The success of diplomacy depends on effective negotiation. In international relations, it is possible to solve problems and diffuse tensions through negotiation. In an interview with Daily News Egypt, former foreign minister Nabil Fahmy shed light on the United States presidential race, Egypt as a regional power in the Middle East, recent disputes with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the ties between Egypt and Iran, the country’s role in the Middle East peace process, the current situation in Libya, and the latest updates on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab League? And how do you evaluate Russian president Vladimir Putin’s statement in which he urged the league to fight terrorism, along with the efforts exerted to achieve political stability in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and other areas infused with tension?
The Arab League, like any other international organisation, is a reflection of the political will of its members. There is no question that the Arab world is going through a very difficult and turbulent time. Consequently, the effectiveness of the Arab League has also been diminished to a great degree. Hopefully, we will move towards a new Arab consensus focusing not on the past, but rather on the future. Then, ultimately, the Arab League could become more effective. It simply cannot become effective if its members continue to look at issues from a narrow perspective and focus on battling over who is responsible for the failure or success of past issues. My point is that the Arab states and the Arab League have to be proactive in tackling regional issues. The Arab League needs institutional reform to deal with modern day problems. Rather than being merely reactive to events and agendas of external powers, the Arab countries should depend more on themselves regionally and look forwards, not backwards.
Essentially, what I believe president Putin meant was that because terrorism is rampant in the Arab world, the Arabs or their organisation the Arab League, should be more active and invested in dealing with terrorist activities through security measures.
I believe he also meant that cultural and intellectual efforts are necessary to change the minds and hearts of people in the region so they do not cooperate with terrorists, over and above dealing with terrorists through security measures. This can only be done by Arabs themselves.
How do you evaluate Egypt’s relations with other states? Have there been any significant shifts or developments? What is the image of Egypt abroad after the 30 June Uprising?
Both the 30 June Uprising and the subsequent political roadmap set on 3 July 2013 were based on the 25 January Revolution. Both revolutions happened because people wanted more freedom. With regards to foreign policy, after 3 July, we wanted to guarantee that when we make decisions we are not overly dependent on one country or a group of countries internationally or regionally. We wanted to make sure we are the owners of our decisions and that we have more than one choice.
That shift still characterises Egyptian foreign policy. We also emphasised that we needed to reposition ourselves around our natural centre of gravity: the Arab world and Africa in particular. That’s why our foreign policy during the past few years is pivoting more towards the Arab world and the rest of Africa.
Regarding our image, what happened in 2011 and 2013 were exceptional events. People around the world were not expecting the Egyptian people to express their political will. That’s why the reactions and events were not normal, particularly the reaction of the international community. Initially in 2011, there was exuberant support from the international community with far-reaching expectations of what could have been done. In 2013, there were reactions which were not completely rational, but half of the world was very supportive and the other half was cautious with some negativity as to what was happening. But we have gone beyond that and we have a fully elected parliament, president, and an established Constitution that should guide us in the future. It is time for Egypt to move on and become the intellectual pioneer it once was, especially with policymaking in terms of international relations and mostly in regional issues in the Middle East.
You strongly rejected the statements made by US presidential candidate Donald Trump concerning Islam and Muslims. However, some argue that Trump’s statements regarding the Muslim Brotherhood show that there is some common ground between him and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Additionally, Trump’s adviser Walid Phares said that Trump’s position on the current leadership in Cairo was “very positive”. He believes the Brotherhood is a terrorist group and should be designated as such inside the US. On the other hand, you mentioned that Hillary Clinton carefully chooses her words and is a “veteran politician”. However, others point out that she voted for the war in Iraq, then became the face of foreign policy for an administration that first irresponsibly “ended” that war in such a way that paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State (IS). Could you clarify these viewpoints?
It is important to clarify my comment related to what US Republican candidate Trump said about Muslims. He did not refer specifically to the Muslim Brotherhood, but to Muslims in general. That’s why I took offense to his comment. What his adviser then did was to further elaborate and explain Trump’s comment. I now know that he was in fact talking about violent people. Nevertheless, when you are in the public domain, you have to be careful with your words.
On the other hand, what I said about Democratic candidate Clinton was not all positive. I said that she is a traditional politician and if you look at the political environment in the US today, the American constituency is actually quite angry with traditional politicians because they consider the decisions they make to be based on what is politically advantageous rather than on principles. This often leads to inconsistencies with regards to decision-making. I think Clinton is a much more astute professional, but she is very calculating. However, she did admit that she made a mistake [on Iraq]. There are positives and negatives on both sides.
How do you expect US-Egyptian relations to develop after the elections? Who do you think will win the US presidential race?
The international community is not completely comfortable with either choice. Some people assume that Trump will completely transform the American political system. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration, […] there will be significant changes. Others think that Clinton, with her experience, will do things the way they want in terms of foreign policy, which I doubt as well, considering her calculative nature.
For US-Egyptian relations, the determining factor is not who will win the US presidential race, but rather the role Egypt plays in the Middle East. If Egypt continues to develop and energise its regional role, then the US administration, of whichever president, will deal with Egypt as a player in the region and they will look forwards, not backwards.
I envisage that Trump will be more comforting in dealing with issues such as terrorism as far as it affects the US. At the same time, there are many other issues in the Middle East that Trump is much more of an isolationist on and will probably not engage the US in. However, the complexity of regional issues requires American support and activism. Issues like the Palestine-Israel conflict, other difficult conflicts in the Levant, terrorism, and dealing with nuclear proliferation cannot be dealt with without US support.
It is very difficult to read Trump in the long-term because he is new to the political scene. On the other hand, we know Clinton’s inclination and what she does. It is easier to read her moves and decisions from one period to another. She will be led, to a great extent, by the American political establishment and institution and will be affected by traditional body politics in the American system. This has not always been favourable to the Arab countries. While with terrorism it may be easier to deal with Trump, there are numerous other issues, including the aforementioned, where his position is not clear. Thus, with regards to some of the issues, Clinton’s moves will be easier to predict even if they do not satisfy us—there is more predictability. The point here is who is more beneficial to Egypt, and this will be defined by what Egypt does, not who America elects.
Regarding who will win, Trump has surprised us all by getting this far in the presidential race. Therefore, I cannot rule him out. There is a 6% difference in favour of Clinton, which reflects the degree of anger American people have for establishment politicians. However, I believe Clinton has a better chance of winning, but who knows—these elections have been full of surprises.
Turning to the Egyptian-Saudi political dispute, Saudi Arabia accused Egypt of deviating from the Arab consensus regarding the Syrian issue by voting for the Russian draft proposal at the United Nations security council. Do you believe that it is a passing dispute or is our relationship with the Saudis going through a dark tunnel? Was Egypt right in its position regarding the Syrian issue?
The media is exaggerating this issue. We are not in a dark tunnel. Yes, there are differences in opinion between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on how to manage the Syrian issue; however, there is no disagreement about the necessity to preserve the sovereignty of the Syrian state and trying to keep the country unified. There is, however, a difference in our views regarding tactics. This difference does not alarm me at all. A country which has a historically deep-rooted role in the Middle East, like Egypt, and a country as significant as Saudi Arabia should be able to manage differences in tactical approaches, as long as the difference does not affect strategic objectives. Our problem in the Arab world is that we tend to deny differences in opinion and when things become public, people exaggerate the differences. Differences in opinion between Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not new; they have existed for years. This relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is too important for both sides to risk falling apart. The differences in opinions require quiet diplomacy between the leaders of both sides because the Arab world has more than enough problems than to allow this issue to fester.
Egypt has the right to vote whichever way it wants on one resolution or another. I frankly do not accept the description that Saudi Arabia’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York gave about the debacle. I find it completely inappropriate. I do not, however, believe that we can look at this in isolation; there have been a number of differences and complaints from both sides. There is a difference between Egypt and Saudi Arabia concerning how to manage the Syrian issue and we need to keep communication channels open.
Recently, Saudi oil company Aramco stated that they intend to cut petroleum exports to Egypt despite a five-year agreement between both countries. The Iraqi government showed its intention to provide Egypt with the needed oil and make up for the shortfall in the Egyptian market. How do you interpret that and what would be the consequences of such an agreement in relation to Saudi Arabia?
I have been in foreign policy for almost 40 years. Even among Egypt’s best friends in the region, every once in a while, differences arise. You assume that with wise leadership in important countries, such differences do not become a frequent recurrence. It is out of the question that this debacle requires intense consultation between both sides and it should be a frank one. Again, I am not worried about the Egyptian-Saudi relations, provided that we talk to each other, but I do acknowledge that there are differences.
In respect to other countries that want to provide us with support, we will appreciate that and this is a reflection of how important Egypt is to all of them. I have always suggested that even when our relations with our friends are excellent, let’s not become overly dependent on anyone or exaggerate agreements and be straightforward with each other.
Iran and Egypt cut ties in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution, given Iran’s opposition to Egypt and Israel signing the 1978 Camp David Accords, Cairo later hosting the deposed shah of Iran, and the Iranian government naming a street in Tehran after Khalid Islambouli, the man who assassinated former Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat. Now, the Syrian crisis may be helping Iran and the Arab world leaders finally get closer—and perhaps even lead to their long sought-after reconciliation.
I come from a professional background where diplomacy is an important communication tool between states. I always supported this idea even with regards to states that have or are in a conflict situation. The only condition is when the issue is legitimacy or recognition as there was for years between the Arabs and Israel. Diplomacy does not mean agreement. I have had very difficult meetings with counterparts and at the end we were still in disagreement; however, they were useful because they allowed each side to test and understand the other side. The Iranian side has become more aggressive and they have much wider reach now than they did in the past; nevertheless, Iran is an important country in the region, so I urge them to provide some confidence-building measures, particularly to their neighbour states in the Arab Gulf area. In terms of Egypt-Iran relations, I can see areas of possible progress. At the same time, without any serious attempt by Iran to engage its Arab Gulf neighbours in a constructive sense, I do not expect this relationship to significantly change. This is because the security of the Arab Gulf states is a strategic interest.
Moving to Palestinian affairs: it was announced by the Russian deputy foreign minister that Moscow is in contact with Israel and Palestine, negotiating on the details of the potential meeting between Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow. What would be the role of Egypt in such a meeting?
I do not believe that the present prime minister of Israel honestly believes in a two-state solution, so I do not see any basis for negotiations that may lead to a real result until Israel changes its stance. I am not optimistic about completing the negotiation in Moscow or in Paris or anywhere else without a prior agreement of a certain set of parameters.
My suggestion is that wherever the negotiations will be held, we should agree before we start that the two sides, Palestine and Israel, want to reach an agreement that leads to two states based on the 1967 reality. Secondly, the negotiations should be done intensely and directly under the host of Russia, France, or Egypt, or a sum composition of the three and should have a timeframe, let’s assume 8-10 months, to occur. We were negotiating nearly half of the past 70 years without any progress. Thirdly, while negotiations are taking place, I suggest the security cooperation between Palestine and Israel continues, but Israel’s settlement activity has to completely stop. Fourthly, to give international recognition to these efforts, I suggest that all these points be put in a very simple short security council resolution announcing the negotiations. This means that you have preserved the two-state solution, provided a timeframe, created confidence-building measures, and given the international community’s blessing to the process. I am not optimistic about negotiating with the present Israeli government. Egypt will be supportive of the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution whenever and wherever the negotiation will take place.
Nearly four and half years after Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces during the civil war in 2011, Libya remains bitterly divided, making the country a prime breeding ground for terrorism. What’s your viewpoint on the situation in Libya?
The situation in Libya is extremely dangerous, catastrophic in fact. In many respects, Libya is not a cohesive state; no one really knows who the authority is or who the players are. Egypt, of course, deals with General Haftar and the government of Serag at the same time. On the ground, those in control of the east are different from the south and west, so it is a constantly changing landscape. The first step towards moving Libya forward is to ensure the exercise of authority. To do that, one has to limit the flow of illegitimate weapons, limit money flows to extremists, and the spread of extremists across borders. My suggestion is that the United Nations, the Arab League, and the African Union create a joint force not to manage Libya, but to secure the borders between Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Egypt. These forces would only allow legitimate goods, services, and weapons to enter and leave the Libyan territory. This would help the authority in Libya to gain incrementally more control over the territory, and would then lead to a more serious engagement between those in the east and west to put together a coalition government.
What is your assessment of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign policy with Egypt and other countries in the region?
President Erdoğan’s relations with Egypt are very cold because he believes that he has the right to enunciate what is right and wrong in Egyptian affairs. The reason he does this is that what happened in Egypt burst his bubble, so to speak. He was selling Turkey firstly as a bridge between the east and the rest of the world, then as a bridge between the world and moderate Islam, as he calls it. He couldn’t lead the Arab world so his argument turned out to be: “I will lead the Islamic world”. In other words, for him it was important to have political Islam dominate in the Arab world; otherwise, he does not have influence since Turkey is not an Arab country. Until he changes his basic point of departure—that he has the right to affect policy in our country—relations with the present Turkish government will not get any better. Besides that, Erdoğan and his party’s relations with Egypt are normal and acceptable; we do not have any fundamental problems with them. Egypt does not comment on domestic affairs in Turkey nor do we claim that we have the right to affect their policies. There should be confidence-building measures for any dialogue that takes place, whether between Iran and Saudi Arabia, or between Egypt and Turkey, that neither will interfere in the domestic affairs of one other.
Why is it believed that foreign intervention in Arab affairs is one of the major reasons for the current crisis?
I am not a fan of conspiracy theories. For me, the problems in the Middle East are caused by two main reasons. The first one I call managing change deficit: Arabs have a tendency to look at change as a threat or try to deny change, even though it is a natural consequence. Trying to deny what’s happening, especially when you have a demographic in which more than 56% of the population is below 25 years of age, combined with an extremely rapid technological revolution in communication, creates static governments rather than flexible ones. They end up being less efficient and always reactive, rather than proactive.
Secondly, for generations, almost all of the Arab countries have tended to depend on foreign powers for their national security, whether as political allies or military support. As a result, governments have been weak in their own domestic capacity with regards to national security issues. This is what is called national security deficit. When you have a national security deficit, other regional players, such as Iran, Israel, and Turkey, suddenly become more adventurous because they know you cannot compete with them in terms of national security capacity and you also bring those countries from beyond the region that you also depend on into the regional playing field. This makes everything more complicated. The Syrian situation is a case of that point.
As a result, you have the whole region, and even beyond, trying to define identity, and international agendas are super-imposed on regional agendas which are consequently imposed on domestic agendas. At the most recent meeting in Lausanne regarding the Syrian issue, the members attending were the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan. The Syrians were not present. We are talking about an issue in which the owners of the problem are not there; this is only one example. If you depend on all these people and you have all of these imbalances, it is natural, but not justified, that there will be interference. We need to be a catalyst for change ourselves and preserve our own national security. However, this will take time. I am not calling for isolation, but serious projection towards the future, more dependence on ourselves, and regional cooperation with each other.
Meanwhile, we are facing many other challenges that are threatening our country’s stability, such as the GERD.
The GERD is important for Ethiopia because of its huge potential in hydropower production. However, we have very little knowledge of the possibly disastrous environmental and economic consequences and of course water management consequences, which is of paramount importance to Egypt since it has no other significant water resources.
French firms are currently conducting two studies regarding the possible impacts of the dam. While Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are waiting for the results from the studies, the dam will operate and start its first filling process in 2017, regardless of the reports’ recommendations. The question is what will we do if the studies show significant impact on the countries downstream? Will we request that Ethiopia demolish the dam? Will we be able to modify the structure of an existing dam? Or is Ethiopia just wasting time on purpose? Actually, I am worried about this particular issue, because I have not seen any concrete messages from Ethiopia regarding water management principles, and there should be a clear vision for this crucial issue.