The African Dimension of Egyptian Foreign Policy

By Tamim K. Kashgari
2011, Vol. 3 No. 09 | pg. 1/2 |

In the era since the removal of the monarchy in Egypt, a distance seems to have developed between the Egyptian people and the African aspect of their identity. This kind of sentiment has also been corroborated by Egypt’s elite such as Isma’il Pasha or Taha Hussien, both of whom view Egypt’s European heritage to be more important than its African, Islamic and Arab heritage. In more contemporary history, Egypt is associated with being the champion of Arab nationalism. The fact that it has engaged in several conflicts in the name of the Arab cause serves only to further this association.

This process of separation from Africa that has taken place within Egyptian culture is the result of a gradual culmination of cultural and political events. More tangible evidence of this can be seen in the fact that only 8.1% of Egyptians identify with being African as their first identity1. However, this ideological and cultural separation is not reflected within the reality of Egyptian foreign policy towards the continent of Africa. The historical and geographic realities of Egypt’s position within Africa have not only been acknowledged by the modern regimes that have ruled Egypt but have been made into cornerstones of foreign policy formulation. This is even reflected during the high period of Arab nationalism in the fifties and sixties. Egypt’s role in Africa is in fact quite proactive, a quick dissection of its involvement in the era of decolonization, the process that created the African Union and its current role in stabilizing efforts across the continent clearly demonstrate this. These actions, along with others also make it evident that the African dimension of Egypt’s foreign policy is an integral aspect to its totality and is in no way placed in a secondary level by any Egyptian regime.

Before isolating the different periods of rule in Egyptian history it is best to discuss the geopolitics of Egypt’s circumstances that are related to not only its African foreign policy but to its foreign policy as a whole. The first point and perhaps most prominent point in Egyptian foreign policy and essentially Egypt’s survival is the Nile. The Nile river basin runs through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo making it the longest river on Earth as well as being an extremely complicated foreign policy issue for Egypt. In addition, Egypt is extremely dependent on the water of the Nile with it being the source of over 94% of its fresh water, this circumstance is also further exacerbated by the fact that 85% of Egypt’s population lives within the Nile basin2. It is this reality that has caused the management issue of the Nile water to remain a top priority for Egypt throughout its modern history.

The first official agreement made with regard to Nile water was in 1929 when Egypt assured itself the power position in the realm of Nile politics by signing the “Egyptian-Sudanese Nile Water Agreement” that assured Egypt not only it’s share of the Nile but also a period of time (January 20th to July 15th) where no other country but Egypt could use the Nile3. As regimes changed in Egypt, the concern regarding the Nile did not change but continued to evolve as each of the Nile basin states gained independence one after the other. The agreement signed in 1959 is a manifestation of this ever present concern that Egypt has with the Nile, the agreement established that Sudan and Egypt would act as a united front when negotiating with the other counties of the Nile basin and essentially created a new era in Nile politics4. The states in the south of the Nile basin however continued to grow in strength and increased pressure on the water resources of the Nile. The creation of the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 created a multinational body to enhance cooperation with regards to the resources of the Nile and increase the security of all the Nile basin countries5.

Another such aspect of Egypt’s foreign policy that is shaped by its geopolitics is its position as the land bridge between continents. This position caused Egypt to come under attack on numerous occasions throughout history6. This constant security dilemma, caused both by the insecurity of the water resources as well as its geographic position combined to cause all Egyptian regimes to possess the desire to project their power beyond their borders7. However, these issues can’t specifically be classified as an issue of Egypt’s African foreign policy as it would be a gross over simplification of the magnitude of Nile politics and Egypt’s geographic position have had on shaping Egyptian foreign policy as a whole. This by no means discounts either factor from being capable of affecting Egypt’s perception of itself within both the region and Africa.

Egypt’s position as a crossroad between both Asia and Africa has caused a great deal of confusion within its society with regard to which group individuals affiliated themselves with. Nonetheless, Egypt’s perception of itself and its position within Africa has remained a constant presence in its foreign policy towards the continent. This presence in Africa is also not merely a consequence of larger foreign policy conceptions such as the security dilemma or the middle state theory. Egypt’s history as a modern state begins with an era of African foreign policy that is perhaps best exemplified by a statement made by Isma’il Pasha in 1879 when he stated, “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now part of Europe.”8. The period of rule under the khedives saw Egypt make massive amounts of territorial gain in the African continent as it expanded its direct and indirect control as far south as modern day Congo and Uganda, as far east as modern day Eritrea and as far west as modern day Chad.

However, the zeitgeist of this time period was firmly centered on Europe and modernization, Egypt not only lost interest in its African relations but to all non-European cultures. This rejection of almost all things African continued as Egypt reformed its internal government with particular focus on its Egyptian and Syrian holdings leaving anything south of Khartoum unchanged9. Obsession with European culture and reform however were not the only reasons why Egypt did not pursue an active role in its African foreign policy during the early modern period. Moreover, with European colonization on the rise Egypt could not pursue an active foreign policy in Africa without coming in direct conflict with European powers that were superior both militarily and economically. This period of unnatural disconnection from Africa due to subordination to European powers finally came to an end thanks to the Free Officer coup of 1952.

As Nasser stated in The Philosophy of the Revolution, Egypt belongs to three circles the first of which is the Arab circle followed by the African circle and finally the Muslim circle. On the surface this statement made by Nasser seems to place Africa in a secondary role, the reality of the matter is quite different. The African circle overlaps the other two circles due to the fact that over seventy percent of Arab land and the Arab population are both located in Africa while at the same time there is a substantial Muslim population living throughout Africa with particular concentration in Eastern Africa and the Sudanic belt, thus, it is clear that Egypt was from this point on going to be inherently involved in African affairs10. These circumstances clearly demonstrate a change in Egypt’s perception of itself from the pre-coup to the post-coup periods of its history proving that Egypt has clear political interests and ideological ties with Africa.

This new paradigm of Egypt foreign policy that was drawn up by Nasser was not left to stand alone as Egypt began to build a cultural bond between itself and Africa. As was stated earlier Egypt’s geopolitics play a substantial role in shaping its foreign policy and it is quite obvious that they would have an effect on its African foreign policy. Egypt’s geographic position on the only land bridge into Africa was used to claim that it was the defender of Africa from foreign invaders, furthermore, the physical separation of the Sahara was minimized as to draw a closer connection between north and sub-Saharan Africa11.

Egypt also attempted to create new cultural trends within its own society in order to generate local loyalty and interest towards Africa. Educational curriculums were changed, additional courses added in universities and textbooks were rewritten all to create a sentiment within Egypt of unity with Africa12. The more popular political wave of Pan-Arabism was also manipulated in order to generate excitement for Pan-Africanism. An excerpt from a speech made by Dr.Murad Ghaleb as an undersecretary of foreign affairs and member of the national committee of education clearly demonstrates this when he said, “Arab nationalism is one aspect of African nationalism…Imperialism attempted to separate or distinguish between Arab nationalism and African nationalism.”13.

All of these efforts that were undertaken by Egypt clearly demonstrate that it is committed to creating a bond between itself and Africa. While the success of these programs is somewhat questionable today in terms of the creation of popular affiliation with Africa, these domestic educational changes, along with Dr. Ghaleb’s speech demonstrate that within the hierarchy of Egypt’s government there is a healthy affiliation with Africa and Pan-Africanism. All of these changes in the end are merely a means to an end. It all falls in line with a report published by the countries Information Department that derived that Egypt has a responsibility towards Africa from Nasser’s book, The Philosophy of the Revolution14. What this responsibility entails however, is a very complex and diverse issue that manifested itself in the creation and consolidation of a multinational African organization, the decolonization of Africa and the establishment of Africa as a conflict free area.

The first issue of Egypt’s African foreign policy that will be addressed here is the role that Egypt played in the creation of the African Union. The African Union as a whole has not only provided the continent with a forum to discuss the varying views of the continent but also an effective tool at conflict resolution. The process that created the African Union started in what was a modest meeting in 1958 in Accra, Ghana. The list of attending independent African countries was a meager eight states (Egypt, Ghana, Libya, Liberia, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia and Sudan), nonetheless, this small group of states generated enough political inertia at their first conference in order to pave the path for greater integration across the continent. The creation of the African Union’s precursor the Organization of African Unity finally took place on May, 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where the representatives from over thirty African states agreed on a united charter as well as the internal working logistics of the organization. Egypt’s role in contributing to this establishment is clear from the charter adopted at the meeting along with the remarks made to the effect by delegations of the other African delegations15.

History is full of nations that make promises and contribute greatly to the rhetoric of any cause without taking any real action. Egypt however, is not one these countries as it played an active political role within the African continent. Egypt has a very clear and concise policy towards African conflict resolution that stress the following points: The necessity of preserving the integrity of the Organization of African Unity, The respect of state sovereignty as well as the non-encouragement of separatist movements and that no non-African nation would be involved in the resolution of any internal African issue16. The evidence of this policy being implemented is plentiful, there are however, two particular cases that stand out. The two cases being that of the conflict in Chad and the second being the issue of the Western Sahara where in both cases Egypt called for conflict resolution within the framework of the Organization of African Unity as well as prioritizing the interests of the Organization before the interests of any one African state17.

Prior to his ouster in the Arab Spring movement that has recently swept through Egypt, Honsi Mubarak served two terms as chairman of the Organization of African Unity showing Egypt’s commitment to Africa as well as the trust the other African states have in Egypt. Mubarak’s two terms saw Egypt lead Africa in attempts to tackle its economic and development obstacles, conflict resolution within the framework of the organization was also prioritized as Mubarak tackled issues from Somalia to South Africa to Senegal18. Egypt has also contributed to stability in Africa through the Organization of African States with efforts other than political will.

Egypt has been responsible for 8.5% of the Organization of African Unity while at the same time contributing economically to several projects that the organization has pursued, it has also contributed both in military and technical staff all across Africa in both peace building and cooperation missions19. It is this firm ground work laid down by Egypt as well as the other African states that lead to the creation of the Organization of African Unity and its transformation in to the African Union. Egypt has clearly been a leader in creating multilateral political institutions for the African continent. Egypt has also been active unilaterally across the African continent.

The creation of the Organization of African Unity would have been rather difficult if the member count had not risen past the eight independent African states that were present in 1958. This was mostly due to the fact that most of Africa still remained under colonial power. The effect that colonization had had across Africa was one that did not favor the local resident at all with the benefactor being the colonizing power. Colonizing powers had always acted to hamper the economic, political and military capabilities of the areas that they ruled. The most prominent event that had taken place in Egypt’s own historical narrative in respect to fight against colonial forces was Egypt’s experience following the nationalization of the Suez Canal.

Britain and France along with Israel attacked Egypt and were subsequently forced to withdraw, Egypt gained immense popularity all across Africa and Asia as a champion of decolonization that successfully took on European powers and won. These events along with the benefits Egypt would gain from liberating other African countries, such as friendly relations with Nile basin countries20, motivated it to take its message of independence and revolution beyond its own borders. This exportation of revolutionary sentiment was done through multiple methods. The first of these methods was the use of radio transmission in the various native languages of Africa through the “Voice of Africa” station in order to motivate the various independence movements in East and Central Africa21. Egypt also provided more material support as well as its technical expertise to independence movements all across Africa. It provided military training and weapons for the movements in Angola, Rhodesia, Mozambique and South Africa22. Egypt also threw it political weight behind these independence movements advocating for their cause in international forums and providing them with a safe haven of operation within Egypt itself.

Two particular cases that are worth pointing out in order to demonstrate Egypt’s commitment to the liberation of Africa was its involvement in the Congo during the crisis in the 1960’s as well as its stance towards countries that administered apartheid. In a speech made by Nasser regarding the issue he said, “The imperialists aim at suppressing the freedom of the Congo and at placing it within their sphere of influence. We have to comply with our duties towards the Congo and Africa. The more independent countries there are, the more secure we are in our freedom.”, which demonstrates that Egypt was not going to allow for the reestablishment of colonial regimes in Africa once again, as well as its willingness to be associated with the cause of liberating Africa23.

Egypt, as stated earlier, also gave the participants in the liberation movements in Congo both technical and material support to aid them in their cause. The situation with the apartheid regimes in Africa was slightly more difficult to penetrate due to the fact that the regimes in place were advocates of apartheid. Furthermore, the apartheid regime in Namibia for example was essentially an extension of the regime in South Africa. It is due to this that Egypt’s responded to this threat to Africa with methods in line with the international framework.

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