On Sunday, China’s new foreign minister, Qin Gang, ended his five-nation African tour in Egypt, where he held separate meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit. The visit came at a precarious moment for Egypt’s economy and currency, which the government has allowed to drop precipitously—17 percent since Jan. 1 and 50 percent in the last 10 months—in an apparent newfound embrace of a flexible exchange rate policy.
In a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Sameh Shoukry, the pair said talks addressed regional issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, combating terrorism, and achieving regional security.
Responding to a reporter’s question on Palestine, Qin urged Israel to “stop all incitement and provocation and avoid any unilateral actions that might lead to aggravation of the situation.”
Egypt has played a mediator role between Hamas and Israel, having helped broker a cease-fire in May 2021, but the Egyptian government is now mired in economic difficulties.
Last month, Cairo agreed on a $3 billion bailout package with the International Monetary Fund. China stands to lose if Egypt’s economy were to collapse, given the level of trade between the two countries and because China is the heaviest user of the Suez Canal—a crucial link for shipping its goods to Europe.
Qin underscored Beijing’s commitment to help boost Egypt’s economy through the import of Egyptian products and the increase of Chinese tourists to Egypt, a major source of revenue for the country, which significantly struggled during the pandemic but has gradually recovered despite a drop in the number of Chinese travelers.
But how China can bring Chinese tourism back to Egypt remains to be seen. On the same day as Qin’s news briefing in Cairo, China’s National Health Commission reported nearly 60,000 COVID-related deaths at hospitals across the country since the end of strict pandemic restrictions in December.
Egypt also needs China’s continued investments in state-led megaprojects to revive its faltering economy. Beijing is in part helping to fund and build the business district of a new $59 billion administrative capital east of Cairo as part of a deal with the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corp.
The new capital, first announced in 2015 and slated to open in mid-2023, is also partly funded through high-interest bonds and is seen by Sisi’s critics as a vanity project that will ultimately worsen the country’s debt. In 2021, Egyptian academics criticized the plans. “Modernity in reality is about a government being accountable to its people, such as providing good education,” Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University, told AFP.
Elsewhere, in Egypt’s Suez Canal Economic Zone, China has invested billions of dollars as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. Within the zone, which is made up of ports and industrial estates, Beijing has built an estate known as the China-Egypt Teda Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone, or TEDA City. Here, Chinese-owned businesses manufacture products for export to Europe, the Middle East, and China; Beijing estimates that it has created more than 30,000 jobs.
For more than 30 years, China has maintained a tradition that the first overseas trip by an appointed foreign minister will be to Africa. Qin’s weeklong trip included stops in Ethiopia, Gabon, Angola, and Benin.
Egypt is one of the top six African contributors to the African Union’s budget. (The others are Algeria, Angola, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa.) In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Qin visited the newly constructed headquarters of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, which was built and funded by China. The building, Qin said, “stands as an irrefutable proof to the world that China always supports Africa.”
As the United States seeks to regain influence across Africa, China has been reaffirming its ties with the continent as well as looking outward toward the Middle East. “China appreciates Egypt’s decision to welcome Chinese tourists. We believe that in the near future, the number of Chinese tourists and flights to Egypt will return to or even surpass the pre-pandemic level,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters at a news briefing in Beijing on Monday.