Shifting sands: Egypt’s Sisi goes all out on China visit

These days, everything seems to be going President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s way

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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These days, everything seems to be going President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s way. The White House appears to have finally abandoned its protracted, low key cold war with post–Mursi and anti-Muslim Brotherhood Egypt. After a conspicuous absence of nearly a-year-and-a-half, an American ambassador - R Stephen Beecroft - has finally taken up residence in Cairo.

Poor Ambassador Beecroft. His last posting was Iraq (2012-2014); so he has been moved from one major failure of American policy in the region to another. It is a less dramatic failure but a failure nevertheless. Also, the American Apache fighter helicopters, which were to have been delivered more than a year ago but are only being delivered now, are of critical importance in combating the extremist insurgencies in Sinai and those insurgents who occasionally stray into Egypt from Libya.

Sisi is committed to diversifying Egypt's source of arms, so it is not exposed to threats by a sole supplier

Abdallah Schleifer

But none of that has deterred President Sisi from further pursuing his strategic relationship with China, which has been singled out as a threat to America by the still influential Neo Cons who are no doubt overjoyed to see the Obama administration over the past few years taking up the banner of confrontation with China and Russia.

Strategic partnership

China has happily signed up to this relationship, and among the many agreements struck in China this past week during Sisi’s four day visit was one raising bilateral ties to a “strategic partnership.” Significant Chinese investment in Egypt is a major component of the new partnership. The focus will be on infrastructure, railways, development of ports and the generation of energy - in particular sustainable energy which is most relevant since China is now a leading manufacturer of solar energy panels and related solar systems.

In America, low-cost Chinese solar panels have taken the market and resulted in the near collapse of American solar panel companies. But Egypt constitutes such a large market and far more desperately needs to shift over to solar power than America, where extensive fracking of shale gas and oil deposits has catapulted America to become one of the highest energy producers. Thus it would make far more sense for Egypt to induce Chinese solar manufacturers to invest in factories building solar panels, rather than in exporting panels to Egypt. More immediately the two countries signed a memorandum to establish a joint laboratory for renewable energy.

There is a significant imbalance of trade between China and Egypt, so as part of the new strategic partnership China’s President Xi Jinping declared this week that the government would encourage the Chinese business community (which includes its extensive industrial sector) to increase imports from Egypt.

Tourism ties

During the tour, Sisi did not pass up the opportunity to ask the major Chinese tourism operators to encourage more Chinese tourists to visit Egypt. If there is serious follow up on the part of the Chinese (and given the enthusiasm they have expressed for this strategic partnership which they have entered into with only a few other countries, there is no reason to assume they will not do so), this would have an immediate impact on the Egyptian economy. The number of tourists visiting Egypt declined from 14.7 million in 2010 to 9.5 million in 2013. The industry is in dire straits. As for China, it is the world’s largest tourist export market. 130 million Chinese now go abroad and if there is only a 10 percent increase over whatever number of Chinese tourists are now visiting Egypt that would more than double Egypt’s revenue from tourism and surpass 2010 which was Egypt’s best year.

But the most significant political aspect is that the Chinese-Egyptian strategic partnership is to activate a joint committee for cooperation in defense affairs. That means communication between military colleges and institutes, and increased cooperation in the fight against terrorism, organized crime, cross border crime and electronic crime. But most of all it will mean the sale of Chinese manufactured weaponry which is extensive in range and attractively priced.

Sisi is committed to diversifying the source of arms, so it is not exposed to threats by a sole supplier - the United States – which could use the threat of suddenly cutting off the supply of arms and maintenance to Egypt in an attempt to get Egypt to toe the American political line. This commitment was demonstrated by the arms deal signed earlier this year with Russia and the certainty that there will be new and event more extensive deals with the Chinese in the near future.


Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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