Belt and Road Initiative in Egypt
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a development strategy and framework, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping, that focuses on connectivity and cooperation. The BRI started in 2013 and is open to countries across the world and seeks to improve global infrastructure, interconnectivity, and trade.
Egypt and China have a long history of cooperation - in 2021 the two countries celebrated 65 years of diplomatic relations. These relations have only increased over the past decade as Egypt decided to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2013, making it one of the first countries to do so. The BRI has led to the growth of Egypts infrastructure, agriculture, energy production, and much more.
A light rail train heads for Egypt's new administrative capital to the east of Cairo, Egypt. [Photo/Xinhua]
Egypt has had numerous deadly train crashes over the past decade - which is one of many factors that led the country to look to China for support upgrading their infrastructure after seeing what China has done in other countries - for example, Argentina and Kenya. One of the many results of China-Egypt rail cooperation is the Cairo light rail transit (LRT) system - the first of its kind in Egypt. The LRT project cost $1.24 billion and had its first trial run on July 3, 2022. When fully operational, its 22 trains will serve almost 400,000 passengers every day across 12 stations.
A common accusation made against China’s BRI, and other investments, is that they are “debt traps” - that African countries are being forced into deals that end up hurting them. In reality, the opposite is true. China simply offers some of the best experience in the world at the lowest costs, with a track record of being generous with loan freezes or even cancellations.
"Unlike European countries, China does not decide the companies that will carry out the projects. It also provides finance through generous loans from Chinese banks. China is more preferable than other European countries to develop Egypt's railroad infrastructure since China offers both expertise and finance for development projects and the costs are usually lower."
- Mohammed Shehata, Head of Egyptian Transport Association
There are numerous benefits - lessening the occurrence of deadly train crashes, easing traffic by 30% on the Cairo-Ismailia highway, saving Egypt about $130 million annually, increasing access and connectivity between more areas, as well as creating jobs. As with most BRI projects, China does not send in hundreds of Chinese to run the project. Thousands of jobs and careers become available to local Egyptians with Chinese support - both in construction and operation.
“Apart from easing the regional traffic situation, the light rail project will also create new jobs for Egypt and promote the local construction industry… Chinese companies will offer technology and equipment, while local companies will be responsible for the construction.”
- Han Bing, minister counselor for economic affairs with the Chinese embassy in Egypt
As a global leader in clean energy, the Belt and Road Initiative is no different - building hydroelectric dams and solar plants across the world. In Egypt specifically, the BRI has contributed to Egypts Benban Solar Energy Park - the largest solar power plant in the world. In totality, the Park has 32 solar power plants - three of which China helped build. The entire plant has the goal of bringing Egypts renewable energy usage to 22%, creating thousands of jobs both during construction and in operation, and reducing greenhouse emissions of carbon dioxide by more than half a million tons annually. In comparison, the United States, the world’s leading polluter, uses only between 12-20% renewable energy.
Egypt is located just north of one of the best areas in the world for solar power generation. When we compare Egypt to the United States in regard to clean energy, we notice that almost the entire southwest US is in the “excellent” or “very good” category for solar. However, the massive car dependent infrastructure and huge pockets of oil companies leaves the country, in a sense, addicted to oil, and the renewable energy sector in the most imperialistic and wealthiest country in the world considerably lacking.
Solar Radiation Data for the State of Jalisco and Guadalajara Metropolitan Zone, Mexico - ResearchGate
As Thomas Sankara noted and experienced in Burkina Faso, imperialism can come in the form of food aid. Food aid alone without support to build the actual productive forces in a country can cause reliance on that food aid, and then the country supplying the aid gains leverage to make demands or requests.
"Imperialism is a system of exploitation that occurs not only in the brutal form of those who come with guns to conquer territory. Imperialism often occurs in more subtle forms, a loan, food aid, blackmail. We are fighting this system."
- Thomas Sankara
What China is doing is not imperialism - instead, Egypt’s food infrastructure is being improved due to cooperation between the two countries. There are two main agricultural projects:
First, the Chinese feed company, New Hope
New Hope has four feed facilities and one poultry farming facility in Egypt. The feed is used by local farmers to feed their poultry, is imported from China, and brings improved efficiency and lower costs - less of it is needed than before. But not only is it cheaper and more efficient, it is also of better quality.
“The poultry feed produced by New Hope company is popular among local farmers because of its good quality,”
- Ibrahim Hassan, a driver
And again, similar to the previous rail and energy projects, these feed companies provide many jobs to Egyptians - about 800 - under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
"We closely follow the steps of the BRI, supported by more than 40 years of expertise of our Chinese technical teams and using leading production technologies to process high-quality feed, which has played a role in the development of Egypt's agriculture and animal husbandry industry … many Egyptians have gained better lives and career paths through working for the Chinese firm.”
- Shao Wen, head of New Hope Egypt Area
One of the many Egyptians that works at New Hope is Mohamed Ramadan. He joined New Hope Egypt 10 years ago and has moved up to now being the deputy manager of the company's production department.
"When I first joined New Hope, I was a warehouse manager. Through receiving training and continuous learning at the company, I gradually mastered the advanced feed production technology and eventually became a member of the company's management in Egypt," he said, noting that the company has nearly 200 employees and more than 90 percent of them are Egyptians.
Second, a massive irrigation undertaking for a sugar beet farm
Workers of China's ZPEC drill a well for a beet plantation in the desert of Minya Province, Egypt, on Nov. 12, 2018. (ZPEC/Handout via Xinhua)
Coming as no surprise to anyone, about 96% of Egypt is desert. Such vast areas of desert lead to countless problems when creating farms, which the Canal Sugar project ran into. The project is between Egypt and the UAE, with the intent of turning 50,000 hectares of desert into farmland for sugar beets. China comes into the equation because turning desert into farmland requires irrigation - and they looked to the Zhongman Petroleum and Natural Gas Group Corp (ZPEC) for support. China leads the world in turning vast desert landscapes into arable greenery and forest.
What started out as a complete desert is now a thriving sugar beet farm thanks to the help of ZPEC. Over 150 water wells have already been drilled and around another 150 are planned. Once all the wells are operational, the project is expected to produce about 2 million tons of sugar beets per year. For comparison, Egypt uses about 3.3 million tons of sugar every year, so this facility would be able to provide around 10% of the entire country's needs (sugar beets contain about 15% sugar).
"The place was just a desert when we started this project in 2018, but now it turns into a farmland irrigated by the wells we drilled and planted with beet, alfalfa and barley, which makes us feel proud… the project goes in line with both the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative, which seeks win-win cooperation among participants, and Egypt's plan to turn deserts into farmlands."
- Zhou Guiqiang, toolpusher of the Zhongman Petroleum and Natural Gas Group Corp branch in Egypt.
China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone
All of the previous projects are massive undertakings and largely beneficial, but the actual flagship project is the China-Egypt Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone (TEDA SCZone). Egypt operates and maintains the Suez canal, this is a further development of the canal area to increase business, industry, job availability, and more.
In 2016, Chinese president Xi Jinping said that the park was planned to “bring over 100 textile, garment, oil equipment, motorcycle and solar energy companies to Egypt, and create more than 10,000 local jobs.” The actual impact has been even larger - creating 3,500 jobs directly and another 30,000 across the country due to industrial and manufacturing opportunities growing. Egypt and China turned what was a desert into an industrial park that now makes construction materials and various types of equipment and machinery - which serve a dual purpose of boosting the economy as well as the industrial capabilities of industries across the country and continent.
Location of the Suez Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone as well as transportation connections - TEDA SUEZ
One of the many companies in the TEDA SCZone is China Jushi Co., which produces fiberglass. Producing fiberglass is not just an everyday occurrence in Egypt, or even in Africa. In fact, Jushi Co. in the TEDA SCZone is the ONLY production base of fiberglass in Africa, making fiberglass much more readily available not only to Egypt, but to all of Africa, and the world due to the close proximity of the Suez Canal for ease of shipping.
To reiterate just how many jobs are created by these projects for Egyptians in this situation, but also in every country that the BRI is involved in, below are two more quotes from workers in the area:
"We only have 25 Chinese workers, and the remaining 350 staff members are all Egyptian," said Wang Shaijian, vice president of the Egyptian branch office of China Hengshi Foundation Co., Ltd. specialized in manufacturing fiberglass fabrics.
"The Egyptian staff can become executives. The promotion channels are equally provided for us, … [I have] received various trainings and traveled a lot to China."
Said Nahla Emad, now CEO of Egypt-TEDA SCZone.
All of the developments above in rail, energy, agriculture, and industry are not even all of the benefits that Egypt has seen since joining the BRI in 2013. China has supported Egypt in it’s fight against COVID (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), planned training for Egyptian students through Huawei, funded a satellite project and an online learning platform, built a phosphoric acid plant, built multiple skyscrapers in Egypt’s new administrative capital (1, 2, 3), and much more. As one of the first countries to join the BRI, Egypt has seen a vast amount of improvements across so many different areas, benefits that raise the workers up through new careers and benefits that also raise Egypt through industrial improvements. Above all, the support of China in countries around the world gives them an opportunity to not be reliant on the West, on the IMF, and the United States. Most recently, Egypt’s Parliament endorsed a pact to join the BRICS bank on Feb 1st, 2023. China is offering an alternative to global imperialism and exploitation, and more and more countries are taking notice.
"Egypt's joining of the BRICS group's New Development Bank will also relieve the state budget of the pressure of finding US dollars to meet the country's imports as members of the bank can use their national currencies in exchange for trade”
- Abdel-Hamid, Deputy chairman of Egyptian Parliament’s economic committee