2018 will be year of development for Egyptian foreign diplomacy and international relations: Al-Orabi

Adham Youssef
23 Min Read
former Egyptian foreign affairs minister and current member of parliament Mohammed Al-Orabi. Photo by AHmed Hendawy

Amid the ongoing conflicts that are occupying world news, Egypt’s foreign policy has been challenged with several crises such as the military conflicts in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, as well as the volatile political situations in Lebanon, Sudan, Palestine, and sub-Saharan Africa, besides the disputes with Ethiopia over the GERD. The foreign policy of any country is usually shaped to serve its domestic policies. After the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in July 2013, Egypt’s foreign policy was focused on fighting the Brotherhood-affiliated media around the world, as well as addressing the countries that supported them. In its relations with the west, the United States, and the European Union, Egypt has struggled to regain its positive relations.

The Egyptian government has succeeded in ameliorating its foreign relations with a great number of other nations. For example, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi made several significant state visits to Europe, Africa, and Asia during his four years of presidency. Al-Sisi’s subsequent visits to several countries contributed to reshaping relations built on mutual respect and non-interference in any country’s internal affairs, as well as a significant amount of agreements, deals, and memoranda of understanding that were signed.

One of the successes was the strong ties built with Greece and Cyprus, which have also helped in forming an alliance against Turkey

One of the successes was the strong ties built with Greece and Cyprus, which have also helped in forming an alliance against Turkey. The basic threats that Greece and Cyprus face are in line with Cairo’s major concerns. The most important regional threat for Greece and Cyprus are the Turkish policies that are trying to challenge the status in both the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean seas.

Over the past three years, Egypt’s policy towards Libya has been fixed. Cairo is supporting General Khalifa Haftar and demanding that the UN arms embargo be lifted to allow the Libyan armed forces to fight extremism. International powers are expecting Egypt to play an important role in stabilising Libya, as the spread of terrorism in the neighbouring country will have an impact on Egypt’s national security.

To evaluate the performance of the Egyptian foreign policy in last four years, Daily News Egypt interviewed former Egyptian foreign affairs minister and current member of parliament Mohammed Al-Orabi. He has served in several posts during his long career. This included posts in the Egyptian embassy in Israel. He previously served as ambassador of Egypt to Berlin for six years. He also was an aide to the foreign minister for three years and the head the foreign affairs committee of parliament.

How do you evaluate Egyptian diplomacy and its manoeuvres when it comes to economic relations?

We have different powerful economies like Vietnam, which is booming but is quiet and is expected to reach the levels of China soon. You also have relations with Singapore, a country that is small but has experience in water distillation and management of ports. Foreign policy does not only represent the country abroad but builds on points of trust with different countries economically in all deals, as the economy is part of politics and vice versa. Egypt is having a difficult situation as there are plans to suffocate it economically; sometimes this is done my some brothers in the Arab region. But nevertheless, I praise Egyptian foreign policy, which has depended on the visits of the president, the meetings of the foreign minister, and public diplomacy. For example look at Egypt’s approach in containing the anger of the EU after the 30 June revolution. The state took a strategy of gaining ground, by approaching separate countries and making alliances, and eventually breaking the opposing bloc slowly. So we can say now that the EU is close to Egypt, with the exception of, let’s say, the UK.

Similarly, we can say that from the weapons deals and the building of electricity stations, by this you offered several people in Europe new jobs in their countries. We can also say that not all visits were random, many of them had strategies. I see 2018 as a year of development for Egyptian foreign diplomacy and international relations.

There are new factors in the regional map, which is that terrorism is no longer confined to a single place or area. Now terrorism can go through borders, defying the concepts of borders, and that what is wanted is to challenge and limit the concepts of nation-states and centralised armies. The state can buy all the weapons and planes you can have, but these terrorist groups can counter the state and occupy vast lands using some 4×4 cars. For example, ISIS was struck by more bombs than Nazi Germany was hit by. Only when there were boots on the ground was there a difference.

There are challenges such as wars, sectarian and ethnic, and lots of complex alliances in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq. How did Egyptian foreign policy manage to balance its interests and manage to score economic interests?

For any diplomatic action, you have to set goals and levels. Some people talk about Egypt militarily intervening outside its borders, which is already taking place in Libya with these airstrikes to quell any aggression. We can no longer stay within our borders and wait. At the same time, we have to set limits for other strikes and campaigns in other countries. Egypt is emphasising the importance of centralised states and does not favour taking sides in coalitions. In Syria for example, Egypt supports the centralised state and the cohesion of Syria. Even when Egypt facilitated the entrance of aid shipments or the rescue of trapped individuals, you do this within the context of the centralised state. Since 2011, Egypt’s policy towards Syria has been the same, with exception of during the reign of Mohamed Morsi. And sometimes, these policies may sometimes not please our allies, but at the end, you work within the limits of your national diplomatic interests and the power of public opinion.

How can the Egyptian Foreign Ministry coordinate with the Ministry of Industry and Trade to enhance economic activities abroad?

Every diplomatic entity outside Egypt has to work under one umbrella, with allegiance to the state, the president, and the people. Unfortunately, there is some competition between bodies representing the state, and it has a negative effect. However, Egyptian foreign policy has become mature enough to cooperate with different bodies. Ambassadors are being given instructions to give due care to economic relations. I add to this the power of culture; we have several areas where we can influence culture, education, and art. Without exaggeration, Egypt has very strong soft power. And this powerful image will bring tourism and investment to the country.

I cite the World Youth Forum, which was an indirect way of transferring a positive image of Egypt.

Some friendly countries, for example, Russia, have partially closed their channels of tourism, especially after the Russian plane incident in October 2015. How can the Egyptian Foreign Ministry deal with such issues, especially that there are several common future mega-projects that are expected to grow?

I have a different opinion on this, which might be different from that of the Foreign Ministry. We have strong relations with Russia, an undeniable one, in several conflicts. I think the suspension of direct flights is an over exaggeration which we did not expect from an allied country like Russia. However, I think there should have been opportunities for parliament to voice its support for the Egyptian negotiators. I remember when President Sadat went to negotiate with Menachem Begin. Begin use to tell him that I can’t do this or that because I might face opposition from the Knesset. That is what we need. We need parliament to exert a power of pressure and influence that favours the interests of the people.

I certainly believe that we should halt the security inspection delegation that comes and inspects the airports. I travel three times a month. Egyptian airports are well-managed and well-secured, even sometimes exaggerated in comparison to other airports. However, we can not break relations with Russia because of tourism, as you have deep relations that Egypt uses to balance its relationship with the US.

The same thing with the British, there is always praise from their diplomats about the projects in Egypt, but there also should be talk about the return of tourism. I think the industry of tourism in Egypt is a leading force for potential development, which does not take a lot of effort to keep it ongoing.

You talked about soft power and you mentioned Pope Tawadros. Do you think we can mobilise the strong relationship between the Coptic and the Ethiopian churches to work for our favour in the Ethiopian dam issue?

Of course. Improving the relation between Egypt and Ethiopia has been a goal for the Egyptian state since the 1890s. There were methods then, and there are new ones now. We can definitely use parliamentary visits, or visits between the churches; all must be used. I believe our relations with Ethiopia were built on the basis of building trust. We build trust and they built the dam.

We have to focus on some points. This dam was built to generate electricity, hence there should be a flow of water, so Ethiopia is not planning to stop this flow. Water will reach Egypt, the issue is in the three years which will take the dam to be filled and the floodgates of the dam. So Egypt is protesting two points: the period of filling the dam and the floodgates of the dam. We have the great Lake Nasser, which has a great amount of water reserve, but we have to look for alternatives of water supply, other than the Nile. However, this does not mean that whoever controls the sources controls the flow of water. This is illegal by international law. We have to prepare a legal file that you can use in different international platforms. I believe that negotiators, whether they are from the Ministry of Irrigation or the General Intelligence Directorate, they have things under control, and there is no need to escalate. We also have to work with Sudan.

There have been some negative statements by the Sudanese foreign minister that Egypt gave up its historical share of Nile water after signing the GERD deal, and Sudan sometimes applies pressure in the issue of Halayeb and Shalateen. They accused Egypt of interfering in their internal affairs. What do you think should be done?

Relations with Sudan should be given due care. I believe that despite the disagreements between governments, the peoples of the two countries share common goals. There will be a public diplomacy delegation that will visit Sudan and will meet with famous figures there. The two peoples decided to live in peace, but the government disputes will vanish. It is normal that the regime there has a unified goal and objectives towards Egypt and other countries. We cannot change that. We, as a parliamentary delegation, visited in 2015 and were warmly met and welcomed. Egypt has participated in unifying the Sudanese tribes, and we have an edge in soft power. Many of the Sudanese ministers in Khartoum are graduates of Egyptian universities, like Al-Zagazig. We should open military, diplomatic, and educational academies to include more Sudanese nationals.

Concerning Libya, we can anticipate that the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq will create an overflow of militants to Libya, and we began seeing the effect of this in the Wahat attack. How can Egypt prepare for this? And how can Egypt benefit from the potential stability of the Iraqi and Syrian states when it comes to business?

The Iraqi people were prevented from development since 2001. This happened by the fact that all revenue was directed to army and weapons, and this wastes several opportunities for investments. The cement barriers, the security dogs, and the armoured cars cost a lot of money. Terrorism spends all your revenues. We said that Libya is a matter of Egyptian national security. Even UN law says that you have the right to defend yourself before you get attacked. I am a believer in this strategy. Some people said that this will lead to aggression, but this is the case when we talk about a country that is able to control its borders. But in Libya, there are gangs that control areas. Libya will take time.

We are living in an era where these conflicts only intensify. At first, they tried to push the Muslim Brotherhood and they failed. Then they tried to push the Islamic State. Then Iran. All will fail eventually. We don’t know what might be next. Of course, there is a strategic planning from the west. They were troubled by what happened in Egypt, as it was able to reach stability on 30 June. There are current studies that are saying that the waves of instability in the Arab world were not only to serve the interests of Israel but also to inflict economic damage. The plan was to have groups that run and control vast areas.

Another point is Egypt’s relations with the sub-Saharan countries. With the presence of major countries like Russia, Iran, and others in the area, how do you see Egypt’s role there?

I see that this area is a source of trouble, and a haven for militant groups, like Al-Shabab and Boko Haram. And in Chad and Niger, will be a destination for the remnants of the Islamic State which are moving from Libya. This is a dangerous strategic threat. There have been efforts by Egypt such as the sub-Saharan Defence Ministers conference as an attempt to approach the countries there. Contrary to the opinion which sees Syria and Iraq as the source of danger, I see the south as a source of danger. We are in a game, trapped by dangers, IS from Libya, from Sinai, and from the South. There is always someone threatening you. They always want you to be occupied. If you follow the activities of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry now, you will see reconciliation conferences between Palestinian, Sudanese, and Libyan conflicting sides. All these are difficult files, and this makes Egypt distinctive.

What about relations with the Mediterranean countries?

Here we should cite Al-SIsi’s visit to Greece and Cyprus. This comes as Egypt is indirectly approaching friendly countries, whether in economic or strategic methods. And this had positive effects on our relations. For example, Greece supported Egypt in the UNESCO from the first round. This UNESCO election showed a new world order. This approach from Egypt was smart, as it is building relations with the countries, not the regimes. What I want to say us that regimes in Europe is constantly changing. For example, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot form a government, which means the Foreign Minister will be from the Green Party, which will be critical of Egypt’s policies of human rights. Even with the latest visit of Al-SIsi to Macron, it improved the chemistry between the two presidents. But in general, in the Mediterranean area will be a scene of competition, as you have Israeli and Russian influence, and Egypt will have a role in the future.

Back to the countries that are close to reaching stability like Syria and Iraq. There are opinions that Egypt has not made use of the economic opportunities, unlike the US, which guaranteed having a role in the rebuilding of these countries. What do you think of these arguments? How can Egyptian diplomacy move amid this conflict of interests?

We have to say that we, as Arabs, are subjects, meaning that in the areas of conflict, there are key players who control the scene. For example, there was a Turkish-Russian-Iranian tripartite meeting to coordinate and decide on the fate of Arab countries. And this is the reality. The cleverness of the Russian president is that he included the participation of some Arab countries, with several phone calls before the summit. We can argue that Turkey and Iran are building foxholes in Syria, by building military bases. The same with France and the US. For Egypt, we have objectives and limits that we keep. Syria has exited any potential solution that can take place within the Arab countries. Egypt will have a role in the solution in Syria, but the main players will be Iran and Turkey. And there is a factor of the Peshmerga troops, who were promised a land if they fight. Egypt has proven its point of view in the Syrian case and has had a leading role in that as some Arab countries have adopted the same opinion of Egypt, both in Syria and Libya.

Lately, the Lebanese crisis, with the resignation of Al-Hariri, Egypt has played a role in containing the conflict and moderating the dispute. How did Egypt respond to this?

The Lebanese conflict is very vague and difficult to fully comprehend. I think only Al-Hariri knows the origins of the conflict. But in the end, it was a positive result for Lebanon as it resulted in many of the conflicting sides asserting the unity of the Lebanese state, such as the president, the ministers, the politicians, and even Hezbollah leaders.

Last week, the prosecution ordered the detention of 29 defendants for 15 days pending investigations, on accusations of collaborating with Turkey, “with the aim of endangering the interests of the nation.” As the relations between the two countries, especially on the economic side, are silent but ongoing, will these arrests affect the relations?

I am happy that the Egyptian administration is separating between the security side and the trade sector. One of the main challenges in the case of Regeni was that they didn’t separate between bilateral relations and the legal case. We cannot mix all the issues. We have the right as a state to monitor any activity that endangers national security, but this should not affect the trade relations between the two countries.

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