Egypt's continental diplomacy rewarded by African Union presidency

Improving regional security will be a priority for Egypt as it takes the helm of the 55-member body

FILE PHOTO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is pictured during his meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

It was not long ago when the African Union, the continent’s primary political grouping, suspended Egypt’s membership to punish it for what it described at the time as a “coup” against a freely elected government.

That August 2013 decision by the AU was reversed the following year, just weeks after the landslide election of Abdel Fattah El Sisi, who as defence minister led the military’s ouster of Mohammed Morsi, just a year into the Islamist president’s rule.

Egypt’s reintegration into Africa, where it occupies the north-eastern tip facing Europe, began with that June 2014 decision by the AU, with Mr El Sisi spearheading an energetic drive of diplomacy that included visits to some two dozen countries across the vast continent. Since taking office in 2014, hardly a day goes by without news of visits to Cairo by African leaders, senior officials or other figures. In some cases, stringent visa regulations have been relaxed to encourage more visits from the continent.

Egypt has also been actively employing its hallmark soft diplomacy, sending medical missions to disaster-stricken areas, contributing troops to peacekeeping forces and dispatching emergency aid to conflict zones.

Mr El Sisi’s massive effort and time devoted to Africa has heralded the end of decades of Egyptian diplomacy focusing on relations with Europe and the United States while ignoring Africa, which once revered Cairo as the inspirational icon of the struggle against Western colonisers in the 1950s and 1960s.

Next week, El Sisi will be handsomely rewarded at an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Egypt will be handed the rotating, one-year presidency of the 55-member body.

Mr El Sisi, whose hands-on approach defines his leadership, is clearly not taking the task lightly and appears determined to make his stewardship of the continental bloc one to remember. And it’s not vanity or prestige that’s behind Mr El Sisi’s resolve, say Egyptian experts, who cite regional security, trade and securing the support of African nations at international forums among Cairo’s top priorities during its AU presidency.

Top of Egypt’s agenda, says African expert Amani El Taweel of the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, is to improve the AU’s capabilities to militarily intervene to end conflicts or counter terrorist threats. Egypt will also be keen to promote Mr El Sisi’s conviction that state institutions and economies must be strengthened to keep at bay militant groups prowling for a territorial foothold and to bring about political stability, she said.

Ms El Taweel cited Libya, Egypt’s western neighbour, and the Sahel region beyond as among the areas where Cairo would like to see strong state institutions and political stability to counter the threat of militants. Already, Egypt says some of the terrorist attacks on its territory were carried out by militants based in Libya and has warned that more extremists are arriving there from Syria and Iraq following the defeat of ISIS there.

Under Mr El Sisi, Egypt has invested billions of dollars to upgrade its infrastructure, embarking on giant power generating projects, building roads, bridges and new cities. It is now hoping, say the African experts, that its expertise in this field could be of use to some African nations where poor or collapsing infrastructure may be discouraging foreign investors.

“Egypt wants to pave the way for upgrading infrastructure there so that those nations meet conditions set by donor nations and investors,” said Attiya Issawi, an analyst who has written on African affairs for the last two decades. “Generally speaking, I don’t expect Egypt to be able to change much in Africa during the next year, but improving  infrastructure on the continent is one area where it intends to try hard.”

Another policy goal for Egypt in Africa, says Mr Issawi, is to try, for different reasons, to curtail the growing influence of both Israel and Iran on the continent. While Iran is a rival of Egypt and its Gulf Arab allies who collectively see its presence there as subversive, curtailing Israel’s influence is primarily aimed at preventing Sub-Saharan African nations from abandoning or modifying their longtime support for Palestinian rights, he explained.