Egypt's Africa Problem

Analysis: While everyone from Chinese to Turks is busy profiting from Africa's newfound economic growth, Egypt has been slow to capitalize on opportunities on its own continent. It's a question of both initiative and identity for a count

Sunset over Alexandria (Daveness_98)
Sunset over Alexandria (Daveness_98)
Mohamed Khalil

CAIRO - With the shock of the 2008 financial crisis still reverberating, and more recent sovereign debt crises threatening Europe, more and more investors are looking to Africa as the last great frontier. The continent is seen as rich in potential returns on investment, abundance of resources, and room for economic growth.

All of this is especially pertinent to Egypt ― a country that has long considered itself as a continental leader and heavyweight. Two events ― South Africa's hosting of the World Cup and the current disagreement over the Comprehensive Framework Agreement on Nile water usage ― has Egyptians focused on a continent that it somehow does not yet fully embrace. The average Egyptian sees him or herself alternatively as Arab, Muslim, Christian or Egyptian before identifying as African.

As a nation, we Egyptians have always looked north and westward. We look at Europe in awe and fascination at their culture and development. We look to the United States for a long-deferred Free Trade Agreement and Qualifying Industrial Zones, industrial parks for manufacturing that have direct access to US markets. We trade in vast quantities with these two entities and seek out their know-how.

A former Egyptian leader Ismail Pasha once declared: "Our country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe." But it is also a policy which has limited us, and provided an excuse for foreign powers to meddle in our affairs and control our economic decisions.

Why China and Turkey, but not Egypt?

Trade among nations fosters ties, builds lasting relationships and offers potential for alliances. And in trade with other African nations, Egypt has been lacking. Egyptian conglomerates of course do business with Africa; companies like El Sewedy, the Arab Contractors, as well as a plethora of agricultural organizations have a long-standing history of operating on the continent. The relationship is mutual. Infrastructure projects, for example, help develop African nations while bolstering these firms' bottom lines.

Still, Egypt's standing on the continent is in question and needs a whole new strategy. Countries like China, Iran, Israel and Turkey ― with no obvious historical ties to the area ― have raced ahead of us in cementing their links to the continent.

Our declining position in the Arab world mirrors our experience with Africa. Egypt is no longer considered a leader among Arab nations. And we are no longer, and perhaps never were, leaders in Africa. There was a time when we championed the cause of African independence movements, when we were concerned with continental security, when Egyptians were received cordially wherever they went on the continent; that is no longer the case.

Abandoning our strong ties to the continent has brought us no clear advantage with our ties to other regions; we are loathed in the Arab world ― at least behind the scenes ― and have failed to translate our cordial relations with the West into concrete progress. Many will argue that this was the fault of the previous Mubarak regime, which was only interested in remaining in power and not in genuinely developing the country. They may be right, but that doesn't mean we can't act now.

Our lack of interaction with the continent has placed us in the unenviable position of having to renegotiate the Comprehensive Framework Agreement in a haphazard fashion and from a position of weakness. All is not lost, though. The Nile treaty can be successfully negotiated and opportunities continue to abound for Egyptian individuals and organizations in Africa. In order to do so, we must rediscover our African connection.

Read the original article in Al-Masry Al-Youm

Photo - Daveness_98

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!