London, Asharq Al-Awsat—In recent months, Cairo has launched a strong campaign to restore its diplomatic relations with Western states and international bodies following the July 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Mursi. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy as he visited London recently. During the interview, he expanded on Egypt’s foreign policy, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Egypt’s diplomatic relations
Fahmy told Asharq Al-Awsat: “I identified three tasks for the foreign ministry [following Mursi’s ouster]. The first was to protect the revolution politically and in terms of providing economic support. The second task was to re-position Egypt’s foreign policy and return Cairo to its natural position which will allow us to carry out our role, prioritizing the Arab world and Africa. The third task was preparing the Egyptian foreign ministry for what will come after the implementation of the road map.”
The foreign minister acknowledged that the ouster of the Islamist president hurt Egyptian diplomacy, citing in particular the freezing of Cairo’s African Union membership and the criticism the post-Mursi authorities received from many Western states. But Fahmy stressed that his ministry worked hard in the post-Mursi era to return Egypt to what he described as its natural position, both regionally and internationally.
“We must ensure that there is a variety of options for the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people on a political level, ensuring that the country is not internationally isolated or distanced from our allies. Rather, we must work to add to our list of allies, and this is what happened with Russia and China,” Fahmy said.
“Our responsibility to the general public is to achieve its interests and not just respond to emotions, and this is a new relationship we have witnessed following the awakening. We have taken [foreign policy] positions that are much stronger than during any other phase despite the difficult circumstances. Even during these difficult circumstances we have demonstrated that we are decision-makers—people of action and vision. But in order to be more effective we need the right tools of influence. Most importantly, we must not allow ourselves to be subjected to pressure from other parties because of this need or that.”
Relations with the United States
Fahmy confirmed that aid from the United States has resumed after it was frozen following Mursi’s ouster, but some of the financial assistance remains pending.
“In principle we reject conditions. We will continue discussions, and [ultimately] it is their decision. But I think that the completion of the road map and the presence of stability will facilitate this aid.”
He pointed to the recent appointment of a US ambassador to Egypt as a positive indication in Cairo–Washington ties—the post had been empty since August, when Anne Patterson returned to Washington to head the US State Department’s Middle East section.
“In political terms, the completion of the procedure for nominating the ambassador will be useful and beneficial to both the United States and Egypt because it gives more weight to the correspondence between the embassy and the administration in Washington,” he said.
As for how relations will progress in the future, after the completion of the roadmap with presidential and parliamentary elections, Fahmy said: “Without doubt it will be different, because Egypt itself has changed and become a state of public opinion. The people want to express their views and be part of the decision-making process . . . The relationship with Washington will witness more mutual respect and there will not be any distancing” between Cairo and Washington.
Reaction to Mursi’s ouster
Speaking about the period immediately following the ouster of President Mohamed Mursi last July, Fahmy said: “I explained the developments taking place in Egypt, and we explained the Egyptian situation with confidence, not in terms of defending our position but based on the idea that there was a popular awakening that has manifested in a certain situation. We are now moving from a state of awakening to the construction stage.”
The Egyptian foreign minister stressed his message that Egypt is determined to proceed with the construction of a modern, civil Egyptian Arab state that serves as a role model for the 21st century.
“Our move towards Russia and China was not a reaction to anything in as much as it is based on an Egyptian vision, the same as our focus on Africa and the Arab world, the Gulf and the Levant,” the foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat.
The Muslim Brotherhood
Commenting on Western criticism of Egypt’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly the mass death sentences that have been handed down against Brotherhood members, Fahmy said: “I cannot comment on the content of any ruling as long as the rulings are still in different stages of the judicial process.”
But speaking about the reaction to the mass death sentences from abroad, he said: “Regarding Europe’s position on the death penalty, there has been a strong reaction in some cases and questions have been raised. Europe predominately rejects the concept of the death penalty, and it is not our role to justify our own position. However, we explained the importance of death sentences being referred to the Grand Mufti, who can express his opinion on this.”
“Mass death penalties were not actually issued against 529 people, as was reported. Even with regards to those who have been sentenced, the vast majority of the rulings were issued in absentia, and these rulings can only be implemented after a retrial [after defendants are taken into custody]. The initial picture that was put forward without any explanation leaves a negative impression, and we must clarify matters as much as possible according to the information available,” he said.
The Minya court that sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death in March subsequently confirmed death sentences against 37 Brotherhood supporters in the original mass trial on the recommendation of the Grand Mufti—commuting 492 other death sentences to life imprisonment.
The Egyptian foreign minister expressed his belief that there has been a shift in the positions of many Western countries from what was, at first, a failure to recognize that the Muslim Brotherhood had resorted to violence in the post-Mursi era.
Fahmy told Asharq Al-Awsat: “There is now a general recognition that the Brotherhood does resort to violence, but the controversy remains regarding how to resolve this situation. So the question is no longer whether or not the Brotherhood is responsible for the violence.”
As for re-incorporating the Muslim Brotherhood into Egyptian society, the foreign minister said: “This is a matter for Egyptian society; as society must agree to such a step. This would be very difficult given the destruction and the killings; there must first be reconciliation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the people. For there to be reconciliation, we must first witness a radical shift in the Brotherhood’s discourse and actions.”
“Forthcoming governments and presidents will be held accountable by the public. If the Brotherhood changes and respects the constitution and is committed to peace in accordance with the constitution, then they have certain rights in Egypt. But the movement, organization and ideology—this is another story that requires a broader solution that cannot be implemented in the short term,” he added.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam
Fahmy confirmed that there has been no change in Egypt’s official position on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam project. Many Egyptians fear that the dam, which will be the largest in Africa, will have a significant effect on the flow of the Nile River. Talks between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the project have repeatedly broken down, even though the 2017 completion date is fast approaching.
“We have focused on three issues. First, there can be no solution if all three main parties—Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan—are not satisfied. There must be a compromise solution. Second, we want there to be cooperation through serious negotiations, not confrontation. Third, the only solution can be through negotiation, given the importance of the issue.”
“Ninety percent of Egypt’s water consumption is reliant upon the Nile. There is no complacency in dealing with this issue. We always emphasize the gain that can be secured for all Nile countries. The goal is to negotiate with each other and distance ourselves from confrontation; our objective is serious negotiation,” he told Asharq Al-Awsat.
Fahmy stressed that Cairo’s official position is based on sound evidence: “There is an understanding of Ethiopia’s need to build the dam, but the reservations are over the specifics of this dam—its size and some aspects of its engineering, as well as its potential impact on the flow of water to Egypt. We hope that there will be serious negotiation based on a positive common interest and not on the interests of one party at the expense of another.”