New departures in Egypt’s relations with sub-Saharan Africa

Egypt’s relations with sub-Saharan African countries have for long oscillated between prosperity and decline. These relations have particularly developed over the past four years, driven by the Nile water issue but also the country’s mounting interest in regional integration and the search for new economic opportunities.

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    Egypt and its neighbours in sub-Saharan Africa have historical and cultural ties dating back thousands of years. Successive Egyptian governments, especially since the independence, have often headed south. However, Egypt has not given equal weight to all African regions and countries. Besides, Egyptian foreign policy faced many challenges imposed by a number of internal and external factors which cast a shadow over the ties that link Egypt with the rest of the African continent. This has led to an oscillation in Egyptian-African relations between prosperity and decline over long periods of time. While Egyptian-African relations witnessed a decline under Hosni Mubarak, this has started to change with the remarkable development in Egypt’s foreign policy towards Africa over the past four years.

    This article sets out to examine the development of relations between Egypt and its sub-Saharan counterparts since the period of the national liberation movements of the 1950s and 1960s until the present, with a special focus on Egypt’s handling of the Nile water issue more recently. The article further provides some reflections on Egypt’s prospective chairmanship of the African Union in 2019.

    The development of Egyptian–African relations

    Egypt has long been keen on strengthening relations with other African countries. In the 1950s and 1960s, Africa was a key focus of Egypt’s foreign policy when Egypt actively supported national liberation movements and contributed to founding the Organization of African Unity. Egypt helped these movements to get their demands heard at the United Nations. It allowed many national liberation movements from East, West, and Southern Africa to open political offices in the country, and use Cairo as a media headquarters to set up radio stations broadcasting in African languages.

    With the independence of many African countries, Egypt strived to support their development by enhancing cooperation with them in many areas. In the field of education, for instance, Egypt offered scholarships to sub-Saharan students, which subsequently contributed to the transfer of many components of Arab and Islamic culture to sub-Saharan Africa. The Egyptian government established the public company El Nasr Co. For Export & Import in 1958 with the objective of expanding Egypt’s economic presence and influence in sub-Saharan Africa. This was done by establishing many branches throughout the continent, now numbering 17 branches. One of Egypt’s key current objectives with regard to regaining its influence in Africa is to revive and boost the presence of this state company in sub-Saharan Africa.

    After many countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence and with the escalation of conflicts in the Arab world, particularly due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, from the 1970s Egypt has focused more on the Arab world. The Egyptian divergence has further increased following a failed assassination attempt of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 1995 by an Egyptian extremist group based in Sudan when he arrived in Ethiopia for a summit of African leaders.

    Following the revolution of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013, Egypt stepped up its efforts to establish its presence and regain leadership and influence in sub-Saharan Africa. Firstly, the popular protests in 2011 and 2013 forced the Egyptian government to reconsider its foreign policy, especially towards sub-Saharan Africa, where Egypt’s role had declined significantly since 1995. Secondly, this period saw ongoing developments in the Nile water issue: the late President of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, laid the cornerstone for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in April 2011 with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a partnership among the Nile riparian countries, especially Nile source countries. These countries drew up a Cooperative Framework Agreement in Entebbe in 2010 which sought to re-divide the waters of the Nile. The downstream countries (Egypt and Sudan) were excluded. These developments posed a threat to Egypt’s vital interests in Africa, especially with respect to water, and triggered a new level of activism.

    The Egyptian Foreign Ministry also established two new diplomatic positions in April 2011, namely, Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs and Assistant Foreign Minister for Sudanese and South Sudanese Affairs. In 2013, the government created the new Egyptian Partnership Agency, which began operating in June 2014, with the objective of sending development specialists to African and Islamic countries and to help organise development programmes in these States.

    The African dimension was clearly present in Egypt’s foreign policy after the 2014 presidential election. The 2014 Constitution included provisions that affirm the African dimension of Egyptian identity, so the first foreign tours of President Sisi after assuming office were to African countries, including Algeria and Sudan. Since taking office in June 2014, up until August 2017, 21 of President Sisi’ 69 official visits were in Africa.

    The Nile water issue

    Egyptian foreign policy particularly focused on the countries neighbouring Egypt, particularly the Nile Basin region and the Horn of Africa. The Nile water issue was one of the main dimensions of the rapprochement between Egypt and East Africa. The water issue is of strategic importance to Egypt because it relies on the Nile River to provide 97% of its water needs. Egypt receives Nile water at a rate of 55.5 billion cubic metres of water per year. As Ethiopia starts building the GERD, which will hold 74 billion cubic metres of water, Egypt’s water deficit will reach 16 billion cubic metres per year, Egypt will be unable to rely on the river only. Egypt stands to lose at least 2 million acres of agricultural land, while electricity production from the High Dam and the Aswan reservoir will be reduced by 20-40%. Egypt has adopted two main and parallel approaches to dealing with this issue. It has basically engaged in negotiations on this issue while seeking to bolster its relations and leverage with the countries concerned.

    Continued negotiations on Nile projects

    Although Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for the GERD in April 2011 and started diverting the Blue Nile in May 2013, Egypt has taken a cooperative approach to deal with the crisis. During the period between April 2011 and May 2013, Egypt made use of both official and popular diplomacy. To achieve common ground among the three countries, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan agreed in September 2011 to form an international committee of experts to examine the Ethiopian engineering studies.

    Further to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi assuming office, there were renewed talks and negotiations as reflected in the joint statement that Al-Sisi and his Ethiopian counterpart signed in June 2014. This statement included the agreement to resume negotiations and resume the work of the tripartite committee formed by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, after its work had been suspended during the previous period. The statement also stressed the countries’ commitment to the principles of cooperation, mutual respect, good-neighbourliness, respect for international law and achieving common benefit.

    In 2015, Al-Sisi, along with the Sudanese President Al-Bashir and former Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegn, signed the GERD Declaration of Principles in Khartoum which outlined ten basic principles for the construction of the dam, these being aligned with international law on shared river systems, including a commitment to the fair and appropriate use of shared water resources, cooperation in the first filling and operation of the GERD dam, as well as the peaceful settlement of disputes.

    Improved relations with the Nile basin states

    The Egyptian government has also worked to strengthen relations with the Nile Basin countries. To this end, Egypt has sought stronger bilateral ties with these countries and more active involvement in regional organisations. A diplomatic campaign was put in place including several presidential visits to Sudan, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, as well as hosting many African events.

    Egypt has developed several cooperation projects with the Nile basin states. For instance, the Egyptian Ministry of Water and Irrigation helped fund 90% of a Ugandan project to protect the western region of the country from excessive flooding. It also provided Uganda with $1.5 million in development aid. It helped South Sudan develop its sewage and irrigation systems and drilled 180 wells in Kenya. In February 2018, the Agriculture Ministry launched a joint farming initiative with the Eritrean government. This was not the first initiative in the field of agriculture as Egypt seeks to spread its model farms system as part of its strategy to boost its influence in Africa.

    Egypt also has strengthened its presence in COMESA, the regional organisation that it joined in 1998. Egypt is one of the few states that signed and ratified the COMESA-EAC-SADC Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) launched in 2015. Egypt is further currently preparing a high-level forum on trade and investment – jointly organised with COMESA – that will be held in Sharm El Sheikh in December 2018. This event is particularly important because it will take place shortly before Egypt assumes chairmanship of the African Union (AU) in 2019.

    Chairmanship of the African Union

    Egypt’s forthcoming presidency of the 31st Ordinary Session of the Executive Council of the African Union for 2019 could be seen as an indication of Egypt’s success in strengthening its cooperation with African countries and regional organisations in the continent over the last four years. Many challenges lie ahead during the Egyptian presidency of the AU, especially with the ongoing process of AU reforms.

    In line with the continent’s priorities identified by the AU in terms of enhancing security in the continent, the spread of conflict and terrorism in Africa will be high on the agenda. As announced by the Egyptian government, it will work towards achieving the AU’s decision to ‘silence the guns by 2020’. The Egyptian government, which is part of the AU Council for Peace and Security (2016-2019), will continue to use its expertise in the fight against terrorism and its military capabilities in supporting other African countries by offering training and study scholarship opportunities in Egyptian military colleges. Egypt can capitalise on the fact that it hosts the Cairo Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacekeeping, and Peacebuilding in Africa which provides training for civilians.

    Another topic that will receive particular attention is regional integration, all the more so given Egypt’s own activism in this area, as previously highlighted. During its presidency of the African Union, Egypt will emphasise the importance of infrastructure and clean water supplies. As part of its membership of the Presidential Initiative for the Development of Infrastructure in the Continent (PICI), Egypt is sponsoring the Maritime Link between Lake Victoria and the Mediterranean.

    Egypt clearly has a growing interest in sub-Saharan Africa, as shown by its increased involvement in initiatives for regional integration and mounting diplomatic exchanges with sub-Saharan countries. This shift has been driven by the Nile water issue and also by the country’s search for new economic opportunities. This coincides with growing interest from other North African countries looking for new partnerships in the continent as Morocco, for instance, has applied for membership of the West African regional body ECOWAS and Tunisia recently obtained membership of COMESA. These dynamics go hand in hand with other ongoing continental processes towards stronger integration in Africa.

    About the author
    Amira Mohamed Abdel-Halim is Senior Researcher at the international studies Unit in Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS). Dr. Abdelhalim research Focuses on African affairs, especially concerning conflict and Terrorism in Africa.  She received her Ph.D. degree in African studies from Cairo University, on the topic of  “the African Security after the end of cold war .. A study of the sources of threat and methods of confrontation in the eastern and southern African regions”.


    Read the full magazine issue

    North Africa, hope in troubled times – Volume 7, Issue 4 (Autumn 2018)
    06 November 2018
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