SHARM EL-SHEIKH, EGYPT: The landscape of the Sinai Peninsula is harsh, unforgiving, even desolate. Bare, rugged mountains jut out of the flat, sandy terrain, seemingly for no reason at all.
It’s the same with the city of Sharm el-Sheikh, which seems to emerge out of nowhere – an unmistakably tourist town, with several dozens of glitzy hotels in just a few square kilometres, against a backdrop of desert isolation.
This weekend, Sharm el-Sheikh was host to the Africa 2016 Forum, a conference bringing together at least 1,000 political and business leaders on the continent, to discuss ways of bolstering pan-African international trade and investment, and improving the business climate, with a major focus on the role of the private sector.
Egypt’s reassertion of its leadership in Africa is partly out of simple pragmatism, the effect of being in a troubled Middle Eastern neighbourhood
It is perhaps fitting that it would be hosted in this “improbable” city, as Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi seeks to re-orient Egypt towards Africa, something that hasn’t happened seriously since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Last year, the Tripartite Free Trade Agreement was signed here, bringing together the three major trading blocs on the African continent: the East African Community (EAC), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a super trading bloc that caps five years of talks to set up a framework for preferential tariffs to ease the movement of goods in an area home to 625 million people.
Egypt’s reassertion of its leadership in Africa is partly out of simple pragmatism, the effect of being in a troubled Middle Eastern neighbourhood: Libya, on its western border, and Syria, not far on the eastern side, have imploded as rival rebel groups jostle for supremacy.
In Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula itself, where the country has been battling an Islamist insurgency for years, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for bringing down a passenger jet belonging to Russian carrier Metrojet in October last year, killing all 224 people on board.
Nervousness in the air
The nervousness was evident in Sharm el-Sheikh, as upbeat and optimistic speeches about Africa were punctuated by the unmistakable hum of AH-64 Apache helicopters circling low over the city, and soldiers in full combat gear – including helmets and flak jackets – stationed everywhere you turned, many thumbing their M-16 rifles.
But these troubles were downplayed at the Sharm conference, as Sisi underscored Egypt’s openness for business and eagerness to engage with Africa; Egypt’s investment in Africa now exceeds $8bn, and the volume of trade has increased by $5bn over the past five years.
Given the prolonged crisis in the OECD countries, Egypt’s traditional trade partners, and new economic challenges following the revolution including growing fiscal deficits and stagnating domestic production, Cairo would be wise to broaden its economic and diplomatic scope, and take advantage of fast-growing African economies, as well as their abundant natural resources and human capital.
Sisi’s African friends
But perhaps the real story of the renewed Egypt-Africa romance might be told by the kind of presidents who attended the conference – and hints to the kind of world Egypt sees itself shaping in Africa.
Five African heads of state attended the meeting: Omar el-Bashir of Sudan, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, Hailemariam Desalegn of Ethiopia, Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon, and Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea. (Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta and Togo’s Faure Gnassigbe were invited and on the programme, but did not show up).
The five – along with their host Sisi – have a few things in common. They are all either strongmen dictator type (Bashir and Obiang), leading an oil soaked economy (Buhari, Bongo and Obiang), or presiding over a state-heavy economy with restricted civil liberties (Desalegn, Sisi and Obiang).
Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to answer charges over crimes against humanity as a result of his government’s actions in Darfur, and in June last year caused a storm in South Africa when a court ordered his arrest as he tried to leave Johannesburg after an African Union summit – but slipped out with the assistance of the South African authorities.
Bashir and Obiang both came to power through a coup d’etat, and together have been in power for a combined 64 years.
Sisi is by no means shy to stamp his presidential authority both on civil life and economic projects – the recent expansion of the Suez canal was completed in a record one year over the planned three, built by the military on the president’s orders
Buhari and Bongo were democratically elected – in Bongo’s case after the death of his father Omar Bongo, who had been at Gabon’s helm for 42 years – but both economies have suffered the pernicious effects of dependence on oil.
As prices seem to have hit a long-term low, Nigeria and Gabon are talking big on diversification of their economies, but the impact of decades of easy oil money will be difficult to turn around.
In Desalegn’s case, the last Ethiopian election had the ruling party win every single seat in parliament; the country has a state-led capitalist model which is heavily government controlled.
And Egypt has a gentler version of this as well, though Sisi is by no means shy to stamp his presidential authority both on civil life and economic projects – the recent expansion of the Suez canal was completed in a record one year over the planned three, built by the military on the president’s orders.
It suggests that the kind of re-engagement that Egypt is so determined to effect on the African continent is of a very particular kind – the improbable kind of sweet, rosy exhortations to invest in Africa, as mean stares of soldiers fully clad in Teflon and balaclavas watch you in the background, their eyes only visible through black slits.