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Not enough to declare intentions on two state solution, says Egypt’s foreign minister 

Sameh Shoukry, in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, says Egypt “will do everything possible to protect our interests” in the Nile Dam dispute with Ethiopia. 
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry participates in a panel talk at the 2018 Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, 2018 in Munich, Germany.

NEW YORK — “It’s not enough to declare one’s intentions,” said Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, commenting on Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s speech at the UN General Assembly calling for a two-state solution.

“I recognize that Prime Minister Lapid has publicly indicated his support of a two-state solution,” said Shoukry in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor.

“This is something that we have constantly advocated in our discussions both with the Israeli government, and our partners in the European Union and the United States, and we hope that the solution will be fulfilled. We recognize of course that in Israel there are upcoming elections, and the necessity to await the electoral process and the composition of a new Israeli government. We hope that that government will endorse the two-state solution and effectively reinitiate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and implement them,” he said.

“It’s not enough to declare one’s intentions,” added Shoukry. “More than three decades after Oslo, the vision of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living side by side in security and peace with Israel, has not been achieved. And I can understand the disappointment that was conveyed in President Abbas’ speech for exactly the same reason.”

Shoukry also discussed the stalled diplomacy on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, saying that Egypt has been “somewhat dismayed” by the lack of diplomatic progress.

“There is an understanding of the dangers of the current situation,” he said, adding that “Egypt seeks a ‘cooperative relationship’ based on specific legal commitments to protect the rights of the downstream countries,” referring to Egypt and Sudan.

Egypt will continue to monitor the situation, he added, given its impact on the livelihood of 140 million Egyptians and Sudanese.

“We will do everything possible to protect our interests,” Shoukry said.

Shoukry spoke at length about Egypt’s role as host of this year’s Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known as COP27, which will be held Nov. 6-18 in Sharm el-Sheikh.

“The science has been warning us for years now about the consequences” of climate change, said Shoukry, who serves as president-designate for COP27, adding that the “existential nature” of the climate threat “can only be dealt with in collaboration and cooperation among all the parties.”

Shoukry also discussed Egypt’s emergence as an energy hub, including green energy and renewables, noting that Egypt has the largest wind farm in the world. Egypt has plans to connect its electricity grid with Europe, expanding on existing connectivity networks with Sudan and Jordan.

Asked about Egypt’s message on the Russian war on Ukraine, the foreign minister said that “there has to be efforts exerted on both sides to encourage a political and diplomatic solution,” adding that Egypt and “a large number of countries from the south have suffered dramatically from the consequences” of COVID-19, and the food, economic and energy crises resulting from the war in Ukraine.

Shoukry described the US-Egyptian relationship as multifaceted, noting that it has been beneficial to both countries, and that both sides have recognized that value of the strategic partnership.

With regard to human rights, Shoukry said these issues will be addressed in the context of Egyptian law, and that the Egyptian people will be the “final judge” of the country’s progress.

“We will continue to implement our national human rights strategy,” said Shoukry, “and to deal with these issues within the context of the political dialogue that has been initiated, and the general conditions in Egypt.”

“We all have room to improve our application of the principles, values and standards of human rights,” said Shoukry.

A transcript of the interview, lightly edited for clarity, follows:

Al-Monitor:  Egypt is hosting COP27 [UN Climate Change Conference], putting a spotlight on both Egypt’s climate policy and leadership role in Africa. Tell us about your meetings this week, and your expectations for COP27.  

Shoukry:  I've been having extensive meetings not only here, but in most of the venues that I've attended.   

And the bilateral discussions that I've had, and the visits to various capitals, my capacity as president designate [of COP27] have been discussing, and promoting, the importance that we build on what we have achieved in Paris and Glasgow, and must address this scope with the implementation COP in Paris and Glasgow.   

We agreed on the road map, and it's time now that we fulfill the commitments that were made fully and at scale, and to move ahead with our ambitions.   

We've been encouraging all to present their revised NDCs, and we are hopeful that this COP will continue to build trust between developing and developed nations, and fulfill the ambitions to effectively deal with climate change.  

The science has been warning us for years now about the consequences, and I think even the current state of events, with the flooding, and temperatures, and cyclones, and the devastating effect they have had, this all really highlights the existential nature of the climate threat, and can only be dealt with in collaboration and cooperation among all the parties. 

Al-Monitor:  A quick follow up, at a business dinner hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron, you said that Egypt is seeking to become a regional energy hub, focusing on clean and sustainable energy, shifting from fossil fuels. … How does that fit with your COP27 agenda? 

Shoukry: Well, we have recognized early on the benefits of renewable energy, that it is one of the drivers of our economic development, and our potential because of the abundance of solar energy, wind energy to take full advantage of it, and to be able to export large amounts of it.  

This also includes electricity, and green energy to produce green hydrogen, which is also considered an important source of energy for the future.

We have revised our expectations and our targets for our energy mix from 30% up to 42% by 2035, which is quite a considerable achievement that we hope to follow up with the expansion of our abilities in the solar field and wind.  

Currently, we have the largest wind farm in the world, and are further expanding our wind capacities, but we are also in discussions with the European Union and with our partners in Greece for connectivity, to be able to connect Egypt and its power grid to the European power grid.  

We currently already have connectivity with Sudan [and] with Jordan, and hope to expand that I think also to Saudi Arabia. Hopefully we will be able to, as we expand our capabilities, take advantage of that resource economically, but also provide our partners in the region the ability of interconnectivity and inter-reliance.  

Al-Monitor:  In your meetings this week you have stressed the need to resume negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] as soon as possible to reach a binding agreement on filling and operating the dam in a way that would serve the interests of all parties involved and preserve Egypt’s rights to the Nile water — that the status quo is a source of instability. Please bring us up to date on where diplomacy stands, and whether you have been getting traction in your talks this week.  

Shoukry:  I believe there's as understanding of the dangers that are associated with obstruction of the Blue Nile or managing, whether it's the Grant Ethiopian Renaissance dam, or any other construction in a manner that is not consistent with international law, and with the best practices that govern transboundary water. 

I think we have always been advocating a cooperative relationship, but also one where there are specific legal commitments that guarantee both the optimum operation and utilization of the dam, and at the same time takes into account the interests and rights of the downstream riparian countries. 

We have been in negotiations over this last decade, we have done so bilaterally, we have done so under the auspices and help of our partners, the United States, where we agreed politically and technically to a comprehensive agreement that was equitable and fair and where both sides made the necessary compromise. But unfortunately our Ethiopian partners did not sign that agreement whereas we did initially.

Subsequently, we have negotiated under the auspices of the African Union, under two chairmen — President Ramaphosa of South Africa and President Tshisekedi of the Congo — and have had exploratory discussions and contexts of an informal nature that unfortunately have not resulted in any progress.  

So we are somewhat dismayed, but we, I think, have also registered our objection at the [United Nations] Security Council on two occasions.  

And on this third occasion, where Ethiopia has undertaken unilateral action to fill the dam in contravention to the 2015 Declaration of Principles that had stipulated that Ethiopia would not undertake to fill or operate the dam without an agreement, we have again indicated that the statement issued, that we would be monitoring the situation. We called upon Ethiopia to undertake the filling and operations in a responsible manner; if they do so, we will hopefully continue to monitor.  

If they deal with it irresponsibly, and affect the livelihoods of 140 million Egyptians and Sudanese, then I'm sure we will do everything possible to protect our interests.  

Al-Monitor:  Has the situation in Tigray complicated your diplomacy on the Nile Dam issue?  

Shoukry:  Well, that's a question maybe you should pose to our Ethiopian brothers. We have always isolated the negotiations from any extraneous political circumstances either in Egypt or in Ethiopia. I would hope that there would be a recognition of the importance of this issue in its own right, so that it is given the necessary attention from other Ethiopian brothers, irrespective of other issues that they might be dealing with.  

Al-Monitor:  The Ukraine war has been top of the agenda this week in New York. Egypt’s economy has taken a hit because of the war. What is your message on Russia and Ukraine?  

Shoukry:  We are interested that this crisis be resolved diplomatically, that there will be a cessation of military activity so as to relieve the impact —whether in terms of destruction or on civilian populations — and that there have to be efforts exerted on both sides to encourage a political and diplomatic solution. 

We have certainly also — along with a large number of countries of the south — suffered dramatically from the consequences after two years of COVID-19, but we were able to continue to grow.  

We were again affected by the Ukrainian crisis in food security, rising costs of fuel and the pressures they have put on our budgets.   

But the seriousness of the food security issue has to be recognized, and I believe is recognized at the international level. We hope that the mechanisms in place to both the food corridor that was agreed to by the United Nations should be expanded — there should be more transparency in the distribution mechanisms — and other mechanisms that can be put in place by the international community to take advantage of surpluses in food production across the globe should be implemented.   

This is a serious issue for many of the developing countries, and I think it needs, again, cooperation at the international level to be able to offset what could be a source of instability that will have ramifications far beyond national borders.  

Al-Monitor:  Just this year, Egypt again played a key role, and it's diplomacy to defuse tension between Israel, and this time it's Islamic Jihad, but the situation in the West Bank seems to be getting worse, and this week we saw the speeches first by Israeli Prime Minister Lapid calling for a two-state solution, and then President Abbas' speech today saying that not enough attention has been given to the issue, and he doesn't have an interlocutor in Israel. Where does Egypt stand on the issue? What is your reaction to both the Lapid speech and the Abbas speech today?  

Shoukry:  I recognize that Prime Minister Lapid has publicly indicated his support of a two-state solution. This is something that we have constantly advocated in our discussions both with the Israeli government and our partners in the European Union and the United States, and we hope that the solution will be fulfilled. We recognize of course that in Israel there are upcoming elections, and the necessity to await the electoral process and the composition of a new Israeli government.

We hope that that government will endorse the two-state solution and effectively reinitiate negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, and implement them. It’s not enough to declare one’s intentions.  

More than three decades after Oslo, the vision of the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, living side by side in security and peace with Israel, has not been achieved.  

And I can understand the disappointment that was conveyed in President Abbas’ speech for exactly the same reason. 

Al-Monitor:  Regarding US-Egypt relations, the Biden administration is again withholding $130 million of $300 million in conditioned aid for human rights concerns; $75 million was released because of the release of political prisoners recently in Egypt. But human rights remains top of mind among many members of Congress, as well as human rights and civil society organizations. Can you comment on your response to another decision to condition aid, and the overall situation regarding human rights in Egypt when you hear these charges about political prisoners, crackdown on the press and others? 

Shoukry:  First of all, I think the Egyptian-US relationship is multifaceted and has been beneficial to both sides and continues to be upheld by both sides.

So we have on many occasions indicated our belief, and the value of the strategic nature of this relationship continues to advance the various areas of cooperation that are beneficial both to our development and ability to meet the challenges within our region, and to also benefit the United States. 

We are always conveying our appreciation for the amount of support we have received from the United States, support that has also benefited the United States in Egypt's ability to meet the challenges of the region, and to cooperate and synergize the United States and US forces, as was demonstrated on various occasions when the need arose that we should act together in terms of the convergence of our policies’ and objectives’ conditionality.  

Regarding the decision on the part of the United States Congress, we will continue to address the issues of human rights from the perspective of our commitment to enhancing and promoting the human rights of our citizens, our children and grandchildren, and we do so within the conditions that are prevalent and within the confines of the laws and regulations that have been issued through a legislative process.  

We will continue to evaluate our own progress in these issues, and the Egyptian people will be the final judge of the degree of the fulfillment of their aspirations.  

Certainly we have made progress, and will continue to implement our national human rights strategy, and to deal with these issues within the context of the political dialogue that has been initiated, and the general conditions in Egypt, whether in terms of the political, economic, cultural conditions that govern any countries, application of rights and liberty.  

Al-Monitor:  Is it fair to say, because the National Commission on Human Rights and the dialogue, which you began last year, are two major initiatives by the government to deal with human rights — does the government recognize that these are issues to be addressed, and that those two initiatives are taken as priorities to show progress?   

Shoukry:  Egypt is no different from any other government. I think any other government that would deny that there is room for improvement in the areas of human rights would call to doubt its sincerity in applying itself effectively in this area. I don't want to comment on others, but I believe that we all have room to improve our application of the principles, values and standards of human rights. 

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