Given the coverage of Egypt in the Western press, which regularly focuses on the personal relationship between US President Donald Trump and his Egyptian counterpart – Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – one might be forgiven for thinking that Egypt is little more than an American client state. However, what is too often overlooked is China’s increasingly important role in the country, which not only exposes the limitations of US influence in Africa, but also provides insight into China’s engagement with the continent. And, on the eve of the US election, a pivot by Cairo towards Beijing could be a possibility in the not too distant future.
To understand the extent of Chinese interests in Egypt, one only needs to observe the scale of development in constructing its New Administrative Capital, which is being undertaken by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation. Egypt’s new capital, which is set to be mostly completed by the end of next year, will be home to one of the largest urban parks in the world, as well a new parliament and presidential palace. Alongside this, a consortium led by the China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation recently won a contract to develop and operate a proposed high-speed rail line which will connect Alamein with Ain Sokhna. This project will produce one of the longest rail lines in the region, connecting the Red Sea with the Mediterranean. President Sisi is known to be fan of large-scale construction projects and, in Africa, China is always ready to provide assistance; however, China’s engagement with Egypt is not limited to infrastructure projects. This is reflected in the fact that bilateral trade between the two countries is on course to increase in 2020, which contrasts with the downward trend of China’s trade with Africa this year, in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As always, economic and political matters are intertwined, and China’s ever-growing investment in Egypt appears to have bought it invaluable good-will from Beijing. This can be seen in the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). While President Trump has firmly backed Egypt’s position, damaging the US’s relationship with Ethiopia in the process, China has adopted a more discerning approach. Given China’s direct involvement in the GERD’s construction and its longstanding relationship with Ethiopia, one might have expected Beijing to adopt the opposing position and back the Ethiopian government; however, this has not been the case. While the Trump administration seems to be moving towards a “New Cold War” worldview in relation to China and its allies, in Egypt, Beijing has demonstrated that it is not operating on the same wavelength.
From Beijing’s point of view, the equation is rather more straightforward: It is strictly business. Despite the political crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia, China is happy to invest in both countries, and indeed Sudan, which is caught in the middle. It is also presenting itself as a friend of all parties. In this respect, it cannot be ignored that Sisi is not only a committed supporter of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, but also enjoys a good personal relationship with President Xi Jinping. It is likely that this has contributed to China’s decision to have two of its Covid-19 vaccines manufactured in Egypt and then distributed from there to the rest of the continent. In this sense, China’s so-called “vaccine diplomacy” is on course for great success in Africa, and through getting early access to vaccines, Egypt appears to be well-placed for a post-Covid-19 economic recovery.
Make no mistake, Egypt is not about to abandon its relationship with the US; however, it will not have escaped Sisi’s attention that Trump’s days in the White House will not last forever, and could potentially be coming to an end shortly. Rulers such as Sisi cannot afford to rely so heavily on personal rapport with a particular US leader and, therefore, it appears that he is looking to hedge his bets, working closely with both the US and China. Despite the Trump administration’s attempts to isolate China on the world stage, it is highly unlikely that this will gain much traction in Africa. As Egypt has shown, for all the talk of an emerging “New Cold War”, African presidents are keen to assert their own agency, rather than being defined by the superpower with which they are most closely allied. And, on the continent, this outlook is more likely to favour the Chinese, rather than the American, style of engagement.