Egypt’s African identity

Ahmad Abdel-Tawwab Sharafeldin
Tuesday 22 Feb 2022

Egypt has a major role to play on the African continent, both economically and in deepening its cultural and other connections, writes Ahmad Abdel-Tawwab Sharaf Eldin

Egypt’s affiliation with its African surroundings goes beyond the traditional geographical and historical dimensions, as this affiliation has been a major component of Egyptian identity throughout the ages. It is a pivotal element in shaping the cultural features of the Egyptian personality, an identity that was formed from a mixture of the Arabic language and Islamic, Coptic, Mediterranean, and African backgrounds.

Egypt has never been cut off from the African continent during the various periods of its history. However, the last few years have been characterised by an increase in its activity there, not only in the Nile Basin region, but also in the heart of the continent through the African Union (AU), which Egypt has chaired since February 2019. Egypt’s presidential diplomacy has also brought about a renaissance in African relations.

Egyptian support for human development efforts in the various countries of the African continent has become ever more evident and reflects Egypt’s awareness of its African identity. This has taken place through the dispatching of thousands of Egyptian experts, the reception of thousands of African citizens for training in Egypt, and the diversity of fields and interests of the Technical Fund for Cooperation with Africa of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The latter has worked on judicial cooperation, police cooperation, educational programmes, medical aid, food aid, and courses for African diplomats.

Egypt is working in parallel to deepen relations with the African continent through various agreements and projects and the implementation of many infrastructure and logistics programmes in the heart of the continent. The national carrier EgyptAir has signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a Ghanaian national airline with joint investment that will provide services to more than 80 countries around the world, for example. 

To avoid the high economic price incurred by countries due to restrictions on border relations and the movement of people across borders, as well as to encourage projects in the field of water resources and irrigation, Cairo is working on the construction of a hydroelectric dam in Tanzania. The Arab Contractors Company is also implementing projects in 23 African countries through a huge investment package estimated at $1.5 billion, and there is also an electrical interconnection project between Africa and Europe being sponsored by Egypt.

Egypt has signed 19 military agreements with African countries, underlining the fact that Cairo is distinguished by the presence of a large number of African military personnel who receive training at the Nasser Academy in the capital every year. Egyptian diplomatic initiatives over the last two years reflect Egypt’s openness to Africa within the framework of the intensification of parallel plans on several levels. 

On the educational level, Egypt is opening the door to giving more scholarships and offering various grants in its universities and institutes to African students. There are currently more than 10,000 African students on government scholarships in Egypt, in addition to others studying at their own expense.

Economically, the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will create sustainable opportunities and open the door to mutual benefits between Egypt and the African countries. Cairo is also an active member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA). This is the largest economic grouping on the African continent and allows for the exchange of goods and services without customs duties or administrative obstacles.

Diplomatic initiatives on the continent over the past two years have paralleled what happened in previous decades since Cairo established major assets in Africa during the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the fruits of these continued to be reaped during the subsequent rule of former presidents Al-Sadat and Mubarak.

There are now more and more opportunities in Africa after decades of comparative retreat. These include economic cooperation and the exchange of experiences and actions to protect water security.

Cairo should pay more attention to shifting cooperation from the hierarchical level led by diplomatic summits to intensifying the Egyptian role in social, cultural, and media areas in order to achieve a sustainable presence in Africa. The media should play more of a role in encouraging businessmen to exploit opportunities for cooperation and introduce Egyptian products to African markets. Especially in the light of the US and Russian rush to work on the continent, this would make Egypt a centre for cooperation by these powers with Africa in order to achieve mutual benefits.

Among the aspects of Egypt’s AU presidency has been the launch of the operational phase of the African Free Trade Zone, the signing of 13 memoranda of understanding and agreements worth $3 billion in the activities of the Africa Forum, and the doubling of the activities of the Egyptian Agency for Partnership for Development in Africa.

The intensity of these developments in Egyptian-African relations has shown that Egypt’s moves are not based on Egyptian strategic interests alone, but instead are based on a broader and deeper framework intended to fight negative perceptions as a new starting point in relations towards the continent. This breakthrough has been based on deepening the country’s African identity, advancing integration among the countries of the continent, erasing any negative or exclusionary images of African Arabs, and providing direct connections to building a common awareness of the continent’s issues and challenges.

Many efforts have been made to bring together Egyptian and African young people, including the Africa Summer School that will prepare young leaders from Egypt and Africa and change any persisting stereotypes. It will help to introduce African institutions and cultures in Egypt and promote effective communication between the peoples of the continent. 

The vision and objectives of the Africa School are based on three levels: Egypt’s Vision 2030 at the national level; Africa’s Agenda 2063 at the continental level; and the 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals at the international level. These make the School a pioneering experiment in the framework of cultural exchange and the deepening of identity between Egypt and the African countries.

Africa today is not the Africa of yesterday. Our circumstances, situations, problems, and challenges have many similarities and common concerns. The peoples of the African continent are looking for peace and a decent life. Africans are ready to open their doors to cooperation and to a fair division of legitimate gains between them and investors from outside. 

Africa is a continent that is able to absorb huge investments. Our roots in the African continent are deep, and our history with it is an honourable one. Egypt has a great role to play in the heart of Africa. Our task now should be to return to these roots and to play the role that we used to play throughout our ancient, mediaeval, and modern history of helping and supporting the countries of the African continent as much as we can. 

We have visions and experiences that can add to this continent, which is what Egypt seeks in helping to make its development a tangible reality.

* The writer is a professor in the English Department at Menoufiya University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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