As the world is closely watching the new policies of US president Donald Trump, there are several questions yet to be answered about how the new US administration will affect the rest of the world, particularly concerning the turmoil in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
Egypt, being an essential regional player, is also at the heart of international relations among superpowers, especially in light of its openness and cooperation with Russia.
Daily News Egypt conducted an interview with Kamal Abou Okeal, member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs and a member of the German Council for Foreign Affairs (DGAP), to discuss the latest developments on Egypt’s foreign relations with Israel, Europe, the US, and Russia.
Do you agree that the Egyptian-Israeli relations are “at their highest levels” in history?
This is a very complex subject that has very deep roots and it is very important to understand the origin of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. Here is a look at what you need to know about the Camp David Accords as I was an observer of the agreement that took place between former president Anwar El-Sadat, former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and former president Jimmy Carter in Washington on 17 September 1978. Before the signing of the agreement, I received a call from the secretary of El-Sadat at the time, Fawzy Abo Hafez, who informed me that they would not come to an agreement with Israel as they are very hawkish and want an agreement on their own terms.
However, El-Sadat insisted on certain terms. Egyptian expats in Washington were alarmed that we were prepared to make so many concessions to the Israelis. Each party saw worthiness in resolving the dispute through negotiations under an American umbrella, but the two sides still had fundamentally different approaches to peace.
Suddenly, it was announced that the agreement was signed. Later, I was invited by the Egyptian ambassador in Washington to meet with El-Sadat together with some activists living in the US at that time. El-Sadat explained that he did not like the treaty and was not happy with most of its terms; however, that this agreement will give Egypt equality with Israel, meaning that if they will get a US dollar, we will get the same and if it will get an F16 or tanks, we in return will get the same. The agreement also guaranteed the complete withdrawal of Israeli armed forces and civilians from the Sinai Peninsula.
When I met with Carter, I discussed with him if this treaty will allow for parity between Egypt and Israel vis-à-vis the US. He explained that this never happened because El-Sadat never broached the subject of parity. El-Sadat was a patriotic man, a man who fought and was a political activist. He did what he could do under very difficult and debatable circumstances because part of our country was occupied; however, in my opinion, this treaty set the stage for a negative image for us as it allowed Israel to become a superpower in the region.
More recently, Israel considered former president Hosni Mubarak their biggest strategic asset. Now, they are making use of our security concerns and our fight against terrorist elements. There is a definite cooperation between Egypt and Israel which makes us able to increase the number of forces in Sinai, more than the treaty would allow because in many parts of the Sinai Peninsula, the Camp David Accords stipulate that Egypt is allowed a limited military presence, and closer to the border, Egypt is allowed to field police officers only.
In order to have peace in the region, first we should have parity between Egypt and Israel. Egypt is a big country with a great history which goes back thousands of years. Unless Egypt has its natural state of power, there will never be real peace in the region. What kept peace in Europe for over fifty years is parity; they call it Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD). For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has enough destructive capabilities to destroy the nations under the Warsaw pact and vice versa. This balance of power is what kept the peace. In the Middle East, if we have a balance of power between the biggest countries, it will keep the peace and allow us to reach an agreement regarding the Palestinian issue.
The Palestinians cannot negotiate with the Israeli side, because in order to have an equitable agreement, you have to have more or less equivalent power. Negotiations that take place between a very powerful party and another weak one, turn to be a dictation, and this is not a recipe for peace. A proper recipe for peace is equality.
You were among the very few intellectuals in Egypt who predicted the victory of Donald Trump. Do you think he will change the long-standing US policies on major issues and crises in the region?
I was able to predict this unexpected victory because I lived in the US for years and I know the mentality of American people and how they think. They like to have change. They voted for Barack Obama, a democratic black man who was the polar opposite to George W. Bush. In history, they voted for Nixon who was a crook, then for Carter, who was a man of purity. Now, Trump is different than Obama. He is a white businessperson, extremely rich, and speaks the language of the common and blue collar people. Americans were upset with so many issues, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the faltering economy as companies moved their factories overseas. Trump was able to ride the wave of American discontent and win the race.
In order to understand his attitude, we should wait and see how he will confront all major issues in the Middle East. His cabinet members make me a bit anxious; his secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who was the CEO of EXXON and a well-known businessperson, is practical and a pragmatist. He is also known to have a good relationship with Russia, which represents a positive signal for peace in the world. Tillerson is a neutral person regarding foreign policy and does not have much experience.
On the other hand, Trump’s nomination of David Friedman as ambassador to Israel is very much worrying, because he is a proponent of settlement construction in the occupied Palestinian territories, not just theoretically but also practically. He spent $58,000 of his own money as donations to build new settlements there. Also, Trump promises to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is a position not accepted by anybody. Even though congress has often suggested and demanded this move on several occasions, it never took place because it is against international law as it is an occupied territory and it has to be negotiated.
Turning to Egypt, Trump has a good chemistry with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, but from my experience the personal relations are only part of the equation. What matters is the situation on the ground and what is good or beneficial for each country, so let’s wait and see. When we think about the US presidential administration and policies towards the Middle East, we have to be practical and pragmatic about how the world goes and evaluate what we can do and what we cannot. If Trump has good relations with us, then let’s hope for the best.
What does the British-Gulf reconciliation indicate and how would it affect Egypt?
I do not think there is a direct relationship. Britain next March will start negotiating the Brexit, exiting from the European Union (EU) which is expected to take two years. Britain is the second largest economy in the EU, Germany is number one. Britain’s exit is hard as it will be considered a foreign country. They will be required to have visas, pay customs, and so on. Britain is going to have a transition that is not as they expected it to be. They thought it was going to be a soft exit which would allow them to metaphorically “have their cake and eat it,” meaning that they would retain the common market while restricting free movement from the EU. The main reason which made 52% of British people decide to leave the EU is the free movement of workers, the idea that if you are Polish or Hungarian, you can set up a shop in England or apply for a job in any British factory. This made British people upset because they think Eastern Europeans are taking their jobs.
When the British discovered that they were going to lose lots of money, they had two options: either to be independent or rely on the facilities provided to them through the EU were they do most of their business. Independently, they have to play on two main parts in the world, the US and the Gulf. I expect that British prime minister Theresa May and Trump will be very close to each other. May went to the Gulf to maximise business ties with them, and to soften up the negative effect of their exit from the EU and this has nothing to do with Egypt.
How do you evaluate Egyptian-British relations and the position of the members of the House of Commons adopted toward the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Do you think they will change their attitude?
I do not think that Britain will change its attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood. It has been this way for a very long time. Change is probably going to take place in the US. I do expect that Trump will take a much harsher stance towards all sources of political Islam including the Brotherhood. The British don’t change their opinions often. They are very conservative, and they have certain rules and regulations. Britain is changing and there will be fundamental changes later. The clashes taking place between May, who is a conservative, and Labour deputy leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is liberal and the leader of the opposition, is an example. There is a breakdown in the UK. Scotland is edging to leave together with Northern Ireland in order to stay in the EU. On the other hand, Germany did not want Britain to leave; however, they are very strict in making any concessions to the British.
Why are hard-line right-wing parties making gains in Europe? How will this affect the Middle East in general?
This is a very important question because the most far-right parties in Europe have increased in popularity during the past period. You have the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Britain, and the National Front led by Marine Le Pen in France. All these far-right parties achieved electoral success along with the migrant crisis and unstable economic growth.
Syria’s civil war has generated the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. Half the country’s pre-war population with more than 8 million people have been killed or forced to flee their homes. About 4 million stayed in Syria and the rest went to Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, and Europe.
The far-right claim that Europe is facing a Muslim invasion; on the other hand, negative opinions about Muslims are much more common among European citizens in general. When I was in Germany, I realised that all the posters on the streets were bearing anti-migrant messages. The fears that the flow of refugees will lead to more terrorism and will affect the economy are considerably more pervasive among UKIP supporters and the National Front in France. There is a hidden feeling of Islamophobia, and I do not know who is feeding this notion. However, such feelings hinder democracy by not accepting one of its fundamental principles which is equality before law. The problem is that such hateful feelings may lead to violence against minorities.
Are there any European intentions for financial aid or investment in Egypt?
We should depend on ourselves rather than aid. The EU is the largest economy in the world, followed by the US and China. However, I still remember in the past when Egypt used to give Britain aid and assistance. After the first world war, Britain owed Egypt over $100m and after the second world war, Egypt was a creditor to the British with $5bn, which they never paid back.
It could be beneficial if we negotiate easier terms for constructions of power stations such as the Manzala and Beni Suef stations, which will provide us with 4.8 MW of electricity and will cost around EUR 3m.
What we really need from Europe is training for our workforce because they are experts in all fields such as mechanics, carpentry, etc. The most important thing we need is to receive appropriate vocational training, which will give the required technical knowledge and hands-on experience in different jobs, and they can provide us with this intensively.
What about Egypt-Russia relations in 2017? Will they remain the same or will there be a breakthrough, especially after so many agreements have been signed between the two?
Our relationship with Russia is not bad, plus there is chemistry between Al-Sisi and Russian president Vladimir Putin. I am optimistic about the return of Russian tourists soon. Russia knows our weight in the region; however, I am against the nuclear power plant because of its very high cost and its high risk such as slow leakages of radioactive material, long emergency shutdowns, and meltdown due to overheating. Unfortunately, nuclear power plants have a long record of industrial incidents and is never far away from the next nuclear catastrophe. That’s why I am not with this project; however, they may help us in many other things such as solar production, tourism, and wheat.