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Why Oppressive Egypt Leader El-Sisi is a Big Dilemma for Kishida

President El-Sisi of Egypt regards himself as "great friends" with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But he also sells fuel to Japan.



Prime Minister Kishida is visiting the Grand Egyptian Museum. Pyramids are in the background. April 30, at Giza near Cairo, Egypt (© Kyodo)

Given the illiberal nature of the regime in Egypt, why did Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida choose to visit the country at the start of Golden Week?

Furthermore, why did he smile for the cameras as he shook hands with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi? This is a leader who took power in a 2013 coup while serving as armed forces commander. And he has been elected only through unfair, non-competitive contests.

The official readout from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave the impression that the two leaders got on well. 

However, I was disappointed that Mr Kishida apparently turned a blind eye to El-Sisi's disregard for democracy and his regime's poor record on human rights.

Unrelenting Repression 

A recent report by Human Rights Watch noted that President El-Sisi's government "continued down its well-trod path of unrelenting repression."

The organization highlighted the fact that women and girls from Egypt are often arrested for posting videos and photos of themselves on social media sites, such as TikTok. 

"Instead of tackling pervasive domestic violence, sexual harassment, and [sexual] violence, Egyptian authorities appear intent on reinforcing societal discrimination by persecuting women and girls for how they appear online or what they say." This is according to Rothna Begum, a senior women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Kishida apparently "expressed his pleasure at seeing strong and multi-layered friendly relations between Japan and Egypt.''

There was nothing in the statement from Japan's Foreign Ministry to suggest that Mr Kishida had challenged his host on any controversial issues. Did he not realize the increasingly authoritarian manner in which El-Sisi governs?

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi holds a joint press conference on April 30. (© The Arab Republic of Egypt Presidency)

American Caution

The United States State Department is keeping the Egyptian leader at arm's length. He was among 49 African leaders who attended the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington last year. While there, he also held a one-to-one meeting with US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken.

But when Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen toured Africa in February 2023, Egypt was left off her itinerary. This was despite her claim that the Joe Biden administration is "all in on Africa and all in with Africa."

Freedom House, a Washington-based group that works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, also commented. It says that in Egypt, "meaningful political opposition is virtually nonexistent." Moreover, it says, civil liberties — including press freedom and freedom of assembly — are tightly restricted. And it claims that discrimination against women, LGBT+ people, and other groups are serious problems.

President Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Riyadh on December 8, 2022. (© Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the People's Republic of China)

El-Sisi Loves Xi Jinping

I expect that Prime Minister Kishida believes that by developing "multi-layered friendly relations" with Egypt, Japan can help maintain a geopolitical balance.

However, I take the view that even though Japan, as president of the G7, is committed to promoting liberal values, there is not much it can do to coax Egypt out of the clutches of its largest trade partner, China.

To put it bluntly, President El-Sisi loves Xi Jinping. When the two leaders met in Saudi Arabia in 2022, El-Sisi praised the "strong leadership" of the Communist Party.

He said that Egypt is "glad to have a great friend like China and looks forward to further enhancing Egypt-China comprehensive strategic partnership and promoting bilateral cooperation," according to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 

The friendship is transactional.

China has spent huge sums building infrastructure in Egypt. In return, it expects to be supplied with a precious resource: fuel. 

Egyptian exports to China reached $1.7 billion USD in 2022. That is up 20% on the year before (2021). Egypt also sells petroleum to Japan, although much less than it does to China.

Chinese money is funding a new administrative capital in Egypt, a pet project of President El-Sisi. Pyramids and museums are popular with Chinese tourists.

President El-Sisi receives no lectures from Xi Jinping on human rights issues or the nature of his government. Neither does Vladimir Putin, of course, as Russian exports of fuel to China continue to increase. 

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (second from left) visited the Grand Egyptian Museum under construction on April 30, during his stay in Egypt. Japan is providing Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the construction of the museum. At Giza near Cairo, Egypt. (© Kyodo)

Kishida's Brief Visit

During his brief visit to Cairo, Prime Minister Kishida said Japanese companies and sogo shosha trading groups could help ensure a stable food supply for Egypt's citizens and increase the productivity of its farms. These are laudable aims. 

Mr Kishida also expressed Japan's intention to extend loans to Egypt in Japanese yen. Again, this is no bad thing. Especially given that Egypt said in 2022 that it was considering issuing bonds in China's currency, the yuan. That plan has yet to come to fruition, however.

So no one is calling for a boycott of Egypt. And from a humanitarian perspective, Japan's goals are understandable. 

Egypt is not a rich country. Around 30% of the population lives below the poverty line. And 4.5% live in extreme poverty, according to Lloyds Bank.

However, in my view, the Japanese government should exercise extreme caution when dealing with a repressive leader like El-Sisi. In helping Egypt, Japan may — by default — be assisting China to fulfill its ambition. That is, China is clearly out to increase its power and influence.

Prime Minister Kishida (back left) delivers a speech at a business forum attended by business people from Japan and Egypt. On April 30, in Cairo. (© Kyodo)

Learning Opportunity

I hope that Mr Kishida's short visit to Egypt served as a useful learning experience. He is now able to better understand the situation in North Africa, before continuing on to the sub-Saharan part of the continent. In that region, he will visit three other nations — Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique.

There will be thorny political issues to deal with in those countries, too. But given Egypt's large economy — and its role as one of Japan's key suppliers of fuel — this is without doubt one of the most important relationships in the region. And one of the most difficult.


Author: Duncan Bartlett, Diplomatic Correspondent

Duncan Bartlett is the Diplomatic Correspondent for JAPAN Forward and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute. Read his other articles and essays.

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