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Egypt boosts medical cooperation with African Nile Basin countries

Egypt is expanding its influence in the Nile Basin region, through the establishment of medical and pharmaceutical centers, amid the stalled negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed gives a press conference in a tent set up outside the Abou Khalifa Hospital, in Ismailia, Egypt, Jan. 24, 2021.

CAIRO — Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed inaugurated Oct. 18 the AFRI Egypt Medical Center for Health Care in Jinja, Uganda.

Officials who spoke to Al-Monitor said that the center’s inauguration is the beginning of an Egyptian plan to establish a group of pharmaceutical and medical centers in Africa with the aim of increasing its medicines exports. 

Some also considered that the inauguration reflects Egypt’s efforts to expand in the African health and medication sectors, especially the Nile Basin countries, in order to protect its interests and strengthen its position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s (GERD) issue.

Mohammed Soliman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor, “Egypt is on a charm offensive in Africa, especially in East Africa and the Nile Basin. Cairo is capitalizing on its competitive advantage in terms of medical centers and health care.”

During the opening ceremony of the medical center in Jinja, which was attended by Egyptian and Ugandan officials and heads of Egyptian pharmaceutical companies, Zayed said that cooperation between Egypt and African countries in the health sector increased and developed when Cairo assumed the one-year chairmanship of the African Union (AU) in 2019.

“We have provided support and assistance to 22 African countries during the coronavirus pandemic,” she noted.

Zayed further said that the medical center is the start of strong Egyptian-Ugandan relations in the health sector, adding that 20 scholarships will be provided to Ugandan doctors.

The center, whose construction began in 2019, includes the first unit to detect osteoporosis in Uganda, and eight specialty clinics. It was built with the Egyptian government’s support and in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies in Egypt.

In 2017, the Egyptian government established AFRIPHARMA, a company aimed at boosting cooperation with African countries in the fields of medication and health care. 

On the establishment of the new center in Uganda, AFRIPHARMA chairman Madiha Khattab said in a TV interview Oct. 18, “We have been selected to benefit from [the Egyptian] state-owned locations [inside Uganda] and repurpose them to promote development and Egyptian-African cooperation.”

She noted, “We decided to start with Uganda because it is a stable country in the Nile Basin and because Egypt has a very important presence there. Everyone participated in building this center, including the ministries of irrigation, foreign affairs, health and the interior. At the same time, the Ugandan government facilitated and welcomed our work.”

Khattab continued, “Our main goal is to introduce Egyptian medicines to African countries.”

She explained that the provision of medical services “will help us gain the Ugandan citizens’ trust and support a sector in high need of medications. Once medicines are supplied, it means that Egypt managed to provide medical and pharmaceutical services to our brothers in Africa.”

The Egyptian government is now planning to establish a similar medical center in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to Khattab.

On July 12, Egypt joined the agreement to establish the African Medicines Agency (AMA) based in Cairo, as part of the government’s efforts to increase medication exports to Africa. In April, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi inaugurated the first Egyptian medical city, with the aim to meet the needs of the local market and increase medical exports to Africa. 

The Egyptian government devised a plan in late 2020 to increase its exports to Africa. It signed several trade agreements with African countries, including the COMESA Treaty, which includes 21 countries, and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement.

Mohyi Hafez, member of the Egyptian Senate and head of COMESA’s medications and health-care department, told Al-Monitor that the government plan aims to increase the export of pharmaceutical and medical goods worth up to $1 billion in the next five years.

Hafez said that the exports in the Egyptian medical sectors increased by 47% in the first quarter of 2021 reaching $176 million, compared with $118 million for the same period in 2020.

He noted that Egypt will soon put forward the idea of ​​establishing a COMESA Medicines Agency, with Egypt as the licensing and registration center for all African countries in order to facilitate the export of medications through a centralized registration process.

Since he assumed power in 2014, Sisi has been working to change Egypt’s policy toward Africa, after Egyptian-African relations had deteriorated following the assassination attempt of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Addis Ababa in 1995. These efforts at polishing its image in Ethiopia also come as part of Egypt’s plan to protect its water interests in the Nile Basin region and to strengthen its position in the GERD file. 

However, Egypt has realized that competition in Africa is now focused on development and economic presence, as relations between states are no longer governed solely by diplomacy and politics.

Hafez said, “Things have changed a lot and there are many actors seeking influence in Africa. This is why Egypt must promote economic relations with African countries in order to protect our water security.”

Soliman noted, “Egypt would like to position itself to be more than a commercial gateway for Asian and European companies in Africa. Cairo wants to be a political and economic player on the continent, and accessing African markets is at the core of Egypt’s strategy.”

However, he continued, “It is a long road ahead for Cairo in Africa, and Egypt should continue with its current path by seeking win-win cooperation with its African partners.”

Egypt and Sudan have been engaged in difficult negotiations with Ethiopia over the GERD for a decade now, amid the failure of the three countries to reach an agreement on the dam’s operation and filling.

In a report published Oct. 11, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said that Egypt is seeking to return to its former role as a major regional player, after a decade of domestic turmoil.

“Egypt responded by seeking to build alliances and strategic partnerships to isolate Ethiopia and try to place itself in a more favorable position,” ECFR said about water security in Egypt and the Horn of Africa.

“But, despite a string of joint defense and trade cooperation agreements with a number of countries in the Horn of Africa, Egypt has been unable to change the power balance and reach a negotiated political agreement on the use of Nile water,” the report continued.

Hafez said that Egypt is gradually restoring its influence in the Nile Basin region, which would pressure Ethiopia to change its position on the GERD.

The GERD negotiations have stalled since the last round of talks failed in Kinshasa in April. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the current AU head, has so far failed to achieve any breakthrough in the file.

Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Aty told the local Sada al-Balad channel Oct. 23 that various parties presented to Egypt proposals that would not resolve the GERD issue. 

He stressed that his country is ready to return to the negotiation table, on the condition of developing a negotiation mechanism and establishing a timeline, with the involvement of international observers in the talks.

Rakha Ahmed Hassan, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Monitor that it is no longer in the Egyptian interest to enter into negotiations on the GERD without reaching an agreement. At the same time, Ethiopia has not met the basic Egyptian demands because it rejects any legal obligation, he said.

He noted, “Egypt has no way other than continuing to place pressure — whether directly or indirectly — on the Ethiopian side so as to have its demands fulfilled."

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