Egypt on multiple fronts: Difficult trade-offs

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 26 Jul 2023

Egypt is pursuing economic and political solutions on conflicting fronts.

Archival photo
Archival photo


President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was due to arrive in St Petersburg on Thursday to head Egypt’s delegation to the second Russia-Africa summit.

The first summit of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum convened in 2019, ending in promises for enhanced cooperation which have so far failed to materialise.

Russian investments in most African countries remain low and Russia has significant trade relations with only five — Egypt among them — of the 54 countries in the continent.

According to Egyptian government sources, in St Petersburg Al-Sisi will be looking for guarantees of continued Russian support on several strategic issues. First, the sources say, Cairo wants to ensure continued wheat supplies on terms that accommodate Egypt’s current shortage of foreign currency.

Egypt imports around half its annual wheat needs from Russia and concern over supplies has been growing in Cairo since Moscow’s decision last week to end the UN-brokered grain deal which Russia claims has benefited European rather than African countries. In an open letter published ahead of the summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised that his country will continue to supply Africa with grain and make it up to countries that have suffered a drop in supplies and increased prices over the last two years.

“We understand the importance of uninterrupted food supplies for the socio-economic development and political stability of African states,” Putin wrote. He said that despite facing economic sanctions over the war in Ukraine, Russia had provided Africa with over 11 million tons of grains. Today, Putin said, “I want to give assurances that our country is capable of replacing Ukrainian grain, both on a commercial and free of charge basis.”

Government sources say that while Egypt is hoping to benefit from this promise on both counts there is no such thing as a free lunch and Moscow will want “something in return”.

Given its relations with the West, especially with the US, Egypt has had to slow down or else cancel planned cooperation with Russia. And while Cairo sympathises with Moscow’s concerns over the growth of NATO influence in Ukraine, cited by the Kremlin as the cause of the war, it has withheld full support for Moscow’s position, voting instead for UN General Assembly resolutions calling for an end to the war and respect of Ukrainian sovereignty.

“We just stick to the reasonable line of calling for a negotiated end to the war, a position shared with many African countries,” said one source.

Egypt, he added, will join several other African countries in sharing with their hosts “some ideas” to end the conflict in a way acceptable to both sides, including contributing to peacekeeping forces “under the umbrella of the African Union” once a ceasefire is in place.

Cairo has consulted with African and other capitals on the details of what a possible “reasonable offer” might involve.

“Ultimately, if we want the Russians to show interest, we have to take their interests into account. The idea is to appeal for as prompt an end as possible to this war on the sidelines, not during the sessions, of the summit in St Petersburg,” said the source.

The conflict in Sudan will also be high on the agenda of President Al-Sisi’s sideline meetings in St Petersburg.

Egypt is already heavily invested in an initiative to secure agreement among Sudan’s neighbours to encourage Abdel-Fattah Al-Borhan, leader of the Sudanese Armed Forces, and Mohamed Dagalo, leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), to end their conflict, and a ministerial meeting of Sudan’s seven neighbours is scheduled to meet in Chad within days.

On Monday and Tuesday, Egypt hosted a meeting of civilian Sudanese forces and also played host to Al-Borhan’s second in command Malik Agar, who spoke with participants at the meeting and other Cairo-based Sudanese politicians.

Government sources say Cairo is working to establish a political corps capable of supporting a sustainable ceasefire, on which the Americans and Saudis are working, and to encourage Sudan’s neighbours to support such a ceasefire. To this end, Egypt is “in close coordination with the US” and is keeping open channels of communication with Saudi Arabia, and Russia could play a vital role in supporting the initiative.

The Russian mercenary group Wagner has been instrumental in supporting the RSF and despite last month’s aborted march on Moscow by Wagner fighters, Russia and Wagner have both said the group’s operations in Africa — focused on supporting African regimes against alleged rebel groups — will continue.

In the last five years, Wagner has expanded its activities in the continent, including in the Sahel and Sahara, allowing Russia to compete with Western countries, especially France, in terms of influence vis-à-vis countries rich in natural resources. According to European diplomatic sources, access to gold deposits in Sudan has been at the core of Wagner operations.

European diplomats note that while in Moscow in June for talks with Russian officials, Agar said Al-Borhan was willing to relaunch negotiations over a possible Russian base in Port Sudan. Russia has long coveted a series of African bases, most military but some commercial, as a springboard to expand its presence on a continent that has been subject to growing international competition, a strategy that could see it at odds with its otherwise close ally China.

While Cairo is unhappy about any foreign military expansion in the Horn of Africa, and especially in Sudan, it is also cautious about supporting, even implicitly, any deal that dismays China, a close development partner and one to which Cairo is looking for the economic support it needs to accommodate the growing number of Sudanese fleeing their country.

In Rome this week for a summit on undocumented migration, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli said that the world needs to address the root causes behind migration and work to consolidate “sustainable partnerships that achieve mutual benefits”.

As one senior Egyptian official noted, President Al-Sisi’s attendance at the St Petersburg summit was subject to very careful consideration.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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