Cairo government joins Beijing's moon project and launches satellite to safeguard its borders and spy on what's happening in Gaza

Egypt's President Al-Sisi throws himself into the hands of Xi Jinping's China

El jefe de la Administración Nacional del Espacio de China (CNSA), Zhang Kejian y el director de la Agencia Espacial de Egipto (EgSA), profesor Sherif Sedky, muestran el documento de adhesión del país árabe al proyecto ILRS - PHOTO/CNSA
China National Space Administration (CNSA) head Zhang Kejian and Egypt Space Agency (EgSA) director Professor Sherif Sedky show the Arab country's accession document to the ILRS project - PHOTO/CNSA

Egypt's president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has given the go-ahead for the land of his ancestors' pyramids to establish a strong alliance with Xi Jinping's China's technology and for the two millennia-old nations to go hand in hand in future space affairs. 

  1. An institution for manufacturing and testing
  2. Observing what is happening in Gaza

Egypt has renewed and expanded its agreement on cooperation and peaceful use of outer space with China. It has also become the first Arab country and the second on the African continent - after South Africa - to join the Beijing-Moscow bilateral project to establish an International Lunar Research Station (ILRS). 

The strengthening of space cooperation between the North African country and the Asian superpower comes at a key moment. Egypt, along with Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Iran and the Union of Arab Emirates, is one of six nations that will join the list of BRICS countries from the beginning of January.

The land of the pharaohs is in the midst of a serious economic crisis and is heavily indebted to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to which it has turned for solutions. So being in China's shadow is seen as a 'very beneficial strategic partnership'. 

President Al-Sisi wants Egypt to have a prominent presence in the ILRS lunar exploration programme shared by China and Russia. He also has ambitions for at least a couple of Egyptians to be trained as cosmonauts, so that one of them will have the opportunity to travel into space and later to the Moon.

La mayor parte de los 100 millones de habitantes egipcios se concentran en el delta del Nilo y a lo largo de su curso. La imagen está tomada desde la Estación Espacial Internacional situada a unos 340 kilómetros de altura de la Tierra - PHOTO/NASA
Most of Egypt's 100 million people are concentrated in and along the Nile delta. The image is taken from the International Space Station at an altitude of 340 kilometres above the Earth - PHOTO/NASA

An institution for manufacturing and testing

For the time being, the framework of activities just agreed between the head of the Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA), Professor Sherif Sedky, and the head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), Zhang Kejian, covers scientific and technical training, the exchange of images, the development of observation satellites and the use of Chinese launchers to place them in orbit. 

The last third country's latest satellite to be launched into space by a Chinese launcher, on 4 December, was owned by the Cairo government. It is MisrSat-2, a 350-kilogram observation satellite, which is the result of close cooperation between EgSA and CNSA. 

MisrSat-2 has become a reality thanks to a $72 million loan from the Chinese financial institutions that accompany Beijing's overseas investment projects, although some sources put the final cost at $92 million. 

The CNSA has also erected a complex of buildings on the outskirts of Cairo full of equipment to house the EgSA's Satellite Assembly, Integration and Test Centre, "the largest in Africa and the Middle East", according to the Egyptian authorities. The heads of the two space agencies hope that African countries will choose to build and test their satellites at the new Egyptian facility, which is equipped with Chinese technology. 

Construction began in 2019 - timed to coincide with the start of the MisrSat-2 development programme - and was completed last June, along with the satellite's completion. The existence of such a Centre gives Egypt a "leading role in space in Africa", stresses the EgSA director, which will be approached by projects from other countries in the geographical vicinity to develop and verify their platforms.

Imagen de la Agencia Espacial de Egipto (EgSA) en la que se aprecia a su director, Sherif Sedky (tercero por la izquierda), que acudió a la base espacial china para presenciar el lanzamiento del MisrSat-2 - PHOTO/EgSA
Image from the Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA) showing its director, Sherif Sedky (third from left), who came to the Chinese space base to witness the launch of MisrSat-2 - PHOTO/EgSA

Observing what is happening in Gaza

According to EgSA, MisrSat-2 is a technology transfer project from China, giving Egyptian engineers the opportunity to gain experience in satellite design, manufacturing and integration, skills they previously lacked.  

MisrSat-2 is a platform with a panchromatic (black and white) resolution of 2 metres and multispectral (colour) resolution of 8 metres. Its operational purpose is to "improve agricultural productivity, mining resource management and water level changes in the Nile River," says the EgSA director.

Un cohete portador Long March-2C que transporta el satélite MISRSAT-2 despega del Centro de Lanzamiento de Satélites de Jiuquan, en el noroeste de China, el 4 de diciembre de 2023 – PHOTO/XINHUA VÍA AFP
A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying the MISRSAT-2 satellite lifts off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China on December 4, 2023 - PHOTO/XINHUA VIA AFP  

Although it is not designed "ex profeso" for espionage work, it will also be used to monitor Egypt's borders with Libya, Sudan, Israel and, more than ever, to find out what is happening inside the critical Palestinian territory of Gaza, now immersed in a bloody war that is the focus of the international community's interest and, for obvious reasons, of the Cairo government's concern. 

Designed by Chinese engineers with the help of their Egyptian counterparts at EgSA, the satellite was received with full honours last summer by the Egyptian minister for international cooperation, Rania al-Mashat, who describes China as a "strategic partner and a friendly country".

Most importantly, MisrSat-2 marks a drastic change in China's cooperation policy with third countries. With nations such as Bolivia, Laos, Nigeria and Venezuela, the CNSA has followed the practice of delivering satellite systems on a "turnkey" basis, i.e. manufacturing and launching them with a token participation of engineers from the contracting countries. 

A diferencia de la cooperación espacial que China practica con otros países, con Egipto ha optado por transferir su tecnología para que los ingenieros de la nación árabe hayan podido construir su primer satélite de observación - PHOTO/EgSA
 Unlike China's space cooperation with other countries, with Egypt it has chosen to transfer its technology so that engineers in the Arab nation have been able to build their first observation satellite - PHOTO/EgSA

Egypt has been different. It has chosen to transfer its technology and know-how and to directly involve the country's engineers and technicians. This is a recognition of the capabilities, importance and influence of the millenary and geostrategic African country on the rest of the continent, with a view to facilitating Beijing's space activities among African nations.