In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egypt’s interim foreign minister spoke about Egypt’s turbulent political situation, its focus on building relations with its Arab and African neighbors, and his hopes for Egypt’s future.
Nabil Fahmy is a career diplomat, having served variously as Egyptian ambassador to the US, Japan, and the UN. Fahmy’s longest diplomatic stint was as Egyptian ambassador to the US from 1999-2008. Fahmy also held a number of posts in the Egyptian government since 1974, including deputy foreign minister. After leaving the diplomatic sector, Fahmy entered Egyptian politics, and is a former member of Mohamed El-Baradei’s Constitution Party. He is also the founding dean of the American University in Cairo’s School of Public Affairs.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: In your last article before June 30 and before becoming interim foreign minister, you wrote about the political problems facing Egypt, the obstacles that impeded the first transitional phase following January 25, 2011, and Egypt’s misconceptions regarding the concept of democracy. Do you feel that these issues have been addressed since June 30, or will rectifying these issues take more time?
Nabil Fahmy: The fact is that the democratic process is unorganized. By its nature, it must go through various corrective stages. If we look at the countries in which democracy has been long established, we find that they amend their constitutions every now and again and develop their laws until they eventually align with the principles of basic human rights. If we take the United States, for instance, the US Constitution did not afford African Americans any rights, but in the 1960s many legal changes were made regarding equality and citizens’ rights. Thus democracy is a living political movement; it is not an unchanging, ossified process. When working to build a democracy it is natural that there will be steps forward and setbacks. What is important is that the steps forward outnumber the setbacks.
First, the political character of the state must be determined, and by that I mean the constitution. It is natural that the political character of the state emulate other modern models, and it is natural that in the 21st century the political character of Egyptian society differs from what it was some seven thousand years ago.
Once the character is determined then the president or prime minister can be elected and a republican, monarchical, parliamentary or secular system can be chosen. If mistakes are made in this regard, then they will be made as a society. If a sound leader is elected then the country will progress forward without major setbacks. In Egypt, we emerged from the revolution in 2011 demanding comprehensive change. Young people were one of the most innovative groups throughout that revolution: 65 percent of the Egyptian population is under 25 years old, and young people are known to demand change and look toward the future. Thus it is a revolution against the style of governance and the status quo, in an attempt to shape their future.
The first mistake we made was holding parliamentary and presidential elections before determining the makeup of the constitution. We found ourselves with a president and a parliament but without a framework in which they could function. The president was elected democratically, but he did not rule in a democratic manner. We had wanted to give the image of a unified political community in Egypt; however, the Egyptian political spectrum includes Islamist and secularist currents along with Muslim and non-Muslim communities, all with different political orientations. No one has the right to establish a political system that excludes others. In my opinion, this is the root of the problem and the cause of this most recent revolution.
The first revolution opened the door, but unfortunately political Islam seized this opportunity, admittedly having done so through elections. They forgot that the revolution of 2011 was an expression of the desire to participate in determining the future, so when they attempted to shape the future themselves, revolution re-emerged. We must not underestimate the importance of what happened on June 30. At least 20 million citizens took to the streets, and some estimates are larger than that. This means that 40 percent of those eligible to vote in Egypt took to the streets. If 50 million Americans took to the streets to protest in front of the US Congress, or if 30 million British citizens were to do the equivalent, then it would be a natural consequence that the government would collapse. The former president decided not to heed this outpouring of people, so what mechanism for change was left for the people?
Q: The counter-argument to this line of thought criticizes what is described as a democracy of the street, which depends on the mob. Some ask why Egyptians did not wait for the next opportunity to change the government via elections and the ballot box?
What happened is very normal. First, we are in a transitional phase following the revolution, and society sought to construct a sound democratic system in which they could participate. Another thing was that during the year of Mursi’s presidency, all other political currents were excluded, and with the constitution suspended the Islamists had a monopoly over rule. Save for a limited number of members, the Shura Council was comprised of individuals adherent to political Islam. Appointments to a variety of posts were given to Islamists. If [the president] had been left to continue to exclude others for four years, the makeup of the Egyptian state and the national security establishment would have been threatened. There were also measures taken abroad that were cause for alarm. There is a difference between the Egyptian state and the Muslim Brotherhood nation—a fundamental difference. The Muslim Brotherhood can have a place and a say in the Egyptian state, but it cannot be the state.
Q: This brings us to another question: some say that the Brotherhood’s ideology is incompatible with the state model and national identity. How can there be meaningful dialogue and reconciliation if that does not change?
Putting the constitution first would ensure that everyone participates in government in accordance with it. This means, for instance, that secularism in its purest form cannot be adopted if it runs contrary to society’s norms. Likewise, political Islam—by which I mean the Brotherhood—cannot be implemented in its purest form. If the Brotherhood was unbending in its commitment to the tenets of political Islam, and neglected the tenets of nationhood and the Egyptian state, then undoubtedly they would be at loggerheads.
We must accept that there is a state governed by the edicts of the constitution. This is a problem that the old guard of the Brotherhood faces, evidenced by its reliance on violence, as we can see and hear. If the middle generation or younger generation within the Brotherhood wishes to bring some of the Brotherhood’s principles to bear on the Egyptian state while still operating within the framework of the state system, and eschew withdrawing from the state and excluding themselves, then they are more than welcome to join in governance.
This reminds me of how, during the revolution of 2011, I met with some young Muslim Brotherhood members and other young people, including women, Copts and others. There was a young Brotherhood member there who spoke extremely eloquently and coherently, and I asked him some questions to which he replied, saying, ‘I am a member of the Muslim Brotherhood through and through, but these people were my partners in this revolution.’ Despite the fact that the other people in the room did not belong to the same group as him, this young man accepted that they still had a role to play in the state. If the Brotherhood were to adopt this stance, then they would be welcome in government. However, if they cling to the notion that they are the Islamic nation of Egypt or that they represent Egypt itself, then there is no place for them. There is and will continue to be a standing invitation for them, but only as long as they embrace the state system.
Q: When you heard that you were to be included in the transitional government, which is a difficult task in precarious times, did you hesitate? And what was your reaction?
This transitional government bears a historic responsibility: the stability of the country, achieving national consensus, and developing a healthy democracy for Egypt’s future, all in nine months. I had been asked to take this job three times before and each time I had to apologize and turn down the offer, once during the Mubarak era and twice since then. Frankly, I am not interested in such posts or continuing within government, even though I had the honor of representing Egypt abroad, which I enjoyed very much. This time, unlike times past, I did not have to pause to consider for the same reason stated in your question, that this is a very sensitive stage, and I thought of this as a national calling, and my answer surprised many: I said ‘I’m in’ and began to work. I know very well that the challenges will be tough, but it is a national duty, we must all do our part.
Q: Egypt seems quite polarized regarding how it should approach the Arab world. How do you think this should happen?
Egypt—rather, the entire Arab community—is in a state of transition as it attempts to establish its identity. The Arab people want to determine their character going forward. We live in the information age, and as such what transpires in any one location is relayed across the world in moments, and thus it is inevitable that we take a two-pronged approach: the first is to accept that this chapter in our political history is highly active, and second that there will always be conflicting opinions.
Adopting an uncompromising position was absurd in years past, but it is even more so now, both on the domestic scene and abroad. The presence of diverging viewpoints is a positive thing as long as they do not devolve into conflict. In a related matter, we must be more forthcoming as regards transparency; the more honest the government the more credibility it will have. There may be differences in opinion, but the information should be irrefutable. The third day after I took over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I held a press conference where I made known our mindset, goals and priorities for the next nine months. I will be held accountable according to those statements, because I know we operate in an open system.
These policies will yield positive results once we return to our Arab–African orientation. We will renew our relations and reactivate our traditional strategic approach. In all honesty, a number of Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, have greeted this pivot in our foreign policy with gratitude. Jordan, the heart of the Arab world, has also made its political support known. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria have always been aligned, but the latter is currently in disarray. We must also reach out to North Africa. Harping on the division of the Arab world is pointless, especially when the Arab world is divided by its allegiances to countries outside the Arab world.
Q: What about Turkey and the stance it has taken?
Several Turkish leaders are approaching this in ideological terms, which is a big mistake. They exaggerate in their statements in a manner that quite frankly is unacceptable. The people’s voice is louder than any external party. We will evaluate our strategic relations with every country, including Turkey. However, the voice of the people is the voice that will be heard. If countries overstep their bounds it will have an impact on the interests at a certain stage and in the long term. I completely believe that there will be stable relations between the two countries.
Q: The West is highly interconnected with the situation in Egypt and has taken its customary cautious stance regarding the army’s intervention in the public sphere. What is the message you are sending to the West? Are you influencing their views in a positive manner?
Before I answer your question, I want to say that my first tour abroad will be to Arab–African countries, not just for appearances but because that is where Egypt’s foreign policy priorities lie. As for the West, most of the international media news sources are based in the West, even if they are broadcast in the East. Many Western interests lie in the Arab world and in Egypt, and the West knows very well that what happens in Egypt affects the Arab world. They have a stake in what happens here, and the democratic West traditionally holds that any politician who is elected to power represents democracy, and that any intervention on the part of the armed forces is incompatible with democracy. The fact is that neither is true. The democratic system encompasses elections and the civil state, this much is true. However, there have been many European leaders in the past who were elected but then went on to rule in a non-democratic fashion and caused major disasters.
What happened in Egypt was an exceptional situation: two revolutions in two and a half years. In both cases, the people mobilized first, then the Army. In the first instance, the president stepped down and the army took control of the country for a year or a year and a half as a result of that. In the second instance, the president refused to step down and the military handed power over to the head of the constitutional court in accordance with the constitutional edicts, for in the absence of a prime minister, the head of the constitutional court is next in line. Now we have put in place a road map that will restore the democratic institutions. In all honesty, we are telling the West that Egyptian national security was threatened and this could not be tolerated. Every country in the world takes certain measures when its national security is threatened, and there are many examples of this.
The identity of Egypt was under threat. There was an attempt to alter it by excluding some in favor of others. What we saw was popular activism. The people mobilized twice and the army intervened as a result. This is the will of the vast majority of Egyptians, and if the international community understands this then that would please us. However, if the international community does not understand this, then we are still doing the right thing and moving in the right direction. The road map has been put in place. The armed forces did not choose this road map, it was a cooperative effort on the part of the political currents and the armed forces, and was approved by the younger generation, various political currents, Al-Azhar and the [Coptic] Church. We recognize that we are in an exceptional phase.
Q: To what extent do you think the instability affects Egypt’s strategic and vital interests, such as the Nile Basin issue?
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A positive message to take away is the widely acknowledged fact that an awakening is spreading across Egyptian society, and there is a positive new energy that did not exist five years ago, or if it had existed, had since diminished. Stability brings some advantages, but there is also the price of the recession. The awakening has its costs but it also has a payoff. I believe that Egypt’s standing in the international arena is improving, not receding. Why? Because now everyone knows that the success of this experiment will have positive results, and its failure will have consequences. So everyone wants to know what the implications of success and failure might be.
Egypt will mobilize and stabilize internally, God willing, sooner rather than later. Abroad, it will become increasingly active in the near future. This, in large part, will depend on the stability of the security situation. We in ministry of foreign affairs intend to implement a different plan than what was in place last year. The first thing we will restore will be the core tenets of Egyptian identity, that is, its Arab and African roots. From there, we will tend to our relations with other Arab nations and maximize the mutually beneficial and historical aspects of those relations. If any problems arise, we will try to navigate them as deftly as possible. We will look at strategic policy not in terms of action and reaction: international relations are much more complex than that. Moreover, the national security of the country will always be paramount. We may disagree with certain figures now and again, but we will not let these differences affect the greater political interest, and we will not let them undermine Egypt’s dignity and short-term interests.
Regarding the water issue, more specifically the Renaissance Dam, we strongly reaffirm Egypt’s historic right to water; however, we will work with the same conviction towards finding solutions so that Ethiopia may realize its economic and developmental aspirations. The issue is not a zero-sum game; the issue is what rights are involved and what interests are at stake. We endeavor to respect all rights and secure our interests.
Moreover, the Middle East will never witness peace if there is more division in the Arab world. The Syrian issue and GCC relations with Iran are both critical for Egypt, not to mention the peace process.
Q: Regarding Ethiopia, the previous government issued contradicting statements, which still have yet to be clarified, regarding the Renaissance Dam. . .
First, as I have said, it is the mindset that matters. The first thing I did after being charged with resolving the Renaissance Dam issue was to form a fact-finding commission that could reveal the truth regarding the real risks and what needs to be done. This way, when we are in talks with one party or another we are able to base our discussions on tangible facts, minimize risks and allay some concerns. Our approach abroad will be based on verifiable, scientific facts, and we hope that as a result of this we can achieve some compatibility, at least in regards to official statements. It may be the case that a foreign party has a dissenting opinion, but there should at least be credible information available, and from there each group will be free to interpret the situation and offer policy suggestions as they like.