NEW YORK — Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, speaking to Al-Monitor during his visit to New York for the 71st session of the UN General Assembly, addressed his country’s position on the Middle East peace process, US-Egyptian relations and the ongoing conflicts in Libya and Yemen, among other topics.
Shoukry, who has served as minister of foreign affairs since 2014, is a career diplomat who formerly served as Cairo’s ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012. In his post as top diplomat, he has worked to boost Egypt’s regional standing and help it regain a role in the Mideast peace process.
A transcript of the interview, conducted by Al-Monitor’s managing editor, slightly edited for clarity, follows below.
Al-Monitor: As you know, the US Congress is considering a proposal to cut economic aid to Egypt in half, down to $75 million. What impact do you believe this would have on the US-Egyptian relationship?
Shoukry: It’s, I think, inconsistent with what we generally promote and what we also extract from many of our friends, both in the administration and in Congress related to the strategic nature of the relationship and the mutual desire to enhance it. The assistance program has been helpful to Egypt in the past in meeting its developmental challenges and providing assistance. But it has also been a symbol of cooperation and the relationship and partnership that exists between Egypt and the United States.
And I don’t think that cutting it by half is indicative of all of these meanings, so I would hope that the decision would be reversed. … I would actually hope that the economic assistance to Egypt would be increased — it has been scaled down from originally $800 million to $400 million [in 1999, and several more times since then] — as a matter of recognition of Egypt, the economic circumstances that necessitated this scaling down. And this was a cooperative agreement reached by both sides in the context of our feeling that this assistance program is of mutual benefit to us and is of mutual ownership to us, both the United States and Egypt.
So we sat down and we [came to an agreement on] organized manner in which to reduce the assistance program. Since then, on two occasions — and this would be the third — the US administration has taken the unilateral decision to reduce the assistance program. And in both cases, they did not sufficiently consult with Egypt, nor did they take into consideration the symbolic nature of the assistance program.
So I would think that, for all of those reasons, we hope that the assistance program might increase so that Egypt can face the many challenges, especially in this phase of its history where it is transitioning to a more democratic, more inclusive government with a potential of regaining its stability in the region.
Al-Monitor: Relations between Turkey and Egypt have been strained in recent years. What can you tell me about efforts to repair ties between Cairo and Ankara?
Shoukry: I can't say that there are any substantial efforts underway. Relationships have been strained — not for any actions that Egypt has undertaken. This is a conscious decision on the part of the Turkish government, which feels that it has the right to intervene and direct Egypt’s internal affairs in a certain manner. And this is, of course, unacceptable to us and has caused a cooling, if not a rupture, of relationships currently. But we have always indicated that we hold the Turkish people in every high esteem.
We have a long history of association and cooperation with Turkey at the popular level and also at the official level, and [when] the Turkish government [decides it will not] interfere in the internal affairs of Egypt, and [decides] to conduct foreign policy on the basis of respect of the principles of legitimacy and friendly relations, [at this time] Egypt will always be in a position to [restore] the relationship.
Al-Monitor: President [Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi was the first to reveal that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to host direct talks between [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu and [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas in Moscow, and has recently expressed a willingness to play a major role in a Mideast peace process. Given this announcement, what role does Cairo envision for itself in such a process?
Shoukry: Well this is [part of] an ongoing role that Egypt has been playing since its peace agreement with Israel. We have been promoting a full resolution of the conflict and end of [the] Palestine/Israeli conflict and normalization of relations within the states of the region so that [these states] can tap into the vast resources of cooperation and take full advantage of that for the betterment of the people of the region. And of course, the issue of stability and security for all is a fundamental principle. And Egypt has constantly taken advantage of its ability to be an interlocutor with all sides.
We have a very solid and stable relationship with Israel. We, of course, constantly support the Palestinian Authority in … the peace process. And we rely on many multilateral organizations, whether it’s the Arab League or the United Nations, to promote the peaceful resolution of the conflict.
We encourage and try to attract both sides to take flexible positions that will facilitate reaching a solution that guarantees the interest of both sides, both the Palestinians and the Israelis. And this is a commitment that we make — that the issue is not a matter of coercion or pressure, but it’s a matter of reaching both the Israeli leadership and public opinion and [ensuring that] the Palestinian leadership and public opinion [recognize and are determined] to proceed with [a source of] peace to create a new environment in the region and new prospects for the people of the region.
Al-Monitor: Yesterday, Russia implemented its ban on agricultural imports from Egypt after Cairo rejected a Russian wheat shipment that contained trace levels of a common fungus. Given that Russia is one of Egypt’s top export markets for fruit, this could have serious economic impact. Cairo announced it would send a team to Russia later this month to discuss the ban — what other efforts are being made to calm growing trade tensions?
Shoukry: Well again, it is primarily the ability to coordinate and have an open dialogue related to this issue. Of course, it’s of a technical nature and subject to the international rules and regulations that apply to agricultural exports. And I believe that, in view of the strong relations that we have, and in view of Russia being one of the major, if not the major exporters of wheat — and Egypt being the major importer at the global level of wheat — and also our need to continue to take advantage of the potential of increasing our agricultural export to Russia, that I would think we will be able to reach a mutually beneficial solution and find ways within the confines of a technical problem.
Al-Monitor: On Sept. 20, teams from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed final contracts for technical studies on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Does this step represent a milestone in overcoming issues between Egypt and upstream countries over the dam’s construction?
Shoukry: It’s certainly an important element within the confidence that has been being built over the last two years. The trilateral agreement that was signed in Khartoum by the three leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia — also the declaration that was issued between the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Ethiopia in Malabo — all culminated in the implementation of the declaration and the agreement. And this is an important portion of that agreement.
It is [reliant] on the scientific determination of an impartial consultant to determine the consequences and the impact of the Renaissance Dam on both Sudan and Egypt, primarily. So we believe that this is in the vein of confidence building — [and this will be] in the vein [of] the interest of the three parties without any of them superseding the interest of the other, but reaching an understanding that maintains these interests.
Egypt, of course, as you know, is a barren country with only the Nile as its sole source of water and with a population of 100 million almost. It is a very sensitive issue. And both Sudan and Ethiopia have other sources, but at the same time we recognize Ethiopia’s right to development and its need for energy generation — clean energy generation.
But there are international principles related to [the idea] — that project should not result in significant harm [to] the downstream countries, and that any negative impact should be [avoided].
So we presume that these are issues that even have a moral dimension, and thereby, the signing of the consultant’s contract is, again, the determination of the three countries to faithfully implement the trilateral agreement of Khartoum. And we look forward [to] all the future steps [dealing] with this issue [being] undertaken in the same spirit of cooperation, confidence-building and mutual benefit.
Al-Monitor: Since March of last year, the Egyptian air force has been participating in the Saudi-led military coalition’s war against the Houthis. Could you expand further on Egypt’s role in Yemen?
Shoukry: Well, Egypt has been a part of the coalition in support of legitimacy and its efforts to regain the stability and security of Yemen for the Yemeni people. Our military participation has been more concentrated [on] protecting the sea channels in the Red Sea and the entrance to the Red Sea. And we have been supportive logistically to the coalition, but at the same time we have been advocating for a peaceful resolution of the conflict through negotiations and dialogue upon the lines of the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] proposals and security council resolutions and the ongoing discussions that were undertaken under the auspices of Kuwait over the last period.
We believe that — whether it is in Yemen or any other conflicts of the region — that peaceful resolutions based on negotiations and compromise on acceptance of the various political interest must be the manner in which to deal with these issues. We see the scale of devastation and human suffering and do not believe that a military solution to these problems is in the best interest of the people of the region.
Al-Monitor: Egypt supports Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who refuses to recognize the UN-sponsored Government of National Accord and backs the Bayda-based parliament, while the [United States] has condemned Hifter’s recent moves to [take] militarily control of oil ports. What is Egypt’s view on this?
Shoukry: Well, Egypt’s view is that we should not personalize issues. Egypt does not support any specific personality. And I think it’s important also to recognize that the parliament in Bayda is a parliament that is a sitting parliament that came to power on free and fair and monitored elections in 2014, and is the only representative body that we can safely say does reflect the will of the Libyan people. So it is a legitimate parliament. It is part of the political solution that has been endorsed by the United Nations, and it should be deemed as competent to have endorsed the national Libyan army with Gen. Hifter as its commander.
So Egypt’s support is not personal support for Gen. Hifter; it is … support to the legitimate Libyan professional army that continues to be constituted from professional military personnel. And [this army] continues to challenge the presence of terrorists in Libya [and] is responsible for the well-being and the safety and security and territorial integrity of Libya.
Now, that does not discount that in the west of Libya and Tripoli there has been a usurpation of the capital by various militias — some of them associated [with] some very radical organizations — and that this is a situation that should be of much more concern than the activities of a professional army that is undertaking its responsibility with the approval of an elected legislative body.
I think we should not try to oversimplify the issues. Libya is a very complicated situation with varying and competing forces. The last moves — in that the Libyan army has now taken over for the protection of the oil fields — I think one has to ask what gave relevance and credence to those forces that were previously there. They have no specific authority to be there or to undertake that responsibility. So it’s not a matter of competing forces, but I think it’s a matter of consistency.
And again, I want to be very clear that Egypt supports and was fundamental in the success of the … UN-brokered [Skhirat] agreement and the composition of the presidential council and the potential Government of National Accord that it will submit to the [legislature] for endorsement and to the House of Representatives. These are the institutions that were enshrined in the Libyan agreement brokered by the United Nations.
All of these institutions should be preserved and should undertake their responsibilities as was envisioned by the accord. And it is of the application of democratic principle that the legislative body has oversight over the decisions and the composition of government, and that this is a matter of checks and balances.
Of course, there are other issues in Libya that complicate the matter, particularly the presence of terrorist organizations. And there has been success recently in targeting them both in Benghazi and Sirte. And it is important also that the militias — [there] are several and they have been a disruptive factor to the stability of Libya — must now recede, must now relinquish their arms and rely on the organized police force and military forces to undertake the responsibility of the protection of the country.