In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Fahmi talked about his diplomatic efforts to secure rapprochement with regional countries, Cairo’s relations with Washington and Turkey’s capital Ankara, and the ongoing political transitional process in the country.
Fahmi is a career diplomat who has served as Egyptian ambassador to the US and Japan, and as a deputy foreign minister. He was appointed to his new post on July 16, 2013, following the military-backed ouster of the former government.
The interim Egyptian government is facing criticism from international powers regarding its handling of domestic affairs. Some believe that Egyptian diplomacy has now moved from a stage of defending the June 30 uprising to the “attack stage.” What is your view of this?
Nabil Fahmi: It is not an attack, but rather a diplomatic initiative, and therefore positive. We do not attack anyone or sit idly by when someone attacks us. During the weeks and months following June 30, 2013, due to the enormity of this event and its representing a repetition of the events of January 25, 2011, it was only natural that the whole world should look towards Egypt and wonder: what are the Egyptians doing, and what happened? Meanwhile, the Egyptians at the time were congratulating each other on the January 25 revolution, knowing that this was a model and that Egypt must work towards the same result in 2013. So we explained what happened and said we were committed to the revolution and to restoring harmony to the Egyptian people.
Internal political development in Egypt has taken place according to the roadmap and its timeline. The process may extend beyond this timeline after the basic building blocks of the map are implemented.
Once the roadmap was written, friendly countries felt that Egypt should quickly be restored to its proper place. We want to return to that initiative and look to the future, as what is happening in Egypt is reflected in the rest of the region.
We have moved from reacting to acting and to this end we presented a set of ideas to the UN General Assembly in New York and spent a third or a fourth of our time discussing what exactly was going on in Egypt. Then we moved on to foreign policy and action in the Arab world, as well as Africa, Asia, and Russia. We hoped to convey the message that we wanted to diversify our options and explore common interests. We did not come to ask for support, but we thanked everyone who was ready to support us.
What is important is to secure diplomatic relationships that represent our revolutionary people, who want to express themselves and play an active role. We have appointed an Assistant Secretary to deal with our neighboring countries: Libya, Sudan, Palestine, and Israel. This, for us, is a matter of strategy, as there is a knock-on effect on all our states in both wartime and peacetime and there is no room for errors or stagnation. Other changes have taken place within the Ministry, including the formation of a special new technology unit.
What are the Foreign Ministry’s objectives?
Technology will define our country’s mobility and position in the world in the future. We are interested to learn about the latest technologies so that we can plan for Egypt’s future. Decision-makers in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry must follow these trends closely.
Has your recent diplomatic efforts succeeded in reassuring international parties regarding the post-Mursi phase and the political roadmap?
Without the slightest doubt, and thanks to the efforts of Egyptian embassies abroad, there now exists a better understanding of what is going on in Egypt. This comes amid increased international attention focused on Egypt. At the same time it would be premature to expect this to have been entirely resolved. There are still concerns regarding the violence, as well as an interest in ensuring that Egypt arranges its affairs successfully. Adopting the constitution is a very positive move in terms of adherence to the roadmap, and completing the presidential and parliamentary election process will also be useful. Yes, there has been a transformation, although the shift has not entirely stabilized.
Egypt is surrounded by problems in Libya, Sudan, Gaza, Syria, and Iraq. The entire region has been overcome by problems since the Arab Spring. Many fear that the wave of unrest will continue for years. Will Egypt be able to preserve its security and stability in the face of these challenges?
I have worked in the Foreign Ministry since 1974, and if anyone had told me then what the future would hold for Egypt I would not have believed them. We will succeed in implementing the roadmap and creating a new Egyptian political system, whatever the price. Egypt’s Deputy Foreign Minister has been in South Sudan attempting to help the conflicting parties there, while I have sought to play a part in the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. I have also been in Geneva participating in the opening of the Syria peace conference [Geneva II], in addition to attending Davos [last week]. Egypt must deal with more than one issue at the same time—that is the nature of our position in the world. The question is: will we overcome this crisis? Yes, we will extract ourselves from this difficult phase, despite all the problems. How? If we stop the violence quickly, we’ll witness the development of a very politically open-minded society. But if the violence continues, the matter will require more time, although it will inevitably end because those who took to the streets on January 25, 2011 and June 30, 2013 must participate in our future.
What about the impact of regional turmoil and violence on Egypt?
Following the formation of this government and its external activities, all of the foreign ministers that I have met tell me ‘thank God for your safety,’ or as the English might say, ‘welcome back.’ The Arab world needs Egypt to play its role. Otherwise, there will be a huge vacuum. However there can be no doubt that there are crises in the Arab world and some African countries, and this is something that is disrupting the path that we are on and adding to our responsibilities.
Regarding relations with the United States: they have not appointed an ambassador to Cairo since the overthrow of the former present. How are US-Egyptian relations today?
Dealing with America, thanks to its political, security, and economic importance, is imperative for all countries of the world. These dealings may be positive or negative but they are ever-present. When you say that you will not engage with the largest economy in the world, you are the one losing opportunities, and vice-versa. There have no doubt been issues and I would characterize the relationship as hazy. It has started improving but is not stable. The Americans had planned to nominate an ambassador, and this was reported in the press, but then they changed their minds, or rather they changed their mind about the ambassadorial candidate, at least according to press reports. The American embassy in Cairo is up-and-running, however. The most important thing in the coming months is strategic dialogue. This should include all issues of concern to the US and Egypt and how to deal with them, both on points of agreement and disagreement.
What about US aid to Egypt?
Non-military aid is very limited and was partially suspended because of the administration’s position on Egypt. But aid being approved in the new US budget, we look forward to procedures. Regarding military aid, part of this was delivered and part postponed.
Regarding Arab relations, Cairo enjoys good relations with some Arab states, and not-so-good relations with others. There is also a kind of anger among the Egyptian population towards several regional countries. How does the Foreign Ministry balance the pressure coming from the street, which calls for more action, with Egypt’s wider diplomatic interests?
There is a kind of anger on the Egyptian street. There also exists an attempt to undermine Egypt, and certain countries have certain policies. We will not accept any scheming against Egypt, and our reaction to this will be calculated. I am ultimately responsible for realizing what serves Egypt’s interests and achieving this, while taking into account the position of the Egyptian people. If you look at a specific action that has impressed the public, it does not mean that the process by which it was carried out was admired by the public—but it was a means to an end, which was in the interests of the people. If a certain measure is not taken, it does not mean that I am ignoring public opinion, but that I must take action in order to secure these interests even if it come at a personal cost for me. I accept this. The only thing that I will not accept is for there to be no Egyptian interest in foreign affairs. What is in the interest of the public is what supports me in my work. We make very calculated moves, some visible and some invisible. If there was a feeling that the situation was going to improve soon and it did not actually get better, we would admit that our actions were insufficient and expand our measures. Our goal is to prevent anyone from undermining our interests, to protect those interests and realize the largest possible benefit for Egypt. In the Arab world we act with certain calculations, but as I always say, Egypt’s interests are the foundation as well as our motivation to move forward.
Regarding Egypt’s difficult diplomatic relations with Turkey, are there any positive signs, or does the situation remain?
It is premature to say that there has been an improvement, but Turkey and Egypt are moving closer. Sometimes negative attitudes exist but positive ones do too. Some of these attitudes reflect policy while others are a reaction to something specific. Some are downright wrong, perhaps based on something published in a newspaper which later turns out to be false. Turkey is certainly following the situation in Egypt and believes that we have taken positive or negative positions when perhaps we have not taken any position at all.
One of the most important elements of state power is the economy, and the economic situation in Egypt is deteriorating. How can the Foreign Ministry play a role in attracting investment or encouraging tourism?
Every one of my visits abroad during the past six months has included economic discussions. Moreover, I do not personally need to be present to sign an agreement, as happened in Asia, where an Egyptian-South Korean-US investment agreement was signed for a large petrochemical project in Egypt. We also held talks with the Chinese on developing their investments in Egypt. The same happened in Japan where a big meeting took place with Japanese businessmen. Here in the Ministry, a directive is delivered each month for meetings with Egyptian private sector companies in order to consult and discuss what they can offer to the Foreign Ministry. The economy forms a large part of our work. My ambitions are not to just bridge the gap but also to return Egypt to its natural place.