Egypt’s AU presidency tests its influence in Africa

Egypt is trying to compensate for heavy losses it suffered in Africa and that had serious consequences for its national security.
Monday 18/02/2019
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attends a news conference at the end of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 11, 2019. (Reuters)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attends a news conference at the end of an African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, February 11, 2019. (Reuters)

Cairo is giving great priority to Africa and is seeking to make use of its year-long presidency of the African Union to carry out a comprehensive campaign on political, security, economic, cultural, media and sports fronts.

Egypt is trying to compensate for heavy losses it suffered in Africa and that had serious consequences for its national security because of Cairo’s relative neglect of the continent for nearly two decades.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is trying to restore Egypt’s once-strong foreign position by criss-crossing the continent. Some observers have said Cairo is engaged in a strategic shift that might be at the expense of its Arab orientation.

Since the end of the era of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Cairo’s regional role was intentionally limited to security threats so as not to repeat the mistakes of the political and military interventionist policies of the Nasser era.

Many Arab common denominators disappeared and opportunities for coordinated Arab efforts vanished. Egypt’s role in the Arab world was limited for many years to the Palestinian cause. All other Arab issues took secondary importance in such a way that a distinction between Egypt’s direct national security and its indirect national security had become accepted currency in political discourse.

Egypt’s direct national security is almost exclusively concerned with the pressing issues of the day. This is why the situation in the Gaza Strip became more central for Egypt than the overall Palestinian cause. Such a reaction is normal, given the immediate and complex security and political consequences of events in Gaza for security in Sinai and other areas.

The Gaza Strip’s demographic, security and economic woes could overflow into Egypt at any moment. The strip itself has become a sort of back door for anti-Egyptian policies and practices by several competitors to Egyptian influence in the region. It is also where vague scenarios detrimental to Egyptian interests are promoted.

Similarly, when the repercussions of the Libyan crisis started being felt in Egypt, Cairo’s attention shifted west and Libya became as important as Gaza because the threat to Egyptian security was practically identical.

In both Gaza and Libya, the threat of extremism and terrorism to Egypt was real. It had to be dealt with directly and immediately and with the highest level of caution and responsibility.

Indirect national security concerns areas and issues in which Egypt’s vital interests are affected. These issues are graded according to their damage potential and to whether they require immediate attention. The Gulf region, for example, may become an area of urgent security if there are sudden threats or if Cairo considers it necessary to issue warnings to adversaries or reassuring statements to its allies as happened in the confrontation with Iranian ambitions in the Gulf.

Cairo plays minor roles in various Arab crises, ones that wane and grow with the degree of the threat perceived. For example, the Syrian crisis had various disadvantages for Egypt due to the damage to the so-called Northern Military Front. Because the challenges were serious and Cairo did not have significant means to address them, it reduced its margin for intervention.

Taking Cairo’s dealings with those crises into consideration, one can develop a good approximation of how Egypt deals with regional issues and crises. This is why some observers said Cairo’s withdrawal from many files was a decline of the Egyptian role in the region while Cairo officials described it as being “realistic” in dealing with complex realities.

Direct threats to Egyptian national security have grown in recent years. They are no longer confined to the Gaza Strip and Libya but include threats to the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb Strait after Iran’s interventions in Yemen, threats to the Mediterranean basin after the discoveries of significant gas fields and the growing Turkish presence in the region and threats from Nile Valley countries whose development projects will shift shares of the Nile’s water and energy.

Also do not forget the threat from the infiltration of extremist groups inside African countries.

Egypt has taken important military and economic steps to deal with threats coming from the Mediterranean and the Red Sea through the acquisition of frigates and aircraft carriers, as well as addressing the direct terrorist threat.

The Nile Basin region, however, remains exposed. It is difficult to take military measures to deal with those threats. The region has always been a focus of attention but Egypt had reverted to not paying attention to the extent of the changes in the region. The region experienced important developments that test Cairo’s beliefs about it and its reliance on age-old African approaches and traditions.

The first signs of Egypt’s African crisis came from Addis Ababa, which began building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The dam threatens to reduce Egypt’s historical share of the waters of the Nile.

Diplomatic efforts to mitigate the negative effects of the dam on Egypt failed and Cairo found itself facing various adversaries that cannot be dealt with militarily. Worse, Cairo lacked the political and economic tools to deal with the situation and its soft power tools failed to influence their orientation.

The Nile is Egypt’s life line. As such, it can become a direct source of danger that can’t be dealt with by brute force. The threat had been neglected for almost two decades, during which Africa witnessed rapid changes. The consequences of those changes were more obstacles in the way of preserving Egyptian interests. As Cairo finally woke from its political nap, multiple crises had piled up, requiring modern approaches that are beyond rigid assessments.

Egypt has finally surveyed the map of changes in Africa and identified the great need to deal with them and respond to their terms. Failing to do that, new strategies and visions towards Africa, from powers interested in ensuring a foothold in the continent, risk to expand threats to Egyptian interests.

Cairo saw in the presidency of the African Union an occasion to rearrange its African files and reduce its losses. Egypt relies on this strategic turnabout to deal with developments in Africa that could directly affect its national security.

It is difficult for Egypt to play influential roles throughout Africa in such a short period of time. This matter does need time, intensive capabilities and integrated preparations, all of which are not available to Cairo. Therefore, Cairo will strive to establish a network of political interests to fight off direct threats to its national security until the time becomes ripe to reap the benefits of its strategies.

Mohamed Aboelfadl is an Egyptian writer.