Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has come under heavy fire from Western critics who accuse him of returning to the autocracy endured under the its previous leader Mubarak who was deposed in 2011. El-Sisi’s latest outrage was his Presidential motorcade driving over miles of red carpet on a visit to a social housing project but this appears to be a minor offence compared to some of the mass imprisionments, unaccountable deaths and the extensive use of death sentences that his government have overseen.
The Cairo government may find US and European support wavering thanks to human rights abuses, but one government that can be relied on not to criticise Sisi is China, thanks to its “non-interference” foreign policy. It only took 2 months of Sisi’s presidency for him to visit Beijing where he announced that he would look to strengthen Sino-Egyptian ties, during the trip Chinese President Xi Jinping made a point of backing his Egyptian counterparty’s efforts to maintain stability (in other words crackdown on dissent).
Already the two countries have close economic ties, Egypt is China’s biggest trade partner, but this relationship is heavily in China’s favour. Egypt imports a variety of Chinese manufactured goods, textiles, machinery, electrical goods, all fairly standard for a developing country dealing with China. Egypt’s exports to China do not amount to much (only its 17th largest market), but include natural gas, glassware and marble. An optimist could argue that this gives Egypt the opportunity to ramp up its exports to China, but a pessimist might doubt that Egypt has much more to offer China in terms of produce.
Chinese investment has also rapidly increased in recent years with a variety of companies now operating in China. One project in particular the Suez Trade and Economic Zone promises to become a catalyst for growth and desperately needed jobs, the plan is to attract over new 100 Chinese companies to set up shop in the Suez Canal region creating a hub for manufacturing and trade all backed with Chinese funds. As so many Chinese firms are state owned Beijing can make this a reality regardless of the actual demand or business need. China has also promised to assist with the construction of a new Egyptian project new administrative capital. Cairo has become overly overcrowded and chaotic and the government want to move to a purpose built city in the mould of Brasilia, Islamabad or Canberra.
Underlying these fast growing economic ties is a new political dynamic, China is keen to promote its idea of Maritime Silk Road and extend its influence into the Arab World and Middle East. At the same time there is doubt Egypt can still rely on old allies like the US thanks to its human rights abuses or its Arab friends that Egypt has recieved so much funding from recently, now oil prices have dropped like a stone. So perhaps it is significant that the China Development Bank just announced a USD 1 billion financing arrangement with the Egyptian Central Bank. Could this be the start of Egypt moving away from its traditional allies and into Beijing’s orbit?