The Egyptian ambassador in Beirut, Ashraf Hamdi, expressed concerns over the spread of the Syrian crisis to all of the neighboring countries — Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey.
In an interview with As-Safir, the Egyptian diplomat warned against the danger of a sectarian conflict in the region. He advised Lebanon to take the threats of the Syrian opposition seriously and stressed the importance of controlling the Lebanese border.
Hamdi talked about Egypt's role in the Syrian crisis, relations with Iran and the Gulf and the preparations for the Geneva II conference. The text of the interview follows.
As-Safir: What is Egypt’s role in the political process to resolve the Syrian crisis?
Hamdi: Ever since Egypt put forth the Quartet initiative last year, it has been keen on finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis by bringing together the concerned regional parties. Egypt has insisted on this initiative, despite the reservations of some parties. We stressed that all of the parties that were invited had a strong influence on the course of the crisis and could facilitate the process of finding a solution.
Egypt’s [diplomatic] action was not fully reported by the media, but Egypt always emphasized the need for a political solution, the importance of unifying the opposition and the importance of communication without closing any door in front of the Syrian leadership to find a political solution.
Egypt has participated in all the meetings related to Syria — the meetings of the Friends of Syria group and the meetings aimed at bringing the opposition together, including the conference called for by Tehran to try to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Egypt’s participation aims to emphasize the need for a political solution without aggravating the Syrian crisis so as not to adversely affect neighboring countries.
As-Safir: There have been recent signs that diplomatic relations between Egypt and the Syrian regime have been restored through your embassy in Damascus.
Hamdi: Diplomatic relations between Egypt and Syria were never interrupted. Egypt’s diplomatic mission was always there. What happened is that the Egyptian chargé d'affaires in Damascus took a vacation for personal family reasons, and that is the only period in which he was absent from the Syrian arena. Since the start of the crisis in Syria, Egypt was always present at the diplomatic level, and Egypt may be one of the few Arab countries that still maintain a diplomatic presence in Syria.
As-Safir: So are you in contact with the Syrian regime?
Hamdi: We certainly are, through several channels.
As-Safir: But Egypt has publicly announced that it is against this regime?
Hamdi: We are against some of the practices carried out by the regime, but we are with Syria as a pivotal Arab state, and we support its survival as a cohesive, diverse and unified state. This is essential to us and to Arab interests in general.
Iran and the Gulf
As-Safir: How does Egypt perceive Iran's role in Syria?
Hamdi: Iran is a regional party that has an important role, and it can contribute in a significant way to solving the Syrian problem by advising the regime about ways to find a solution, by understanding the foundations of a real solution and by abstaining from strongly interfering to impose a certain vision. We cannot turn a blind eye to this Iranian role, which is capable of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis. Thus, it is important [that we] communicate with them.
As-Safir: Will Hezbollah’s participation in the Qusair battles facilitate or complicate the political solution?
Hamdi: There is no doubt that the participation of any foreign political party in the Syrian war will not facilitate the process of finding a political solution — be it Hezbollah or any other foreign fighters taking part in the war on Syrian territory. Thus, we emphasize the need for all foreign parties to show good intentions and refrain from intervening militarily in Syria.
As-Safir: Secretary-General of Hezbollah Hassan Nasrallah talked about the danger of takfiris and the possibility of transferring their battle to neighboring countries, including Lebanon. Did this speech resonate in Arab countries, and particularly in Egypt?
Hamdi: What we fear is for the conflict in the region to turn into a sectarian conflict, because this would be a struggle that would ravage the region. This is why Egypt has always sought to avoid straining the situation through multiple dialogue meetings, such as the recent visit of Mr. Ali Fadlallah to Cairo, where he met with the grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Mufti of the Republic and a number of Egyptian intellectuals and thinkers to find ways of convergence and avoid deepening the gap between the Islamic sects.
As-Safir: How is your relationship with Hezbollah?
Hamdi: It’s a normal relationship that includes dialogue, like our relations with any other Lebanese party.
The Syrian opposition’s threat to Lebanon
As-Safir: What do you think of the threats made by the Syrian armed opposition against the Lebanese state?
Hamdi: These threats must be taken into consideration by all parties. We believe that these threats are a message to the international community in general and to the Lebanese state in particular, about the importance of border control and the importance of encouraging the army to play a role in controlling the border. The army must stop anyone trying to smuggle people or weapons into Syria.
As-Safir: Do you think that the Lebanese state is capable of controlling the northeastern border [with Syria] through the deployment of the Lebanese army?
Hamdi: Of course, the Lebanese state has the necessary tools and sufficient determination to do this. The president of the republic has repeatedly announced this position and we fully support the president and the Lebanese army in this regard. The Lebanese army has proved on several occasions that it is capable of performing its duties and repelling any risk threatening the Lebanese state and its interests.
As-Safir: An emergency meeting of the Arab foreign ministers will take place on June 5 to discuss the Syrian crisis and the implications of Hezbollah’s intervention. What is your opinion, as Egyptians, about this?
Hamdi: The meeting aims to prepare a unified Arab position ahead of the Geneva II meeting. A number of [countries] from the Friends of Syria group had meetings, in which Egypt was present, last week in Abu Dhabi and Amman. Egypt stressed its point of view regarding the necessity for a political solution in Syria. Most of the countries agreed with the general principles that both the US and Russia seek to propose in Geneva — that is, a political solution, a transitional government that has full powers, defining the transitional period, the importance of allowing the entry of humanitarian aid and seeking to stop the fighting on the ground.
As-Safir: The opposition has said that President Bashar al-Assad stepping down is a precondition for dialogue, while the latter said he is determined to remain in power at least until 2014. How will this dilemma be resolved?
Hamdi: Egypt’s official statements are clear in this regard. A regime that has oppressed its people using such violence cannot remain on top of the pyramid. The transition period, which is necessary to ensure the departure of the regime in a way that preserves the country’s stability, is an issue that can be discussed. Yet, in the end, I guess that it would be difficult for the regime to survive with all its prerogatives, after everything that has happened in Syria.
As-Safir: Can one be optimistic about the future of Syria, in light of the acts of violence that are conducted by multiple factions within the Syrian opposition?
Hamdi: What is taking place on the ground certainly does not prompt us to be optimistic. For this reason, we stress the need that all parties contribute to halting the bloodshed of Syrians and the need for a serious political dialogue to serve Syria’s interests. Nevertheless, what is currently being carried out by all parties is condemned in all its forms, and bodes badly for a peaceful solution in Syria.
As-Safir: Despite that, the Arab countries have not abandoned the objective of Assad stepping down?
Hamdi: It is certainly difficult to accept the survival of the Syrian regime after what it has done; however, in the end, it is up to the Syrian people to decide.
As-Safir: Is there [room for] optimism about the success of the Geneva II conference? Do you think that Moscow and Washington will be able to get the regime and opposition at the same table?
Hamdi: It is hard for any diplomat in the Arab world to be optimistic, given the current circumstances. Regarding the preparations for the conference in general, there are some fundamentals, including a real desire to participate and reach a political solution to the crisis. Thus far, the official party in Syria expressed through the current government a desire to attend and participate. As for the opposition, dialogue is still underway in Istanbul to discuss the [possibility of] having the opposition represented in a unified delegation with a unified vision. We hope, through our communications with the opposition parties, to succeed in this effort, to reach a unified vision in this conference and to find a political solution to the crisis in Syria.
As-Safir: In which category does lifting the EU ban on arming the Syrian opposition fall?
Hamdi: The European decision must be carefully interpreted, because the lifting of the ban was not announced. However, this can happen on Aug. 1, based on specific and restrictive conditions. Therefore, there is time until Aug. 1 to reach a political solution.
As-Safir: How is [Egypt’s] relationship with the Gulf countries after the tension that prevailed following the Egyptian rapprochement with Iran? Is the security of the Gulf still a red line for Egypt?
Hamdi: I did not feel this tension. On the contrary, if Egyptian-Iranian ties develop, they will not be at the expense of our strategic relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council, and certainly the security of the Gulf is still a red line.
As-Safir: What about the relationship between Egypt and Saudi Arabia?
Hamdi: It is a strategic consultative relationship. Last week, joint exercises took place between the armed forces of Egypt and Saudi Arabia in Tabuk.
Relations with Lebanon
As-Safir: How do you describe Lebanese-Egyptian ties?
Hamdi: It is an excellent relationship. The Egyptian ministers of justice and of youth and sports made visits in the past month [to Lebanon]. Moreover, preparations for the visit of a number of Lebanese officials to Cairo — most notably Agriculture Minister Hussein al-Hajj Hassan — are being made. Regarding the Lebanese domestic situation, we hope that the Lebanese succeed in distancing themselves, in the positive sense of the word, from what is taking place in Syria, even though this is difficult as a result of the historical and geographical overlap and the presence of a very large number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon.
As-Safir: Does Egypt support Lebanon’s self-distancing policy?
Hamdi: Of course we support a positive self-distancing policy. This means that the state controls its borders and does not allow any intervention by individuals or the smuggling of arms, activists or funds to increase tensions in Syria.
As-Safir: Is there fear that the Syrian crisis will expand to Lebanon?
Hamdi: We certainly fear that the crisis will expand not only to Lebanon, but also to the region in general. Yet, all neighboring countries — whether Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey or [Egypt] — are convinced that the consequences of the crisis may even extend beyond the immediate neighboring countries.
As-Safir: What do you think of resuming the [Palestinian-Israeli] peace process amid the US efforts led by US Secretary of State John Kerry?
Hamdi: The new US administration mentioned that it is seeking to find a political solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Arab delegation, including Egypt’s foreign minister, visited the United States last month, and we heard the position of the US administration. We hope that the US efforts are serious about finding a solution to this issue, and not just economic or temporary solutions to the crisis.