Medical mask diplomacy: The hidden objectives of sending Egyptian aid abroad


At a time when Egyptian doctors and patients have complained about a lack of medical supplies to prevent the novel coronavirus, Egyptian aircraft loaded with aid and medical relief supplies landed in China, Italy, and Britain. Egypt has turned into a donor country sending aid here and there, in what has become known as “medical mask diplomacy.” The Egyptian media, loyal to the regime of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, praised the policy of distributing medical aid as humanitarian without mentioning the political dimensions behind these gifts which have been widely criticised on social media.

Generous aid

At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the Egyptian Minister of Health, Hala Zayed, under the direction of al-Sisi, visited Beijing to deliver a shipment of medical supplies (10 tons), as a message of solidarity with the Chinese people. Egypt also projected the Chinese flag onto Salah al-Din Castle (in Cairo), the temples of Karnak (in Luxor) and al-Feilah (in Aswan) as an expression of solidarity with the Chinese people in the face of coronavirus. After that, Hala Zayed made a similar visit to Italy, accompanied by a military delegation and two planes loaded with medical supplies, protective masks (one and a half million) and disinfectant.

A few days ago, the British Minister of State for Trade Policy, Greg Hands, announced that Egypt is preparing to send a huge shipment of protective supplies to Britain to help it face the outbreak of the corona epidemic. At the same time, Egyptian aid did not reach, for example, the besieged Gaza Strip on the Egyptian border, or neighbouring Arab or African countries that may be more in need than the rich European countries. Observers see this as evidence that al-Sisi’s aid was never humanitarian, but rather had political dimensions.

The ghost of Regeni

When the Egyptian aid plane landed in Rome airport earlier this month, memories of the murder of the Italian researcher, Giulio Regeni, were strongly present. Egyptian opponents asked whether the Egyptian aid was a political bribe to flirt with Rome to close the embarrassing case. The Italian authorities are demanding the Egyptian regime extradite five Egyptian officers suspected of involvement in the torture and killing of Regeni. And it advised Italian right-wing circles, close to the Egyptian regime, to take advantage of the crisis to improve relations in preparation for the closure of Regeni’s case. Mask diplomacy also gives the al-Sisi regime a favourable opportunity to close a €10 billion ($10.9 billion) arms deal, which requires the Italian Foreign Ministry’s approval. The pending deal includes combat planes, AgustaWestland AW149 helicopters, and two FREMM multi-mission frigates.

Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and the dispute over the Nile waters between Egypt and Ethiopia, were also present behind the scenes of Egyptian aid to Beijing, with Addis Ababa refusing to sign the American-sponsored agreement in February. Addis Ababa has said it is open to Chinese mediation, and its proposal revolves, according to diplomatic circles, on engaging China in the dam talks as a neutral, international observer, even though it has good relations with all parties to the crisis. Besides that, China will have a major role in building the dam. Egypt hopes Beijing will support its position on the rules for filling and operating the dam, and will support Cairo’s demands to participate in the operation of the dam in the future. Beijing has weight in Addis Ababa given its huge investments there, including Jepuba Chinese Company which is in charge of the steel structure of the dam, and Sinohydro Chinese Company responsible for assembling imported steel structures and building the dam’s hydroelectric units. In addition to the Chinese companies there is the Italian company, Salini Impregello, which is the main contractor in the dam project, which confirms that al-Sisi’s aid was more about achieving political goals than humanitarian ones. A few months ago, Egypt formally asked China, Italy, Germany, and France to stop the services provided by their companies in these countries but none of them responded.

Economic gains

China has been Egypt’s largest trade partner in recent years. Egypt fears that its efforts to obtain a $3 billion Chinese loan, which was aimed at financing the central business district in the new administrative capital, will falter. Chinese banks that finance the loan require the Egyptian government to reach certain conditions before agreeing to disburse the first tranche of it, $834 million. China also has a clear presence in giant projects implemented by the al-Sisi regime, the most important of which is the new administrative capital, the axis of the Suez Canal, and the new city of El Alamein. The Chinese AVIC International Holding Corporation oversees the work of the electric train project “Peace – the administrative capital – the tenth of Ramadan” with investments of $1.2 billion. And Egypt’s imports from China recorded a significant increase, increasing by about 22.6 per cent last year, to $6.5 billion, while Chinese imports from Egypt reached about $1.2 billion.

Public relations

Egyptian aid aircraft to China and European countries are also part of a public relations campaign aimed at portraying al-Sisi in a more human light in the face of European criticism of the Egyptian regime’s poor human rights record. This coincides with the continued detention of thousands of opponents on politically charged charges, despite human rights appeals for their release for fear of a coronavirus outbreak in their cramped, dirty cells, in addition to the continuation of enforced disappearances and torture, and the killing of civilians outside the framework of the law. Since his coming to power through a military coup in mid-2013, al-Sisi has sought to win the support of European and Western powers through arms deals and recently with masks and medical aid. Medical aid shipments that Egypt sends to wealthy European countries, while Egyptian hospitals suffer from severe shortages, can’t be considered as any more than a new way for the Egyptian regime to buy its political legitimacy, or to achieve its political goals.