Is Egypt the One Bright Spot in the Middle East?

Last month, the long-anticipated Egypt Economic Development Conference (EEDC) wrapped up in the resort city of Sharm el Sheikh with announcements of $38.2 billion in committed investments, part of a total of $92 billion in signed agreements and MoUs. The most ambitious new project announced at the conference, which is intended to become an annual event, was the creation of an entirely new capital city in Egypt to be located between Cairo and the Suez Canal.

The Capital City Project is a $45-billion, 7-year effort to create a city for 5 million people east of Cairo. While the project has its share of unnecessary excesses and vanity features typical of some of its Gulf benefactors – there are plans for an airport larger than Heathrow, 40,000 hotel rooms, a theme park three times the size of Disneyland, and a public park six times the size of Hyde Park – it is a grand, ambitious plan to ease overcrowding in Cairo and create a more efficient bureaucracy in Egypt. The project is being designed by SOM and is being built by Capital City Partners, an investment fund led by the Emirati developer Mohammed AlAbbar, who previously developed the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

A few of the more significant deals announced at the conference include:

  • A $12 billion exploration deal with BP, in addition to a $4 billion deal with BG and a $5 billion deal with BG Egypt, all to develop new gas fields
  • Emirati company Al Suwaidan is spending $6 billion on a grain logistics center and a retail and commercial development
  • Siemens signed a $10.5 billion electricity generation deal
  • GE signed three deals with the Egyptian government, including a $200 million investment in a new training centre, the construction of a Biomed Centre of Excellence, and the construction a 2.6 GW of wind turbine capacity

All told, the event, which was organized by Richard Attias , attracted 22 heads of state and over 3,500 delegates including the CEOs of major corporations like GE, BP, Unilever, and the China Investment Corporation. Attias hailed it as “the largest summit of CEOs and world leaders I’ve ever seen.”

In addition to the success of the Egypt Economic Conference and successful interviews with the most prominent Western media outlets, President Sisi has recently returned from Ethiopia where he signed an agreement to defuse bilateral tensions around Ethopia’s construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile. This underreported diplomatic victory makes a starkcontrast to his predecessor Morsi’s embarrassing mishandling of the Ethiopia dam project, which culminated in a meeting broadcast publicly on television during whichEgyptian political leaders spoke openly of invading Ethiopia, unaware that their comments were being broadcast.

The events of the last few months have marked a stunning reversal of global perceptions of the Sisi government. Whereas just a year and half ago Western governments were withholding aid and publicly criticizing the Sisi government, today they are lauding President Sisi’s reforms and inviting him to state visits. President Obama recently reversed a ban on military aid to Egypt. California Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher has even called on House Speaker Boehner to invite President Sisi to address a joint session of Congress. As the region descends further into chaos and violence – with the expansion of ISIS to Libya, Yemen, and the Sinai; civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya; the prospect of endless war in Israel and Palestine; and uncertainty around the status of Iranian nuclear negotiations – the West is beginning to appreciate the role a stable Egypt can play in the region. More importantly, the U.S. policy over the last twelve years of “promoting democracy” without regard for local cultural and political sensitivities, and of coddling political Islamists, has been definitively discredited. Conventional wisdom now clearly acknowledges that free and democratic societies can only emerge in the Middle East if people’s basic needs for physical security, political stability, and economic growth are met – essentially the same argument President Sisi has been making over the last year and a half. The West is rightly betting that President Sisi is the best and only hope for achieving these objectives in Egypt – and influencing the rest of the region to follow suit.

We can expect Western and Arab support for President Sisi’s government to continue to grow in the next few years as Egypt takes advantage of its newly regained prestige to play an increasingly active role in regional, and perhaps even global, politics. The Arab League security conference currently being held in Egypt and Egypt’s commitment of troops to an interventionist Arab force in Yemen are further indications that President Sisi is determined to restore Egypt’s position as the political leader of the Arab world. However, as relations with key African nations like Ethiopia continue to improve, we can expect President Sisi to parlay his newfound influence into advocating for an expanded role for Egypt in African and international politics – perhaps as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

Patrick Elyas, Egypt/USA


Patrick Elyas is a JD/MBA candidate in the Class of 2018 at the Wharton School and University of Pennsylvania Law School. Patrick, an Egyptian-American from Los Angeles, graduated from the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2012. His senior thesis, "No Longer Dhimmis: How European Intervention in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries Empowered Copts in Egypt" was published in the College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal. Patrick went on to spend two years working as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company in its Dubai office and one year in a secondment role as Chief of Staff of a U.S.-based education reform organization. Patrick has a deep interest in American and Egyptian politics and private sector development in the Middle East and Africa.

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