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Continental ambitions
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 05 - 2019

The African Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) — the largest free trade bloc in the world — has at last become a reality.
“The African continent has taken a giant step towards prosperity and sustainable development as 22 countries, including Egypt, ratify the AfCFTA agreement,” read a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry early this week.
African countries will celebrate the initiation of AfCFTA at the next AU summit scheduled for July in Niger, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said at celebrations marking Africa Day.
It is a very important step that will have positive results if African states work to implement it, Rakha Hassan, a member of the Council for Foreign Affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“Free trade among African states is likely to face challenges. Initially some states may suffer problems, and others will be negatively affected by the increased competition but with time and perseverance all countries will reap the benefits,” he said,
All Africa's 55 countries — with the exception of Benin, Eritrea and Nigeria — have signed up to the agreement, creating a free trade area of more than a billion people and a collective GDP of over $2 trillion. That figure will rise to 1.2 billion people and $2.3 trillion in GDP if the last three countries join.
The AfCFTA has been a key project of the African Union since its Agenda 2063 was declared in 2013.
The AfCFTA was agreed by 44 nations in March 2018, though it required 22 countries to officially ratify the agreement to come into effect. The quorum was achieved in April this year after Gambia, Sierra Leone and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic ratified the agreement.
The AfCFTA requires signatories to drop 90 per cent of tariffs on imports from other African states. The move is expected to boost intra-African trade by more than 50 per cent. Remaining tariffs will be dropped in stages, over a 10-year period. In a tariff-free environment intra-African trade is expected to double.
Just 17 per cent of African countries' exports currently go to other African countries, in comparison with intra-regional trade levels of 59 per cent in Asia and 69 per cent in Europe.
The trade agreement is also expected to create a wide diversity of jobs, from services to manufacturing.
Among the obstacles the agreement is likely to face, says Hassan, is the difficulty some African states face in converting their currency. Communication and transport networks are also likely to prove a hurdle in some areas.
“A railway line from Cairo to Cape Town has been the dream of many African states. But not a single step has been taken to start this ambitious project,” points out Hassan.
Hassan also questions whether states like India, China and others in Southeast Asia, which have decade-long trade relationships with African states, “will accept the changes smoothly or engage in cut-throat competition”.
The fast tracking of is the latest achievement on the African front since Egypt assumed the chairmanship of the African Union (AU) in February.
This week saw the celebration of Africa Day, and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered a speech hailing the progress that the AU orchestrated in terms of African integration and cooperation.
The AU's founding fathers, he said, planted the seeds of African unity and cooperation. We are now reaping the fruits of their efforts as the continent moves towards achieving sustained development.
“In order to realise our goals we must harness the abilities of the private sector and of African governments to encourage participation in building and improving the continent's infrastructure,” Al Sisi said.
Egypt commemorated Africa Day in a variety of ways.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri held a meeting with African ambassadors to Egypt during which he highlighted Cairo's determination to improve Africa's mechanisms to combat security, political and economic challenges during its one-year chairmanship of the AU, according to Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez.
The meeting was followed by Iftar and the Foreign Ministry's Cairo headquarters illuminated with the word “AFRICA”.
The Egyptian Embassy in Paris organised a special visit for French-based African diplomats to the “Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” exhibition which is running in Paris until mid-September.
Egypt's ambassador to France used the opportunity to brief attendees on Cairo's priorities during its chairmanship of the AU.
Meanwhile, Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs Hamdi Sanad Loza last week chaired a meeting of the Permanent Committee for Cooperation with Africa. Attended by representatives from the ministries of interior, investment, international cooperation, electricity, trade and industry and water resources, the meeting followed up on efforts to enhance Egypt's presence in Africa and its cooperation with African states.
The possibility of opening four new African routes for EgyptAir was discussed in the context of encouraging investment and tourism.
In the course of a series of top-level visits with African states,
Early this month Loza visited Mogadishu as of part of a tour of the Horn of Africa which also included Kenya.
In April President Al-Sisi discussed cooperation with his Chadian counterpart Idriss Deby during the latter's visit to Cairo. Al-Sisi hailed the close ties between the two countries and underlined Egypt's interest in building on existing cooperation with Chad, especially in the field of capacity building, particularly in the healthcare sector.
During the talks, Deby stressed the need to promote stability and development across the continent during Egypt's presidency of the AU.
Early in April Al-Sisi visited Senegal, Cote d'Ivoire and Guinea.

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