Amr Moussa: In five years, 'you will not recognize' Mideast

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Article Summary
In an interview, the former Egyptian foreign minister and secretary general of the Arab League reflected on the changes taking place in the region.

“Two years, three years, five years maximum from now, you will not recognize the same Middle East or the same Arab world,” said Amr Moussa in an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor. 

Moussa, who served as foreign minister of Egypt (1991-2001) and secretary-general of the Arab League (2001-2003), reflected on the changes sweeping the region on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate sponsored by the Emirates Policy Center.

Commenting on the demonstrations in Iraq, Moussa said the country is in “a preparatory stage for them to choose their way as Iraqis — the discord between Sunni and Shia is about to fade away.” He added, “I don't say that it will happen tomorrow, but it will certainly happen in the foreseeable future, which will reflect on Lebanon too.”

Moussa’s optimism about the region includes Egypt, which he said needs a program of "comprehensive reform."

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“The agenda of Egypt should be reform — and we need a comprehensive reform,” he said. “Needless to say that economic reform is so important, but reform in education and in other fields is also necessary, vital. And all this needs stability, and Egypt is situated in the heart of a highly messy region.”

With regard to the current state of emergency, Moussa said, “The fact that Egypt has security and is under tight control is not negative but positive,” so that children can go to school and people can live their lives without fear. He went on, however, “I have to look to the future, and the future needs a different policy.”

Moussa called for the United States to adopt “a new kind of policy” toward the region, focused on “trade and … this mingling interaction between civilizations,” adding, “We all respect America as the country with the best universities, with the best hospitals, with the best everything. It has our admiration, at least my admiration.” 

 “We are in the 21st century. The card of buying armaments has been burned up, finished,” he said.

Moussa praised the mediation of the United States leading to last week's joint statement among Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, the World Bank and the United States on next steps toward an agreement on cooperation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

“Such roles played by United States rebuild, contribute and rebuild the image of the American administration, in particular the [Donald] Trump administration, after so many question marks,“ he said.

A lightly edited transcript of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  Tell us how you see the situation in Egypt. One of the things we've noticed in our reporting is that the economic record has been quite good. In the past five years, the IMF program has been implemented, but we've still seen demonstrations and challenges there. How do you assess the economic situation and what it means for politics in Egypt today?

Moussa:  Well, as you said, the economic situation is moving and moving on. Egypt, because of the mistakes that have been committed for 70 years now, under the — I put it under the title "bad governance" — has left Egypt with so many problems in almost all walks of life: Talk about education, about health care, about cities, about roads, about security, about everything.

So the agenda of Egypt should be reform — and we need a comprehensive reform. Needless to say that economic reform is so important, but reform in education and in other fields is also necessary, vital. And all this needs stability, and Egypt is situated in the heart of a highly messy region.

The fact that Egypt has security and is under tight control is not negative but positive, because once this control is eased under the present circumstances — I'm not talking about the future, immediate, medium-term or long, but I'm talking the moment. To have stability in an unstable region is by itself a positive thing.

Al-Monitor:  Are you speaking here about the state of emergency that's been imposed?

Moussa:  Those are all details, because I am a citizen of Egypt. And it is so important to move around in the country without any — and for the children to go to school, for people to go to whatever. So this stability, with the signs of progress in the economic field, with what we see, the efforts to reform education, efforts in the field of health, et cetera — this is positive.

But I certainly cannot stay on today's efforts. I have to look to the future, and the future needs a different policy. But, as you said in your question, what's going on in Egypt today? 

The goal is how to rebuild a powerful Egypt. I believe that had Egypt been healthy and in a strong position today, neither Iran nor Turkey would have succeeded in advancing one centimeter. Perhaps one centimeter would be an exaggeration, but one meter.

Al-Monitor:  Interesting. I want to come back to the broader regional question. Let me ask you quickly about Egypt's role in Africa and North Africa. There continues to be the challenge in Libya, and we see in the Sahel, the challenges of the Islamic State or its offshoots. When you look there, what do you see, and what are Egypt's interests and role?

Moussa:  First of all, Libya. Libya is the immediate neighbor, and the presence of Daesh and other violent organizations and extremist currents disturbs Egypt, and we have — we are duty-bound to be so tough when it comes to immediate, clear-cut threats against our security. That is one thing.

What's the solution? The solution is not military, but we have to work with other powers in order to establish a kind of discipline and a new page in Libya and the stability in Libya because stability in Libya is very much in favor of the security of Egypt. It's a positive, security in Egypt, so that's one thing.

But North Africa as part of the Arab world, like the rest of the Arab world, is going through this major movement of change, and if you observe the developments in the Arab world, there is no difference between this or that country when it comes to the need and the desire to reform.

And the so-called Arab Spring went in waves and is going on in waves. This time, we have seen Sudan. We have seen Algeria and continue to see what's going on in Algeria, and the good thing now is that the simple Arab man, the simple citizen in an Arab country, the simple citizen in an Arab country is following this news with a lot of interest.

In Egypt, they follow what's going on in Algeria. They follow what was going on in Sudan, in Lebanon, in Iraq at the same time. This is a region in change.

Two years, three years, five years maximum from now, you will not recognize the same Middle East or the same Arab world.

Al-Monitor:  As foreign minister, you dealt with Iraq in 1991, the war there, and you dealt with it as secretary-general of the Arab League in 2003. How do you see the evolution of Iraq, its role in the region, and where it is now with these demonstrations?

Moussa:  I'm one of those who are very sorry to see Iraq in such a situation, and that is the result of what happened since 2003, but not only then, but even before that because mistakes of Saddam have led to a lot of tension in the region around it and a lot of fear, a lot of question marks — "Where are we going?"

But then back the American action, the American invasion has led to the disintegration of the country, the government, et cetera. 

This is the result of that, such policies, playing with the sectarian — the issues of sect and religion, et cetera, that effect was not only a dangerous but a sinister kind of policy. 

And now these things are correcting themselves. It will take time, but they will correct themselves.

Iraq is a big country in the region, no less than Iran, no less than Turkey. Iraq is a country to reckon with. I don't know whether this was the reason why it had to be destroyed. Could be. But there are forces in Iraq that are being rebuilt. 

It will not be easy for Iran to just absorb Iraq or rule Iraq, and what led to very important question marks? 

Where what was said by [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander] Qasem Soleimani, that Iran is changing course in four Arab capitals, and then another — another statement by one of the mullahs saying, "Our task in Iran today is to rebuild the Persian Empire whose capital should be Baghdad.”

The first part, okay, you can build your Persian Empire and can be Arab countries, Persian, et cetera. All that is good, live together, but to say that it is Baghdad as the capital, that has given rise to a lot of doubts among Iraqis in the first place, not only with other citizens of the Arab world, but in Iraq in particular.

 So it won't be easy for any country to swallow Iraq or to move Iraq right and left, et cetera. Iraq will come back. And this phase, what we see today, perhaps this is the — what can I say? A preparatory stage for them to choose their way as Iraqis — the discord between Sunni and Shia is about to fade away. 

I couldn't say — I don't say that it will happen tomorrow, but it will certainly happen in the foreseeable future, which will reflect on Lebanon too.

Al-Monitor:  Let me ask two more quick questions, if I could. One is, how do you see the US role in the region at this time? And what would you say the US can best do to encourage positive change?

Moussa:  Look, before we met this morning, now there was a debate among the Arabs, mostly Emirati citizens here. One said that less involvement by America is always good for us. Another one said, "Yes, but they must be involved, less involved, but not involved, it is not acceptable." So the US must have a sophisticated function.

America is a superpower and a respectable power, and its mistakes are so dangerous that they lead to destruction and to very negative results. 

America has to reconsider its policy vis-à-vis the Arab side. You cannot just — it is not a question of a rich Arab country buying arms. That cannot be an element or one of the yardsticks with which you measure friendship or no friendship. It is much deeper than that. It is the stability in a vast region, the relations between civilizations, between cultures. The future of trade and of this mingling interaction between civilizations — and here is the point, that we all respect America as the country with the best universities, with the best hospitals, with the best everything. It has our admiration, at least my admiration. That's one.

Two, that a country like Egypt … should not have a policy of — we cannot afford to have a policy of animosity and confrontation with the United States, but this does not necessarily mean that we have to say "yes, sir" all the time. 

A new yardstick, a new kind of policy will have to be adopted by the United States. We are in the 21st century. The card of buying armaments has been burned up, finished, because — because it is clear, that why all this? Trillions of dollars are being wasted for nothing, and the public opinion is growing against that.

Number two, the question of leaving the Middle East or staying in the Middle East, what is this? If you want to leave, you leave. If you want to stay, you stay, but to stay, there are certain measurements, certain policies, certain rules of friendship and how to deal with those countries with the necessary respect, not just to concern them that if we leave them, in two weeks, they will just disappear. This is — you are talking about regimes. But the Arab world will continue, and the public opinion is very angry about that.

So between the US as the leading power and worthy of admiration and so on and the certain aspects of US policy in the Arab world — in particular Palestine, by the way,, because this has given rise to a lot of anger, disappointment and frustration in large segments of the Arab society.

Al-Monitor:  One final question. Last week, the United States chaired a meeting of the three key parties of the Renaissance Dam, and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukr said he hopes to get this resolved by January, right?

Moussa:  Yeah.

Al-Monitor:  How do you see that development?

Moussa:  I think this is a positive development, especially that dates have been set. They are going to meet. I believe they have to achieve something by the 15th of January, which is a very good step imposed there. Such things played — such roles played by United States rebuild, contribute and rebuild the image of the American administration, in particular the Trump administration, after so many question marks. And the Gulf, Iran, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Israel, et cetera, this is — I hope that this will be the beginning of reconciliation of policies in the region.

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Found in: iraq crisis, iraqi politics, iraqi government, iraqi domestic politics, iraqi economy, amr moussa

Andrew Parasiliti is president and chief content officer of Al-Monitor. He previously served as director of RAND’s Center for Global Risk and Security and international marketing manager of RAND’s National Security Research Division; editor of Al-Monitor; executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US and corresponding director, IISS-Middle East; a principal at the BGR Group; foreign policy advisor to US Senator Chuck Hagel; director of the Middle East Initiative at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and director of programs at the Middle East Institute.  He received his Ph.D. from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; an M.A. from the University of Virginia; and a B.A., cum laude, from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  He is an adjunct political scientist at RAND and a member of both the Council on Foreign Relations and the Virginia Club of New York. 

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