Continental shifts: Egypt's bid to forge consensus among African states

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 7 Sep 2022

Cairo is focusing ever more of its diplomatic energy on seeking to forge a consensus among African states on existential issues, including climate change and militant terror, reports Al-Ahram Weekly.

Continental shifts
Pope Tawadros with the Ethiopian clerical delegation


Towards the end of this year, following Egypt’s hosting of COP27 in November, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is scheduled to take part, along with other African leaders, in the US-Africa Summit hosted by US President Joe Biden.

In July, Biden announced that the US will host African leaders to discuss growing challenges “from food security to climate change”.

“The summit will demonstrate the United States’ enduring commitment to Africa, and will underscore the importance of US-Africa relations and increased cooperation on shared global priorities,” Biden said.

Egyptian diplomacy is heavily investing in coordinating positions on key security issues ahead of both COP27 and the US-Africa Summit. They include the impacts of global warming, the challenges posed by terrorism and drug and people trafficking groups and increasing levels of undocumented migration.

Egyptian officials involved in preparing for COP27 say Egypt is aiming to forge a consensus among African states on the need for rich countries to finance the measures necessary to mitigate the effects of climate change across the continent. They say that while rich countries will not be keen to make serious pledges in Sharm El-Sheikh given the international economic crisis and the fallout of the war in Ukraine, the object is to at least secure pledges as a first step.

The same officials say Egypt has also been lobbying for African states to prioritise water security within their environmental/climate agendas, conceding that the emphasis is, in part, related to Egypt’s own concerns over Ethiopia’s reluctance to reach an agreement on the filling and management of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dame (GERD).

Following Ethiopia’s third, unregulated filling of the GERD reservoir, Cairo is hoping for direct and effective US involvement ahead of the US-Africa Summit. Those hopes have been raised, say officials, by consultations already conducted by US Envoy on the Horn of Africa Mike Hammer with Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. President Al-Sisi, they add, is also committed to raising the issue in New York during the UN General Assembly, and in Sharm El-Sheikh during COP27.

Water security is a growing concern for many countries in Africa given its inevitable impact on food security across the continent. Last month, the World Bank rang alarm bells about food security in many African states, underlining concerns about the availability and affordability of food.

Amany Al-Tawil, an African affairs analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, argues that Egypt has much more to offer Arican states in tackling food security that simply coordinating positions ahead of international meetings. Egypt can also share its own hard-won know-how on improving water management and developing agricultural solutions.

Last week, in Cairo, Minister of Agriculture Abdel-Moneim Al-Banna discussed bilateral agricultural cooperation with his Ugandan counterpart Vincent Ssempijja. Egypt has been particularly focused on cooperation with Nile Basin countries, particularly on agriculture and water management projects.

Building cooperation is not limited to water management and agricultural projects. On Wednesday, Cairo was expecting the inauguration of the Egypt-International Cooperation Forum which brings together African economic and finance ministers with ministers of the environment. The meeting is intended to facilitate coordination of positions among African countries ahead of COP27 and provide an opportunity for initial agreements on joint projects to be agreed.

According to a statement made late last week by Minister of Trade and Investment Ahmed Samir during the Cote d’Ivoire national day celebrations at its Cairo embassy, Egyptian investment in Africa has surpassed $10 billion and is growing.

Beyond investment and environmental cooperation, Cairo has also been expanding other forms of outreach, with Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church playing key roles. This week, in Cairo, the head of the Coptic Church Pope Tawadros received a delegation from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

“We pray for the Nile water and for the rain that falls in Ethiopia as it brings good to many countries,” Pope Tawadros said. “In Egypt, we consider the Nile our father and the land around it our mother.”

Cooperation with Africa, say officials, is also as high on the agenda of the ministries of endowments, health, electricity, and housing just as it is for the ministries of foreign affairs, international cooperation, trade, and investment. According to one Egyptian diplomat, there has been a marked shift in the volume of attention Africa is receiving “at the presidential level and across government”.

Al-Tawil says the increased attention Egypt is devoting to Africa is a worthwhile investment. According to a recent report that she worked on with the office of the prime minister, working with “the rest of the countries of the continent” on environmental issues, including renewable and clean energy, and security, are among Egypt’s top priorities.

“Security is key, given the many security threats that could undermine development schemes,” she said.

Al-Tawil identifies the Horn of Africa, the Nile Basin and the Sahel and Sahara zones as areas with “obvious security vulnerability” that has direct impact on Egypt’s own security. Egypt’s “military repositioning” around the Red Sea and Bab Al-Mandab, its military and security cooperation agreements with several countries around these zones and the presidential-level contact with the leaders of the concerned African countries have, she says, proven positive in terms of advancing stability “and in garnering support for the position of Egypt on crucial security issues, including GERD”.

Egyptian officials also report that cooperation with Sudan and South Sudan has been successful in terms of cooperation on environment and security issues despite, as one Egyptian put it, “the political hiccups in Khartoum and Juba”.

Late last month, President Al-Sisi met with Tut Gatluak Manime, South Sudan’s presidential advisor on security affairs. According to a press statement from the president’s office, the meeting was attended by Abbas Kamel, Egypt’s head of the General Intelligence Service; Deng Alor Kuol, South Sudan’s minister of East African affairs; Gabriel Changson Chang, South Sudan’s minister of higher education, and Stephen Kowal, South Sudan’s minister of peacebuilding. Gatluak, the statement noted, handed President Al-Sisi a message from President of South Sudan Salva Kiir which included briefings on the political situation and progress in the peace process in South Sudan.

This week, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb ordered the Egyptian House of Zakat and Charities, in cooperation with the concerned authorities in Al-Azhar, to send urgent medical and food aid to Sudan where more than 100 people have been killed in torrential rains. Heavy floods in Sudan have injured dozens of people, destroyed thousands of homes, and displaced more.

Meanwhile, diplomatic sources say both Somalia and Libya are also high on Egypt’s foreign agenda, with concern focused on issues ranging from drought and food insecurity to combating militant groups, drug smuggling and human trafficking rings. Action, said one diplomat, is being advanced at both the bilateral level and also through multilateral forums that bring African countries together, including the AU and the subregional groupings. “Our cooperation through inter-African agencies has been very active,” he said.

Egypt’s work combatting terror, especially in the Sahel and Sahara zone, notes Al-Tawil, has grown significantly since the Cairo-based Sahel and Sahara Centre focused its mandate almost exclusively on counterterrorism. Egypt’s involvement through the centre and at the bilateral level includes a number of training programmes, particularly with Burkina Faso and Mali.

In July, Egypt, along with several other countries, withdraw military personnel from the UN peacekeeping force in Mali. The withdrawal came after several terror attacks had targeted the UN force and caused causalities among participants, including from Egypt.

An informed government official said that the decision to suspend participation in the UN peacekeeping force is temporary. The whole issue of Mali, he added, is subject to high-level security and political discussions in African and international forums. “We are working on this issue with our African and international partners, especially with France which also pulled its soldiers out of Mali,” he said.

Egypt’s work on African security and economic issues, says Al-Tawil, inevitably involves working with international partners with conflicting agendas.

Africa is increasingly the subject of political, security, and economic rivalries and, says one diplomat, given “the growing rivalry on winning the continent”, Cairo has no choice but to adopt a flexible and pragmatic approach.

“Egypt is a key power in Africa and is also a gateway to the continent. We have our interests, and we are willing to cooperate to secure them,” he said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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