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Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmi on African relations - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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 File photo of Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmi. (EPA/KHALED ELFIQI)

File photo of Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmi. (EPA/KHALED ELFIQI)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since the ousting of Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s new government has struggled to assert its legitimacy in international forums outside of the Arab world. In particular, the African Union (AU), once dismissed as a club for dictators, suspended Egyptian involvement in its activities on July 5, “until the restoration of constitutional order,” as the chairman of the organization’s Peace and Security Council put it.

This has not gone down well in Cairo, given the recurrent Egyptian view, once laid out by Gamal Abdul Nasser in his book Egypt’s Liberation: The Philosophy of the Revolution, that the country lies at the intersection of “three circles”: the Arab, Islamic and African worlds.

Unsurprisingly, Egypt’s interim government has been keen to try to reverse the AU’s decision, and is making new attempts to reaffirm ties with Egypt’s southern neighbors. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmi during his tour of the Nile Basin about Egypt’s approach to African relations.

The following interview has been edited for length.

Asharq Al-Awsat: Egypt’s involvement in Africa has been in decline for a long time. How has Egypt’s foreign policy approach to the other African countries changed?

Nabil Fahmi: First, I would like to emphasize that Egyptian foreign policy . . . does not operate in a vacuum. We have well-established principles governing our foreign policy that always seek to further the national interest and maintain national security.

I believe that we have a historic responsibility to restore Egypt to its rightful regional and global position. I have often said that Egypt’s approach will be based on two axes, one Arab and one African, given that Egypt is Arab in identity and African in its geography and interests.

We must rise to Egyptian society’s aspirations for a better future. In order to meet these expectations, we need to have a long-term vision. Those following Egyptian foreign policy know that we have immediately begun carrying out our commitment to place Africa in its rightful place among our diplomatic priorities. Egypt’s strategic interests are tied to Africa, and restoring Egypt to a leading role in the African continent is not some luxury that we can do without. Egypt was one of the founding fathers of the Organization of African Unity, and then the AU after it, and Egypt has done much in other ways to further the development of its brothers in African countries.

Therefore, I would like to reaffirm the important fact that Egyptian interest in Africa following the June 30 revolution is neither temporary nor meant to make headway on one issue in particular, but rather it is focused on building a strategic relationship that can realize mutual gains for all parties without causing harm. Cooperation between Egypt and its African brothers will advance development and identify developmental needs by tapping Egyptian expertise. Moreover, the Egyptian private sector will be encouraged to double its investments in Africa.

Q: How do you envision the strategic development partnership between Egypt and the countries of Nile Basin that you mentioned playing out?

The truth is that Africa has undergone major changes over the past decades, with many African countries managing to achieve very good rates of growth, attract foreign investments, and exploit their countries’ rich resources. Meanwhile, other African countries have undertaken the daunting task of democratization. African cooperation has taken concrete steps with the establishment of the African Union and its various institutions. Egyptian foreign policy will adjust to these changes and will take a different approach towards African countries, in that it will treat them as partners for development through cooperation in both the public and private sectors. An uptick in trade and investment would benefit the common interests of all parties involved.

Certainly, the initiative Egypt announced in its statement at the 68th General Assembly session of the United Nations in New York to establish the Egyptian Partnership Agency for Development represents a concrete step in this regard. The new agency will guide the activities of African countries and will encourage the Egyptian private sector by providing incentives to increase investments in the continent, opening new horizons and serving the interests of all parties.

As for Egypt’s strategic approach regarding the Nile Basin, it represents one component of Egypt’s new foreign policy platform towards the African continent. This includes ensuring water security for Egypt by all legitimate means so as to preserve the rights and interests of Egyptians to the waters of the Nile. In fact, we aim to increase Egypt’s share so as to meet the developmental demands of our country. At the same time, we aim to respect the developmental aspirations of the countries and peoples of the Nile Basin, including the Ethiopian people.

We look forward to finding solutions through dialogue so as to secure the interests of all parties. Each party wants more than it currently has, whether it be water, energy or economic development, and these aspirations cannot be met without joint action among the Nile Basin countries.

Q: Together with the minister of agriculture and land reclamation, you recently took a tour of Africa that included Uganda and Burundi. What was the purpose of this trip, and what did you discuss with the officials of these two nations?

The tour reflects that we have made our brothers in the Nile Basin and Africa at large a top priority. Despite the fact that the Nile waters issue is of paramount importance, it will not be the only component of Egypt’s foreign policy platform. The Nile should be a source of unity and not a division for the countries of the Nile Basin.

During the tour I met with the presidents of Uganda and Burundi and handed them letters written by President Adly Mansour, in which he spoke of Egypt’s newfound priority and vision for Africa at large, politically, socially and economically. It was a message of cooperation and friendship, and we emphasized Egypt’s interest in supporting the two countries in their developmental programs and building on preexisting cooperation.

In Uganda, I met with President Yoweri Museveni. He understood Egypt’s sway in Africa, the importance of Egypt’s engagement with African issues, and the benefits Egyptian participation brings to the African Union. He also stressed that it is in the interest of the Nile Basin countries to take into account the interests and needs of the other parties. He said that all Nile Basin countries, from its source to the Delta, must work together, given that they all depend on this vital river. He underscored that his country will work with Egypt to build bilateral relations, along with a better future for Africa as a whole.

In the same vein, I met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs and we discussed the means and mechanisms for developing bilateral relations between Egypt and Uganda. These included cultural and educational cooperation efforts, such as scholarships provided by Egypt. There was a consensus that the undertakings of both governments were useful, but that they must produce results and ensure the inclusion of the private sector.

The Ugandan minister expressed his country’s appreciation for the existing Egyptian projects in Uganda, including a new project for solar energy, Egyptian contributions to the East African Railways and Harbors Corporation in Mombasa and Kampala, and the establishment of the first modern slaughterhouse in East Africa. During the visit, the Minister of Agriculture agreed to establish a joint farm in Uganda to produce seeds for important crops such as corn, wheat and other types of vegetables.

Our Minister of Agriculture also informed the Ugandan prime minister of Egypt’s willingness to set up construction training sessions and technical assistance for building housing projects. He also proposed opening a branch of the Egyptian Building and Land Reclamation Research Center in Uganda to provide important technical consulting services. In addition, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offered medical services via the Egyptian Fund for Technical Cooperation with Africa.

Q: And what of the Burundi trip?

In Burundi I also met with President Pierre Nkurunziza, who stressed that Egypt has a great standing in Africa and that Africa is not complete without Egypt. He spoke of Burundi’s and Egypt’s longstanding relationship, which has never been touched by tension or disputes. They support Egypt’s role in Africa and will work within the African and Nile Basin frameworks and with the countries of East Africa to ensure that the Nile is a source of prosperity and cooperation for all. I also met with diplomats to discuss Egypt’s eagerness to support Burundi’s developmental efforts and desire to build upon the existing cooperation in the fields of medicine and science. We also plan to expand joint efforts in the energy and education sectors, as well as help the Burundi private sector overcome problems regarding foreign investment.

In my opinion, after this second tour of the African continent, having already visited Sudan and South Sudan, I can say that the message of the Egyptian people after the June 30 revolution has already reached the peoples and governments of our brothers in Africa, the message being that we are serious in Egypt about working with Africa. Much work still lies ahead of us. We want to mobilize the Egyptian private sector so as to facilitate its engagement in Africa to the benefit of the Egyptian private sector, increase the Egyptian presence in Africa, and thus achieve the mutual interests of all parties and without being biased to the interests of any party in particular.

In the near future, we aim to continue to communicate with our African counterparts through visits by the deputy foreign minister when I am occupied elsewhere. I also authorized the Egyptian ambassadors to Uganda and Burundi, along with the Deputy Foreign Minister for African Affairs, to follow up on the discussions so as to ensure that the bureaucracies of both parties do not impede the implementation of the projects. We have emphasized to our African brothers that we will keep our word and implement that which we have promised them, while still taking into account the delicate circumstances in which Egypt finds itself.

Q: Do you plan to undertake similar tours in the future that emphasize Egypt’s pivot towards Africa?

Several tours are planned. I have already gone on two tours, including Uganda and Burundi, and there are plans to tour the continent every two months for at least the next six months. We hope that there will be no conflict in appointments, for it is important that we prove to ourselves and others that we are seriously committed to Africa. Thus I was determined to visit Uganda and Burundi even at the expense of two important ministerial meetings in Paris and London that were held on the same dates.

My tours in the coming weeks will visit a number of countries in Central and West Africa, as well as the Nile Basin countries. These tours are part of our overarching permanent commitment to strengthening relations and building continuous communication with the various countries of the African continent. We are resolute that our foreign policy be based on two axes, one African and one Arab, which I have been pushing since assuming office. We also recognize that Egypt needs Africa just as Africa needs Egypt. This notion is evident in the size and importance of the issues at the bilateral, regional and even global levels, including reforming the international organization, liberalizing international trade, facilitating development, preserving the environment, etc. All of these are African issues that must be dealt with collectively. This way, we can take unified stances on global issues and preserve the rights and interests of the continent’s peoples, which are among Egypt’s top priorities in international forums.

Q: How will Egypt start to mend relations with Ethiopia?

We are in constant communication with Ethiopia. In fact, the first call I made after assuming office was to the Ethiopian foreign minister, and I also met with him in New York. He assured me that his country is committed to moving forward and dispelling the tensions that have come to characterize the relationship of late.

I believe that the optimum approach is to explore ways in which we can work in concert with Ethiopia to achieve the common interest of the two countries and avoid addressing the water issue in zero-sum terms. More importantly, we must mold it into an opportunity to achieve the developmental aspirations of the two peoples based on the principles of realizing mutual gains while ensuring no harm comes to either party. This is a possibility with the creation of innovative solutions and a constructive outlook.

I believe that the Ethiopian side is fully aware of the importance Egypt ascribes to the issue of water security, given its full dependence on the Nile for water. We seek to increase Egypt’s water resources and do more than merely maintain the annual water quota in the light of growing water needs. We do not oppose Ethiopia’s right to take advantage of its natural resources so that it might achieve developmental gains, as long as it does not encroach upon Egypt’s water rights. We hope to start holding technical meetings at the beginning of November between the irrigation ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, and thus put this issue back on the right track and secure the interests of all Nile Basin countries. There is no alternative to cooperation between the Nile Basin countries so that the Nile River becomes a unifying and not a divisive issue.

Q: How receptive have African countries been to Egypt following the decision taken by the Peace and Security Council to suspend Egypt from participating in African Union activities following the events of June 30?

First, one should not confuse the hasty and unfounded position of the African Peace and Security Council to suspend Egypt’s participation in the activities of the African Union with Egypt’s bilateral relations with individual African countries, and with Egypt’s participation in regional and global forums concerning African issues. African countries have always been supportive, and they still support us. They, more than any others, understand the aspirations of the Egyptian people in light of common historic struggles and the spirit of solidarity among the peoples of Africa. Since the outset of these events, Egypt has been intent on communicating with its African brothers by dispatching envoys to brief them on various developments and challenges.

Responses have been positive, understanding and supportive. Many of our African brothers have written reaffirming their confidence in the wisdom of the Egyptian people and their respect for our choices and our ability to build the democracy we deserve. They have stressed their conviction that a stable and prosperous Egypt is essential for Africa, in view of the important role played by Egypt in championing issues important to the continent, with the exception of one or two that have taken hasty stances based on false information.

Dealing with this matter in a timely and decisive manner reinforces that we will not give ground on any issue that concerns the wellbeing of the Egyptian people. All in all, we have recently seen a lot of positive indicators that imply a growing respect among our African brothers for the will and sound decision-making of the Egyptian people, as well as consensus at the continental and global levels for implementing the roadmap in accordance with the timetable to which Egypt’s political players have agreed.

Q: Egypt has received an invitation to participate in the third Arab Summit in Kuwait next month. Will there be specific Egyptian proposals on the agenda of the Arab–African Summit?

Egypt assigns particular importance to this forum, given that Egypt had been one of its leading advocates ever since it hosted the third Arab–African Summit in 1977. Since that time, Egypt has been committed to strengthening Arab–African cooperation in various fields, and we plan to earnestly take part in its proceedings. The President the Republic will also hold meetings with Arab and African leaders to advance bilateral relations and discuss various issues of common interest.

I would like to point out that the third summit to be hosted by Kuwait is gaining more momentum because of its slogan, “Partners in Development and Investment.” This momentum will lend weight to the decisions of economic and development cooperation between Arab and African countries. It will be preceded by an economic forum in which businessmen and experts from both sides will participate. This is designed to underscore the importance of economic relations in strengthening the ties between the peoples and achieving their developmental aspirations.