On December 8, 2022, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the inaugural China-Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia. During their meeting, both leaders pledged to further bolster bilateral relations and cooperation within the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The relationship between Egypt and China has experienced significant growth in recent years, characterized by the rapid development of economic, trade, military, and cultural ties. Egypt occupies a strategic position within the BRI, which has the potential to push bilateral relations to new heights.
However, the partnership between Egypt and China also entails several implications for Egypt’s relations with the United States, which has been a major ally of the country for decades. While Egypt seeks to benefit from competition between China and the US, failing to maintain a balance in its relations with these two global powers could create long-term challenges. In this regard, it is important for Egypt to carefully consider the opportunities and risks that stem from its partnership with China and to adopt a balanced approach in its relations with both China and the United States.
Egypt and China have a long history of diplomatic relations, dating back to the 1950s. Egypt was the first Arab and African nation to establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1956. Shortly thereafter, China provided Egypt with $4.5 million in aid during the Suez Crisis after the United Kingdom, France, and Israel attacked it following former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s decision to nationalize the Suez Canal. During the 1960s, the two countries had good relations through their membership in the Non-Alignment Movement. They also signed a number of agreements on trade, cultural cooperation, and scientific and technological development. It is also notable that during China’s cultural revolution (1966–1976), Cairo was not among the Arab capitals from which China withdrew its ambassadors—an indicator of the special nature of the relationship between the two countries. During the 1970s and 1980s, Egypt-China relations experienced a period of strain, due to China’s support for North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and Egypt’s close relationship with the US, and late President Sadat’s strategic alignment with the West. However, relations began to improve in the 1990s as both countries sought to strengthen their economic ties and cooperate on regional and international issues.
In the early 2000s, Egypt and China established a strategic cooperation relationship through the signing of a joint communique. This marked a significant improvement in their bilateral relations and paved the way for increased Chinese investment in Egypt.
In the early 2000s, Egypt and China established a strategic cooperation relationship through the signing of a joint communique. This marked a significant improvement in their bilateral relations and paved the way for increased Chinese investment in Egypt. Chinese companies participated in a range of infrastructure projects in the country. Various high-level visits and exchanges were accompanied by growing agreements on trade and economic cooperation that exemplified both sides’ desire to deepen their relationship.
The Egyptian uprising of 2011 and its aftermath did not negatively impact Egypt’s relations with China. In fact, Egyptian officials were eager to maintain strong relations with Beijing. One key example of this was former President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to China in August 2012, during which he met with former Chinese President Hu Jintao and signed agreements for several major projects, including a power station, a desalination plant, industrial bakeries, and internet development. At the time of President Morsi’s visit, trade between Egypt and China had reached $8.8 billion, a 40 percent increase from 2008, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce.
A Leap in Bilateral Relations
The relationship between Egypt and China has undergone a marked expansion during the past decade by deepening their engagement through a range of economic, political, military, and cultural initiatives. This represents a strategic pivot by Egypt to diversify its external partnerships and reduce its reliance on traditional western allies, particularly in the wake of the 2013 Egyptian coup and the subsequent deterioration in relations with key partners such as the United States. Thus, in December 2014, shortly after taking office, President Sisi made an official visit to China, where he met with President Xi Jinping and signed a comprehensive strategic partnership (CSP) agreement. The CSP inaugurated a new era of enhanced bilateral relations between the two countries. In the years since the signing of the CSP, President Sisi has visited China several times, during which the two countries have signed a substantial number of bilateral agreements.
Over the past decade, China has become one of Egypt’s largest trading partners and investors. Chinese companies have invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in Egypt, such as the construction of a New Administrative Capital, as well as power plants and industrial zones. The two countries have also signed several agreements to increase trade and economic cooperation in the fields of energy, agriculture, and manufacturing. President Xi Jinping’s 2016 visit to Egypt provided financial and political support to President Sisi. During said visit, the two countries signed 21 deals, including for significant Chinese investments worth $15 billion in various projects. For example, China State Construction Engineering Corporation is the leading investor in building the central business district for the New Administrative Capital.
According to Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), the volume of trade exchange between Egypt and China increased from $11.9 billion to $12.7 billion between January and September 2022, which constitutes an increase of 9.8 percent. Also, Egypt’s exports to China increased from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion during the same period, which is an increase of 36.7 percent. Moreover, according to Egyptian Finance Minister Mohamed Maait, Egypt acquired around $28.5 billion in Chinese investments between 2018 and 2019, which makes it the largest recipient of Chinese investments in the Arab world. These investments created roughly 24,000 job opportunities in the country.
China has emerged as Egypt’s fourth largest creditor, with outstanding debts amounting to almost $8 billion, representing approximately 5 percent of Egypt’s total external debt of $155.7 billion.
Finally, China has emerged as Egypt’s fourth largest creditor, with outstanding debts amounting to almost $8 billion, representing approximately 5 percent of Egypt’s total external debt of $155.7 billion. Despite the controversy surrounding this large amount of Chinese debt and concerns over Egypt’s ability to repay it, the Sisi regime has persisted in continuing to borrow from China, which was part of Egypt’s January 2023 IMF deal, wherein the China Development Bank and the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank contributed a combined $1.4 billion.
A Key Player in the Belt and Road Initiative
China’s keenness to strengthen its relations with Egypt should be viewed through the prism of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. Egypt, situated at the northeastern tip of Africa, serves as a crucial gateway to the African continent, and its Suez Canal is a vital waterway connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Egypt’s large population of over 100 million people provides a significant consumer base for Chinese goods. Not surprisingly, China has invested heavily in several infrastructure projects that are directly connected to the BRI.
For example, the Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone (SETC-Zone) which was established in 2008, is considered to be the key project that significantly serves the BRI due to its location and logistical capabilities. The SETC-Zone is a major hub for Chinese products, boasting around 102 Chinese companies, $1.2 billion dollars of US investment, 30,000 new jobs, and over $2.5 billion in sales, according to China’s National Development and Reform Commission. Furthermore, collaboration between Egypt and China in the maritime industry has been an important aspect of their bilateral relationship in recent years. Egypt’s Suez Canal is a vital component of China’s Maritime Silk Road, a strategic piece of the Belt and Road Initiative. The canal’s facilitation of trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe has incentivized binational cooperation in maritime trade, logistics, and infrastructure development. Therefore, Egypt and China have signed several agreements on infrastructure construction and improvements.
Finally, military ties between the two countries have been further strengthened through joint military exercises and training programs. In 2021, the Chinese arms industry had a significant presence at the largest international defense expo in Egypt, showcasing advanced weapons and equipment including tanks, artillery, warplanes, air defense missiles, drones, and electronic warfare systems.
Partnership in Human Rights Violations
The partnership between Egypt and China is not limited to economic and strategic fields alone. Both nations exhibit authoritarian characteristics and employ similar policies with regard to human rights. According to the Freedom House index, both countries are classified as “not free.” Furthermore, data from New York-based watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists indicate that Egypt and China are among the highest nations in terms of number of imprisoned journalists. Moreover, both countries have a history of committing horrific massacres against their own citizens. In 1989, China killed hundreds of students who were protesting in Tiananmen Square. Similarly, in 2013, Egypt committed the Rabaa massacre, in which security forces killed over 800 peaceful protesters who were demonstrating against the overthrow of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi. The scale and brutality of these massacres are indicative of the willingness of both China and Egypt to use excessive force against their own citizens to maintain political control.
The partnership between Egypt and China is not limited to economic and strategic fields alone. Both nations exhibit authoritarian characteristics and employ similar policies with regard to human rights.
Furthermore, neither country shies away from supporting each other’s human rights violations. For example, Egypt has given both tacit and explicit support for China’s brutal policy against its Muslim Uyghur minority. In 2017, Egypt detained nearly 30 Uyghurs and deported 12 of them to China, despite international appeals and condemnation from human rights organizations. Similarly, China has not spoken out about Sisi’s brutal policies against Egypt’s political opposition over the past decade. Finally, Sisi, like many of his regional counterparts, views China as a model that should be emulated. The “Chinese model” of governance emphasizes brutal authoritarianism in exchange for economic prosperity. However, Sisi has adopted the former without achieving the latter, and Egypt’s economy has been facing a severe economic crisis in recent years, with high levels of inflation, unemployment, and unprecedented foreign debt.
A Tough Balance
The growing partnership between Egypt and China carries serious implications for Egypt’s relations with its western allies, and particularly with the United States. For several reasons, Cairo’s attempts to leverage ongoing competition between the US and China in order to gain political advantages in a manner reminiscent of the Cold War era could backfire and impact its relations with Washington for several reasons. First, the United States has traditionally been a key strategic ally for Egypt, providing significant military and economic aid, as well as political support over the past four decades. The US National Defense Strategy has identified China as the top threat to US national security interests. Therefore, Cairo’s attempt to enhance its bilateral relations with China may be viewed by Washington as fraternizing with the enemy.
Egypt’s strategic partnership with China opens the door for increased presence and influence for Beijing in the region, which would threaten US strategic interests in the long term.
Second, Egypt’s strategic partnership with China opens the door for increased presence and influence for Beijing in the region, which would threaten US strategic interests in the long term. China has already expanded its strategic relations with several countries in the Middle East, particularly with some of the United States’ key partners in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s partnership with China would allow the latter to increase its influence in North Africa and the Arab world more widely.
Third, Egypt’s key role in the BRI would enhance China’s economy and increase its global standing vis-à-vis the US. This would intensify economic competition between the two largest economies in the world. Fourth, growing Chinese investments in Egypt might threaten the United States’ economic interests there. While the US remains one of Egypt’s key investors, with investments that reached $24 billion in 2022, it is still second to China when it comes to trade, with a total trade volume of $9.1 billion in 2021.
Fifth, the US has serious concerns about China’s attempts to affect its national security. Over the past few years, both countries have been involved in cyberwarfare and have exchanged accusations of launching cyberattacks against each other. Egypt’s embrace of Chinese technology would significantly impact the United States’ national security, something that will not be tolerated by Washington. For example, American officials urged Egyptian companies to refrain from conducting business with Chinese companies utilizing 5G connections, citing potential risks to data privacy and security. These concerns stem from allegations that such companies may be utilized as tools by the Chinese government to obtain and exploit customer information for the benefit of China’s security services.
Finally, the Biden administration has been attempting to build a global alliance of democracies that could counterbalance the rising global axis of autocracies led by China and Russia. Egypt’s partnership with China could be seen as a challenge to this effort and will likely impact Washington’s relations with Cairo.
Egypt’s growing partnership with China creates economic and strategic opportunities, but also poses challenges to its relations with its traditional allies, such as the US. Therefore, maintaining a good balance in its relationship with the US and China is crucial for Egypt’s interests and its future.
Featured image credit: Facebook/Egyptian Presidency