Egypt’s relationship with Africa dates back millennia. In the modern age, however, starting with the irrigation projects under Mohamed Ali in the early 19th century, Cairo increasingly focused on the Nile and its sources.This beginning laid the foundation for the linkage between Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt’s strategic interest in the continent as a whole developed after World War II with the founding of the Arab League. A Centre for Sudanese Studies was established in 1947 which, by the beginning of the 1950s, had evolved into the Institute for African Studies.
Following the Revolution of 23 July 1952 Egypt’s leadership designated Africa as the second strategic sphere after the Arab region. The Islamic world was the third.
Under Gamal Abdel-Nasser the revolutionary regime in Egypt backed liberation movements across Africa. Cairo pressed for the independence of Sudan in the 1953 Sudan Agreement.
A year later it declared its support for the Algerian revolution. In 1955 Egypt announced its support for African liberation movements at the Bandung conference, a move which marked the beginning of the Non-Aligned Movement.
A wave of African declarations of independence, supported by Egypt, soon followed. Ghana, under Kwame Nkrumah, declared independence from Britain in 1957.
Guinea Conakry, under Ahmed Sékou Touré, won independence from France in 1958. Both leaders developed close friendships with president Nasser.
In 1960 alone, 17 British and French colonies won their independence, inspiring the UN to declare 1960 the Year of Africa. The number of independent African states jumped from eight (Egypt, Liberia, Ethiopia, Libya, Sudan, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as the apartheid regime in South Africa) to 25.
In 1961 Sierra Leone and Tanganyika (the mainland of Tanzania) declared independence from Britain. In 1962 Burundi and Rwanda gained their independence from Belgium, Algeria from France and Uganda from Britain.
In 1963 Kenya and Zanzibar (which would unite with Tanganyika to form Tanzania in 1964) followed suit.
The process has continued. The most recent development occurred in July 2011 when South Sudan seceded from Sudan, bringing the number of African members of the UN to 54.
In the course of Africa’s journey to independence, which Egypt has championed since 1952, Cairo hosted the leaders of national liberation movements and lent them military and logistic support. In fact, the first generations of African military officers were trained in Egypt.
Egyptian diplomacy also placed itself at the service of liberation movements. Cairo, with its relations in the Arab world, the eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, offered liberation movements a much needed political umbrella.
Egyptian student unions in Europe, above all in the two main colonial capitals, London and Paris, offered platforms for African colleagues to explain their national causes abroad.
The relations that began in Europe would evolve, during the 1960s and 1970s, into visits by Egyptian technocrats to newly independent African states whose ministers had known their Egyptian guests during their student days in French and British universities.
As African independence moved towards completion in the mid-1970s Egypt’s role began to recede. One major reason was Cairo’s preoccupation with its wars with Israel which would last until 1973, detracting from its ability to meet the needs of the continent.
African needs had also changed and expanded. African states wanted support for infrastructure and development rather than military, intelligence and political aid.
During the heyday of Egyptian-African relations in the 1950s and 1960s Egypt’s relations with other African countries did not fluctuate as wildly as they did with Arab nations.
Nasser maintained friendly relations with emperor Haile Selassie, despite Ethiopia’s Western alliances. The same applied to relations with Senegal’s Leopold Senghor and Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta.
Although many African leaders wanted Egypt to host the headquarters of the Organisation of African Union (which would become the African Union), Nasser insisted it be based in Ethiopia. He did not want Egypt to be seen as seeking to control the continent.
Nor did Cairo take advantage of its excellent relations with many post-independence African leaders to build military pacts or alliances against others. It never intervened on behalf of any of the camps that emerged among African nations (Francophone versus Anglophone or socialist versus pro-western camps).
That Egypt did not develop joint projects with African states was largely due to the forces of polarisation engendered during the Cold War, famines and epidemics, civil war, and in some cases the strange personality cult type rule which brought a number of countries to the brink of collapse.
This is not to say that Egypt has not benefited from its African connections. On more than one occasion the African bloc in the UN voted against Israeli aggression against the Arabs.
The Arabs also opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa. A vivid manifestation of this African-Arab solidarity could be found in that majority vote for UN General Assembly Resolution 1976 equating Zionism with racism.
The fact is, though, that Egypt did not benefit from its African relations as it should. Medhat Askar, former African projects director at the Arab Contractors Company, recalls a conversation he had with a Nigerian official in the early 1990s at the time of tenders for infrastructural projects for the new capital Abuja. The Nigerian official — a minister — told him that he was surprised Egypt was so late.
“We had expected Egypt to take its share of projects in the 1970s after it helped us in the Biafran War but it never came,” said the minister.
Egypt supported the Nigerian government in its campaign to suppress the secessionist bid of the oil-rich Biafra region between 1967 and 1970 which threatened the most populous and largest oil producing African nation.
Egypt backed Nigeria materially with weapons, and diplomatically in the UN and among Eastern Bloc nations which viewed pro-Western Lagos with a suspicious eye.
Cairo was also an outspoken critic of the apartheid regime in South Africa and helped arm and train members of Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress Party. It supported Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today) in its war of liberation against the apartheid regime of the fanatical Ian Smith.
Throughout the modern history of Egyptian-African relations Cairo has taken pains to avert any suspicion that it was seeking to dominate or exploit African states. It can appreciate better than others how jealously Africans guard their independence after the heavy price they had to pay to win their freedom from colonial rule.
Today Egypt is staging a bold return to the continent, speaking the language of joint projects such as the $3.6 billion Rufiji River dam project in Tanzania.
This is only a portion of the tens of billions of dollars that Egypt has pledged to invest in Africa. Egyptian construction and contracting firms, such as the Arab Contractors and Orascom which have been involved in various infrastructure and electricity generating projects in many African countries since the late 1980s, are preparing to engage in more.
In this regard, it is useful to recall another dimension of the modern Egyptian-African relationship: Egypt’s contributions to the development of African human resources through the thousands of educational and training opportunities it made available to future African professionals in Egyptian universities and ministries.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: A contextual history