Imagine embarking on a journey through time, where you can hear the echoes of ancient Egyptians whispering alongside tales of Armenian kings. Picture the sands of the Sahara dancing with the snow-capped peaks of Mount Ararat. This is the rich tapestry of history woven between Armenia and Egypt, a vibrant thread that stretches from ancient trade routes to the bustling streets of Cairo and Yerevan today. In this interview, Hrachya Poladyan, the Armenian Ambassador to Egypt, discusses the current state of bilateral ties, exploring areas of cooperation, challenges, and future prospects.
How would you describe the current state of relations between Armenia and Egypt? What are some of the key challenges and opportunities in further strengthening these ties?
First of all, I would like to seize this opportunity to congratulate the people of Egypt and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi for his re-election, wishing Egypt continued prosperity and stability.
Coming to the bilateral relations between Armenia and Egypt, I would note that during the last three decades, since the Independence of the Republic of Armenia, we have developed close relations with the Arab Republic of Egypt, which have constantly been growing and expanding. Armenia has always attached great importance to political cooperation with Egypt, and bilateral political relations have been rich in high-level mutual visits. In this regard, the historic visit of President Al-Sisi this January as well as the visit of the President of Armenia to Egypt to attend COP-27, have raised the Armenian-Egyptian political dialogue to a new level.
Armenia highly appreciates the stabilising political role of Egypt in maintaining and fostering security and cooperation in the Middle East, Africa and beyond, and its balanced, peace-oriented foreign policy as well as its effective role and experience in countering terrorism and extremism. Armenia is deeply interested in developing defence and security cooperation with Egypt, as well.
Furthermore, our interstate relations are strong and have great potential for even further growth since they are based on the historically friendly ties between Armenian and Egyptian nations. There is complete historical information indicating that Armenians had already settled in Egypt since at least the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in the era of Fatimid Egypt and have since then been quite influential and contributed greatly to the foundation of the modern state of Egypt. Even today, there are streets named after Nubar Pasha (the first Prime Minister of Egypt who was of Armenian origin) in both Cairo and other cities, as well as a city called Nubaria. Also, during World War I, escaping the Genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire, Armenians received safe shelter in the Arab countries, including Egypt, where they found a new home.
I can say that, in contemporary Egypt as well, the Armenian community has played an important role in the country’s cultural, educational and social life. Among the most prominent artists of Armenian origin who played a tangible role in Egyptian modern culture, I can mention the names Anushka, Lebleba, Nelly, Fayrouz, Sarukhan etc. And I proudly note that during the meetings with the political figures and religious leaders of Egypt, they always emphasise the great contribution of the Armenian community to the state-building process and overall development of Egypt. At the same time, the Armenian community of Egypt plays the role of a unique bridge between our two states.
To sum up, I can state that the Armenian-Egyptian political dialogue is on a very high level, the bilateral agenda is quite fruitful and includes the fields of economy, investments, tourism, education, culture, health, etc. The existence of the mutual political will to further expand the cooperation and explore new areas of collaboration, by itself generates opportunities to further strengthen these ties and the challenges that might exist in this regard are merely on the technical operational level.
We’ve seen recent high-level visits and agreements. What concrete steps are being taken to implement them and advance bilateral cooperation?
President Al-Sisi’s visit was historic since it was the first time that an Egyptian president visited Armenia. The President of Egypt had meetings with his Armenian counterpart, as well as with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan. And as a gesture to mark the historic visit of President Sisi to Armenia, one of the squares of our capital city, Yerevan, has been named “Square of Egypt”.
About a month after the visit, Ararat Mirzoyan, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Armenia, paid a working visit to Egypt. Although the main goal of his visit was to participate in the 159th session of the Council of Arab Foreign Ministers at the Arab League, he also had a bilateral meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and discussed with him the ongoing efforts to implement the arrangements that were agreed upon during the Egyptian President’s visit. The Armenian Foreign Minister also held very important meetings with Ahmed Al-Tayeb – the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and Pope Tawadros II – Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
This year was significant also in terms of making specific steps towards developing defence cooperation between Armenia and Egypt. In December, Armenia (High-tech Ministry) participated in the international exhibition of defence and security technologies “EDEX 2023” in Cairo, with a joint pavilion that included 12 Armenian companies which demonstrated their solutions and products in the sphere of defence and security under the joint pavilion “Armenia”. In the framework of “EDEX 2023” minister of High-Tech Industry of the Republic of Armenia, Robert Khachatryan had bilateral meetings with Lieutenant General Mohamed Ahmed Zaki Mohamed, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Minister of Defense and Military Production of Egypt, Mohamed Salah El Din Mustafa, Egypt’s State Minister for Military Production, Amr Talaat, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Mokhtar Abdellatif, Chairperson of the Arab Organization for Industrialization. During these meetings, certain agreements have been reached between the parties on military cooperation. In this context, I would like to highlight Armenia’s deep interest in developing security and defence cooperation with Egypt, a country that plays a pivotal role as a pillar of security and stability in the Middle East, the Mediterranean Basin, and Africa
Alongside the official visits, high-level meetings regularly take place in various international areas, such as in the framework of the UN General Assembly, COP, etc.
The high-level visits that followed the historic visit of the Egyptian President to Armenia themselves embody the concrete steps that are being taken to implement the agreements reached in Yerevan. We are expecting other high-level mutual visits in the near future and further expansion of our mutual cooperation in various fields.
Specifically, can you share any potential joint projects or initiatives in areas like tourism, cultural exchange or education?
Cooperation in the field of tourism plays an important role in Armenian-Egyptian relations. We have recently made tangible achievements in the field of tourism. In February of this year, the first business forum between Armenian and Egyptian touristic companies was held in Cairo. During the forum, agreements were reached to enhance cooperation between countries in the relevant field. Representatives of Egyptian tourism companies will exchange visits to Armenia in the near future.
According to current data, about 105,000 tourists from Armenia visited Egypt during 2022. We expect that in 2023 the number of Armenian tourists will reach 140-150 thousand tourists. On the other hand, the number of Egyptian tourists visiting Armenia is still quite low, about 8000 in 2023. However, the number of Egyptian tourists wishing to travel to Armenia to explore our culture, history and traditions has significantly increased. Thus, in December there will be direct charter flights from Cairo to Yerevan taking Egyptian tourists to celebrate the holidays in Armenia. We hope that the start of regular direct flights between our capitals, expected shortly, as well as the recent facilitation of visa requirements by Armenia (Egyptian citizens can now apply for a visa, without any invitation, directly at the Embassy of Armenia or through the e-visa system, while Egyptians having a valid residency or a valid visa of over 40 countries (including GCC, EU and Schengen countries, USA, New Zealand, etc.) can obtain a visa upon arrival at any border-control point of the Republic of Armenia) will be a great contribution in increasing the number of Egyptian tourists visiting Armenia.
I mention with satisfaction that the cultural cooperation between Armenia and Egypt is witnessing significant development. We are working to strengthen cooperation between the National Library and Archives of Egypt and “Matenadaran” Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Armenia. In this context, an exhibition of Arab-Islamic manuscripts preserved in the Matenadaran will soon be organised in Cairo. In order to consolidate cooperation, the two parties are working to stimulate mutual visits by official delegations and cultural groups. In September 2023, the Yerevan State Puppet Theater participated in the 30th Cairo International Festival of Experimental Theater. Moreover, for two years in a row, the Ararat Armenian National Dance Youth Ensemble has represented Armenia at the World Children Festival, organised under the auspices of the Ministry of Youth and Sports of Egypt.
Also, to further enhance people-to-people ties, from time to time, the Armenian Embassy in Cairo and the Egyptian Embassy in Yerevan organise cultural events and concerts in the hosting countries. The last cultural days were organised in Yerevan by the Egyptian Embassy in 2019. Now the Armenian side is conducting preparatory work to organise Armenian cultural days in Egypt during the next year.
Besides this, we continued our intensive cooperation in the fields of education, and science. Mutual programs are being implemented to teach Armenian and Arabic to Armenian and Egyptian students. In the context of this cooperation, The Center for Armenian Studies at Cairo University continues its work. A lecturer from the Yerevan State University teaches the Armenian language to Egyptian students. In February a scientific symposium, dedicated to the 125th anniversary of the birth of the famous Armenian poet Yeghishe Charents, was held by the Center for Armenian Studies at Cairo University. This scientific symposium will be followed by an international scientific conference that will be held by the Center for Armenian Studies.
There is significant and fruitful cooperation with the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development, which continues hosting tens of Armenian officials (policemen, diplomats, military personnel, etc.) and other specialists (doctors, professors, etc.) in various training courses every year. Throughout the last three decades in total more than 2000 Armenian specialists have participated in the courses organised by the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development.
Given the geographical distance, what are the main obstacles to increasing trade volume between our two countries? What role can Armenian and Egyptian business communities play in promoting bilateral trade and investment?
Firstly, I would like to point out that the Egyptian President’s visit to Armenia gave a new impetus to our economic relations. In fact, President Sisi’s visit to Yerevan was also significant due to the immediate and promising results that it has produced so far. With great excitement, I would note that several Egyptian and Armenian companies have since expressed reciprocal interest and willingness to explore business and investment opportunities in our friendly countries. Several companies have paid visits in order to get acquainted with the available opportunities on the ground. Thus, I can state that the representatives of the Armenian and Egyptian private sectors view President Sisi’s visit to Yerevan as a signal to further develop economic relations between Armenia and Egypt. In their announcements, the leaders of Armenia and Egypt have emphasised the need for expanding the partnership and mutual investments in various sectors of the economy, such as industry, high-tech, tourism, communications, electricity, etc.
On its part, the Armenian Embassy in Cairo is making great efforts to strengthen and develop economic cooperation between the two countries, hoping that bilateral trade and mutual investments will increase in the coming years. It should be noted that the year 2022 was very promising as the volume of trade exchange increased four times compared to the numbers of 2021. However, given the geographical distance, the trade turnover volume between our two countries continues to face challenges, and the launch of direct cargo flights between the capital cities can assist in achieving more tangible results in the coming years.
Armenia is also interested in participating in many international exhibitions held in Egypt. This year, Armenia participated in the 56th session of the Cairo International Fair. The products of nearly twenty Armenian companies were presented in the Embassy’s pavilion and the Armenian side intends to continue and increase participation in such events in Egypt.
In the first quarter of 2024, we are planning to convene the sixth session of the Armenian-Egyptian intergovernmental committee in Cairo, to follow up on the implementation of previously reached agreements, as well as to explore possibilities of reaching new ones aimed at further expansion of economic ties. For that purpose, in particular, in the framework of the intergovernmental committee session, a business forum will be organised between the two countries’ business representatives.
The infrastructure development projects that the Egyptian government is pursuing are really impressive and the Embassy is constantly informing Armenian stakeholders about them. I can say that there are currently several Armenian IT companies that have expressed interest in implementing projects in the New Administrative Capital. Hopefully, in the near time, there will be some tangible outcomes to announce.
Armenia’s participation in regional organisations, in turn, creates new avenues for cooperation with non-member states. For instance, this is the case with the Eurasian Economic Union: Egypt (along with several other countries in the region) is interested in cooperation with the EEU, and this interest broadens the scope of our cooperation with Egypt. In this regard, I would like to reiterate Armenia’s interest, as a member of the Eurasian Economic Union, in continuing to make efforts to help Egypt complete the process of drafting and signing a free trade agreement with the Union as soon as possible, noting that this agreement will provide new opportunities to support economic, trade and investment cooperation between Armenia and Egypt.
Do you see any potential for Egypt to become a gateway for Armenian exports to Africa or vice versa?
Indeed, Egypt can and I think will become in the near future the main gateway for Armenian exports to Africa. At the moment, Armenian business with Africa is quite insignificant, but the expected increase in Armenian trade-business involvement in Egypt, will result in more and more Armenian companies getting interested in further expanding to other African countries and Egypt will be the natural gateway for them. In this context, we are interested in participating in the regional exhibitions held in Egypt, such as the Food Africa Expo, etc., believing that exhibitions are the best places to explore the regional markets and to find business counterparts in order to conduct targeted work and pursue profitable economic achievements.
Armenia has set ambitious climate goals. How can Egypt’s experience and resources following COP28 support Armenia’s climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts? Are there any specific areas for potential collaboration, such as renewable energy development or sustainable agriculture practices?
Firstly, I would like to note that the climate change agenda and new and renewable energy projects are among the priorities of the Armenian government. During the official visit by the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt to Armenia, as well as during the meeting that took place between the President of Armenia Vahagn Khachaturyan, and the President of Egypt, within the framework of COP 28 in Dubai, the two governments stressed the importance of enhancing direct and indirect investments between the states in all possible fields, including the energy sector. I would like to point out that the participation of the President of the Republic of Armenia in COP27 as well as in COP28 particularly emphasised Armenia’s readiness to develop cooperation in the field of energy with Egypt.
Armenia believes that in order to address the challenges of Climate Change it is needed to change our lifestyle and the way that we deal with natural resources. To this end, Armenia works with Middle Eastern countries, especially with Egypt on the agenda of using water resources and with the UAE, on the projects of Solar energy generation. Also, we work closely with the EU on making amendments to the country’s Environmental Legislation.
I am convinced that in the near future, Armenian-Egyptian relations will also witness fruitful cooperation in this area in the form of concrete joint projects and initiatives.
How can international actors, including Egypt, help address humanitarian concerns arising from the conflict, such as the displacement of civilians?
Firstly, I would like to state that this conflict has never been about the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, it has been about the right of Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh to live freely and in security in their homeland without the fear of being slaughtered.
Armenia is committed to its vision of building stability and peace in the region and continues its constructive participation in the negotiations on the normalisation of relations with Azerbaijan. Seeking to establish lasting peace in the South Caucasus, Armenia has initiated “The Crossroads of Peace” project, expressing its readiness to ensure the safety of cargo, vehicles, people, pipelines, and electric lines in its territory, thus connecting all the neighbouring countries with its further continuation by linking the East with the West, the North with the South, thus, ensuring economic benefits for the region and countries beyond. Armenia believes that this project is able to play the role of an important guarantee of peace in the region.
On December 7, 2023, Armenia and Azerbaijan jointly declared their commitment to normalising relations and are set to exchange prisoners captured during the recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Nonetheless, despite the fact that Armenia has always stated its commitment and readiness to normalise relations, the Azerbaijani side continues occupying around 150 square kilometres of Armenia’s sovereign territory during its aggressions in 2021 and 2022 and continues its warmongering and Armenophobic rhetoric laying territorial claims on other sovereign territories of Armenia (including capital Yerevan). In fact, the agreement to release the POWs all-for-all had been reached immediately after the end of the 44-day war, in 2020, and Baku did not comply with that agreement, although Yerevan did release all the POWs at the moment. So, this recent statement and the release by Azerbaijan of 32 POWs came only after Azerbaijan in September 2023 committed another aggression against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh and ethnically cleansed the region from its indigenous population. Within a few days, more than 105 thousand Armenians were forcibly displaced from their ancestral homes. Another 26 thousand Armenians were already displaced from Nagorno-Karabakh as a result of the devastating war of 2020. It should be mentioned that in its recent decision, the International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to “ensure that persons who have left Nagorno-Karabakh and who wish to return are able to do so in a safe, unimpeded and expeditious manner”. Armenia welcomes this decision and fully supports the realisation of this legally binding decision.
As far as currently there are no appropriate conditions to guarantee the security and rights of the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia has been taking all necessary steps to address the needs of refugees. While the Azerbaijani mass media is busy spreading “scenes” claiming that there are Armenians who want to be integrated into Azerbaijan. It is clearly a false propaganda of Azerbaijani authorities trying to get rid of the status of a country that committed ethnic cleansing. It is pretty cynical, indeed, to force over 100 thousand Armenians out of their homeland and then to simulate the integration of a couple of dozens (not more than 40 people), especially if “integration” in Baku’s terms means forced assimilation.
We expect the international actors, including Egypt, to support Armenia’s policy and efforts to establish peace in the region, as well as we expect them to firmly condemn the ethnic cleansing of Nagorno Karabakh and make efforts to secure the rights of the indigenous Armenian population to return to their homeland and live in security and peace.
Can you share your thoughts on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including Egypt? What implications do you see for Armenia and the region?
Concerning the ongoing events in and around Gaza, we express our condolences for all the thousands of innocent lives that are being lost as a result of military escalation, highly appreciating Egypt’s efforts to ensure the flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, receive wounded Palestinians and evacuate foreign nationals.
With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict Armenia has always supported the “two-state” solution as the only viable option for establishing lasting peace in the Middle East.
We encourage the parties to reserve peaceful means for resolving the conflict and come back to the negotiation table. We fully support Egypt’s efforts, in reaching negotiated solutions to all the outstanding issues and its mediating role. Armenia, as a direct neighbour of the Middle Eastern region, is a natural beneficiary of such a foreign policy of Egypt, since we are greatly interested in a peaceful and cooperative regional environment not only because of the economic and trade opportunities but also because of the security and wellbeing of thousands of our compatriots that live in the region (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine etc.) for centuries.
How can Armenia and Egypt work together to counter regional threats like terrorism and extremism?
The challenges that terrorism and different types of extremism pose are universal, and Armenia itself is trying to fight terrorism in its surrounding area with any means available. In this regard, we highly appreciate Egypt’s effective role and experience in countering terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, but this, of course, is not a challenge that a single country can overcome. Unfortunately, there are other players in the region that support and foster various terrorist activities. We faced it ourselves during the 44-day war in 2020 when Azerbaijan used terrorists and mercenaries to fight against the Armenians of Nagorno Karabakh, and, as a matter of fact, two of those mercenaries are currently under detention in Armenia.
With regard to the cooperation between Armenia and Egypt, Armenian security and police officers participate in various training courses organised by the Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development, including in the field of the fight against terrorism, gaining much-valued experience and knowledge from our Egyptian partners. I can state that such courses have greatly enhanced the security collaboration between our countries and I see readiness and potential on both sides to further expand security dialogue.