CAIRO: Last week Gamil Fayed became the newest addition to the Egyptian diplomatic corps when he presented his credentials to Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, in a run-of-the-mill ceremony in Harare, the capital.
In his new role, Fayed will oversee an embassy staff of only two. He represents Cairo to a country coming apart at the seams under the weight of widespread social unrest and an inflation rate of 13,000 percent a year. His position is hardly at the forefront of Egyptian diplomacy. But remarks he made after one of his first official meetings provoked uncomfortable back-tracking by superiors in Cairo and cast light on both Mugabe’s approach to the Arab world and Egypt’s attitude towards its African neighbors. After meeting with the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fayed made routine promises to provide Harare with agricultural advice, according to the Zimbabwean state-run daily The Herald.
But the quote picked up by the paper, and nervously criticized by Cairo, was far from a bland commitment to fertilizer sales.
“I would like to express my government s support to Zimbabwe s land reform and mechanization programs, the paper quoted Fayed as saying.
Land reform in southern Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, is a touchy subject.
During the era of white minority rule in Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia, the white elite comprised one percent of the population but owned 70 percent of the country’s arable land.
After the end of minority rule in 1980, the new government began to commandeer many of the large agricultural estates owned by the white elite.
In theory, the reform program would alleviate poverty by dividing up the land among poor blacks, while the white farmers were to be given fair compensation.
But in practice, say critics, the Mugabe regime carried out the policy thuggishly.
They say much of the land was turned over to political allies with no experience or intention of farming it, creating an economic and humanitarian catastrophe.
In addition, they accuse the state of unleashing a campaign of violence to intimidate both the small white population and the president’s political opponents, whatever their race.
Before Mugabe came to power, the country was a net exporter of foodstuffs and seen as a bread basket of Africa.
Now, more than two decades after land reform began, Zimbabwe is in a shambles. It is racked by quintuple-digit inflation and more than 45 percent of the country is malnourished. It has been heavily sanctioned by western governments, and Mugabe himself is one of world politics’ personae-non-grata.
After Fayed’s statements in Harare, representatives of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted with nervous bewilderment. Speaking to a foreign reporter, one expressed a sense that Ambassador Fayed made a rookie mistake and was not reading from the right page in Cairo’s playbook.
“This man is really dreaming, said a senior official in the Ministry’s Division of African Affairs, who did not want to go on record criticizing a colleague. “These are explosive comments. This is just not what our relationship with Zimbabwe is about.
According to the diplomat, Egypt’s main interaction with Zimbabwe is to occasionally provide it with technical advice or humanitarian assistance through the Egyptian Fund for Technological Cooperation with Africa. Every year the Fund sends a handful of physicians and engineers to the country. “There is no agreement between Egypt and Zimbabwe when it comes to land reform – not at all, he told Daily News Egypt. “I think Fayed was just making up the speech as he went along. This is just humorous, it is completely invented, that we agree with them on this or would even consider agreeing with them.
“Even in informal meetings we have with the Zimbabweans, we don’t even bring up land reform. It is a very sensitive issue with them. We think it is an internal Zimbabwean issue and we don’t have any official position on it.
While the official was careful to point out that Cairo considers Mugabe’s land reform policies to be an internal affair, he was also emphatic that Egypt’s experience of land reform bore no resemblance to the controversial and bloody Zimbabwean model.
“Our land reform in the 1960s under Nasser was completely different than what they are doing there, he emphasized. “Completely different.
Cairo’s presence in Southern Africa is also felt through its investments in the telecom sector, where Egyptian giant Orascom has competed against local firms for a share in the regional mobile phone market. Until earlier this year, it had met some success in Zimbabwe. Orascom was a 60 percent owner of local firm Telecel Zimbabwe, with the other 40 percent of the funds invested by a local group of shareholders called the Empowerment Group of Zimbabwe.
But in August the Mugabe regime revoked Telecel’s license, and accused Orascom of not doing enough to attract more Zimbabwean investors. Egyptian diplomats are quick to write off the dispute as a misunderstanding.
Observers of the relationship between Cairo and Harare say that it is not just limited to aid missions and investment deals.
Simon Myambo, a former professor of development studies at Belvedere Teacher’s College in Harare, expresses surprise at the offer of development assistance from Cairo.
But he suggests that business deals and aid offers like these are backed up by a personal relationship between the two countries’ presidents.
Because of the sanctions imposed on his country by Europe and America, western multinationals cannot invest in Zimbabwe and Mugabe cannot travel there. In response, he tries to attract support and investment from China and the Islamic world under his regime’s “Look East policy.
“Mugabe always stops here to visit on his way to summits at the UN or to visit investors or friends in places like Malaysia or China, says Myambo. “When he comes here he always stays for a few days. He has already been here about five or six times this year.
According to Myambo, “Look East deserves credit for the Orascom deal as well as Mugabe’s recent success in attracting major investments from Qatar-based Venessia Petroleum.
Earlier this month, the Gulf firm announced plans to build a 120,000 barrel-per-day refinery in Harare, at a cost of $1.5 billion. In addition, its sister company will build a five-star hotel in downtown Harare.
“Mugabe has been trying to woo the entire Middle East, because he can’t go to Europe anymore, explains Myambo. “It is all part of his ‘Look East’ policy, which includes Egypt as one of the strongest countries in the Middle East.
But if Mugabe is looking east, officials at the Egyptian Foreign Ministry insist that Cairo is also looking south.
They insist that the ruined investments, small humanitarian missions and bungled speeches that are the hallmark of the ties between Cairo and Harare do not do justice to Egypt’s role in Africa at large.
According to them, Egypt is a natural leader on the continent.
They say it has played an important historical role in bringing civilization and freedom from colonialism to its southern neighbors, and point to investments and aid work in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Nigeria as evidence of that. “Egypt is a leader in Africa, said the official in the Ministry’s Division of African Affairs, who spoke to Daily News Egypt on condition of anonymity.
“We are a pioneer in everything, he said. “We are one of the most important countries, and one of the biggest economies, on the continent. We helped the entire African continent gain independence, and we have always been eager to help them develop and to provide humanitarian aid when disasters happen.
“In terms of civilization and culture Egypt has been a pioneer, he added. “Egyptian civilization is 7,000 years old. Most African countries are new and are not deeply rooted like Egypt. We were here when there was no one else