Cairo has always mastered the art of political acrobatics, playing East and West off each other to ensure its own profit. During the Cold War, it was former President Gamal Abd El-Nasser who first “shocked the West by approaching the Soviet Union, buying military equipment through Czechoslovakia, and igniting fears of a Middle Eastern arms race,” according to Foreign Policy.
Six decades later, Cairo is once again seeking to strengthen Eastern ties with Beijing while maintaining a complex relationship with Western allies and the US.
Earlier this month, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, in Beijing to review the state of bilateral relations between Egypt and China. The two leaders discussed a myriad of political and economic issues in an effort to strengthen on-going cooperation.
China and Egypt have “shared similar visions and strategies in defending their own interests,” stated Chinese leader Xi Jinping on President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s seventh visit to the Chinese capital since taking office in 2014.
According to the Associated Press in Beijing, this timely encounter comes at an opportune moment as Al-Sisi’s government is looking to fortify Chinese relations amid increased scrutiny from the US and Western states over the Egyptian government’s poor human rights record.
Under Al-Sisi’s leadership, Egyptian-Chinese relations continue to intensify bilateral cooperation. This entails cooperation on the political, economic and security dimensions.
“Chinese investments in Egypt include a $US 1.8 billion co-operation portfolio that includes many development projects in the areas of electricity, health, education and vocational training,”confirms Mahmoud Sultan, a financial analyst and professor at Cairo University.
However, a recent report by the Middle East Institute (MEI) indicates that Sino-Egyptian economic co-operation is expanding in scope in recent years. According to the MEI, “infrastructure construction and the enhancement of manufacturing production capacity have emerged as the most prominent features of Sino-Egyptian economic co-operation.”
Currently, around 85 percent of the USD 3 billion needed to complete the Central Business District (CBD) of the country’s New Administrative Capital — part of a massive project undertaken by the China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCEC) is financed by Chinese banks.
The rapid development of key integrated land and maritime trade routes has been a crucial part of Egypt’s ‘Vision 2030’ and a feature of Egyptian-Chinese relations. Egypt’s prioritisation of the Suez Canal expansion, as well as reinvigorating existing on-land trade routes, perfectly aligns with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China’s BRI includes plans to develop a “maritime Silk Road” that connects China to the Mediterranean via the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and Suez Canal.
In the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic ties between Egypt and China were further cemented through the signing of a joint manufacturing agreement for the Sinovac vaccine in Egypt.
The latest meeting between the Chinese leader Xi Jingping and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi also indicates increased political co-operation, especially pertaining to regional security and stability. Presidential Spokesperson Bassem Rady confirmed that both leaders discussed the developments of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the Palestinian conflict as well as the crises in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
As a means to safeguard proliferating Chinese interests in Egypt and the Middle Eastern region, involvement in regional stability has been mandatory for Beijing. It seems that China’s policy of non-interference is becoming increasingly hard to sustain.
However, these unfolding regional dynamics are bound to challenge Egypt’s political dexterity. Cairo has to be cautious, nimble; increased Chinese political involvement could strengthen regional rivals, further weaken relations with Western allies and undermine China’s neutral and pragmatic narrative domestically.