CAIRO: “Nasser, angered by criticism, says US can ‘jump in lake’.” So read the front-page New York Times headline on Christmas eve 1964.
America had just threatened to withdraw aid from Egypt in retaliation for Nasser’s support for Congolese rebels fighting the US-backed government.
Nasser’s involvement in the Congo and refusal to be bullied by America represented the high-watermark of his pan-Africanism, anti-imperialism, and championing of the Non-Aligned Movement. Egyptian foreign policy was still on the trajectory established by the Afro-Asian Bandung Conference of 1955 and the defeat of Britain and France in 1956. Al-wehda Al-Afriqiyya (African unity) was a key pillar of this world-view.
But thoughts of African unity, non-alignment and ending colonialism will have been far from the minds of the 53 African leaders who met last week in Kampala, Uganda, for the African Union (AU) summit.
A quick glance at the program for the summit reveals concerns common to most regions of the world: sessions on infrastructure development, private sector reform, food and nutrition, health financing, and peace and security. And of course, the recent Al-Shabab bombings in Kampala, and their implications, were foremost in many leaders’ concerns.
Given the changing priorities of African countries, it is normal that the nature of Egypt’s relations with them should have changed over the last 50 years. But just how has it changed, and have Egyptian interests been well served by the changes?
In May this year, five upstream Nile countries, led by Ethiopia, signed the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework, allocating a greater share of the Nile waters for their own development. Egypt and Sudan immediately opposed the agreement.
Many thought that this declaration by the Nile Basin countries — an inevitable and predictable result of demographic changes and advances in the development of those countries, some say — reflected a diplomatic flat-footedness on Egypt’s part.
A flurry of diplomatic activity followed. Egypt’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Minister for International Cooperation Fayza Aboul Naga visited Addis Ababa a fortnight ago. During the visit they offered financial support for a number of projects in upstream countries.
At the same time Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Nasreddin Allam announced, “In continuation of Egypt’s successful move towards Nile Basin states, especially Sudan, the Egyptian government has allocated over $300 million as a non-refundable grant to the South Sudan government.”
“Egypt is trapped in [a] diplomatic dilemma and historically lost its age-old dominancy in the Nile River,” commented an Addis Ababa-based European diplomat.
The recent disagreement over Nile waters seems to reflect a wider malaise in Egypt’s foreign policy towards sub-Saharan African countries.
Since the Nasser era, Egypt has neglected its relations with sub-Saharan African countries, suggests Nabil Abdel Fattah, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, speaking to Daily News Egypt.
“Africa was a marginal place in [former president Anwar] Sadat’s political perception and that of the Egyptian elite,” he said. The trend of looking towards America, Europe and the Arab world — in fact, of looking in all directions but south — has continued during Mubarak’s presidency, Abdel Fattah notes.
However, in the 70s and early 80s, there were joint Arab efforts to provide aid to sub-Saharan countries. The Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa (BADEA) was created by the Arab League in 1973. Any member of the Organization for African Unity (the forerunner of the AU) that was not also a member of the Arab League was eligible for aid.
Principally BADEA acted to channel oil receipts towards non-Arab African countries. Between 1973 and 1982, 26 percent of Arab aid went to Africa. Frank Clements, in his book “Arab Regional Organizations,” suggests that this aid was closely linked to attempts to gain African support in the UN for Arab policies concerning the Arab-Israeli conflict, although it was also designed to assist countries as they struggled with the oil price rises of 1973-74.
Having concluded an independent peace settlement with Israel, having aligned with the US, and preoccupied with Islamist terrorism, Egyptian political energies were diverted away from African countries.
“African postings in the diplomatic corps came to be seen as exile and punishment,” says Abdel Fattah.
It is not just over the Nile that Egypt has been neglectful of its African neighbors. There are significant numbers of refugees in Egypt from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. And yet Egypt has no national procedure for handling refugees, leaving it to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), notes a recent report by the Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration.
When Egypt joined the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) in 1998, there were approving noises from commentators, talking of a new turn towards Africa. However, in 2009, only 2 percent of Egypt’s total global exports went to non-Arab African countries. Even when one takes into account the low per capita purchasing power of African countries compared to Europe and America, this is still a strikingly low figure.
The initiative to take advantage of opportunities in Africa has been taken by private Egyptian companies. Orascom Telecom operates a network in Zimbabwe; El Sewedy Electric has plants in Ghana, Ethiopia and Zambia; Citadel Capital owns a stake in the Rift Valley Railway connecting Uganda and Kenya, reports The Economist.
Egypt is in need of a new, broader strategy of engagement with African countries, one which is not solely focused on Nile water security, suggests Abdel Fattah.
Recent developments in the Horn of Africa suggest one possible avenue for cooperation. At the recent AU summit, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni called for the Somali militant group Al-Shabab to be “swept out of Africa.”
With its long experience of fighting Islamist terrorism Egypt could offer valuable support to the governments of East Africa, says Abdel Fattah.
Indeed, last week the head of Somalia’s Transitional National Government, Sheikh Sherif Ahmed, was in Cairo. Warm words were exchanged about possible “means to enhance the Egyptian efforts to support the Somali government and people, in order to achieve peace, stability and economic development all over Somalia,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs press release.
Commentators in East African countries have been calling for an “African solution to an African problem.” A recent op-ed in the Daily Nation, the Kenyan newspaper, called for African countries to contribute to the AU Assistance Mission to Somalia (AMISOM). The same article noted that Egypt was among the top five donors to the AU budget.
It seems unlikely that Egypt’s assistance to Somalia will go beyond warm words and the assistance supplied through the well-established Egyptian Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa, which already works with the World Food Program in Somalia to provide rapid food aid to war-torn areas.
Despite moments of engagement with African countries — such as a summit in Egypt in 1995 grouping Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania for a discussion of the refugee issue in Rwanda and Burundi — the recent diplomatic spat over the Nile waters points to a long-term failure to maintain a good understanding between Egypt and East African countries.
Although the days of supporting Congolese rebels in response to the imperatives of anti-imperialism, non-alignment and pan-Africanism may be over, cooperation on terrorism, closer economic integration through COMESA, as well as the current program of technical assistance suggest ways in which Egypt could revive its historical and cultural ties with Africa beyond its preoccupation with the Nile.
Earlier this year, a well-known Senegalese rapper, Didier Awadi, released a new album, called “Presidents d’Afrique.” In it he eulogizes the leaders who fought for African independence and stood for pan-Africanism: among them are Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Will Sadat or Mubarak be commemorated in the West African rap of the future?