Nicosia, Asharq Al-Awsat—From his office in the Cyprus capital of Nicosia, Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides gives his take on the Arab Spring and the current situation in the Arab world. He looks at the Middle East and the Arab World from a European perspective—Cyprus joined the EU in 2004 and the Eurozone in 2008.
Kasoulides is a veteran member of the ruling conservative Democratic Rally party led by Cyprus president Nicos Anastasiades. He previously held the role of foreign minister between 1997-2003 under the administration of former President Glafcos Clerides. He was reappointed as Cyprus foreign minister in 2013 following a stint as a Member of the European Parliament.
Kasoulides spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the recent discovery of natural gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and how the island is attempting to utilize this with the help of Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. He also spoke about the recent elections in Egypt and his hopes for future Saudi–Cyprus relations.
Asharq Al-Awsat: How do you view your relations with Egypt following the June 30 revolution?
Ioannis Kasoulides: We support the Egyptian people who have overwhelmingly demonstrated that they do not follow the identity that former president Mohamed Mursi was trying to lead them towards. This is an identity that does not reflect their aspirations and therefore we consider what happened in Egypt with the change of regime as being similar to what happened in the case of [former] President [Hosni] Mubarak. So if the Mubarak case was a coup, then this one was a coup. If the ousting of Mubarak was not a coup—and this is our view—then the fact that the Egyptian army and part of the Egyptian people decided that the time had come for Mursi to go [was not a coup].
We have another very clear position. We are advocating for democracy in Egypt and for the political parties to be able to have assemblies and freedoms of expression and work within the democratic game. We do not consider the Muslim Brotherhood to be a political party because it does not respond to the standards of a political party. Our ministry has issued a statement welcoming the election of president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi with whom we want to work in partnership, as we have been doing over the past year.
Q: What about the European Council? What is its attitude towards Egypt?
With the European Council, we are trying to convince our partners about the positions I have just mentioned and we want to keep all channels of communication open and the working relationship close. The EU is ready to assist the new government in the establishment of a democracy in Egypt.
Q: Let us now turn to the Arab world at large. Could Saudi Arabia serve as a gateway for Cyprus to the wider Gulf and Arab world, particularly in terms of further investment in the island?
Yes, but before talking about investment I would like to say that the role of Saudi Arabia in the region is very important. For a country which is a member of the EU but at the same time part of this region [with regards to] the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, it is very important that we have a dialogue on which we can exchange views on important issue. This extends to the need for stability in the Arabian Peninsula against all movements that are trying to destabilize the monarchies in the area.
On the issue of investment, you know our economic situation at the moment. Despite the fact that we have managed to be on the road to recovery to the acclaim of all our EU and International Monetary Fund partners, it is very important to work in the economic field. The president of Cyprus paid official visits to Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, and we are hoping we will be able to begin our relations in the field of economics with Saudi Arabia, but from the mutual understanding that we already have regarding stability in the region.
Q: What is your view of the Arab Spring? How did this affect Cyprus? Was there more or less investment into the island after these uprisings?
I wouldn’t necessarily connect investment in Cyprus with what happened in the Arab world. It [the Arab Spring] was a welcome development. The aspirations of the people in the Arab world—in Egypt, in Tunisia—is to have the same rights and freedom that the other countries of the world are experiencing. Therefore the Arab Spring was a very welcome development. But the Arab Spring is not an instantaneous event; the Arab Spring is a continuous debate until each and every country separately finds its road to the fulfillment of its people’s aspirations. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight. We have to respect the internal debate that is taking place in every country and the fact that it is a different development in each and every country.
We are extremely pained by the fact that the Syrian people, with whom we always had very close ties due to the island’s proximity to the country, have not been able to fulfill these aspirations. A lot of violence has been turned against innocent civilians in Syria and we are now witnessing a very serious humanitarian issue which affects all the other neighboring countries in the region. It has not affected Cyprus yet, but it may do so, so we hope that a political situation will be reached in Syria, maintaining its territorial integrity and independence, but without the presence of jihadist elements that we now see flourishing.
Q: So Cyprus is unaffected by the refugee crisis from Syria?
I cannot say we have waves of refugees coming to Cyprus but this is possible. It may happen any time soon. We have a lot of Syrians in Cyprus, and we have Syrians in Cyprus illegally, most of them coming from the northern part of the island, but not in the same way as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or Iraq.
Q: In Europe, right-wing parties such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain and the National Front in France are gaining ground. Does this worry you?
Yes, I am very worried. There are many weaknesses in the institutions of the EU. Some things have not reached the citizens of Europe yet enough to make them realize the importance of the EU. There is a lot of discontent, particularly because of the economic crisis; there is unemployment, social problems the EU has not succeeded in demonstrating it is addressing. And the fact that it is easy for demagogues and extremists to turn the attention of the people, creating fear that others are coming to take their job—xenophobia and Islamophobia are very worrying developments in Europe and we shall have to tackle these issues with great attention. This gives me the opportunity to say equally that we believe that a dialogue is necessary between the EU and the Arab League to discuss both the issue of Islamophobia in Europe and the issue of religious minorities, including the Christian minorities, in the Middle East.
Q: What can you tell us about the discovery of reserves of natural gas offshore? How will this affect your relations with countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and Israel, given that the reserves are located in the territorial waters close to these countries?
I think that the three countries you mentioned and Cyprus have been given a gift from God, and this gift is common to all of us, which may make us work together in order to take the best advantage of it. We believe that natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean may become what coal and steel was at the end of the Second World War for Europe, that is to say the precursor to what is today the EU. Natural gas may bring these countries together into a state of very close cooperation, leaving aside nationalistic issues that divide them. In this, Cyprus has an enhanced role because Cyprus is the country that is the common denominator because it shares common borders of Exclusive Economic Zones with Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Therefore Cyprus must be instrumental in bringing these four countries together—and the Palestinians as well, through the Gaza Strip.
Q: There are EU moves to secure supply, but any such corridor would have to pass through Turkey. Is this possible?
Not necessarily. There are two choices. One is to have a pipeline. If there is a settlement of the Cyprus question, this can be envisaged and not excluded, but there needs to be a solution to the Cyprus problem. The other choice is Liquid National Gas (LNG). LNG has become very important for Europe because it can reach any part of Europe, Southeast Asia, anywhere, therefore the companies are looking at this possibility. So every country has to have diversified ways of exporting natural gas—both LNG and pipelines need to be considered.
Q: What is the latest regarding Cyprus reunification efforts? A recent study by Turkish and Greek Cypriot economists predicted that a peace deal would generate 20 billion euros for the island.
We are conscious of this possibility. We are now back to very serious negotiations. We think that this time the solution of the Cyprus problem must become a reality. We have reached a very important joint declaration between the leaders of the two communities and we think that the fact that now our negotiator can visit Ankara to speak with them directly is a very important development that is a new departure from what happened in the failed efforts of the past. I hope that this time we will succeed.
Q: US Vice President Joe Biden visited the island recently—the first time a senior US official has visited the island since then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1962. What effect did this have on the stalled negotiations?
I think the visit of Vice President Biden was a demonstration of US support at the highest level for efforts to resolve the problem. But it was not only that: for the first time the US has declared Cyprus a strategic partner. This is extremely important because we are situated in a region where the need to fight terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other forms of organized crimes makes the responsibility of Cyprus much higher than the size of the country. It is important that the US has acknowledged Cyprus’s regional role—we want to prove that this is a reality.
Q: What is your view of his meeting with Northern Cyprus president, Derviş Eroğlu? Does this legitimize the North?
In no way, because Vice President Biden made it absolutely clear on his arrival at the airport that the US recognizes only one government in Cyprus, which is recognized by the whole world except Turkey. And the way in which he went to visit the Turkish Cypriot leader—he took all necessary symbolic precautions to ensure this visit didn’t mean there was any form of legitimization.