to Sudan. According to the Egyptian State Information Service, visits to African countries have constituted 30 per cent of the president’s overall international visits.
Moreover, Egypt has undertaken a number of important initiatives in the hope of restoring its leading role in Africa. These include the training of African peacekeepers and military personnel, and increasing security cooperation and intelligence sharing with African countries. On the economic front, Egypt has undertaken a number of new initiatives which have included convening three economic conferences in Sharm El-Sheikh to encourage greater inter-African economic and business cooperation, and the creation of the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development, a fund for guaranteeing investment in Africa, and an investment fund for building technological infrastructure in Africa. Finally, Egypt has significantly increased the number of scholarships extended to African students while African youth have been invited to participate in the youth conferences convened annually in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Egypt has a number of vital interests in the African continent, foremost among these is the issue of water security and the issue of peace and stability in Africa. Finally, the issue of social and economic development. On the water issue, in spite of relentless diplomatic efforts to sway Ethiopia and the Sudan and other Nile Basin countries away from undertaking projects that might affect Egypt’s overall share of the Nile water, Egypt has yet to make a break through on this one. Many analysts have argued that Nile Basin countries believe that Egypt has historically and unfairly received a disproportionate share of Nile water and that their own development projects now depend on their ability to harness the power of the Nile to produce energy. Thus, Egypt’s approach should focus less on trying to convince and/or pressure Nile Basin countries not to build new dams and more on envisioning joint alternative development schemes that fulfil their energy and development needs such as exporting electricity and natural gas to these countries at favourable rates or by investing in agricultural projects in these countries to benefit from their development schemes while also addressing Egypt’s chronic dependence on food imports.
On the question of peace and security, the situation in Libya, and the activities of terrorist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, and the security of the eastern Red Sea Coast constitute priority issues. Egypt has played an active role on all three fronts and has managed to make breakthroughs in some of these areas, especially the area of the security of Red Sea passageways and hence the security of the Suez Canal. However, the conflict in Libya and the activities of terrorist organisations in sub-Saharan Africa remain important challenges and Egypt continues to play an active political and security role in both of these areas.
The final issue is the question of economic and social development in Africa. Egypt has come to appreciate the importance of mutual support and cooperation between African countries, especially in the areas of infrastructure development, energy, agriculture and food security, and has undertaken a number of initiatives to encourage greater economic cooperation with African countries. In recent years, Egypt has begun to push for a greater role for the Egyptian private and public sectors in African development.
However, Egypt confronts a number of important challenges in its efforts to foster greater peace and economic cooperation in Africa. Foremost among these is growing competition between international and regional actors over influence in Africa, often in ways that could undermine Egypt’s interests in the African continent.
Unlike in the 1960s when Egypt was uniquely situated to lead the African continent in light of Nasser’s charisma and unique standing in the Third World, today Egypt is competing for a leadership role in the African continent with a number of regional contenders, including South Africa, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Algeria. In regional and international forums these regional powers often compete with — rather than support — one another, which leads to weakening the negotiating power of the African continent. A multilateral rather than a unilateral conception of leadership is more likely to succeed in modern day Africa. Rather than trying to lead Africa, Egypt could situate itself as a facilitator and consensus builder encouraging various regional powers to adopt a common agenda or perspective on regional and international issues.
In addition to growing competition between African powers, the continent has also witnessed a substantial increase in competition between external powers over the resources of the continent. External actors vying for influence in Africa include the US, Russia, China, France, Italy, Israel, and more recently Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. While this growing interest has provided African countries with greater resources for growth and development, it has also intensified competition for resources in the region and has undermined the political and financial autonomy of numerous African countries. More importantly, this race for influence in Africa undermines and limits Egypt’s own ambitions to play a more active role in the continent.
Egypt is also limited by its own economic and political troubles at home which have undermined its ability to project greater influence in the African continent. Egypt lacks the extensive financial resources available to some of the other countries competing for influence in Africa, and in fact Egypt, like most other African countries, is more often than not the recipient of foreign grants and investment rather than a grantor or investor in its own right.
A final weakness of Egypt’s position has to do with the lack of an integrated Africa strategy. While Egypt has initiated a number of important discrete initiatives over the last few years, these initiatives do not amount to an integrated policy or strategy vis-à-vis the African continent. Hence, it would be useful if the various Egyptian organisations working on Africa came together to draft a comprehensive and integrated strategy vis-à-vis Africa, tying in the various component parts, and setting clear short, medium and long-term goals to be achieved.
That being said, Egypt nonetheless possesses many important assets that it could use to its advantage in the African continent. In terms of hard power, Egypt possesses extensive military, security and intelligence resources that it could put to greater use in fostering greater peace and security in the African continent, both through the African Union and through its bilateral and multilateral relations with African nations.
In terms of economic resources, Egypt has extensive expertise and resources in the areas of energy and infrastructure development that could compliment the needs of African countries in these areas. Moreover, if a coordinated strategy is put in place, the Egyptian private sector could potentially act as an important source of investment in the agricultural, industrial and energy sectors in Africa. Also, Egyptian professionals and skilled labourers can provide important training and capacity building in Africa.
Finally, Egypt can — as in the days of Nasser — project greater soft power by using its extensive cultural and civil society resources in the African continent. Scholarships, collaborations on cultural projects, exchange programmes for Egyptian teachers and students, extending the role of Egyptian universities, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church in African countries can all help consolidate Egypt’s role as a leading African nation.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly