Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi assuming the chairmanship of the African Union is an important political and diplomatic milestone for Egypt, analysts said.
Apart from being the culmination of an effort by Cairo to return to the African fold, it places Egypt in position to lead the continent into greater stability, reconstruction and economic cooperation, they said.
“Egypt is a wonderful model [that] African countries can learn from,” said Hamdi Bekheit, a member of the African Affairs Committee in the Egyptian parliament. “It is a country that has succeeded in making the transition from unrest to stability and then reconstruction, following the political events of 2011.”
Sisi formally took the chairmanship of the African Union on February 10 during the organisation’s General Assembly in Addis Ababa. The 2-day session was convened under the theme “The Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced displacement in Africa.”
Sisi told the other African leaders of the importance of institutional reform in the African Union; settling conflicts in Africa; fighting terrorism; and increasing trade among African countries.
“Our work must continue to improve peace and security in Africa in a holistic and sustainable manner,” Sisi said. “Mediation and preventive diplomacy will remain one of the priorities of the African Union.”
Egypt was one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union, in 1963. Cairo was instrumental in the liberation of African countries and played an important role in the subsequent development of those states.
Nevertheless, relations between Egypt and many African countries suffered a series of setbacks in the two decades preceding the 2011 uprising that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak exerted little diplomatic effort in Africa, preferring to focus on other parts of the world.
Cairo’s relations with Africa received a painful blow in July 2013 when the African Union Peace and Security Council suspended Egypt’s participation in the African Union to protest political developments that accompanied the ousting of Islamist President Muhammad Morsi
The council reversed the suspension in January 2014, with Sisi then trying to restore relations between Cairo and its African neighbours.
Sisi has been strongly demonstrating Cairo’s commitment to Africa. Nearly 30% of his foreign trips have been to African capitals, an unprecedented figure compared to previous Egyptian leaders.
Egypt says it has a plan to lead Africans into greater stability and reconstruction, especially countries suffering conflicts or those just out of conflicts. Cairo said it would host an African post-conflict reconstruction centre to develop strategies for reconstruction of countries following conflict resolution.
Egypt, which rose slowly up from turmoil over the past eight years and initiated a series of development projects, has important lessons to teach other African countries, analysts said.
“These lessons emanate from Egypt’s expertise in rebuilding itself following the tough challenges it faced because of political developments in it in those years,” Bekheit said.
Egypt wants to prioritise trade among African countries, particularly with the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), which aims to move all African Union members closer to a single market.
The CFTA was agreed to by 44 members in March 2018 but only 19 countries, including Egypt, have ratified the agreement. Cairo also asserted it intends to move forward with the modernisation of the industrial sector, joint investments and cooperation with influential players in other continents.
Inter-African trade makes up only 14% of the overall trade of African countries. Egypt, whose trade with African countries amounted to $5 billion last year, invests $8 billion in the continent.
Sisi, who has developed warm ties with many world leaders, aspires to invest these relationships in enlisting support from advanced industrial states in modernising the African investment sector.
Cairo also hopes to use expertise it acquired in its war against terrorism in helping African countries increase their counterterrorism capabilities.
“Terrorism remains a cancer that affects African nations and steals the dreams of our people and we must identify and combat those who fund terrorism activities on the continent,” Sisi said in Addis Ababa.
Last November, Egypt opened a Sahel and Sahara counterterrorism centre in its new administrative capital. In December, it hosted a joint exercise with several African militaries, with the aim of raising the counterterrorism capacities of Sudan, Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
“Egypt has a vast counterterrorism expertise it can share with other states on the continent,” said Amani al-Taweel, a researcher at local think-tank Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “Counterterrorism is an Egyptian priority, both at the continental and international levels.”