From 13 to 15 December, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and over 40 African leaders gathered in Washington DC to take part in the US-Africa Summit, hosted by President Joe Biden. The goal of the summit was to effect a shared vision for the future of relations between the US and Africa. The summit exemplifies Egypt’s pioneering role in Africa and US orientations toward African partners in addressing global challenges and advancing economic participation, peace, and food security.
Due to the significance of Egyptian-African relations for Egyptian national security, Egypt has worked to bolster its pioneering role in Africa within the framework of a strategy of full engagement and cooperation with African nations. This strategy centered on strengthening bilateral trade and relations with all African countries, particularly those in the Nile Basin and the Horn of Africa. In this vein, Egypt presented a unified vision to support and finance Africa during the coronavirus pandemic and urged international allies to provide long-term funding to meet the continent’s health needs.
Egyptian efforts were not limited to assisting in the restoration of peace and security in war-torn countries like Mali, Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan, but included securing the continent as a whole through backing the “Silencing the Guns” initiative, providing extensive training to counter-terrorism forces, using soft power, advocating the “African solutions to African problems” mantra, adopting calm diplomacy in the face of numerous problems that plague the continent and sometimes threaten the interests of the Egyptian state, and avoiding any escalation in African-African crises.
Egypt’s pioneering role in Africa was also on display at COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, where the US expressed a desire to continue working closely with Egypt on initiatives that will have a significant impact on various parts of the African continent. This includes a $25 million US contribution to the flagship African Union’s Africa Adaptation Acceleration Program (AAAP), which is hosted by the Egyptian government, in order to start the AAAP Food Security Accelerator, which will dramatically accelerate private sector investments in climate-resilient food security in Africa.
Additionally, Egypt established the Cairo Center for Learning and Excellence on Adaptation and Resilience, which will increase the continent’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and the US contributed $10 million to it in order to support the continent’s overall ability to address the effects of climate change as well as to continue cooperating with Egypt to advance shared interests and enhance the conditions of the African population.
Overall, Egyptian-American cooperation on African issues is vital to the US for a number of reasons, which are outlined below.
Strengthening US Influence: The US-Africa summit is one of Biden’s top foreign policy priorities in his second year in office. The summit is expected to bring together over 40 African heads of state and a thousand African officials in Washington. It is an opportunity for Biden to meet with a wide range of African leaders and address long-standing concerns of African officials about their countries receiving inadequate attention in US foreign policy compared to European allies, the Middle East, and China. It is also a chance to depart from the policy of the previous administration of Trump, which focused solely on the involvement of the US in the continent’s efforts to counteract Chinese influence and investments.
Speaking of the Chinese presence in Africa, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa criticized the US for pressuring other nations not to invest in fifth generation networks with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. Ramaphosa, speaking at the 2019 Fourth Industrial Revolution SA – Digital Economy Summit, said, “They are jealous that a Chinese company called Huawei has outstripped them. And because they have been outstripped they must now punish that one company and use it as a pawn in the fight that they have with China.”
Impact of the Ukraine War on Africa: The summit took place at a particularly challenging time for the world economy, which has slowed down due to the effects of the Russo-Ukrainian War and the global supply chain disruptions. While the African Union condemned the Russian invasion, many African countries took a neutral stance on the war because they depend on aid from both Russia and the US and have strong ties to both. This was demonstrated at the United Nations where, despite pressure from the Biden administration, a number of African nations chose to abstain from voting in favor of US-backed initiatives on Ukraine. As a whole, African leaders are against the idea of punishing Russia or insisting that Kyiv must agree to any solution, especially considering that some African countries import as much as 80 percent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine.
Nonetheless, the Biden administration has an opportunity to garner support from African nations that have been negatively impacted by the war in Ukraine, particularly in light of the wheat shortage, the disruption of food security, the high prices of fertilizers and fuel, and the war’s contribution to supplying Africa’s black market with arms. Beyond this, the war’s aftereffects include instability and security holes across the continent, through which terrorist groups gain access to the resources they need, most notably in the Sahel region that provides easy access to Europe.
Limiting the Impact of Other Powers: The Biden administration aims to highlight the principle of partnership in its interactions with African nations, highlighting what Washington can offer amid the intense competition for influence with other global powers, led by China and Russia, especially in the business sector. The ultimate goal of the US is to maintain stability and advance its own interests with regard to energy and climate change. The Biden administration consistently emphasizes that it does not force African leaders to pick sides between the US and China, but it does highlight the benefits that Washington can provide.
Thus, the summit is set against the backdrop of international competition among major powers to establish and improve economic, political, and security partnerships with Africa. This competition is reflected in China’s role in Africa, which has implications for U.S. interests. Every three years since 2000, China has hosted the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, widely regarded as a key mechanism for advancing China’s diplomatic and commercial interests. However, this is the second US-Africa summit; the first was held in 2014.
In the last few decades, China has dramatically increased its investment in Africa, including by funding significant infrastructure projects and increasing political involvement, despite warnings from Washington to African countries that some of these projects amount to “debt-trap diplomacy”. Additionally, China has widened its diplomatic and economic presence in Africa over the past few years, and with a $254 billion trade partnership, it has emerged as the continent’s biggest two-way trading partner. Besides China, Russia has formed new military alliances with a number of African countries in an effort to reduce the West’s sway in the continent.
Africa’s Strategic Importance for US National Security: The US National Security Strategy (NSS), released in October 2022, identifies African governments, institutions, and peoples as a major geopolitical force that can play a decisive role in addressing global challenges over the next decade. Africa has never been more dynamic, educated, or connected. African countries constitute one of the largest regional voting blocs at the United Nations, and a number of their citizens hold leadership positions in major international organizations. Relations between the US and Africa need to change to reflect the significant geopolitical role that African countries play globally.
Strengthening ties with African countries is one way to advance US national interests in Africa, but other ways include working with regional organizations like the African Union, local governments, civil society, the private sector, and diaspora communities, investing in the major African countries, such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, deepening relations with smaller and medium-sized countries, and backing African-led efforts to find political solutions to costly conflicts, the growing terrorist activity, and humanitarian crises plaguing African countries such as Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Sahel region.
Regarding combating terrorism, the NSS strategy prioritized thwarting terrorist threats against the US and addressing the root causes of terrorism in the continent by combating corruption, promoting accountability and justice, investing in inclusive economic development, promoting human rights, and dealing with the destabilizing effects of the Russia-backed Wagner Group. The US did not restrict its military presence in Africa to the fight against terrorism; rather, the army engaged in other operations to advance and safeguard US interests during times of calamities and epidemics.
Over the past century, Egypt and the US have maintained close ties that, regardless of changes in the US presidential administration, are built on solid collaborations to accomplish shared objectives. Egypt plays a crucial role in the Middle East and Africa, the US is the dominant force in all global and regional issues. With Egypt being a haven of tranquility in an otherwise turbulent region, Washington and Cairo have a long list of shared interests, including:
Promoting Regional Stability: During their meeting at COP27, Presidents Al-Sisi and Biden shared their perspectives on a variety of regional and global issues, including the Russo-Ukrainian crisis and its negative repercussions on the global level, particularly on the food and energy sectors. They also discussed recent developments in Libya, Yemen, and Syria, with President Al-Sisi emphasizing the importance of achieving political settlement in the three countries.
According to the US, Egypt has a proactive foreign policy that has made it a significant player in the Arab, Mediterranean, and African arenas, particularly with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This was evidenced by Egypt’s mediation of a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in May 2021 and August 2022, as well as its efforts to find political resolutions to crises in Libya, Sudan, and Lebanon.
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): During his meeting with President El-Sisi on the sidelines of the COP27, President Biden reiterated his country’s support for Egypt’s water security and rights in the Nile River. At the recent Arab-Chinese Summit in Riyadh, President Al-Sisi reiterated his demands for a resolution to the GERD crisis, highlighting the significance of reaching a legally binding agreement between all parties. At COP27, Al-Sisi reaffirmed Egypt’s commitment to preserving its water security for current and future generations through the negotiation of a legally binding agreement to fill and operate the dam that guarantees Egypt’s water security, in accordance with the principles of international law to achieve the common interests of all parties.
While the US is dealing with a variety of issues in Africa, the intractable nature of the GERD crisis and the potentially dangerous repercussions it may have necessitate that the US administration do everything possible to support a diplomatic resolution. As such, a further escalation of the already-existing tensions in the Horn of Africa would be a threat to US interests, impede international navigation in one of the most vital international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, endanger oil supplies for the global economy, and provide terrorism a new breeding ground. The US mediation in the GERD crisis will enable Washington to play a greater role in the entire Horn of Africa and strengthen its role in maintaining security and stability in a region vital to its interests, let alone enabling Washington in the long run to thwart Russian and Chinese attempts to threaten US and Western interests in the region.
Military Cooperation: The US is the leading military power in the world, whereas Egypt is the leading Arab military power in the region. Consequently, military cooperation between Egypt and the US is crucial to maintain regional equilibrium and ensure regional stability. The US-Egypt military collaboration took various forms, including Egypt joining, in April 2021, the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) of the US Naval Command, a multinational maritime partnership that brings together 34 countries and aims at upholding the Rules-Based International Order by countering illicit non-state actors on the high seas and promoting security, stability, and prosperity; conducting the Bright Star drills between the US and Egyptian militaries during the period 2-16 September 2021 at the Mohammed Naguib base in the northern coastal region, with the participation of 600 US officers and soldiers; and the convening of the 32nd session of the US-Egypt Military Cooperation Committee, which investigated ways to deepen the strategic partnership in the military field, and touched on issues of border security, maritime navigation, combating terrorism, and plans to modernize the Egyptian army. In addition, the Egyptian and US navies conducted a naval exercise in the southern fleet operation zone in the Red Sea in January 2022, as part of the Egyptian army’s plan to increase training and experience sharing. Two US destroyers, the USS JANSON DUNHAM and USS COLE, joined the Egyptian frigate Alexandria in this exercise.
The US military aid, which cannot be considered a gift, is part of a larger framework of cooperation and an integrated agreement that serves both parties’ interests. Over time, the purchasing power of this aid, which has been fixed at $1.3 billion since the 1980s and allocated to the purchase, maintenance, and modernization of weapons and ammunition, as well as the training and skill development of members of the armed forces, has decreased. In 1978, US aid accounted for approximately 6.4 percent of Egypt’s gross domestic product; today, it accounts for less than 0.5 percent.
Despite the strong US-Egyptian military ties, Egypt has moved to diversify its weapons sources since former US President Barack Obama froze the military aid to Egypt in 2013 after the ousting of former President Mohamed Morsi. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Egypt’s imports of weapons from Russia, France, Germany, and Italy increased substantially.
Combating Terrorism: Combating terrorism is of particular importance in bilateral relations between Egypt and the US due to its high priority in both countries and their general consensus on how to address it. During his meeting with President Biden at COP27, President Al-Sisi affirmed Egypt’s firm will to continue its unremitting efforts to confront this menace and undermine its security and intellectual danger. Biden, for his part, lauded the success of Egypt’s decisive efforts in this regard, expressing the US support for these efforts and Egypt’s central role in combating cross-border terrorism.
The US believes Egypt’s stability is key to regional stability and maintains a security partnership with Cairo to bolster the Egyptian Armed Forces’ capacity to combat terrorism. To that end, in addition to the ongoing joint exercises between the two countries, Washington has given Cairo the necessary training and attack helicopters to support it in its years-long campaign against terrorism in North Sinai.
Notably, Egypt has assisted successive U.S. governments in infiltrating terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, through its well-trained intelligence agents and the spread of Egyptian elements among numerous Middle Eastern extremist groups. In this vein, Michael Corella, Commander of US Central Command in the Middle East, visited Cairo last May to fortify anti-terrorism ties between Egypt and the US following a terrorist attack in Sinai.
The US congressional delegation that visited Egypt in April confirmed that the US values Egypt’s contribution to the fight against terrorism. In addition, they highlighted the significant efforts being made within Egypt toward comprehensive development and Egypt’s role in achieving stability and security in the country following the country’s success in combating extremist ideology and establishing principles and values for religious freedom.
Strategic Security: The US is committed to preserving the peace treaty signed between Egypt and Israel in 1979, which has proven to be a stabilizing force in the region. Likewise, the Suez Canal is a crucial axis of US interests in Egypt. Washington always needs to ensure that the Suez Canal remains operational, whether its airspace for US planes or waterway for massive ships, which requires ensuring the security of the canal and maintaining strong relations with Cairo. In times of emergency in the Suez Canal, US warships receive preferential treatment and are permitted to bypass ships waiting at the canal’s entrance. Without this Egyptian support, the duration of US operations in the region will be extended.