The Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called on separating the issue of fighting the Islamic State (IS) from the efforts to reach a political solution in Syria. He said that his country was a part of an international-Arab coalition against IS, offering political support and solidarity, but Egypt wished to eradicate all similar organizations in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Nigeria and other countries.
In an interview with Al-Hayat in New York on the sidelines of his participation in the UN General Assembly, Shoukry reiterated that it was imperative for the UN Security Council to impose international sanctions on the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya and drain its funding sources. Shoukry considered that state institutions in Libya should oppose this movement due to its extremism and resorting to violence and fighting.
Shoukry believes that any permanent cease-fire agreement in Gaza should be based on opening the passages leading to Gaza, providing for the daily needs of Gazans and starting reconstruction. He refused on principle to currently discuss disarmament in Gaza because it should be part of the final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Below is the full transcript of the interview:
Al-Hayat: In what form does Egypt’s participation in the international coalition against IS come? Is it similar to that of Britain, whereby the intervention is only in Iraq and not in Syria? Will it be different than the Arab participation?
Shoukry: Egypt will participate in this coalition by providing political support and international solidarity to fight terrorism. Egypt is struggling with terrorism and has always called for an international confrontation to eradicate this phenomenon. Politically, Egypt is supportive of forming a coalition to end terrorism — not only IS, but also all other terrorist organizations operating in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Nigeria.
Al-Hayat: What organization are you referring to in Lebanon?
Shoukry: Lebanon was subject to terrorist acts. Currently some Lebanese citizens are detained. Is this not a terrorist act?
Al-Hayat: The party responsible for this is the same, namely IS.
Shoukry: This is true. But the organization is operating in different areas. The international community must resist this extremist school of thought wherever it is. [Egypt provides] political support in this regard. It also offers intelligence exchange and changing of the religious speech through the help of Al-Azhar.
Al-Hayat: Is it true that Egypt seeks reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to defeat IS?
Shoukry: No. Egypt seeks the best interests of the Syrian people and the reaching of a political solution, because [the crisis] cannot be solved through military action. We in Egypt cannot start to understand what the Syrian people have been through in terms of fighting, death and displacement, and we seek a political solution to this dilemma.
Al-Hayat: Does this mean that Egypt wants to reach reconciliation — and is calling for it with Assad — to defeat IS?
Shoukry: You are hinting at something that I do not necessarily agree with. We separate the defeat of IS from the political context because the issue of IS is an issue of terrorism that should be tackled separately and is considered a negative factor that further complicates the Syrian crisis. IS should be rooted out from Syria, and this is not related to the political situation. The Syrians should solve the crisis. IS does not represent the Syrian people and is not a part of it.
Al-Hayat: What about the counter-proposal which suggests that the coalition-led military operations against IS in Syria reinforce the power of the regime and grant it survivability?
Shoukry: If this view is limited to the balance of military power, then, of course, whenever the military capacity of one party is diminished, it proves beneficial to the other party. However, we are not addressing this issue from the point of view of military balance of power, but from that of the Syrian people’s interest. These issues should be solved through an agreement reached among Syrians away from the military option.
Al-Hayat: Does the coalition have a clear strategic road map that you are part of, in order to reach the goals that [US President Barack] Obama said would take up a lot of time? What is your view on moving forward with the coalition against IS and similar organizations?
Shoukry: There is, of course, a military component whose success will be assessed. There are efforts to reinforce the capabilities of the Iraqi army to be able to face [terrorism]. There is also a political framework that consists of forming a national unity government in Iraq in an attempt to restore the trust of all Iraqi parties and gain their support to resist this organization. Efforts are exerted on different levels by the different actors in this coalition. All of these will have an impact and, naturally, this impact will be used to come up with the best ways to achieve this goal.
Al-Hayat: What is the opinion of Egypt toward Iran joining this coalition?
Shoukry: Until this point, Iran has not been part of this coalition. However, we call on all the countries of the international community to announce their refusal of and resistance against terrorism. If Iran is ready to announce this and integrate itself into the process of fighting and exterminating terrorism in any place, it is then a part of the international community and has to positively contribute to these efforts.
Al-Hayat: Two countries that are partners of Egypt, namely Saudi Arabia and UAE, opposed Iran’s participation in this coalition amid unclear US-Iranian relations. Do you oppose their opinion?
Shoukry: They are not partners; we are brothers. The relations between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE are that of brotherhood, interest and one future, similar to the relation Egypt has with all its Arab brothers. Saudi Arabia and UAE did not announce their refusal of Iran’s participation. The formation of the coalition, however, is related to many considerations and the different parties must craft their cooperation and solidarity in a way that goes in line with achieving their interest. The most important component for Egypt — and for Saudi Arabia and UAE, I believe — is to preserve Arab national security in the Gulf.
Al-Hayat: Are you concerned about the Iranian regional role or do you consider that it was over-promoted?
Shoukry: Iran of course is a major country that has interests in the region.
Al-Hayat: I meant its role outside the borders, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
Shoukry: The Iranian position outside its borders takes into consideration Iranian interests. However, [this position is not opposed] as long as it does not threaten Arab national security, because this is the central focus of Egypt and its Arab brothers.
Al-Hayat: Do you believe that it threatens Arab national security, especially in terms of the role Iran is playing in Syria?
Shoukry: The stance of Egypt and its relations in the region are always assessed. We work on having the interests of Arab national security set by Arab countries through their solidarity and the setting up of policies that preserve this security. This does not go against Iran having relations with the Syrian regime. Iran is in contact with a number of other Arab countries and is setting up its policies just as Arab countries also put policies toward Iran in place in such a way that suits their interests.
Al-Hayat: The way I understand it, it seems that Iranian-Egyptian relations are improving. Why did Egyptian President Abdel Fattah [al-] Sisi not meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York during their visit to the UN?
Shoukry: You said that the relations were improving. However, the relations are neither improving nor degenerating. The relations are stagnant and do not live up to a standard that allows such a meeting.
Al-Hayat: Let me ask you about another party in the regional balance of power: Turkey. President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan launched a campaign against Sisi. Did both presidents exchange verbal attacks?
Shoukry: Not at all. President Sisi did not make any statement or react to the unjustified offenses of Erdogan. The president did not react because he believes that Egypt is not affected by such a non-objective speech.
Al-Hayat: It is clear that Erdogan is adopting the public defense [of the Muslim Brotherhood], and it is clear that he is playing a role in promoting the organization everywhere. Obviously, he is attacking the Egyptian measures against the Muslim Brotherhood.
Shoukry: I have no idea about the inclinations and affiliations of Turkey’s president. All I know is that he is the president of Turkey.
Al-Hayat: Do you not think that the Turkish president is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood?
Shoukry: His statements show that he sympathizes with the Muslim Brotherhood and is ready to host many members in Turkey, which shows that this movement has a welcoming environment [there].
Al Hayat: You say that Egypt has no intention of playing a military role in Libya under any circumstances. How will you tackle the serious Libyan situation on Egypt’s borders? There are calls that you have a supportive military role to the party that you believe needs it. How do you perceive protecting Libya from further going down the slippery slope?
Shoukry: The main responsibility falls on the Libyan people to reach a political solution to the fighting, violence and the collapse of state institutions. The role Egypt is playing is to provide a framework for these negotiations through the initiative that the neighboring countries espoused on Aug. 25, which calls on ditching the military option and violence and setting up a political process based on the elections that were held and that expressed the will and opinion of the Libyan people. It also called on a political dialogue to reach an agreement that reflects the will of the people and put every political party in its right place according to the people’s will.
Al-Hayat: But you are saying that terrorism should be fought — not only IS, but also extremist Islamic movements inside Libya, for example. How? How do you want to expand the definition of terrorists?
Shoukry: This definition applies to any terrorist organization that adopts the ideology of extremism, in Libya, Somalia, Nigeria and Mali. The international community should work on eliminating these movements. In our point of view, these movements are not entitled to be part of the political process.
Al-Hayat: Does it include the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt?
Shoukry: The Egyptian law designated them an illegal terrorist organization.
Al-Hayat: When you call on expanding the coalition in its war against terrorism, do you mean that the campaign should include the Muslim Brotherhood, for example?
Shoukry: I believe that the difference is stark. Egypt did not ask for [help] from anyone. If Iraq asked [for help], it is because it has no capabilities. Egypt is able to face terrorism in Sinai or inside the country. We did not and will not ask for any help.
Al-Hayat: Since you designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, do you wish to take measures against its members if they were present, let us say, in Libya?
Shoukry: Of course. Draining funding sources is a must. They have to be put under the penalty of a Security Council resolution. This should be done through political interaction. State institutions in Libya should resist this movement because of its extremism and resorting to violence and fighting.
Al-Hayat: Through the same operations? Through air raids similar to those carried out by the coalition?
Shoukry: This is related to the capabilities of the Libyan people. When authorities call on any type of involvement, then this will be another issue.
Al-Hayat: Do you coordinate with Algeria in terms of the Libyan issue?
Shoukry: Of course. Algeria and Egypt are two effective actors among the neighboring countries of Libya. We meet periodically and have set up a political plan in partnership with the [other] neighboring countries, including Algeria. Of course there is close cooperation with Algeria.
Al-Hayat: Egypt has a historical role in Yemen and Yemen is almost lost, as put by one of my colleagues. I do not feel that there is interest… [interrupted]
Shoukry: We take serious interest in the developments occurring in Yemen and their impact on the stability of the Arab Peninsula and the region. These developments, however, are related to internal affairs in Yemen and we hope that our brothers there will be able to reach a political solution away from violence and military operations.
Al-Hayat: Do you believe that Iran plays a role in Yemen?
Shoukry: We are talking about an internal situation in Yemen. If there are any foreign influences, all foreign parties should, in principle, cease the attempts to influence the internal affairs of Arab countries. In general, this is an independent principle.
Al-Hayat: I do not hear you say that Iran has a role in Yemen.
Shoukry: I am saying that any foreign involvement in Arab countries is not accepted in principle.
Al-Hayat: Are there any guarantees that the cease-fire in Gaza will be permanent? Will the agreement really stipulate on disarming Hamas?
Shoukry: The Arab initiative was focused on the cease-fire and the factors supporting the Palestinian people in Gaza in terms of opening the passages, providing daily needs and launching reconstruction. These remain the main components of the initiative we are seeking. We succeeded in achieving cease-fire through negotiations, and we hope to reach an agreement guaranteeing that this [war] will not be repeated. Disarmament and other issues are part of the final settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We hope that what happened in Gaza will lead to an international interaction to achieve a final solution and establish the state of Palestine.
Al-Hayat: What did Obama request from you as part of the coalition during the meeting with President Sisi?
Shoukry: He made no specific requests. He just valued the participation of Egypt in the coalition.
Al-Hayat: In what role?
Shoukry: The efforts Egypt is exerting to drain the resources of terrorism through political support, intelligence exchange and changing of religious speech are valued given the ability of Egypt to interact and affect the setting-up of policies in many countries, whether in Africa or the Non-Aligned Movement.
Al-Hayat: How did Obama initiate the talk with Sisi despite the tense relations? What led to the mending of these relations? Did Obama make the move, or were you the one changing your stance?
Shoukry: International relations are not related to individuals but to goals and common interests. Both parties acknowledge that the US-Egyptian relations are strategic and there is a joint desire to consolidate them because they work in the best interests of both countries. These ties were influential in reinforcing the stability of the region for years, and can positively contribute, especially amid current turmoil, to tackling challenges and achieving stability once again.