SOCIETY spoke with H.E. Mohamed Hamdy Mohamed ElMolla, Ambassador of Egypt to Austria, about the transformation of his country into an era of prosperity and stability.
In September 2020, your term as Ambassador of Egypt to Austria and Permanent Representative of Egypt to the UN and other International Organizations started – how would you summarize the first months as Ambassador and which goals did you set yourself for the rest of your term?
I would describe my term thus far as both challenging and fruitful. I must admit that the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have added a layer of complexity to my mission representing my country in Vienna, especially concerning direct communication with my colleagues and counterparts in person. Nevertheless, these past few months have demonstrated the importance of both bilateral and multilateral cooperation as we carry out our collective duty to further not only our national interests but also the interests of the international community at large.
On the other hand, I also consider these first months to be rewarding, as Egypt witnessed significant successes through its engagement with International Organizations in Vienna, whether in terms of its election as President of the Bureau of the Conference of the UN Treaty on Corruption (UNTOC), Vice President of the Board of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and Vice Chair of the Committee on Cybercrime or its selection to host the 9th Conference of States Parties of the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which is the largest international assembly on corruption worldwide.
As for the rest of my term here, I aspire to further strengthen the bonds of friendship and cooperation between Egypt and Austria, continue to serve the collective interests of the international community through multilateral concerted efforts and work to encourage trade and investment between Egypt and Austria, especially considering the vast untapped potential that lies in both our countries.
What is – in your opinion – the essence of Austrian-Egyptian relations? What are the common intersections of both countries and in which areas could the ties be further boosted?
I would posit that the essence of Austrian-Egyptian relations is premised upon mutual respect and understanding between our two nations, which have a rich history and a deep-seated appreciation of culture, progress and innovation. This applies today just as it has throughout the history of the longstanding relations between them, which date back to the early 18th century and included political, economic and cultural relations. Egypt was also one of the main economic partners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Middle East. In fact, trade relations were so important between the two that a direct shipping line was established between the city of Trieste and Alexandria, with Egypt being nicknamed as the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s “Door to the East” at the time. The Austro-Hungarian Empire also established multiple trading houses in Egypt that lasted well into the 20th century and – on its part – Cairo sent scientific and cultural expeditions to Vienna on a regular basis.
Even today, both nations are bound by multiple intersections in terms of their policies and principles as well as bilateral economic and cultural cooperation. First and foremost, Egypt and Austria are joined by their unwavering commitment to dialogue and multilateralism; the latter of which has manifested itself most prominently in each hosting major international and regional organizations; with Vienna hosting one of three UN offices worldwide, while Cairo hosts the headquarters of the League of Arab States, whose foundation predates the UN itself, as well as over 15 regional offices of UN agencies.
The essence of Austrian-Egyptian relations is premised upon mutual respect and understanding between our two nations, which have a rich history and a deep-seated appreciation of culture, progress and innovation.
Furthermore, the economies of both countries rely on services to a considerable degree, with tourism being a prominent common denominator in this regard. Hence, it comes as no surprise that there are multiple avenues of cooperation between Egypt and Austria with regards to tourism and culture. The most recent of which is the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra performing in the inaugural ceremony of the Opera house of the New Administrative Capital. An additionally interesting intersection pertains to the attachment of the two nations to their own rivers, as both the Danube & the Nile function as lifelines of Austria and Egypt respectively.
Accordingly, we believe that there is considerable potential for cooperation in this area, considering the abundance of Austrian expertise in green technology, water resource utilization and management, a field that becomes increasingly important as the world witnesses the palpable impact of climate change.
Trade and investment are also key areas where relations between Egypt and Austria could be further boosted. Currently, the trade balance between the two tilts towards Austria. While Egypt remains by far one of the most important export markets for Austrian goods in Africa, there are several steps that should be taken to increase Egyptian exports to Austria and Austrian investments in Egypt. In this regard, both can build upon the existing foundations, given that there are over 179 well-established Austrian companies already in Egypt. In light of this, the Egyptian Embassy in Vienna has been affording due attention to promoting bilateral trade and investment relations. Most recently, the Embassy participated in an economic forum organized by the Austro-Arab Chamber of Commerce, where Egypt featured exclusively this year as the guest of honour.
Egypt was one of the few emerging market countries that experienced a positive growth rate in 2020 – due to which factors could the economy – compared to so many other economies worldwide – show resilience in the face of the pandemic?
This rather important question ties into my previous point regarding the vast potential that lies within the Egyptian economy. Indeed, the latest indicators reveal that our economy has been among a few worldwide experiencing a positive economic growth rate during the COVID-19 pandemic, averaging at 3.3% in 2020. Egypt consistently ranks among the very top performing MENA economies, attracting investors with its stability and lucrative opportunities across the board, which is why it maintained its position as the largest recipient of foreign direct investment in Africa in 2020 according to the UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD).
This success owes to two main reasons. The first pertains to the recent macroeconomic and structural reforms that have stabilized Egypt’s economy, allowing it to enter the global COVID-19 crisis with improving fiscal & external accounts.
The second pertains to Egypt’s successful adaptation of its investment strategy to the changes caused by the pandemic by focusing investments on sectors with the advantage of flexibility and ability to recover quickly. These included information technology, agricultural, industrial, logistical and financial sectors, complemented by investments into innovative and green economic sectors. Egypt had also been striving to digitize its economy and encourage integration of technological solutions, which ultimately meant remote working became easier during the pandemic.
Most importantly, Egypt had prioritized tackling unemployment, the rate of which previously averaged at 12.7% but dropped to a 20-year-low of 7.5% in 2019 due to economic reforms. This rate remained low even during the second half of 2020 due to the gradual resumption of economic activity, and the continuation of megaprojects throughout the crisis.
To quickly manage the COVID-19 crisis, the government also issued an emergency economic package worth 1.7% of its GDP, provided forbearance measures as well as exceptional monetary grants to irregular workers and expanded its social security network.
Consequently, the fiscal, monetary and sectoral reforms of recent years, the rapid emergency measures undertaken and revolutionary digitization efforts have helped Egypt weather the storm exceedingly well. As this storm begins to subside, the Egyptian Government intends to inaugurate a new era of economic growth and is determined to propel its economy – which is projected to be among the top 5 growth markets – to unprecedented heights.
There are a number of big projects being realized in Egypt at the moment, amongst them the Grand Egyptian Museum and the New Administrative Capital, around 45 km east of Cairo. Which goals are being pursued with these initiatives?
These monumental projects are all part of the Egyptian Government’s grand strategy to achieve progress, prosperity and sustainable development; they attest to the vibrancy, ambition and the vast potential that lies within Egypt. Accordingly, they should be perceived within the broader context that Egypt is striving towards to achieve growth and sustainable development, the latter of which has been clearly outlined in Egypt’s Vision 2030.
From this standpoint, I would like to classify the aforementioned projects into two distinct categories, the first of which includes infrastructural megaprojects, which are intended to stimulate economic growth, contribute to job creation and provide a sustainable source of revenue for Egyptians. These include establishing new industrial zones, expanding the construction of new cities, including Egypt’s New Administrative Capital, which is set to accommodate 5 million people (more than double that of Vienna) as well as the opening of the new Suez Canal in 2015, while transforming the surrounding area to a global logistical center.
Concurrently, Egypt has added 14,400 megawatts to its national grid (45% increase) in a span of 5 years, while working to establish a nuclear power station with a total output of 4,800 megawatts, in addition to numerous solar and wind-powered clean energy projects, the latter includes establishing the largest solar power plant in the world in Benban, Aswan.
In terms of providing sustenance, Egypt created over 5,750 fish farms and built 7,500 greenhouses to increase local production of vegetables, while aiming to cultivate 4 million additional acres of land.
Egypt also boasts a tremendous story of transformation into a regional energy hub driven by rapid growth in its natural gas supplies, which were catalysed by the discovery of the Zohr marine natural gas field, the Mediterranean’s largest field, turning Egypt from a net importer to exporter in late 2018.
As for tourism, it is noteworthy that Egypt is establishing a panoply of new cutting-edge museums, with the most prominent examples being the recently inaugurated Museum of Egyptian Civilization and the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), which is set to be the largest museum in the world dedicated to a single civilization. The legendary Sphinx Avenue in the city of Luxor has also been entirely revamped and was inaugurated in November this year.
The second category of megaprojects focuses exclusively on bettering the lives of our citizens as part of Egypt’s Vision 2030, which includes a number of concrete macroeconomic goals, namely aiming to raise the nation’s annual GDP growth rate to 12% and boosting its GDP per capita. Egypt’s vision adopts a comprehensive social security net and a broad approach to social spending to support those in need. The most prominent program in this regard is the “Takaful & Karama” Program which supports underprivileged households with children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. The program currently covers 3.6 million households (around 14 million citizens), with women constituting more than 85% of its beneficiaries. The Egyptian Government is also well on its way to pay off the debts of all indebted incarcerated women in the country.
In terms of health, Egypt has launched “Health for 100-Million”, a nation-wide campaign for the early detection of non-communicable diseases that encourages citizens to undergo regular check-ups. Most incredibly, the Government has just concluded a 5-year long campaign that provided free medication for “Hepatitis C”, thereby entirely eradicating a disease which has plagued our country for decades and led to an innumerable loss in lives.
Last but not least, among its most important goals, Egypt has successfully completed 60% of its plan to provide adequate housing to those in the lower income bracket (over 1 million units).
In sum, we are determined to ensure that the revolutionary transformation Egypt is undertaking across all sectors will usher in a new era of inclusive prosperity, stability and progress, not only for our beloved ancient Nation but for the entirety of the Middle East as well.