CAIRO — On March 28, Egypt officially opened a new air route to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), as part of an plan to expand its airline network in the African continent.
The first EgyptAir flight MS863 took off to Kinshasa, in the heart of Africa. EgyptAir will operate three flights per week between the two countries.
The flight was welcomed with a water salute at Kinshasa Airport, while the Egyptian embassy organized a ceremony for Congolese officials. Hamdi Shaaban, Egypt's ambassador to the DRC, said that the new route reflects the importance that Egypt attaches to closer economic ties with African countries in general and the DRC in particular.
EgyptAir's network reaches about 70 direct destinations around the world, including 19 in Africa, and more than 40 others with code share flights.
Mohammed Soliman, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, told Al-Monitor that Egypt has lagged behind in commercial flights across Africa, which is why Cairo is trying to position itself as a gateway by opening new routes.
A day after the first DRC flight, Cairo inaugurated an air route with Djibouti. Sherif Issa, Egypt's assistant foreign minister for African affairs, arrived on the first flight on March 29.
Upon his arrival, Issa said that in addition to the new air route, Egypt is establishing a logistics zone at Djipouti’s port’s duty-free zone, and opening a new Banque Misr branch in Djibouti.
Aden Omar Abdallah, director of the Center for Studies and Scientific Research of Djibouti, told Al-Monitor that the new air route “reflects the Egyptian enthusiasm and determination in this new chapter in the two countries’ relations. ... All signs point to the consolidation of relations between the two countries.”
EgyptAir was founded in 1932 and is one of the oldest airlines in the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, it had a large presence in Africa, before losing ground to Ethiopian and South African airlines in the past decade. In 2018, Ethiopian Airlines became the leading African carrier.
Egypt has recently inaugurated new strategic partnerships with African countries. Within the past three years, Cairo also opened new air routes with Rwanda, Cameroon and Uganda. EgyptAir signed an agreement with Ghana to create a national airline in 2020 and inaugurated a maintenance center at the airport in Accra last month.
Former deputy foreign minister and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs Rakha Ahmed Hassan told Al-Monitor that the idea of operating direct flights to the member countries of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) dates back 20 years, and not only between capitals. However, he said, economic reasons had prevented the idea from being implemented in the past.
“This is why the recent opening of these routes is a very important step,” he said, noting that the African market is very promising, but lacks an air and ground network of routes and infrastructure.
Since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took office in 2014, Egypt has focused on recovering its role in Africa after years of neglect since former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak escaped an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995. Cairo has been working to improve its image in the African continent and strengthen its position over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
In the past week alone, Cairo hosted visits from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame; the leader of Sudan's October coup Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; Deputy Prime Minister of the DRC Eve Masudi; Angolan Foreign Minister Téte António; and Angola’s Minister of Youth and Sports Anna Paola.
“On the one hand, [Cairo] seeks to be an African political, economic, and security gateway to the rest of the continent," Soliman said, "and on the other hand, it presents itself as an emerging strategic player with a growing footprint in the security and intelligence sectors across the continent.”
Since 2015, the Egyptian government has been leading efforts to build the Cairo-Cape Town Road linking Egypt with 10 African countries. The 10,288-kilometer (6,390-mile) road would start in Benghazi, cross to Egypt through Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, ending in Cape Town. Phase 1 of the project was completed in 2021.
“One of the problems with Ethiopia is that we don’t have long-term trade relations and investments," Hassan said. "That's why it did not take into account our concerns in the GERD issue.”
But Egypt hopes that its current political presence in Africa will support its GERD position among African countries collectively, he said. Egypt and Sudan have been engaged in decade-long negotiations with Ethiopia over the GERD, which Egypt perceives as an existential threat to its national security.
Hassan indicated that Senegal, as the current AU chair, is key in breaking the GERD stalemate, and pointed out that Senegal went through the same experience in the late 1980s during a dispute over the Senegal River, which connects Senegal, Mauritania, Mali and Guinea, before they concluded agreements to solve the crisis.
Mediation attempts by the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia have not solved the GERD issue, Hassan said, but Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are waiting for Senegal to call for resuming negotiations.