Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s tour of four African countries sought to rebuild Cairo’s ties with African states and protect national water and security interests.
“We are keen on pushing our relations with sister countries in the continent more forward,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid. “African states are so important to Egypt when it comes to the Nile River or the economic and business relations Egypt wants to have with these countries.”
Sisi started his four-day tour August 14 at Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, a Nile Basin country. He also visited Rwanda, Gabon and Chad.
Official statements following the Egyptian president’s meetings with the four other African countries’ leaders highlighted economic ties and trade.
Trade exchange between Egypt and the four African countries stands at $75 million, a figure Cairo said it intends to increase.
Trade was one of many areas in which Egypt is losing because of a perceived neglect of ties with African countries. Egypt’s absence from the African continent allowed regional rivals such as Israel, Turkey, Qatar and Iran to fill the void, experts said.
“By losing its place to regional rivals, Egypt willingly sacrificed its interests in the region and lost its influence,” said Gamal Bayoumi, a former assistant foreign minister. “So, during times of need, Egypt found few backers in the continent.”
It was Egypt’s weak presence that allowed Ethiopia to move ahead with construction of a multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam on the Nile that could greatly harm Egyptian water security.
Egypt’s attempts to halt or stall the project, with the support of Nile Basin countries, were frustrated because of Cairo’s neglect of Africa.
“This is why it is very important for Egypt to rebuild trust with sister states in the continent,” Bayoumi said. “This is a matter of life or death for us.”
Since becoming president in 2014, Sisi has sought to boost Cairo’s ties with African countries and he has made several official state visits to African states.
The deterioration in relations between Cairo and other African capitals began in 1995 following an assassination attempt on then- President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa en route to an African Union summit.
Although Mubarak escaped the attack unharmed, he refused to attend many African Union meetings over the next 16 years, which dampened relations with other African countries.
In the years following the “Arab spring,” Egypt was largely preoccupied with domestic affairs, with Cairo only returning attention to its southern neighbours after Sisi’s election.
One of his first foreign trip as president was to Malabo, the capital of Equatorial Guinea, to attend the African Union summit in 2013, a move that sought to confirm Cairo’s commitment to the African Union.
Cairo’s renewed commitment to African affairs could be part of Egypt’s larger national security concerns, amid fears of growing collaboration between terrorist groups. Egypt is fighting a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the Sinai Peninsula and is providing support to the Libyan National Army to uproot the radical organisation from Libyan cities.
Chad, visited by Sisi at the end of his tour, is believed to be one of the routes used by al-Shabab and Boko Haram militants to join ISIS in Libya. During his meeting with Chadian President Idriss Deby, Sisi stressed the importance of security and fighting terrorism.
In March 2016, Egypt hosted a meeting of the Sahel and Sahara defence ministers to coordinate tactics against terrorism.
“So, this is not only about the Nile or about business interests,” said Mai Mahmud, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s African Affairs Committee. “It is about Egyptian national security of which all these African states are becoming an inseparable part.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.