Paris, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shokri has placed the responsibility for reconciliation between Doha and Cairo squarely on Qatar’s shoulders—saying “the ball is not in Egypt’s court.” His comments come soon after the signing of an agreement in Riyadh that restored diplomatic relations between Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states, with Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud subsequently calling on Egypt to mend its own relations with Qatar.
Shokri spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat during a visit to Paris where he met with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius and French President Francios Hollande. In a broad-ranging interview, Shokri discussed Egyptian foreign policy toward Qatar, Libya, France and the US, as well as the ongoing war on terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Saudi Arabia has called on Egypt to sign the Riyadh Agreement and reconcile with Qatar. What are the chances of Egyptian-Qatari rapprochement?
Sameh Shokri: Egypt was quick to express its appreciation for Saudi King Abdullah’s call, but let me confirm that Egypt is not the side that initiated an unfriendly position. We are working for the sake of Arab solidarity and seeking to ensure that our relations with brotherly Arab states are close and cooperative. As President Sisi said in his press conference in Italy, the ball is not in our court, and we hope that the other side [Qatar] takes a position that demonstrates its acceptance of what was agreed in Riyadh and follows policies that prove that it is following a different path so that relations are brotherly and based on mutual respect and joint interests. We hope that all Arab states are committed to supporting Egypt’s interests and national security. Egypt, for its part, is committed to being an effective part of defending national and Arab interests and working to consolidate this.
Q: What precisely are you calling for Qatar to do on the ground?
What is required is for Qatar’s policies to be supportive of Egypt and its national security during this stage, and to avoid anything that leads to destabilizing Egypt.
Q: Egypt’s dispute with Qatar is over Doha’s alleged support of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as issues pertaining to Al-Jazeera. Would you agree with this characterization or does Cairo have other grievances with Qatar?
I leave the judgment of this to the observers of these issues, and it is up to them to reach conclusions regarding the answers to these important questions by monitoring and reading up on the situation . . . Every observer must read up on this as much as possible and evaluate these relationships and policies.
Q: Let us turn to the situation in neighboring Libya which is continuing to slide towards the abyss. It does not seem that international mediation, including by the UN, will be able to resolve the deteriorating situation there. What is the solution to the situation in Libya?
The situation in Libya is dangerous. There is an initiative that has been put forward by neighboring states . . . and it could lead to a foundation for a political solution and national dialogue. This is something that we discussed at the ministerial conference that was hosted by Cairo in August. The initiative encourages national dialogue between all parties that reject violence and are keen on securing Libya’s safety and territorial integrity. Of course, there is a legitimate authority [in Libya] as represented by the parliament [in Tobruk] which reflects the will of the Libyan people following free and democratic elections—therefore the government that emanates from this parliament is also legitimate and expresses the will of the Libyan people. All international parties must support this legitimate government. There is international recognition of this government that is headed by Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thani. On the other hand, there is one side that continues to resort to violence and the military solution and is trying to impose its will on the Libyan people and is trying to secure gains by military force. Of course, this is something that is completely unacceptable.
Q: However, Libya’s Supreme Court invalidated the elections and the “legitimate” and internationally-recognized parliament and government that emanated from this. Hasn’t this only served to increase confusion in the country?
There are many legal interpretations related to this decision, including those that say that this legal body does not have the authority to dissolve parliament. We must also not forget that this decision was issued at a time when the judiciary was subject to pressure and intimidation to the point that some judges took the decision to flee the capital, Tripoli. More than this, the international community has not responded to this decision, continuing its support of the legitimate parties in Libya as represented by the parliament and government.
Q: Do Paris and Egypt have the same position on the situation in Libya?
Yes, there is broad consensus between us on this issue.
Q: You say that Cairo supports the legitimate parliament and government in Libya, but these bodies have allied with illegitimate parties, including rebel General Khalifa Haftar. How can you reconcile this issue?
Libya’s parliament issued a decision officially reinstating Haftar into the ranks of the Libyan military and restoring his military rank. Today, he is an official and integral part of Libya’s legitimate military forces.
Q: However there is a prominent section of Libya that refuses to acknowledge these “legitimate” parties. Does this mean that the fighting will continue indefinitely?
No, we have the efforts of [UN Envoy] Bernardino Leon and we support his mediation efforts to reach a political solution and create a national dialogue in Libya. The will of the people must be the source of any authority, and the people expressed their will through the ballot box last summer and this is what must be accepted.
Q: Let us turn aside from the region now and look at Cairo’s relations with Washington. How would you characterize Egyptian-US relations today?
They are close; there is a lot of joint dialogue and many mutual interests and both sides are seeking convergence of views on issues where there is lack of agreement. At the same time, there are significant areas of agreement on many issues and as well as mutual interests between Egypt and the US. There is high-level coordination between myself and my American counterpart [US Secretary of State John Kerry]. The meeting in New York between presidents Sisi and Obama was an important point in the context of full US interaction with the Egyptian president and government following the conclusion of the second stage of Egypt’s [post-Mursi] road-map, namely the election of President Sisi. We are working together to ensure that our relations are positive and supportive for both parties.
Q: What about the reservations expressed by Washington following the ouster of former president Mursi in 2013? Can we say that Cairo-US relations have returned to their previous pre-revolution levels or does Washington continue to have some reservations over the Egyptian government?
I do not think that there are any reservations in this relationship today. Relations between the US and Egypt are normal and include complete recognition of all the achievements that Egypt has made with regards to the political roadmap. This now includes a desire for cooperation and achieving mutual interests. This relationship—politically, economically and militarily—is a close one and includes the arrival of numerous US delegations to Cairo and a desire to support the Egyptian economy . . . We are working to ensure that US-Egyptian relations are at their normal levels. Relations between two countries cannot always mean complete convergence of viewpoints and that there will be no disagreements on some regional and international issues, and how to deal with these.
Q: What can you tell us about your meetings in Paris, particularly French President Francois Hollande’s statement that Paris is seeking to help Egypt in Europe, although he tied this with a number of conditions?
What I learnt from the talks that I held with President Hollande is that France is ready to explain Egypt’s position to the rest of Europe. Of course, in any relations there are expectations from each side towards the other, although I would not describe these as conditions. This specifies the nature and scope of relations. Just as there are expectations from the European side regarding the future course of events in Egypt, we also have expectations towards Europe regarding how it deals with Egypt in terms of supporting the country and regional stability, as well as the issue of confronting terrorism. Relations must be reciprocal, not one-sided.
Q: Egypt continues to face security problems, particularly relating to terrorist groups. How long will it take the Egyptian authorities to clamp down on this dangerous phenomenon and restore security across the country?
Europe must support Egypt in the fight against terrorism. We are waiting for Europe to give us what we need—whether politically, materially or militarily—in the war against terrorism, particularly to help us to safeguard our soldiers and track down terrorist elements.
Egypt is carrying out a war against terrorists in Sinai and has borne many sacrifices in this regard, particularly given that there are many residential centers in Sinai where terrorist elements can hide while we are committed to ensuring that no innocent civilians are harmed. It would be easy to fight against terrorism with indiscriminate military operations that do not take civilian casualties into account. But they [the people in Sinai] are Egyptian and the state supports and protects them, and this is a policy that we are committed to.
We are making every effort to win the war on terrorism and hope to put an end to this phenomenon soon. We are in the process of taking new security measures [in Sinai] and I believe that this will have a strong impact in ensuring success in the war on terror.
Q: The world has been preoccupied with international negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. In your opinion, will the failure of the talks lead Iran to harden its line towards the region?
The nuclear issue is an important one, both on the regional and international level. The major powers are working to find the equation that ensures the non-proliferation of nuclear arms in the Middle East, preventing a nuclear arms race that would have a severe impact on the region.
On the topic of Egypt’s ties with Iran, the situation has not changed much over the past 25 years. Ties are frozen and diplomatic relations severed. Attempts from both sides have failed to make progress. We are co-members of many regional and international organizations. But bilateral relations are not as they should be between two countries of similar magnitude. We hope the future will hold the opportunity to restore our ties with Tehran and that the Iranian side adopts policies that encourage common interaction.