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Former Egypt FM says US election outcome won't dictate US-Arab ties

In an interview with Al-Monitor, former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy says that "the future of Arab-American affairs is 70% controlled by the Arab world and 30% in the hands of the United States," and hence does not depend on the next US president.

CAIRO — Egyptian foreign policy has faced many challenges, especially after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime on July 3, 2013, and particularly when it came to countries that saw it necessary to accommodate the Islamic political movement and rejected its downfall. Among the latter, according to statements made by former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy to Al-Monitor, was the United States, which adopted a policy to overly support the Muslim Brotherhood, and, in the process, ignored the popular decision reflected in the events that began on June 30, 2013, as the United States pressured Egypt by delaying the delivery of military aid, leading to a deep schism in the relationship of the two countries on the popular level.

Fahmy described Egyptian-US relations as being in a state of “stagnation,” with both countries endeavoring to “limit losses and avoid direct confrontation.” He further expected relations to undergo developments after the US elections, albeit at a snail’s pace, due to continued disparity in their respective positions vis-a-vis the issues of liberties and the assimilation of political Islam.

Fahmy strongly rejected the statements made by US presidential candidate Donald Trump concerning Islam and Muslims, which he viewed as hostile and unacceptable — expecting him to backtrack on them if he won the elections. In contrast, he described presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as a “veteran politician,” with all the positive and negative connotations associated with such a characterization.

Concerning the Egyptian-Russian rapprochement, Fahmy said, “It caused tension in Egyptian-US relations, particularly in the area of armament — with Russo-US relations also affected.”

With regard to efforts underway to resolve the Palestinian issue, Fahmy said, “The current Israeli government does not believe in the two-state solution, and negotiating with it is futile.” He urged Netanyahu to give a speech in Ramallah announcing his acceptance of the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, as proof of goodwill in reaching a comprehensive peace.

Fahmy further stated that negotiations with Ethiopia had not come to any fruitful conclusions concerning the Renaissance Dam, in light of the Ethiopians’ insistence that construction continues unabated during negotiations, without providing concrete binding assurances concerning the Egyptian state’s water management rights, with all Egyptian options remaining on the table to safeguard said rights.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Egyptian foreign policy underwent many tribulations subsequent to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime [in] 2013, when a multitude of foreign options were proposed. What was the cause?

Fahmy:  I assumed my ministry responsibilities at a very difficult time — immediately after the fall of the Brotherhood, and specifically on July 16, 2013. The difficulty attributed to that time period was caused by three factors. First, the Egyptian people had just lived through two revolutions and were demanding to see quick results proving that Egypt was free in adopting its foreign policies. Second, the Egyptian people’s rejection of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to change Egypt’s identity was not to the liking of many countries that supported the Brotherhood and stood against the people’s choice. Third, there existed an urgent need to properly rebalance Egypt’s relations with other countries, which is an extremely difficult and time-consuming task to accomplish due to regional and international developments. Such were the difficulties that made me propose a new foreign policy philosophy, four days after assuming office.

Al-Monitor:  What effect did that new policy have on Egyptian-US relations? And what is your current assessment in that regard?

Fahmy:  Undoubtedly, Egypt’s relationship with the United States was greatly affected by the fall of the Brotherhood, when implementation began of the Egyptian road map that all political, partisan and religious forces agreed to in the meeting of July 3, 2013. Said relationship endured a grave blow due to the United States overly defending political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood, while adopting a negative attitude toward the popular decision reflected on June 30, as it delayed the delivery of military aid, particularly the Apache gunships. This pressure exercised by the United States left a bitter taste in the mouths of Egyptians — a bitterness that remains to this day.

Relations between the two countries now solely revolve around limiting losses and avoiding a direct confrontation. Despite the slow improvement witnessed after the conclusion of the Egyptian road map and the election of a parliament that reflects the will of the Egyptian people, I nevertheless do not expect Egyptian-US relations to undergo any marked or fast improvement in the coming period, because the United States still calls for political Islam to be assimilated, while failing to demand that said movement espouse the concept of a national state that tolerates all of its constituents. Furthermore, disagreements remain between the two countries concerning the issue of personal liberties.

Al-Monitor:  Do you think that the Egyptian-Russian rapprochement came at the expense of Egypt’s relations with the United States and created tensions therein?

Fahmy:  It was not intended to come at the expense of the United States, but was aimed at diversifying Egyptian options. Of course said rapprochement negatively affected Egyptian-US relations, in particular the armament aspect. It should be noted though that the Russians also have qualms about Egypt’s relationship with the United States, for Egyptian air defenses relied on Russian technology prior to the 1970s, with American weapons and equipment later supplementing our capabilities in other areas.

What I want to say is that it is not easy for Egypt to replace the United States with Russia, nor should it be. The United States is an important country that cannot be ignored, while Egypt is also one of the largest and most important countries in the Middle East; as such, neither of them can dispense of the other, for a mature state is one that depends on diversity in its foreign relations, and having good and balanced relations between Egypt, Russia and all other factions will lead to stability and an enhanced role for Egypt and the Middle East. In the long term, doing so would benefit Russia and the United States, even if some tensions arose from time to time.

Al-Monitor:  Who is better for achieving cooperation with Egypt: Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?

Fahmy:  The rhetoric adopted by US presidential candidate Donald Trump vis-a-vis Islam and Muslims is unacceptable and greatly offensive. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton carefully chooses her words and is a "veteran politician," with all the positive and negative connotations associated with such a characterization. Unfortunately, most Arab countries, especially the Gulf states, view the Republican candidate as being better than the Democratic one due to the former’s close ties with the business and petroleum sectors. I do not share that opinion and prefer to base my choice on the candidates’ respective stances and on prevailing conditions. I am sure that the positions of both candidates will change once the US presidential elections are concluded, but whether said change will be for the better or worse depends not on the identity of the next American president as much as it depends on the state of Egyptian and Arab affairs. For the more stability increases in Egypt and the more it regains its regional role, the more foreign countries will be willing to cooperate with Egypt and give due consideration to its opinions in the Middle East. But if Arab affairs do not improve — particularly in Egypt — then neither a Republican nor a Democrat can improve our lot, because the United States will continue to deal with the Arab world as one that is indecisive in dealing with Middle Eastern affairs, and will thus try to impose its own views. I am certain that the future of Arab-American affairs is 70% controlled by the Arab world and 30% in the hands of the United States. Therefore, the Arab world must reassess its stance, reinvigorate its role in solving regional conflicts and avoid any over-reliance on foreign parties to solve its problems.

Al-Monitor:  President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on Israel to embrace peace and find a solution to the Palestinian cause. What is your assessment of Egypt’s current relations with Israel?

Fahmy:  The Arab world forsook the Palestinian cause due to its preoccupation with the many internal conflicts and crises that have plagued it during the past five years, as well as the result of the internal Palestinian conflict and state of division that existed between Fatah and Hamas. Consequently, reopening discussions in that regard would serve and come to support the Palestinian cause. Egypt’s espoused policy in that regard is correct, but in my opinion the currently prevailing mood in Israel does not favor the establishment of two states, as reflected by the Israeli prime minister’s latest comments about him disagreeing with the Arab Peace Initiative because it calls for adherence to the 1967 borders, which Israel rejects. Many steps must be taken to resolve this conflict. First, Israel and Palestine must proclaim their acceptance of the two-state solution along the 1967 borders, and agree to put an end to settlements in return for continued security cooperation between them throughout the negotiations period. Second, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations must begin under Egyptian auspices for a six-month period, with these commitments drafted in a Security Council resolution to give them the required legitimacy and political clout.

Al-Monitor:  Some have asked President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to visit Israel — as Anwar Sadat did before him — to confirm his commitment to comprehensive peace. Do you endorse this proposal?

Fahmy:  I do not see the logic in such a proposal, as Egypt is one of the parties backing negotiations and not a party to the negotiations themselves. As such, there is no point in creating such a proposal, for this step must be undertaken by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If he truly desired peace, then he must go to Ramallah and state his desire to reach a comprehensive peace, while demonstrating goodwill by making clear statements and taking specific steps. There is no need for Sisi to go to Israel as some ridiculously propose.

Al-Monitor:  Saudi Arabia has proposed the formation of many alliances — such as the Arab and Muslim alliances — to confront the so-called dangers that threaten the Arab world. What is your assessment of those alliances?

Fahmy:  There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is now playing a very different role — in fact a number of simultaneous roles, whether in Syria, Yemen or other countries. Even if some disagreed with the details associated therewith, the Saudi regional role is important and constructive. Concerning the alliances, in my opinion, they represent a correct approach, but require additional maturity to be effective for many reasons, most important among them the disputes that exist between some countries — though I hope that these alliances come as a result of an Arab political initiative to resolve specific regional conflicts. As I said, more important than any alliances is the significant Saudi activity that reflects its desire to deal with issues that have plagued the Arab world.

Al-Monitor:  The announcement that Saudi Arabia had been given complete sovereignty over the Tiran and Sanafir islands led to angry popular reactions. What information do you have in that regard, and — in your opinion — are Tiran and Sanafir islands Egyptian or Saudi territory?

Fahmy:  I fully understand the reaction on the streets because this is a sensitive issue related to territorial sovereignty. Irrespective of whether they are Egyptian or Saudi land, the state should have been completely transparent during the negotiations and subsequent announcement of the results thereof. It should be noted that this is an old issue occasionally discussed on the technical committee level. It was shelved for a long time until the subject of demarcating the maritime border was introduced in a recent joint statement, with negotiations resuming as a result. With regard to whether Tiran and Sanafir are Egyptian or Saudi, I repeat that this matter was not widely or conclusively discussed within state institutions in the past. Therefore, I call on the Egyptian parliament to form a neutral technical committee to transparently endeavor to review all historical documents and maps, particularly those going back to 1906, 1922 and 1933, which relate to the Ottoman period, Egyptian independence, the establishment of the Saudi state, sovereign national activities and the like — and to subsequently announce its findings to the general public, be they in favor of Egyptian or Saudi ownership of those territories.

Al-Monitor:  Egyptians were angered by the Ethiopian minister of information’s statements that the Renaissance Dam was now 70% complete. How did you view these statements?

Fahmy:  Egypt’s historical water quota is no longer sufficient, with population growth now necessitating the appropriation of a larger share. This issue is highly sensitive and we must abandon our constant resorting to threats aimed at the Ethiopian side, though excessive optimism is also unwarranted and, in fact, baseless. The situation is extremely complicated and sensitive, thus requiring very careful negotiations.

Al-Monitor:  What is your assessment of the negotiations conducted by Egypt in this regard?

Fahmy:  Unfortunately, negotiations between the three countries have neither led to the desired results, nor to any palpable changes on the ground, particularly in relation to water quotas and management, which are political par excellence. From before my heading the ministry in July 2013 to date, no tangible progress has been made in the negotiations, and I fear that we are faced with a fait accompli, and see the dam completed without binding agreements signed in its regard. I hope that the three countries adopt clear standards concerning reservoir replenishment and water management, irrespective of the size or type of the dam. For even technical and environmental issues are not being discussed, with the technical committee yet to begin its work due to a disagreement about the scope of discussions relating to environmental issues and tripartite cooperation in the economic and social development of the Nile Basin. We must be more forthcoming in this matter, as clear differences exist between us and the other parties due to a failure in giving us well-defined commitments or reassurances. Excessive optimism and the presumption of unsubstantiated good faith are as dangerous as the repeated threats of resorting to force. The situation is highly alarming and disconcerting, with it potentially posing a real and serious problem.

Al-Monitor:  How do you reply to calls for military intervention or international arbitration in this case?

Fahmy:  I must be a little cautious here, in my recent capacity as a former Egyptian negotiator, and in the context of my previously mentioned point of view calling for the signing of a consensual agreement between all three parties, with all options remaining open and notwithstanding my reservations concerning the building of the dam without an agreement. I once more repeat that if the Ethiopians are truly devoted not to detrimentally affect Egyptian water needs — as they say — then they should provide a clear commitment in that regard, particularly considering that continuing construction indicates that they want to try and impose a fait accompli.

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