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Egyptian FM: Ethiopian dam development shouldn’t 'come at expense of lives of Egyptians'

In an exclusive, in-depth interview with Al-Monitor, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry says he sees no change in Qatari policies; great potential in regional integration; and says Egypt will play its "traditional role" to support "courageous decisions" to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry addresses journalists during a joint press conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias (not pictured) following a meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, Greece July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Costas Baltas - RC130150F8D0

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said, “For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death,” adding, “I don’t think anybody would agree that Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.”

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at the Egyptian Mission to the United Nations in New York, Shoukry explained that the dam could dramatically reduce the flow of Nile water to Egypt, affecting the lives of its 100 million citizens. Egypt has previously suggested that the World Bank design the Nile project to assure it addresses the needs of both Ethiopia and Egypt.

“Our Ethiopian brothers should also recognize that Egypt is 95% desert,” Shoukry said. “We have only the Nile water.”

He expressed frustration that there is nothing to show for after four years of negotiating with Ethiopia on the Renaissance Dam project.

Shoukry expanded at length on a wide range of regional and international issues.

Regarding the Trump administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative, he said that the region is waiting for the formation of the Israeli government and the rollout of the administration’s plan. When that happens, he said, “Egypt will play its traditional role in encouraging both sides to engage in good faith with determination to take the courageous decisions to end the conflict, and we hope that there will be sufficient flexibility on all sides.”

He noted that any outcome should reflect existing UN resolutions and that “there is generally a consensus in the international community on the necessity of a two-state solution.”

Asked about Iran’s engagement with Islamic Jihad and elements of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Shoukry said, “We have registered at times a broadening of the relationship, but at this particular moment I think those have receded, and there is greater reliance on the positive role that Egypt can play in providing humanitarian assistance to Gaza and also providing the reconciliation for Gaza to become reintegrated in one unit with the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”

Asked whether there was any progress toward reconciliation with Qatar, the foreign minister said, “We haven’t really seen any change of course in terms of Qatari policy. We haven’s seen any receptivity to deal with the 13 issues of concern to the four Arab states. We haven’t seen Qatar desist from intervening in the internal affairs of the four Arab states.”

Shoukry rejected the use of “embargo” to describe the approach of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain toward Qatar. “For us it’s a matter of restricting relations with Qatar so that we are not affected adversely by those policies,” he noted. “We are more in a defensive posture against the policies of Qatar rather than restricting Qatar’s ability to have relations of a very broad nature.”

Shoukry added that there is “a great deal of potential” for deeper economic cooperation with Iraq and Jordan, and that the effort “complements other associations with other members of the Gulf and in North Africa and beyond.” 

A professional career diplomat, Shoukry served in many high-ranking positions, including as ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012, before coming out of retirement in 2014 to take up the post of foreign minister.

On the US-Egyptian security partnership, he said, “We are cooperating very extensively with the United States and have been a very important part of the international coalition against terrorism.”

While Egypt has been “to a great deal successful” in its campaign against the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula, the reality is that “the threat is expanding, not receding, especially in Africa, in the Sahara and Sahel areas, because of the continuing conflict in Libya,” as well as fragile states in the area where terrorists find refuge.

Asked about some of the congressional and other criticism of Egyptian human rights, as well as the recent protests, Shoukry said, “A lot of what is said might not correspond to the reality of conditions in Egypt, and it is incumbent on us to clarify those issues.”

“Egypt is a country going through a long-term transition itself,” he noted, “and we have issues to work on — both economic and social issues — some of which are a result of the past, so we are, I think, committed to rectifying any deficiencies.”

Shoukry described the success of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s austerity program, which has resulted in an unemployment rate of below 10%; inflation in the single digits; a dramatic expansion of infrastructure; minimal cost housing (200,000 units for the most needy); and the 'courageous step' of removing long-standing and highly distorting subsidies.

“We have had to have austerity because there were so many distortions in the Egyptian economy over the years,” he added.

Shoukry said, “The heroes of these austerity plans are the Egyptian people who absorb those plans out of their confidence in the current administration and their recognition that it is the only way forward. For us to advance there have to be sacrifices, and they undertook those sacrifices willingly, and this is, I think, that story that has to be told.”

A transcript of the full interview, conducted by Al-Monitor President Andrew Parasiliti, follows:

Al-Monitor:  Regarding the Trump administration's peace plan, which has not yet been rolled out, the administration in Washington will be counting on Egypt to play a key role in whatever plan that's laid out. How do you assess the current state of Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and what would you advise are the top priorities for the United States in any initiative on this issue?

Shoukry:  Over some time now, I think, communications between both Israelis and Palestinians have been quite restricted, but there still are in terms of cooperation, the security sector between them.

But on the political front and in terms of negotiations on the peace plan or the efforts to move ahead on the peace plan, I think those have been restricted over the last year or more.

I think now everybody is waiting for the new formation of the Israeli government and what it will demonstrate in terms of policies, and to an extent, it will be in a position to engage on the eventual US plan when it is rolled out.

We hope that the plan will contain the necessary elements that will attract both sides to the negotiating table, and Egypt will play its traditional role in encouraging both sides to engage in good faith with the determination to take the courageous decisions to end the conflict.

And we hope that there will be sufficient flexibility on all sides, but the recognition that there are agreed parameters by the international community, by virtue of the Security Council and General Assembly resolutions.

I think there is generally a consensus in the international community on the necessity of a two-state solution where the Palestinians will be able to form their own state in accordance with the borders — '67 borders — and Jerusalem — East Jerusalem as capital.

But, again, this whole issue is a matter for negotiations between the two parties. The United States has a fundamental role by virtue of its abilities and its influence in the region and beyond, and we recognize that the US has been the main proponent of peace over the last decades. And we hope that it will be successful.

We will certainly contribute to the best of our abilities for the success of the plan if it corresponds with the aspirations of both sides.

Al-Monitor:  How are Israel-Egypt relations, and do you anticipate any changes in that relationship, depending on the composition of the next Israeli government?

Shoukry:  Relations are, I think — well, there are normal relations. There are many areas of cooperation. There's consultations. We have diplomatic representation. So we are in a state of normalcy, and I think that in itself is a positive element.

But I think also that these relations will continue. They have been established and have endured now over the last 40 years or more during various Israeli administrations, and I see no reason why it shouldn't be the case in the future. We are neighbors, and we have mutual interests. And there are mutual challenges. We might not agree on all aspects of our policies, but this is normal. And we have good, healthy channels of communications for us to agree to disagree.

Al-Monitor:  Al-Monitor has covered, I think, quite extensively Egypt's intense diplomatic efforts to reconcile the Palestinian groups, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This seems like a very difficult challenge. Can you comment on the state of this initiative and what more needs to be done at this stage?

Shoukry:  It has certainly been a very difficult endeavor, and we deem it as necessary to unify the Palestinian voice and to provide the ability to negotiate for peace as in representation of the Palestinian people and to have a unanimity of at least a consensus within all of the various Palestinian factions.

The Palestinian Authority remains the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, but we have to recognize the practical conditions of the situation in Gaza, the control of Hamas over the territory and the need that we return to a reconciliation that will provide for a Palestinian unity of purpose and unity of decision.

We have put on the table several proposals to achieve that reconciliation. Both sides have indicated their receptivity and their determination to proceed and to continue the ongoing dialogue.

It has been more difficult to implement the various aspects of the plan that we have presented to them, but we will continue in our efforts. And, hopefully, both sides will recognize the importance of implementing the agreement obtaining reconciliation and moving ahead for the creation of the state and the resolution of the conflict.

Al-Monitor:  And what is the main issue right now in terms of getting the parties together?

Shoukry:  The problem, I think, arises from the longevity of the disengagement between the two sides. That has caused immense — a lack of confidence, and it takes time to rebuild the level of confidence and mutual understanding that is necessary.

I can't really pinpoint any specific area, but it is a matter of implementation what comes first in terms of the various aspects of the plan and expectations of maybe both sides for the other to undertake steps that can show their commitment and can emphasize their willingness to change course.

We are in close communications with, of course, the Palestinian Authority. We recognize its fundamental and crucial role in leading and being the representative of the Palestinian people, and we see the necessity that the Palestinian Authority is reinstated into the territories, even for practical purposes related to reconstruction, to the European and international community, for economic and financial assistance — that it is able to manage the crossings both with Israel and with Egypt. All of these were necessary stipulations of various agreements made during the past period with the European Union and other members of the international community.

Al-Monitor:  How do you assess Iran's involvement in Gaza and in the region more broadly, and what's the best way to deal with Iran's regional behavior? And do you support the Trump administration's policies of maximum pressure in trying to curtail what they consider malign behavior?

Shoukry:  Well, we have always indicated that we deem it necessary that non-Arab regional states do not intervene in internal affairs of the Arab states nor should they seek undue influence in how the Arab states proceed to develop their own societies or in dealing with the challenges that they face, and that confirms with international legitimacy, with international law.

We sense that there are undue pressures. There is utilization of proxies to advance political aims within the Arab domain, and this, we have indicated is unacceptable.

And we, on the other hand, always see room for cooperation, but we totally reject any form of hegemony or efforts to try to advance national positions at the expense of Arab national security, until such time as we ascertain that there aren't these interventions, there aren't these efforts to advance and to expand the sphere of influence and to extract benefit from such associations to various factions within the Arab domain.

We have continually called on Iran and others to refrain from any actions that put in jeopardy the peace, security and stability of the region or escalate and heighten the level of tensions. We believe that all of the issues can be resolved through a political format, and that none should be allowed to undertake any form of aggressive military activity or, in any way, hindering the freedom of navigation or impacting the economic well-being not only of the region but internationally as well.

Al-Monitor:  In Gaza, in particular, have you seen Iran's involvement with Islamic Jihad and some of the factions of Hamas as complicating your efforts?

Shoukry:  We have registered at times a broadening of the relationship, but at this particular moment, I think those have receded. There is greater reliance on the positive role that Egypt can play in providing the humanitarian assistance to Gaza and in providing also the reconciliation for Gaza to become reintegrated as one unit with the West Bank and under the Palestinian Authority.

Al-Monitor:  On Arab relations, what are the prospects for ending the embargo on Qatar, and are there initiatives underway to bring about a resolution?

Shoukry:  We haven't really seen any change of course in terms of Qatari policy. We haven't seen any receptivity to deal with the 13 issues of concern to the four Arab states. We haven't seen Qatar desist from intervening in the internal affairs of the four Arab states, nor have we seen it change course in its policy of sheltering of fundamentalist and terrorist elements. For all of these reasons, we have taken no real severe actions in terms of an embargo.

Unfortunately, when the word "embargo" is used, it has a connotation, I think, which far exceeds what is the current situation. For us, it's a matter of restricting relations with Qatar so that we are not affected adversely by those policies, but I think any country has a fundamental right to do so to protect its own territory and its own citizens.

But as far as an embargo, I think Qatar is free to export and import what it wishes from other parts of the world, not necessarily from our countries, but there isn't the sense of embargo that is associated with a containment. We are more in a defensive posture against the policies of Qatar rather than restricting Qatar's ability to have relations of a very broad nature, as you might ascertain.

Al-Monitor:  What is Egypt's perspective on Syria? Can you envision any scenario where Syria under [President Bashar al-]Assad would be brought back into the Arab League and the Arab fold?

Shoukry:  We have indicated that we need Syria back into the Arab fold, but to do so, we have the UN Security Council Resolution 2254. We have to see progress in implementing a political process that is inclusive of all the national Syrian representatives and totally apart from any of the terrorist organizations that had operated in Syria and had caused this scale of death and destruction.

The political process, the framing of a new constitution, the electoral law, and eventually being in a position to have elections and to instate a government that is representative of the Syrian people will all lead to Syria's reintegration.

I don't say that all of these have to come to a resolution, but I think that is a credible process in implementing a political resolution of the crisis in Syria that will make things more susceptible to Syria's reintegration.

There is the issue of what government governs Syria. It's not an issue for us to decide. It's an issue for the Syrian people to decide, and as far as the ramifications of what has transpired over the last eight years, I think it needs that we all look forward and look to a situation where there's a credible political momentum. And that, I think, will be sufficient to indicate the validity of the government of Syria to reintegrate into the Arab fold.

Al-Monitor:  Ethiopia's Foreign Ministry said Friday that the latest proposal on the Renaissance Dam violated Ethiopia's sovereignty. I know Egypt is concerned about the dam limiting the waters. These negotiations continue.

Shoukry:  We are very concerned. For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death. We have recognized Ethiopia's right to development and look forward to participate in that development in any way we can, but I think our Ethiopian brothers should also recognize that Egypt is 95% desert. We have only the Nile water, the 55 billion cubic meters, which the Egyptian population of 100 million is dependent upon, whereas Ethiopia has about 936 billion cubic meters that descend on the Ethiopian plateau. So I think it's a matter of equity, and it's a matter of equality. And it's a matter of international law. These issues are governed by international law, and there are principles that we signed on to in the Declaration of Principles that was signed between the three countries —Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan — in 2015, which guarantee that Ethiopia would not commence in filling or operating the dam until it reached an agreement with both Egypt and Sudan.

And we have put a lot of effort into reaching that agreement. Negotiations have been ongoing now for the last four years, and unfortunately, we don't have anything to show for it. So an issue of this magnitude must be resolved, and we have no intention nor desire to infringe on anyone's sovereignty, as we would not accept the infringement on our sovereignty. But we really would like to be appraised of what the objections are.

It's fine if the Ethiopian government declares that the proposal that we have presented them is unattainable, but for any proposal, we should be aware of what these deficiencies are. If aware of those deficiencies, there is an honest discussion, we would be the first to recognize any deficiencies and to rectify them. But for our Ethiopian brothers to totally discount our proposals without any discussion to make us aware of those reservations, I see that this is not in conformity with the ongoing dialogue and the necessity for transparency and engagement.

We are willing to discuss all issues and all related issues of the Renaissance Dam, but we do think that it has to be done in good faith and on the basis of our willingness to embrace, that this is a scientific issue. And science should not be manipulated politically. We have indicated — we proposed at one time that we relegate this whole issue to the competency of the World Bank and that we would abide by what decision the World Bank would take, of course, experts that the World Bank would second to undertake this as a demonstration of our good faith and our confidence in that an issue that is addressed in a scientific manner will produce a result that is beneficial for both sides and conforms to international law, conforms to the issue of necessity.

I don't think anybody would agree that the Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.

Al-Monitor:  You mentioned Sudan. Egypt-Sudan relations seem to have turned the page, following the demonstrations leading to the transition there. There have been discussions that Sudan is turning over suspected Islamic militants, working more closely with you on counterterrorism issues. How do you assess the change in Sudan and what it means for Egypt's relationship?

Shoukry:  Well, the change in Sudan comes as a response to the Sudanese people's desire and will to change course, to move in a certain direction, which is closer to Egyptian policy as more cognizance of the threat of radicalism and fundamentalism and the threats of terrorism, the need to cooperate both regionally and internationally to eradicate the threats of terrorism.

We believe that the government — the current government — is reflective of the change, reflective of the Sudanese people's will, and we wish it every success. The very strong relations between the two peoples have always been a base for cooperation, and we think there's a great deal of complementarity between the two countries where we can jointly take full advantage in the economic sector.

But also, politically, we have similar objectives in stabilizing the Eastern African region, and I think we can work more effectively in unison and in a cooperative manner with others in the Eastern African region and the African Union in general.

Al-Monitor:  Your ambassador to the United States and the US aid to Egypt this year totaling $1.3 billion required a national security waiver from Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo to overcome congressional objections, and the waiver, nonetheless, noted continued US concerns across a range of human rights issues, imprisonment of more journalists on charges of false news than any other country and a number of other issues. How do you address these concerns in the context of Egypt's relationship with the United States and more broadly?

Shoukry:  We have an ongoing dialogue with the United States where we try — as best as possible — to clarify some of the misconceptions, some of the information. We rely on substantive, quantifiable information and not on impressions that might be circulated by a small number of the activist community. And we are always willing to discuss these issues quite fully and accurately and to convey what actually is the situation.

I think a lot of what is said might not correspond to the reality of conditions in Egypt, and it's incumbent upon us to clarify those issues. And we have channels of communication with various [parts of the] administration — whether State Department, National Security, White House and others. And we are interested. Egypt is a country going through a long-term transition itself, and we have issues to work on — both economic and social issues — some of which are a result of the past. So we are, I think, committed to rectifying any deficiencies, and I don't think any country can say that they have achieved full objectives in all of these areas.

But I think you should always look at the overall picture of what the situation is in Egypt and to what extent it corresponds to and as a matter of satisfaction of the overwhelming majority of Egyptians.

Al-Monitor:  And the other issues, in US-Egypt relations, there's been increased engagement, I think, in counterterrorism in the Sinai. Your counterpart, the defense minister, met with Secretary of Defense [Mark] Esper. There were discussions about what more can be done in terms of the campaign against ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula. How is the situation in Sinai, and how do you see the terrorist threat?

Shoukry:  The situation, we've had a very substantial campaign and have been — for a great deal — successful in destroying what was a very intricate and very substantial infrastructure for terrorist organizations to operate from, and I think this has restricted their abilities. We have taken out a lot of their command and control centers as well as their leadership structures.

So the issue now, of course, has always been limited to a small portion — of 5% of the Sinai — which is in the northeastern sector, adjacent to Rafah. Until el-Arish, incidents have become sparse. Unfortunately, as terrorism is, it takes a very few number of people. They are radically committed to their cause and will still be able to perpetrate actions, as they do and have done in Europe and in the United States, because of the nature of terrorism and its ability to utilize minimal resources to create a sense of destruction. But it does not really present any threat. It is totally under control, and I think we are cooperating very extensively with the United States and have been a very important part of the international coalition against terrorism and will continue, because we have always deemed this as a threat to international peace and security and one that needs to be dealt with comprehensively. And we hope that our friends in the United States and in Western Europe and elsewhere will also advocate for the same comprehensive approach where we do not make any distinctions between various terrorist organizations, where we recognize that radicalism in itself is the main threat, and it will inevitably lead to violence and perpetration of criminal activity to achieve its objective. It is the natural of radicalism and how it is being utilized by these organizations that must be confronted, as is, unfortunately, the utilization of some states of these organizations to achieve political purposes.

Although we have been successful and the Iraqi government has been successful in Iraq against ISIS and freeing its territory from ISIS terrorism, we also have to be practical and recognize that the threat is expanding. It's not receding, especially in Africa and the Sahel and Sahara area, because of the continuing conflict in Libya and the vast areas that are not under the control of the national state. The fragility and the security fragility in some of our brethren and African states has given opportunity for the terrorist organizations to take shelter and create bases, with the purpose of disrupting the security and expanding their network.

Countries unfortunately have also continued to provide financing and the roots for financing, and have sheltered the leadership of radical organizations. This is not aligned with the declarations made related to solidarity of the international community against terrorists and radical organizations.

Al-Monitor:  Egypt has joined with Iraq and Jordan in taking steps toward economic integration in the region. How do you see that vision, that project?

Shoukry:  There's a great deal of potential. We have held meetings at the political level, at the economic level, at the security level, and I think the three countries have a common objective to, first of all, integrate economically that they have the necessarily resources and capabilities to assist each other in their efforts to create economic development — but that is a matter that we would like to expand even beyond and have various associations with others. So it is not an exclusive endeavor between the three countries, but it is one that complements our other associations with other members of the Gulf and in North Africa and beyond.

Al-Monitor:  And last question, you said that Egypt is also going through its own transition, and we have followed the Egyptian story since the Arab Spring and so forth. The International Monetary Fund has had some positive reports of progress. Some of that involves austerity, which is also challenging for the Egyptian government. We talked a little about some of the human rights issues that have been brought up. We saw some sporadic demonstrations last night. There is this campaign by the actor Mohamed Ali about allegations of corruption and so forth. How do you see the overall story this far?

Shoukry:  I would certainly like, through your outlet and others, that are not limited to always looking at the very minute negative sides of the issue: When you refer to Mohamed Ali, I think you have to put in context that this is an individual who has a point of view that might be driven by personal motivations, ambitions, disgruntlement or others.

When you refer to yesterday's events, I think you have to put it in perspective; first of all, recognizing what Al Jazeera tried to do yesterday in providing pictures from 2011 and trying to entice people to believe that this is current in Egypt.

And the nature, of course, there will be always segments within the population that will have different views, but we know for certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will continue to try to regain its foothold in Egypt. It is still trying to find room for advancement.

Yesterday, I have no doubt that elements of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to utilize the volume of people that were attending a soccer match that tried to instigate and to give an impression that this was a wide-scale demonstration, where it was not. It was an effort, I think, to gage whether there would be a response, and as it happened, there was no response to those efforts.

So it's a matter of putting things in perspective. You can take it one way as maybe it demonstrates something that it is not. I think an objective view would say that — and this is what I would like you as Al-Monitor — to look at the achievements, look at the impact on the Egyptian people of what has been done in the last four years in terms of unemployment. That has now gone below the 10 mark, and you know Egypt was — usually, we would be happy if it was at 16-17%. We have inflation that is now in the single digits. Egypt had, at a time, inflation up into 30%. We have infrastructure that has expanded dramatically. We are currently building 14 new cities to absorb the rising number of the population. The government has provided for low-cost, minimal-cost housing, has built in the last four years 200,000 units, which are provided to the most needy at, I think, rentals of $2 or $3 per month. So these are things that impact ordinary Egyptians, and we have had to have austerity because there were so many distortions to the Egyptian economy over the years, that we were not a market-driven economy. Our subsidies were excessive. They were a burden on the national budget, and there were no resources to finance those subsidies. But they were kept in place as a matter of placating politically the population, so to have taken the courageous step of removing those subsidies.

And I think as the president always refers to, the hero of these austerity plans are the Egyptian people who absorb those plans out of their confidence in the current administration and the recognition that it is the only way forward. That for us to advance, there have to be sacrifices, and they undertook those sacrifices willingly, and this is, I think, the story that has to be told.

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