Egypt interest in sub-Saharan Africa grows

Egypt has a lot of people. So large is the Egyptian population, in fact, that it is both a huge blessing and a source of peril.

The 90 million-strong population means that the country is the most important and influential in North Africa, the Middle East and the Arab world (the three terms are not synonymous, by the way).

The pressures of a large population, though, are what should be of primary preoccupation for us.

For Egypt, the Nile River is a waterway that means the difference between life and death.

The river has enabled the Nile Valley to support life since the beginning of recorded time, but it is now reaching its carrying capacity, especially given that it is a river shared by almost a dozen countries keen on staking economic claims to it.

It doesn’t help that these claims are often contradictory, and that with climate change, increasing population and security concerns, astute diplomacy is needed to keep things from spiralling out of control.

I spent a week in Cairo recently, as part of a delegation of African editors and executives invited as part of an intense diplomatic campaign for Egypt into the African continent.

The new government in Cairo has decided to reach out to the rest of the continent, not only to shore up its Nile strategy, but as a recognition that it has ignored its home continent for far too long.

The country obviously has a strategic interest in being a core player in the rest of the Middle East, but Africa has been a glaring blind spot.

While Gamal Abdel Nasser paid close attention to the continent in the revolutionary fervour of the 1950s and 1960s, his successors were busy fighting and making peace with Israel, and engaging with the rest of that region.

It didn’t help that assassins made an attempt on the life of Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995, which soured him on the continent, and he totally lost interest in it through the remainder of his regime.

Our visit took in, not only the requisite photo ops with the pyramids and the relics at the Egyptian Museum, but also meetings at places as diverse as the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs (a think tank mainly populated with retired diplomats), and the old African Society.

Our meeting with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was a useful session, but he did seem distracted, for reasons that became clear after a while.

We were scheduled to meet President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on the Monday, but a few minutes before our departure from the hotel, we were informed that the meeting had been cancelled.

The previous day, terrorists from the ISIS group had massacred a group of Coptic Christians across the border in Libya, and the Egyptian military had undertaken air strikes overnight.

This was a pointer to the severe pressures the government is under, and why securing Africa as a strategic bulwark remains so important.

The meeting with President Sisi eventually took place four days later at the presidential palace in the suburb of Heliopolis, and what was supposed to be a 30-minute grip-and-grin session turned into a two-and-a-half hour debate, with the former general insisting that the revolutions of 2011 and 2013 had created the perfect opportunity for his country to take up its place within the African continent.

Relations with Ethiopia are still top of mind, especially with the unresolved issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia insists the dam is vital to its economic development, but the Egyptians say the edifice may squeeze the life out of the Nile, and thus of the country.

President Sisi seems to be looking further than the Nile, though. He announced to us a plan to create a navigable outlet between Lake Victoria and the Mediterranean, though so quietly you may have missed it.

He served for a long time as head of military intelligence, and he told me he had fond memories of Nairobi from his tours here.

Business and investments have already found themselves onto the agenda with Kenya, and Foreign Minister Shoukry led a delegation to Nairobi in January to scout opportunities for Egyptian business.

Our Foreign Minister, Amina Mohamed, has also made a reciprocal visit. Also on the cards is the medical field.

Egypt is keen on opening up opportunities for its doctors, both from a philanthropic perspective, but also as an area of investment in the future.