New York, Asharq Al-Awsat – Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboul Gheit denied reports that the US intends to tie its aid to Egypt to respect for human rights and greater freedoms, saying that “in all the talks we had with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice we have not talked about this issue in any shape or form.” With respect to Egypt’s efforts concerning reconciliation among Palestinian organizations and between Hamas and Fatah in particular, the Egyptian foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat in an interview held on the fringes of the UN General Assembly meetings, that he expects Egypt’s efforts to culminate in an agreement among Palestinian organizations by the end of this year. However, he did not expect agreement between Israel and the Palestinians by the end of this year. Talking from his residence in New York, he said: “Having closely monitored developments and possibilities I cannot envisage an agreement by the end of December 2008.”With regard to the relations between Egypt and Syria, Aboul Gheit said that “relations between the two countries are going through a ‘dull’ period and communications between the two parties have faded but there are various communications that are not made public.” With respect to the situation in Sudan, the Egyptian foreign minister warned against the dangers of the International Criminal Court [ICC] issuing an arrest warrant against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. “We demand that the Security Council act quickly in this matter because time is passing and with the passage of time events might take place that might change the ‘formula’ in Darfur and complicate it further.” He expected France to change its position, as the big powers in the Security Council understand the need to invoke Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the ICC. “They are aware of the dangers surrounding the situation in Sudan if matters go in the direction that [Luis Moreno-] Ocampo [ICC prosecutor] wants the judges of the court to take.” The Egyptian foreign minister appealed to Iran to cooperate with the international community and abide by the Security Council resolutions and warned of the dangers of a new war and escalating tension in the Mideast region which, he said, “has suffered a lot in the past 60 years.” He called on Iran to “refute and banish all doubts surrounding its nuclear program. He expressed Egypt’s readiness to build good relations with Iran if it improved its performance in the region. He mentioned in particular, Iran’s performance in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some reports have said that the United States intends to tie economic aid to Egypt with human rights. Has US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice raised this issue during your talks?
[Aboul Gheit] This issue was never raised in any shape or form at any of the meetings I had with the US secretary of state. I have met the US secretary of state four times in the past five days, but this particular issue was not raised.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What has become of the dialogue which Egypt has been conducting with Palestinian organizations, Hamas and Fatah in particular?
[Aboul Gheit] The Egyptian approach in conducting the current dialogue is based on the view that internal Palestinian divisions have damaged the Palestinian cause immensely. Some parties that used to support the Palestinian cause have decided either to quit the stage, or decided the people of this cause, who kill each other, are not worthy of their support and international understanding. Thus, Egypt believes that the present situation cannot be allowed to continue. This is one side of the matter. The other side is that there are negotiations taking place between the PA and Israel and these negotiations should be supported by all sections of Palestinian society. On the basis of this view, Egypt felt the need to achieve a breakthrough in the Palestinian situation, whereby the Palestinians would restore their unity and increase their influence. The Egyptian effort is based on the cooperation of all Palestinian organizations, one at a time, until we reach Hamas. On 8 October 2007 we put some questions to the Palestinian organizations in order to receive answers that would help us to assess their respective position. Egypt has in this regard an integrated approach and we hope all the parties would respond positively. There are indications that those with whom we have met so far, support the Egyptian approach, understand it, and wish to continue with it. After that there would either be a round table or a general meeting to reach a consensus that opens the road for reconciliation before the end of this year. This would consolidate the Palestinian capability to negotiate, restore the position that the Palestinians lost on the international level, and put the Palestinian cause on track.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Quartet Committee has alluded to the possibility of reaching an agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis by the end of this year. Is this still possible in your view?
[Aboul Gheit] The US is insisting on continuing its efforts. On the other hand, it realizes that the Israeli situation is difficult in the absence of a capable government. Consequently, the US feels the need to wait for several weeks for the Israeli situation to crystallize. If the Israeli foreign minister succeeds in forming a coalition government, the US will once again play its role in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis together and act as go between, to reach a comprehensive agreement, not partial, or provisional or agreement for the sake of concluding an era, pending the crystallization of positions and developments in the new year, 2009. This is what the US secretary of state has confirmed to me as well as the International Quartet. This is the US view. The International Quartet [UN, Russia, the EU, and the US] hopes that Washington will succeed in its endeavors. But in my view, if the US succeeds that would be positive and would have positive consequences. But judging from a position of one who closely followed developments and possibilities, I cannot envisage an agreement taking place by the end of this year. This however does not mean that we should not stop to take stock. Moreover, we should not wait for the new US Administration and a new Israeli Government to launch into negotiations once again. We have to record everything that has taken place between the parties as well as their expectations. The US should undertake the responsibility, not necessarily at this moment, to record what the parties have said to each other and what agreements have been reached. This should be done with a deep sense of responsibility and US credibility, and not by taking sides with one party against another. If we succeed in doing this by the end of this year, then, with a new US Administration, a new Israeli Government, the continuity of an able and capable Palestinian Authority, and actualization of Palestinian reconciliation – all this, would lead to continuous movement and perhaps lead to the breakthrough that we have not seen so far.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Surely you have noticed that Arab speakers at the Security Council, which met at foreign ministers’ level, presented a dark pessimistic picture. There is a feeling of frustration toward the process that took place since the Annapolis conference. Is this picture correct from your point of view?
[Aboul Gheit] According to our information, the parties have discussed, consulted, and negotiated all the elements of a political settlement. There were in-depth negotiations and discussions between the two parties – the Israelis and the Palestinians, but nothing has been recorded in a way that allows us to say this is the result of our work. Consequently, the Arab anger and dissatisfaction is not confined to the issue of success or failure of the negotiations, but goes further and reaches the international community, which failed to confront Israeli settlement practices. The Arabs did not go to the Security Council to discuss the Palestinian cause or a settlement of that cause; they went to shed light on the continued Israeli settlement practices, which, if continued, would put an end to the idea of a two-state solution. Thus, the meeting was an Arab message to the international community, saying: confront Israel’s settlement building, or else face with us the moment of truth when no Palestinian land is left on which to build the Palestinian state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have projected an optimistic picture of the possibility of actualizing Palestinian reconciliation. On what basis do you think it would be possible to reach an agreement?
[Aboul Gheit] Unity can be achieved on the basis of Palestinians cooperating with each other; on the basis of a technocrat government representing all sections of the Palestinian people; on agreement on a date for presidential and legislative elections; on the principle that all Palestinian security forces everywhere come under the authority of the Palestinian Authority, not as representatives of this or that faction; on obtaining new security capabilities with backing from Arab states; on opening the crossings between Palestine and Israel. All these are elements in a transaction we are trying to achieve.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Because of Lebanon, and because of Syria’s relations with Iran, Egyptian-Syrian relations have been going through a frosty period. Have you got over this?
[Aboul Gheit] I would describe relations between Egypt and Syria as ‘faded’ not ‘frosty’ and so also the communications between the two countries. Nevertheless, when we meet as foreign ministers we consult, talk, exchange views, and there is always a lot to talk about. You could say there are communications with a difference, but they are not always made public.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you noticed that Syria’s conduct, whether with regard to Lebanon or with regard to regional issues has changed?
[Aboul Gheit] No doubt there is something new in Syria’s attitude. The mere return to indirect negotiations [with Israel] and the demand that the negotiations be direct, with US participation, is undoubtedly a new development. Syria’s participation in the conference for Mediterranean unity represents a new Syrian position. The Syrian reaction to the situation in Lebanon represents a new position. All these elements are new in Syrian policy, and we follow these developments with great interest, scrutinize them, and study them in-depth.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] As Arab foreign ministers you took a united stand regarding the arrest warrant of President Omar al-Bashir issued by the International Criminal Court [ICC]. The judge investigating the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri is about to conclude his investigation. Are you going to take the same stand if the public prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon issues warrants to arrest Syrian officials?
[Aboul Gheit] I do not talk about hypothetical issues. I prefer to wait until I have read the investigator’s report and the final report of the Special Tribunal, the time they are issued, as well as the directives they make. The Special International Tribunal for Lebanon was established by means of a Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. Security Council resolutions under this Chapter are binding. Egypt accepts and understands these resolutions and goes along with them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What efforts were made by the Arab League to invoke Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the ICC, regarding postponement of the warrant to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir?
[Aboul Gheit] The Arab League efforts are not just Arab, but also African, and efforts are made by some other influential states. Egypt is having direct contacts with members of the Security Council concurrently with the Arab and African efforts. We talk and send messages and demand that the Security Council acts soon because time is passing. With the passage of time some events might change the entire situation in Darfur and complicate it further. Accordingly, we have demanded that the Security Council adopts a resolution invoking Article 16 of the Rome Statute of the ICC. At the same time, we understand the position of the Security Council members demanding to see some steps taken on the ground in Darfur and Sudan. We hope the present and future Sudanese arrangements will meet the expectations of the Security Council and the main members in particular.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We understand that France has made some conditions for invoking Article 16, among which is the demand that two Sudanese officials be handed to the ICC. Have you discussed those conditions with France, Britain and the United States?
[Aboul Gheit] The Sudanese authorities say they refuse to surrender any Sudanese officials. What we need to do is find a way to actualize our objective, which is the operation of Article 16 and not allow the situation in Sudan to become more complicated. On my part, I have talked with the UN secretary general and said that the Public Prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, should not be allowed to act in the way he did. For if he acted within the legal framework as a legal, not political public prosecutor, he should have consulted first with the UN secretary general and the main powers in the Security Council in order not to face the complications and the dangerous escalation that we are witnessing or might witness in the next few weeks.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you noticed any change in the position of France, Britain and the United States on this issue?
[Aboul Gheit] By changing position, these states would also be trying to change their objectives and therefore they have not yet revealed their real intentions. They all understand the need to invoke Article 16 of the ICC Statute and we are aware of that. They are aware of the dangers surrounding the situation in Sudan if the ICC and the judges go in the direction Ocampo wants. What is going on at present is a kind of traditional maneuvering where each party tries to achieve as much as possible of its objectives.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is talk about Iranian intervention in Egyptian internal affairs, about Iranian support for some extremist groups, and about spreading Shiism in Egypt?
[Aboul Gheit] Anyone who intervenes in Egypt’s internal affairs will not be happy with the response they receive. The Iranians cannot intervene in our internal affairs, and we do not allow anyone, great or small, international or regional to intervene in our internal affairs.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There is a feeling that Iran is using the support it receives from the Non-Aligned Movement and member states of the Islamic Organization to bestow legality on its nuclear program, which it claims is peaceful, escalate confrontation with the United States and the West, and expand its sphere of influence in the Middle East region?
[Aboul Gheit] Iran is supported in its right for peaceful use of nuclear power, but there are doubts about their program and they are accused of having a military nuclear program. Iran is required to prove to the world that its programs are purely peaceful and steer away from programs of a military nature. In my view, Iran is required to give guarantees that would assure the international community. Failing this we might see the escalation of confrontation and conflict, which we would not want to see happening in this region. Suffice what the region has been through in the past 60 years, whether with regard to the Palestinian cause, the Iraq/Iran war, the destruction of the State of Iraq, and the war in Afghanistan from the Soviet invasion to the present day.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Iran exploiting the issue of its nuclear program and confrontation with the US and the West to expand its influence in the region?
[Aboul Gheit] The confrontation between Iran and the West has been going on since the return of Imam Khomeyni and the Iranian revolution in1979. In the course of that conflict Iran has been trying to maximize its capabilities by being active in certain types of issues. One type of issue is where they can clearly influence the situation, such as in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian situation, particularly in Gaza. Sometimes they think they can influence issues through which they could build their capabilities but they find it difficult. For example, they appear to be building relations with some Islamic states neighboring some Arab countries in North Africa. Thus, you find some high-ranking Iranian officials visiting Chad, Niger, Central Africa and Senegal. All these are attempts to maximize their image. In reality, all these movements are monitored and their influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine is well known to us. The purpose of all that influence is to serve Iranian interests directly in their confrontation with the West. On the other hand, I can say that Egypt is prepared to build good positive relations with Iran and is prepared to call on all Arab states to cooperate positively and amicably with the brothers in Iran. But, we require that Iranian performance be at the regional level – and I am not talking about Iran’s relations with the international community. The Iranian performance at the regional level should be responsible and conducive to positive results. Take for example the debate about Israeli settlements in the Security Council. Western countries have confused the Palestinian cause and the building of Israeli settlements and the need to confront this by saying that they reject the Iranian president’s statements on destroying Israel. What have we as Arabs got to do with what the Iranian president says? Let him say what he likes, but the West uses and exploits what the ill-wishers of the Palestinian cause say to harm the Palestinian and Arab stand. In brief, the Iranian performance should be scrutinized and the Iranians should understand the anxiety of Arab states and the Gulf States in particular. Escalation, tension and confrontation have consequences in this region which has suffered a lot over the past sixty years.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] It is clear that Iran is going ahead with its nuclear program despite Security Council resolutions and international pressure. Are we to expect another war in the region?
[Aboul Gheit] We hope the major countries in the Security Council, the director of the IAEA, the international community and the states in the Mideast region, succeed in convincing our brothers in Iran to reach an acceptable and satisfactory peaceful settlement that would achieve the right to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes for them and at the same time refute and do away with the doubts of external international parties.We should not forget that Russia, despite its diplomatic confrontations with the West, has joined in adopting the Security Council resolution last Friday [ 26 September] which demands that Iran responds to the demands of the international community.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Some countries have started sending ambassadors to Iraq, but Egypt has not done so, and Iraq is still complaining that Iranian influence is caused by Arab absence from Iraq.
[Aboul Gheit] There is a time for everything. Do not forget that none of those you are referring to lost an ambassador in Baghdad. We hope they do not, but Egypt did lose its ambassador there. Hence, Egypt has to make careful calculations. When the time is right we hope to move and do more for Iraq. But this has not prevented the president and prime minister of Iraq and many other Iraqi officials from coming to Egypt to participate in serious objective talks. Egypt feels that the situation in Iraq is improving and that Iraq should be helped in getting out of the dark tunnel into which it has fallen.