Egypt: Future African trade heavyweight?

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo, Egypt

By Seth Onyango, bird

Fast-growing trade, digital – and soon, physical – links across the Sahara are changing Egypt‘s role on the continent, in what could mark the first stirrings of a regional trade behemoth.

In August, Egypt’s Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) discussed boosting the state’s export receipts from African peers to $30 billion.

North Africa’s giant aims to expand its exports to over 34 African states, offering construction and telecommunication services, energy, medical and agricultural equipment.

It is also backing intra-African transport projects like the Cairo-Cape Town road and the Victoria Lake-Mediterranean (VIC-MED) inland transport route and has been a big supporter of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).

Egypt’s transport minister Kamel el-Wazir told the House of Representatives in January that the country was carrying out several road projects to connect the country with its neighbours. That includes the Cairo-Cape Town road which Egypt want to see finished by 2024.

“We will complete the Cairo-Cape Town road that will cross through nine African countries as part of Egypt’s efforts to connect with neighbouring countries,” Wazir said, according to Al-Monitor.

According to Egypt Today, the country also provided significant support to the Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM), which went into effect in 2018.

Then, last week, Egypt unveiled the AFRI Egypt Medical Centre in Jinja, Uganda as part of efforts to cement bilateral corporations with the East African state.

Tellingly, Egypt’s minister of health and population Hala Zayed flew to Uganda for the inauguration of the facility, showing president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is keen to keep the south in his inner political and economic orbit.

The medical centre in Jinja is expected to serve over 60,000 people from the region, allowing for improved accessibility in the surrounding communities.

It was set up by two Egyptian entities – healthcare investor ACDIMA and with the Company for Investment and Development – with equipment from General Electric, to provide neonatal care and diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases.

President Sisi’s administration is looking to boost exports to the rest of Africa – worth $4.3 billion in 2019 – to $30 billion by plugging into regional trade networks, including 22 countries in the centre and west of Africa, through the Dakar port.

Geopolitically, Sisi’s foreign policy doctrine has become more pan-African, even as the state maintains close relations with the Middle East.

Upon Egypt’s assumption of the presidency of the African Union (AU), Sisi used his chairmanship to raise Egypt’s profile as an African nation.

It was the first time the country had held this position since the AU transformed from its old structure as the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in July 2002.

Further underpinning his commitment to the ‘African dream,’ Sisi is credited with midwifing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). Early this year, the AU honoured him for his role.

Controversially, Sisi had led a coup against democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013, causing the AU to kick Egypt out of the pan-African body. Egypt was readmitted a year later when Sissi won a presidential election.

Egypt’s charm offensive in the south, however, is not just about better neighbourliness.

The fast-growing economies of sub-Saharan states offer an enticing alternative to the Middle East, as that region becomes ever-more difficult to navigate politically and as it loses its allure as an oil producer in an increasingly carbon-allergic world.

According to Oxford Business Group, since 2000, half of the world’s fastest-growing economies have been in Africa, and 21 out of 30 of the world’s fastest-growing cities are now in Africa.

“Egypt has recently oriented its focus towards Africa, and although Egypt’s diplomatic and economic relations with African countries have not always been smooth – as is notable in the negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in which Egypt considers to be a threat to its security in the context of growing demand for water – Egypt is undertaking efforts to increase its investments across Africa and to boost trade with its African partners.”

It may not be a full-blown pivot yet but certainly, Egypt is more interested in the land south of the Sahara than it has been for decades – if not centuries.