Looking at Egypt from an outsider’s standpoint, it would be easy to forget the country is in Africa. Among the Arabic-speaking North African countries, Egypt is the closest geographically and culturally to the Middle-East. Egyptian Arabic is closer to the Middle-Eastern dialects of the language than to those spoken in Algeria and other North African countries. Its foreign policy, for a long time, has been firmly turned eastwards – mostly due to its ongoing disputes with longtime rival Israel.
For a long time, Egypt’s relationship to the rest of Africa – including direct neighbor Sudan – have been frosty at best, especially due to the dispute over the waters of the Nile. Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, was certainly set to continue this trend. Now however, after months of turmoil in which Egypt saw the destitution of two presidents, that trend seems to be reversing. Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, is now turning the country’s eyes to the south.
Trade with the entire continent of Africa amounts to less than 3% of the total volume of Egyptian trade. Due to the turmoil of past years, Egyptian growth has been sluggish – GDP growth in 2013 was 1.8%, barely more than half that of Algeria or Jordan, and below every other stable economy in the region except Lebanon. Africa’s rise represents unprecedented opportunity for the country to do business abroad and attract foreign investment.
Mr. Al-Sissi recently gave a tour of the country to journalists from 15 African countries where he proclaimed his strategy to strengthen the ties with Africa. Egypt has been positioning itself as the leading African hub for construction companies, with cement plants and steel factories popping up all around the country. At the same time, the “Africa Together” initiative has been launched, aiming at propping up Egypt’s IT sector, specifically towards African markets for whom Egypt could provide cost-effective IT and telecom solutions at a much more competitive price than American or European equivalents. Along this economic offensive, Egypt is taking a second, soft-power approach of increased diplomatic cooperation and assistance: In 2014, medical convoys out of Egypt have participated in international missions to Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Chad and Eritrea.
The Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development is at the forefront of the new ties, both economically and diplomatically. The EAPD participates in multiple development projects, both bilateral and multilateral in Africa, with state and international partners like Brazil, Japan or the African Development Bank.
Mr. Al-Sissi’s government seems enthusiastic to keep forging into African territory. Egypt has much to gain by going back into that market – despite its cultural proximity with the Middle-East, it is dwarfed by the region’s three economic giants – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, all benefiting from oil exports. In Africa, however, it has found the potential for strong partnerships and capacity building, and Sub-Saharan Africa will be glad to take the offer of a partner in their backyard. However, the competition for African markets is hot – and Egypt is only starting to affirm its interest in a region it has distanced itself from for years. The efforts to build bridges will need to be intense, sincere and sustained before results are visible.