The phrase “Cape to Cairo” describes the immense journey across the African continent. Excellency, as the Egyptian Ambassador to South Africa, how does your diplomatic tour in this country relate to such a journey?
First, let me thank you very much for inviting me to be part of this edition.
As Ambassador of Egypt to South Africa, one of my main aims is the Cairo-Cape Town project. This is an initiative by NEPAD (The New Partnership for Africa’s Development), under the auspice of the President of South Africa. The project is a dream – we are trying to connect the tip to the top of the continent, Cape Town the tip and Cairo the top. In between are many brotherly African countries, and we need to connect them, to make trade between them easier, and allow more transportation throughout. The dream is there, and people are trying to bring this dream to reality.
There is a South African motorcycle rider who flew his motorbike up to Egypt and rode all the way from Cairo to Cape Town. Although we still have no roads directly connecting Cairo to Cape Town, he broke a previous record, doing it in six days. He moved from Cairo, down to Aswan, to Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and then finally Botswana and South Africa. The point is, we need to make travelling easier, the movement of people easier, transportation easier.
We have a similar project called Victoria-Med, which starts from Lake Victoria up to the Mediterranean. This is a mode of river transportation along the Nile River, under the auspice of the President of Egypt.
Egypt is considered a Cradle of Civilisation. Does such historic responsibility play a part in the future of the African continent?
Yes. In history, Egypt is the land of civilisation. The borders of Egypt have existed for 7000 years. We spread merchants and traders into the African continent 4000-5000 years ago. Egypt sent merchants to Puntland (present-day Ethiopia), Somalia and Eritrea – and they brought gum trees from there, as an example of where we started, and how we have moved forward. It is also an example to other countries in Africa about co-operation, and how co-operation can build economies.
Egypt is doing well economically. We have a programme that we are building and implementing, and we hope this programme will benefit the people of Egypt, and the people of Africa, because we are part of Africa.
How would you define the present bilateral relations between Egypt and South Africa from an economic perspective, particularly within the trade arena?
This year we have almost doubled the volume of trade between Egypt and South Africa. We export $150 million to South Africa, and the total volume of trade is $314 million. This is a minimal amount of trade between the two countries – our potential exceeds this by 3 or 4 times. We need to reach $1 billion to reflect the capabilities and the potentials of the two countries. Last year the total figure was $216 million, this year $314 million, and we hope that by 2020 we will reach $1 billion. We have the potential. We are the biggest economies in Africa – with all due respect to other countries such as Nigeria and Algeria. Egypt has the highest GDP in Africa, followed by South Africa.
What important agreements and treaties have Egypt and South Africa reached in recent years and which would you describe as important accomplishments?
The bilateral joint committee has not met since 2010 – possibly due to the political situation in Egypt in 2011 and 2012. But eight years later, we have still not met as a bilateral joint committee. It is the vehicle through which we sign agreements. You need to sit together, from all the ministries in each country, and decide on agreements to sign. After eight years we have not signed any. Many are pending agreements that need to be revised because a lot has changed in this time. We need to revise the trade agreement, encouraging investment, for example.
I have been meeting with DIRCO (the South African Department of International Relations and Co-operation) – we have very good relations with them, and they have promised us that a joint bilateral meeting will take place this year.
In relation to investment between the two countries, what niche business opportunities exist, or have emerged?
Investment is important in order to attract foreign currency in both countries. We are cooperating, and we may say that we are competing together. But this is not a destructive competition, it is positive competition between both. For example, in the area of steel, Egypt and South Africa are the only two countries producing (large volume) steel. South Africa has iron ore, the raw material that we need and Egypt has factories. Why don’t we co-operate together in order to build a huge steel manufacturing plant that could export steel to all African countries instead of importing steel from other countries abroad?
We need this co-operation in order to attract foreign investors. Foreign investment will come when we have the infrastructure, good policies and good investment from our countries, as well as laws and regulations. Three months ago (early 2018), Egypt adopted a new investment law, encouraging and attractive to foreign investors. South Africa has very good investment laws too. One of the other areas in which we could have good co-operation is that of spare car parts and car manufacturing. South Africa is well- developed in this domain, and Egypt has started producing spare parts for cars, particularly European manufacturers, from German and Italian brands.
If we can work together, Egypt and South Africa, we have the potential to create models for the rest of the African continent. All African countries are working hard to attract foreign investment, we need this on our continent.
That is the African spirit.
It is the African spirit. With all the lessons we have learned, we have seen that investors, foreign investors, often come to take. Just to take, not to give. Investors should use part of their investment, and of their profits, to build society, to improve their investment, to attract further investment in this society. Without improving society, this investment is useless. It is just for the benefit of the investor himself.
Egypt’s rich cultural heritage is a fundamental part of its national identity, having embraced different imported influences (including influences from the Arab, Greek, Ottoman, Nubian, Persian and Roman ancient cultures). How would you describe present-day Egyptian culture, and how is this used to promote tourism in the country?
This is called soft-power. Egypt has used its cultural heritage to have influence. If you look back at Arab culture, seventy or eighty years ago, we say that ‘The book was written in Egypt and the author Egyptian’. And it is printed in Lebanon because they have very good printers. And it is read in Syria. We write books in Egypt and they are read everywhere in the Arab world. So our cultural impact is very important.
Our televisions were the first televisions not only in the Middle- East, but also in Africa – the first broadcasts in the early 1950s. We celebrate 100 years of cinema in Egypt, there were no other cinemas around us at first. Egyptian films were then shown all around the Arab world, and now the accent of Egyptian-Arabic is understood in all the Arab countries. This is the influence of film, of cinema. We have also won the Nobel Prize for literature. We have four Egyptian intellectuals and politicians who have won Nobel Prizes. This reflects not the elite Egyptian community, but the local Egyptian community which is very close to the African community. The way we live, the way we have lived and suffered, habits and traditions – this is how we introduce ourselves to the international community, and this is how we use our soft power in order to spread our culture around us.
Ambassador, we would like to thank you for being here with us. We hope your tour here in South Africa is a successful one, and we hope you succeed in connecting Cairo to Cape Town.