By Mariateresa Natuzzi
In this issue of the ChinaMed Observer, we take stock of Tunisian and Egyptian press coverage of Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi’s recent trip to Cairo and Tunis. These visits were the inaugural stops of the minister’s first overseas tour of 2024, which, as usual, took him to the African continent.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, the predominantly government-controlled press unsurprisingly highlighted the benefits of their country’s partnership with China, coupled with celebrations of their government’s willingness to deepen cooperation. Both governments are eager to showcase the success and soundness of their policies and secure critical Chinese economic support.
However, we observed an interesting difference that likely mirrors the distinct regional political ambitions of the two North African nations. On the one hand, the content of the Egyptian articles we reviewed included a wide range of issues, from trade to international affairs, as areas of potential cooperation. On the other hand, Tunisian commentators exhibited a far more focused interest, primarily centered on the topic of tourism.
Celebrating an Enduring Friendship
The Egyptian press paid great attention to the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit. In particular, Akhbar El-Yom, a government-affiliated daily newspaper, focused heavily on the symbolism of Wang Yi’s trip, interpreting it as an acknowledgment of Egypt’s centrality in the region, especially within the context of the Non-Aligned Movement. This argument was articulated by Ahmed Wahban, Dean of the Faculty of Economic Studies and Political Science at Alexandria University, in an interview published by Akhbar El-Yom.
Similarly, the Tunisian press echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that Wang’s arrival coincided with the celebration of the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Tunisia and China, established on January 10, 1964.[ More generally, La Presse, a Francophone Tunisian newspaper under government control, viewed Wang’s tour as the latest confirmation of the strategic importance that the Chinese government assigns to the African continent.
The alleged benefits of engagement with China extend beyond diplomatic considerations. Indeed, both Tunisian and Egyptian media praised the economic outcomes resulting from their cooperation with Beijing. La Presse reported statements of gratitude by Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar, who thanked China for its efforts in realizing various projects. Notably, the International Diplomatic Academy in Tunisia was built thanks to funding from China and was inaugurated on January 15 in the presence of the Chinese Foreign Minister.
Another lengthy article in La Presse celebrated China’s support for the implementation of several infrastructure projects, including the expansion of Sfax University Hospital. The newspaper also acknowledged Chinese help in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, citing the supply of significant quantities of vaccines and medical supplies and mentioning how Tunisia was able to purchase them at a preferential price.
Similarly, the Egyptian press reported the words of gratitude expressed by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Hassan Shoukry, during a press conference with his Chinese counterpart. Shoukry emphasized the significant contribution of Chinese companies over the past decade to Egypt’s development efforts through the implementation of several projects, including new infrastructure and an electric light railway.
Looking towards the future, Shoukry stated: “We are now honored to sign the executive program of the next strategic partnership.” As Akhbar El Yom explained, the bilateral talks that took place on the morning of January 14 between the two states’ delegations focused on the details surrounding the implementation of the cooperation agreements between the countries and coordinating activities at the political level. The signing of the Strategic Partnership 2024-2028 was a key component of this event.
The Francophone newspaper The Egyptian Gazette reported that at the press conference, both ministers expressed their desire to take relations to a new level, expanding cooperation beyond the construction sector to include areas such as “new energy, aerospace, agricultural science and technology, digital economy, artificial intelligence, and medical and health care.”
In Tunisia as well, La Presse underscored Wang Yi’s statement regarding China’s willingness to take bilateral relations to a higher level. The newspaper stressed that cooperation with China aligns with Tunisia’s orientation toward diversifying investments.
However, clarity is somewhat lacking regarding the specific areas in which this cooperation should be deepened: the newspaper does not provide any specific details concerning sectors earmarked for developing further cooperation. Notably, tourism is the sole economic sector where this willingness to cooperate seems to be more concrete. Tunisia has accepted China’s proposal to reactivate visa-free travel for Chinese tourists to the North African country, a move aimed at boosting the number of visitors from China.
Looking at International Issues
International politics appears to be a priority issue for Egypt and China. According to Al-Masr al-Yom, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a letter conveying his appreciation for Egypt’s role in consolidating security in the Middle East. The same newspaper reported that El-Sisi reiterated Egypt’s commitment to pursue joint coordination with China in advancing international peace and stability.
Both the Egyptian and Tunisian press highlighted China’s stance in favor of a multipolar world and globalization for the benefit of all, with Egypt explicitly expressing its support for the One-China principle. Indeed, Foreign Minister Shoukry affirmed that “Egypt respects the One-China principle,” and “firmly supports China in safeguarding its national unity, stability and development, and supports China’s legitimate position on issues related to Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”
The Tunisian press seemed to take a less explicit stance, though La Presse noted that Tunisia was among the countries that voted in favor of UN Resolution 2758 in October 1971, according to “which the government of the People’s Republic of China was recognized as the sole representative of the Chinese people.”
While the war in Gaza and collaboration with China on this matter received minimal attention from Tunisian newspapers, it was an object of close scrutiny by the Egyptian press. According to the Egyptian Gazette, “the two foreign ministers also had in-depth communication on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and issued a joint statement after the talks, expressing their deep concern over the further spillover of the current conflict and stressing the need for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire.”
As reported in Al-Masr Al-Youm, the presidential spokesman stated the meeting confirmed the positions of Egypt and China on the need to respect international law, and especially on the total and unequivocal rejection of the forced displacement of Palestinians from their land. The Francophone journal Le Progres Egyptien reported on Wang Yi’s statement at the press conference regarding the situation in the Red Sea, in which he called for an end to escalation and rejected the use of military force against Yemen.
Our analysis reveals that the Egyptian press, particularly government-controlled outlets, devoted ample space to the visit of the Chinese Foreign Minister. In contrast, Tunisian press coverage was far less comprehensive, apart from the Francophone daily La Presse, which devoted a lengthy and detailed article to Wang Yi’s trip. Unsurprisingly, the tone of the coverage in both countries was overwhelmingly positive. After all, China remains a key economic partner for both Tunis and Cairo and, at least rhetorically, has taken a clear stance on the war in Gaza, criticizing Israel’s conduct.
In the Egyptian press, the partnership with China seems to have a more defined direction for the future. On the contrary, the Tunisian press did not provide specific information, despite statements of the country’s intent to diversify investment. On the international front, while the Egyptian press tends to highlight the country’s leadership in the region and the Chinese government’s recognition of this role, the Tunisian press appears rather disinterested in delving into international and regional politics, offering simply a general appreciation for China’s statements about building a multipolar world and achieving globalization for the benefit of all.
Overall, these differences are not surprising, as they likely reflect the varying degrees of involvement of Tunisia and Egypt in regional issues, particularly regarding the war in Gaza. Additionally, Beijing’s diplomacy is likely more actively involved with Cairo due to these regional dynamics.
Mariateresa Natuzzi is a Research Fellow at the ChinaMed Project. She is also a graduate student in Transmediterranean Studies at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’. Her research focuses on the media coverage of China in North Africa, as well as issues related to food production and the environment in the region.