Egypt: Cairo strengthens its influence in East Africa against Ethiopia

By Hossam Rabie
Posted on Monday, 4 April 2022 12:47

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi with his Djiboutian counterpart Ismail Omar Guelleh on 7 February 2022 in Cairo. © Egyptian Presidency

More associated with the Arab world than with the continent, Egypt has nonetheless been resolutely turning towards the south for several years. It has done so in the hopes of offering outlets to its companies and asserting its point of view in the dispute that places it in opposition to Ethiopia.

Investments in infrastructure, military agreements, medical and humanitarian aid… For several years now, an ‘African fever’ has gripped Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s Egypt.

The country is not only banking more and more on the continent to revive its economy, but also to make itself the voice of Africa on the international scene.

On 7 February 2022, during a press conference with Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who was visiting Cairo, Sissi announced the creation of the first Egyptian logistical free trade zone in the East African nation, promising to increase his country’s investments and the volume of trade. The Djibouti president’s visit to Cairo comes nearly eight months after Sissi’s trip to Djibouti, the first of its kind for an Egyptian raïs.

In 2019, the continent once again became central to Cairo’s diplomacy during Egypt’s chairmanship of the AU. Sissi took his role very seriously and was the voice of Africa on several issues, such as debt, the uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and the effects of climate change on the continent.

The Renaissance Dam issue is one of the factors that prompted Egypt to become more involved in Africa, especially in the East.

After a long absence from the continental scene – following the attempted assassination of former president Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995 – Egypt is trying to open a new chapter with African countries, which are potential markets for its products and businesses.

Equal footing

“Egypt and African countries have come a long way in recent years,” says Mona Omar, Egypt’s former deputy foreign minister for African affairs. “We are now witnessing the signing of unprecedented agreements and numerous high-level meetings and visits.”

When he came to power, Sissi made sure to reserve his first official visit as president-elect to an African country: Algeria in 2014 and Sudan in 2018. Was this symbolic? Perhaps. Sissi was also the first Egyptian president to visit Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, South Sudan, Gabon and Rwanda.

“The presidency’s African diplomacy has given the signal to ministries and state institutions to focus on the continent,” says Rasha Abou Shaqra, secretary of the African Affairs Committee in the Egyptian parliament.

“Egypt has clearly changed its tone by placing itself on an equal footing with African countries, which is well perceived on the continent,” she says. Cairo has been criticised in the past for its superiority complex.

Cairo realised that it needed to play a leading political and economic role on the continent to gain African support…

Another way in which Egypt demonstrates its renewed interest in Africa is by holding numerous continental events: from the first African Anti-Corruption Forum in July 2019 to the African Investment Forum in October 2021.

The Renaissance dossier

In addition, from early 2021, Egypt signed military cooperation protocols with six countries on the continent, including four from East Africa, in light of tensions with Ethiopia over the Renaissance Dam. The protocols include military training, exchange of expertise and military capacity building with the said countries.

“The Renaissance Dam issue, which Cairo feels is a cause for concern, is one of the factors that prompted Egypt to become more involved in Africa, especially in the East. Cairo realised that it needed to play a leading political and economic role on the continent to gain African support in its dispute with Ethiopia over the Nile Basin,” says Ayman Abdel Wahab, an expert on African and Nile Basin affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (CEPS).

This policy of rapprochement with African countries was accompanied by timely medical and humanitarian aid campaigns – in Tanzania, Sudan, South Sudan and Somalia in particular – during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Untapped market

Within this framework, Egypt is striving to become the continent’s vaccine producer and supplier. In May 2022, a 3,200m2 vaccine manufacturing complex will be inaugurated in Cairo.

However, beyond the diplomatic stakes, Egypt sees the continent as a vast untapped market and potential foreign exchange earner. This is particularly the case for Egyptian construction companies.

During the first nine months of 2021, the volume of Egyptian exports to Africa reached nearly $4bn, compared to $2.8bn the previous year, an increase of 37.8%, according to figures from Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS).

In late November 2021, Egypt’s ministry of industry and trade unveiled a plan to increase this volume to $7bn by the end of 2022 and $10bn by 2025. State aid to pay for shipping charges for exports to Africa is expected to increase from 50% to 80%.

Meanwhile, Egypt, which currently chairs the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), has launched various projects in the fields of solar energy, agriculture and infrastructure.

In July 2018, Cairo signed a $2.9bn contract with Tanzania to construct the Julius Nyerere Dam (scheduled to be commissioned in 2022.) This mega-project, which is being closely monitored by President Sissi, will showcase Egyptian know-how.

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