Why China and Egypt Are Growing Closer
As the Egyptian economy falters, Sisi is turning to the Chinese government for support.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
The highlights this week: Amhara forces begin to withdraw in Tigray, anti-government protests in Tunisia, and reports of abuse of Kenyan migrants in the Gulf.
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Beijing Reaffirms Ties With Cairo
On Sunday, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, ended his five-nation African tour in Egypt, where he held separate meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. The visit came at a precarious moment for Egypt’s economy and currency, which the government has allowed to drop precipitously—17 percent since Jan. 1 and 50 percent in the last 10 months—in an apparent newfound embrace of a flexible exchange rate policy.
In a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, the pair said talks addressed regional issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating terrorism, and achieving regional security.
Responding to a reporter’s question on Palestine, Qin urged Israel to “stop all incitement and provocation and avoid any unilateral actions that might lead to aggravation of the situation.”
Last month, Cairo agreed on a $3 billion bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. China stands to lose if Egypt’s economy were to collapse, given the level of trade between the two countries and because China is the heaviest user of the Suez Canal—a crucial link for shipping its goods to Europe.
Qin underscored Beijing’s commitment to help boost Egypt’s economy through the import of Egyptian products and the increase of Chinese tourists to Egypt, a major source of revenue for the country, which significantly struggled during the pandemic but has gradually recovered despite a drop in the number of Chinese travelers.
But how China can bring Chinese tourism back to Egypt remains to be seen. On the same day as Qin’s news briefing in Cairo, China’s National Health Commission reported nearly 60,000 COVID-related deaths at hospitals across the country since the end of strict pandemic restrictions in December.
Egypt also needs China’s continued investments in state-led megaprojects to revive its faltering economy. Beijing is in part helping to fund and build the business district of a new $59 billion administrative capital east of Cairo as part of a deal with the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corp.
The new capital, first announced in 2015 and slated to open in mid-2023, is also partly funded through high-interest bonds and is seen by Sisi’s critics as a vanity project that will ultimately worsen the country’s debt. In 2021, Egyptian academics criticized the plans. “Modernity in reality is about a government being accountable to its people, such as providing good education,” Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University, told AFP.
Elsewhere, in Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone, China has invested billions of dollars as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Within the zone, which is made up of ports and industrial estates, Beijing has built an estate known as the China-Egypt Teda Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, or TEDA City. Here, Chinese-owned businesses manufacture products for export to Europe, the Middle East, and China; Beijing estimates that it has created more than 30,000 jobs.
For more than 30 years, China has maintained a tradition that the first overseas trip by an appointed foreign minister will be to Africa. Qin’s weeklong trip included stops in Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, and Benin.
Egypt is one of the top six African contributors to the African Union’s budget. (The others are Algeria, Angola, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa.) In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Qin visited the newly constructed headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which was built and funded by China. The building, Qin said, “stands as an irrefutable proof to the world that China always supports Africa.”
As the United States seeks to regain influence across Africa, China has been reaffirming its ties with the continent as well as looking outward toward the Middle East. “China appreciates Egypt’s decision to welcome Chinese tourists. We believe that in the near future, the number of Chinese tourists and flights to Egypt will return to or even surpass the pre-pandemic level,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a news briefing in Beijing on Monday.
The Week Ahead
Tuesday, Jan. 17, to Saturday, Jan. 28: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visits Senegal, Zambia, and South Africa to promote the $15 billion Africa trade commitment announced at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit.
Wednesday, Jan. 25: Egypt marks the 12th anniversary of its 2011 revolution, which led to the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.
Thursday, Jan. 26: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi attends Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi as a guest of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Tuesday, Jan. 31, to Sunday, Feb. 5: Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.
What We’re Watching
Ethiopia’s Amhara forces withdraw. Amhara soldiers who fought alongside federal troops during the two-year civil war in Tigray have begun to withdraw from the region in accordance with an African Union-brokered cease-fire, according to Ethiopia’s federal army. (The withdrawal has not been independently verified.)
Tigrayan troops began handing over their weapons as part of the truce. Meanwhile, Eritrea, which is not party to the peace deal, also began pulling out from key Tigrayan towns in late December. However, residents told news outlets that not all Eritrean soldiers have left, and it is unclear whether they intend to leave.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and her German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, landed in Addis Ababa on a two-day visit. Their tour followed Qin Gang’s visit, in which China agreed to cancel some of its bilateral debt, vowing to invest in “Ethiopia’s reconstruction”—provided that the Ethiopian government takes “effective measures to protect the security” of Chinese personnel.
Benin election results. Benin’s ruling coalition won the majority of seats in the National Assembly, the country’s constitutional court said Thursday, following legislative elections on Jan. 8, which saw opposition parties permitted on the ballot for the first time since President Patrice Talon took office in 2016. Pro-Talon parties—the Republican Bloc and the Progressive Union for Renewal—together won 81 out of 109 parliamentary seats, with Benin’s main opposition group, the Democrats, gaining 28 seats.
Eric Houndété, the leader of the Democrats, held a press conference to reject the results, claiming that vote-buying and fraud allowed Talon’s allies to win a majority. Talon, a cotton magnate, barred opposition parties from participating in the 2019 legislative polls, and only two political parties allied with Talon were allowed to take part in the 2021 presidential election. Most of Talon’s key political opponents have either been jailed or forced into exile. Voter turnout in the elections was just 38.66 percent.
Sudan-South Sudan agreement. Leaders of Sudan and South Sudan have agreed to set up a “joint security force” to combat insecurity along their shared border and the “infiltration of illegal weapons,” state-owned Sudan TV reported.
Sudan’s military ruler, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir made the agreement following talks in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on Thursday. Last month, the United Nations said at least 20,000 people had been displaced across South Sudan’s Greater Upper Nile region since August, due to violence between armed groups and military forces. More than 16,000 people were displaced in fresh violence in Darfur in late December and early January.
Tunisian protests. Thousands of Tunisians marched through the capital of Tunis on Saturday, demanding that President Kais Saied step down over the country’s worsening economic crisis—a move predicted in Foreign Policy last month. Saied has ruled for over a year by decree after he dismissed the country’s prime minister, suspended the parliament, and fired judges in what critics have called a “constitutional coup.” The protests, organized by opposition groups, marked the 12th anniversary of the ousting of former autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Tunisians largely avoided the Dec. 17 legislative elections, with just 11.2 percent voter participation, after a new constitution reduced the parliament’s powers.
Last month, the International Monetary Fund postponed a board meeting on a $1.9 billion rescue package for Tunisia because the country’s 2023 budget and spending reforms had not been finalized. Tunisians are experiencing soaring food prices, unemployment, and shortages of fuel and staples such as sugar and vegetable oil as the state nears bankruptcy.
This Week in Sports
Morocco-Algeria rivalry impacts soccer. Morocco’s Atlas Lions became the first African team to advance to the World Cup semifinals last year, and the team had set its goals on clinching the African Nations Championship (CHAN) for the third time but have become embroiled in a broader political dispute over Western Sahara. The Atlas Lions withdrew from the biennial CHAN tournament in Algeria, due to the Algerian government’s blockade of direct flights from Morocco. Algeria broke off diplomatic ties and closed its airspace to Moroccan aircraft in August 2021, when it accused Morocco of “hostile acts.” (Algeria supports the pro-independence Polisario Front, while Morocco claims sovereignty over the territory.)
The Royal Moroccan Football Federation announced on Thursday that unless the team could land directly in Algerian host city Constantine, on board a Royal Air Maroc flight, the Atlas Lions would pull out. Both nations still appear unwilling to compromise.
The Confederation of African Football, which runs the Africa Cup of Nations and CHAN, said the organization is “neutral on matters of a political nature” and expressed frustration over the standoff. However, it announced that it would launch an investigation into political remarks made by Nelson Mandela’s grandson during the opening ceremony of the games on Friday. “The last colony of Africa, Western Sahara. Let us fight to free Western Sahara from oppression,” Zwelivelile “Mandla” Mandela said in a speech at the newly built Nelson Mandela Stadium in Algiers. Mandela was also subjected to a torrent of racist abuse on social media from pro-Moroccan commentators.
Chart of the Week
Morocco’s economic growth is expected to recover to 3.3 percent in 2023—up from 1.3 percent in 2022—Morocco’s statistics agency HCP said in a report released Friday. HCP said the figures are subject to changes and assumes oil prices will remain at $90 per barrel with an average crop output after Morocco suffered its worst drought since the 1980s. It warned of a “probable” risk of return to drought.
Meanwhile, the rising cost of living is impacting ordinary Moroccans as inflation rises. Some 62 percent of Moroccans said they have worried they would run out of food before they get the money to buy more, according to an Arab Barometer survey from last October. In August, the Moroccan government announced that it would allocate $2.9 billion to subsidize food and energy costs in 2023.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine by Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer
• It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse by Alexander J. Motyl
• Lessons for the Next War by FP Contributors
What We’re Reading
Disreputable diplomats. A report by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and ProPublica details how at least 500 current and former “honorary consuls” around the world have either been accused of crimes or sought to use diplomatic immunity to circumvent the law. The authors reviewed thousands of court documents and government reports to identify rogue consuls linked to at least 168 governments, including “pro-Kremlin advocates” installed by Russia. In Africa, Ladislav Otakar Skakal, a former Italian consul in the Egyptian city of Luxor, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in 2020 for attempting to smuggle more than 21,000 Egyptian antiquities to Italy.
Kenya’s lost migrants. In the Elephant, Eliud Kibii takes issue with the Kenyan government’s response to the reported deaths of Kenyan migrant workers in Gulf countries. According to Kenya’s foreign ministry, at least 89 Kenyans, half of whom were female domestic workers, died in Saudi Arabia between 2020 and 2021; some workers arriving back in Kenya recounted cases of torture and mistreatment during their employment.
Yet despite a parliamentary report into the abuse, the Kenyan government has not yet developed an effective framework to protect migrants and pressure authorities in Qatar and Saudi Arabia to prosecute abusive employers, Kibii argues. “[A]ny engagement with the Saudi and other Gulf governments must recognize that the abuse, rape and killing of Kenyan migrant workers is happening within their jurisdiction and largely with their acquiescence,” he writes.
Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg
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