Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is trying to prevent his country from being relegated to second league in the African and Middle Eastern space environment at a time when the sector is booming.
A military man by training, former Minister of Defense and former Director of Military Intelligence, Field Marshal al-Sisi has decided to reorient Egypt's space policy so that, with the help of third countries, he can establish a national infrastructure that will enable him to manufacture satellites in the land of the pyramids and overcome the years of deep crisis.
Aware that Egypt and its Suez Canal are key to China's New Silk Road, President Al-Sisi has turned to Xi Jinping and secured his cooperation to relaunch its space industry. He has secured a $45 million grant from the Asian country to build, equip and launch the so-called Egyptian Satellite Assembly, Integration and Test Center, scheduled to officially open in 2022.
At a more advanced stage is the MisrSat-II satellite, a joint project between the Egyptian Space Agency (EgSA) and the China National Space Administration. Included in the Egyptian Space Program 2020-2030 approved in March 2019, Beijing is providing $72 million to make MisrSat-II, a 330-kilogram high-resolution observation satellite, a reality.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced the various phases of its development to be carried out by video conference between teams from both nations. But the final integration of the satellite will take place at the Satellite Assembly Center, while its launch into space is scheduled for September 2022 by a Chinese launcher. It will be controlled from Egyptian territory by a tracking station with technicians being trained by Beijing.
MisrSat-II's primary mission is to obtain images that will help improve agriculture, urban planning, weather forecasting and disaster relief management. With a resolution of 2 meters, it will also be used to monitor the fragile and long border with highly unstable Libya, guard its huge separation line with Sudan and keep control of its borders with Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. And, of course, to protect its wide coastal strips in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
EgSa has also signed an agreement with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to train several hundred engineers in basic space platform manufacturing procedures. With funding of US$225,000, the commitment is to manufacture 35 CubeSat type nano-satellites, measuring 1x1x1 centimeters.
The agreement with NASA is complemented by another reached a few days ago with the Faculty of Engineering of the Arab Academy of Science, Technology and Maritime Transport to co-finance the installation of educational laboratories in the engineering and science schools of Egyptian universities. It has also signed a bilateral cooperation framework with France to collaborate in various space matters, and it has also built a 65-kilogram remote sensing satellite with the help of Germany, which will be launched into orbit next December.
While the MisrSat-II satellite is being shaped, the new Satellite Center is being completed and collaboration with the United States, Germany and France is materializing, the Rais has held a series of meetings with his Minister of Telecommunications, Amro Talaat, and EgSA's Executive Chairman, Mohamed Afifi el-Qousi, to push for maximum utilization of Tiba-1 or TibaSat, its first and only government communications platform.
This huge device weighing more than 5.6 tons, manufactured in France by Airbus and Thales Alenia Space and put into orbit in November 2019, is used by the Armed and Security Forces for military transmissions and the fight against terrorist groups. Al-Sisi wants to increase its use by state institutions and for it to become the main tool for the most remote and isolated areas of the country to have access to broadband internet, a way to decrease the existing digital divide between cities and rural localities.
Egypt was the pioneer nation on the African continent to show its interest in the space sector. With the unconditional support of ousted President Hosni Mubarak, the commercial satellite communications company Nilesat was created in 1996, and in April 1998 it put its first platform, Nilesat 1, into orbit. However, it was unlucky with military reconnaissance satellites, either because the ones it put into orbit failed or because it was unable to reach a satisfactory agreement for their purchase.
During Hosni Mubarak's rule, an agreement with the Ukrainian company Yuzhnoye allowed Egyptian engineers to participate in the construction of the small 160-kilogram EgypSat-1, an optical spy satellite that in April 2007 was placed in orbit at an altitude of 650 kilometers. But in mid-2010 it stopped operating after having taken barely 5,000 images.
In April 2014, another attempt was made with the upgraded EgypSat-2 from Russian builder RKK Energia and weighing one ton. Located 700 kilometers from Earth, a failure in its control system rendered it unusable with only one year of life. The third and final attempt took place in February 2019. Egyptian engineers collaborated in the construction of EgyptSat-A, also from RKK Energia, but this time with electric propulsion and much better resolution. But an anomaly in its deployment rendered it unusable before it could be placed at an altitude of 650 kilometers.
Seeing the results of the Russian technology, Al-Sisi turned his eyes to Europe. He tried to acquire reconnaissance platforms in France and Italy, but in neither case has he been able to seal a deal. In mid-2020, his long negotiations with Giuseppe Conte - Italy's prime minister until just a few days ago - failed in his attempt to buy satellites with radar technology.
In his meeting with Emmanuel Macron during his official visit to Paris early last December, Al-Sisi sought a government-to-government agreement in order to be able to acquire a pair of spy satellites from European manufacturer Airbus. But, so far, no such contract has transpired.