Egypt looks to boost African trade as it takes AU chair

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, Dec 9 - Egypt is promoting itself as a linchpin for intra-African trade and a model of economic reform as it prepares to chair the African Union in 2019.

The country hosted a high-level business forum on Saturday and Sunday in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that will be followed by an intra-African trade fair in the coming week in the capital, Cairo.

In a speech to the forum, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi encouraged investors from inside and outside Africa to take advantage of opportunities on the continent as countries including his own pursued economic reform.

As chair of the African Union, "we will seek with sincere effort to build on what has been achieved over the past years and to complete our continent's development agenda," Sisi told the forum, which was attended by heads of state from countries including Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Niger and Madagascar.

Egypt has been praised by international lenders for moving swiftly to implement structural reforms agreed with the IMF in late 2016, though austerity measures and inflation have left many Egyptians struggling to get by.

Egypt's economy grew by 5.3 percent in the 2017-18 fiscal year, the highest rate in a decade, and growth is forecast to surpass 5 percent again in 2018-19.

In off-the-cuff remarks, Sisi - who is known to demand ambitiously rapid execution of projects from his ministers - questioned whether African governments could enact change fast enough, recalling that he had insisted on completing an expansion of the Suez Canal in a single year when others had suggested three years or five.

Critics have criticized the canal expansion as a waste of money.

Intra-African trade is low, limited by problems including armed conflicts, political rivalry and a lack of logistical and transport connections between states.

Speakers voiced hope that the Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA), which aims to bring together all African Union states with a combined population of more than one billion into a single market, would be ratified by 22 countries and enter into force in 2019.

Egypt increased its investments in Africa by $1.2 billion to $10.2 billion in 2018, Sisi said.

The forum, which Egypt organized jointly with the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), was attended by more than 1,000 "leaders in business and policy from across Africa and the world," according to its website.

Few agreements were announced, though pan-African Liquid Telecom signed a $400 million outline deal with Telecom Egypt.

It is one of a number of high-profile events recently hosted by Sisi, including a Youth Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh last month and a major defense expo in Cairo earlier this week.

Some Egyptians question if such grandly-staged events are a good use of public money, though the forums in Sharm el-Sheikh have brought welcome bookings to a resort that has struggled to attract tourists in the wake of Egypt's 2011 uprising.