Egypt's Foreign Minister Says US-Egypt Ties 'Troubled'

In an interview with Al-Hayat, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy speaks about the Syrian crisis and his country's ties with the United States, the Gulf and Iran.

al-monitor Egypt's Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy attends a meeting at the El-Thadiya presidential palace in Cairo, July 29, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

egyptian-qatari relations, us-egyptian relations, saudi-iranian rivalry, russian foreign policy, hamas, gulf politics, egyptian muslim brotherhood, egyptian foreign policy

Oct 8, 2013

Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy described Egyptian-US relations as "troubled," confirming that Egyptian public opinion on the United States is becoming "more negative than ever." He stressed that any foreign aid "will not affect the identity of the Egyptian state," pointing out that he told his American counterpart, John Kerry, that "Egypt's decision making will not be affect by US decisions regarding aid."

In an interview with Al-Hayat on the sidelines of the UN General assembly in New York, Fahmy said, "The Muslim Brotherhood had been invited to join the government" and that "they have a party and the right to peaceful political exercise and to express their opinion." He pointed out the need to distinguish between "the group, the association and the party" when talking about the Brotherhood. 

Fahmy confirmed that the Egyptian leadership had been subjected to "large domestic public pressure to cut ties with Turkey," and noted that Egyptian-Saudi ties were "at their best today." He said, "Egyptian national security is directly linked to Saudi national security, and vice versa."

He stressed that that national security in the Arab Gulf is linked to Egyptian national security and while "this does not mean alienating others, when I talk with Iran, the situation in the Gulf is a top priority."

He said that a political solution to the Syrian crisis "will not be reached soon, because it requires a major deal with the participation of several parties." He expressed his fear that Syria will be divided on a sectarian basis, and that "the Middle East will be redivided in a manner similar to the division that occurred under the Sykes-Picot agreement." 

Here is the text of the interview:  

Al-Hayat Let's start with the relationship with the United States, which appears to be tense or declining. It seems that at least a part of Egyptian public opinion is heading toward finding an alternative, which could be Russia. Is this possible?

Fahmy:  It's best to use the term "troubled," not tense. This relationship is troubled because two revolutions occurred in Egypt in the past 2-1/2 years, and there was confusion regarding the true nature of the US role and its position on former President Hosni Mubarak at first — i.e., in the first revolution — and then on the Brotherhood in the second revolution. There is no doubt that Egyptian public opinion toward the United States tends to be much more negative than in any past period.

In contrast, in the American arena, and as a result of the method of change that occurred in Egypt twice during this period — which was an exceptional method, in the sense that there was a popular awakening and revolution and the army intervened to change the president twice — this in itself raises many questions about how the United States cooperates with the authorities in Egypt, in addition to questions about its new approach toward the authorities.

Therefore, there is a disturbance in this relationship. There have been some calls both here and there — in Egypt and in the United States — for change. The average Egyptian citizen is calling to replace Egypt's dependence on the United States with other countries, and the easiest example is Russia. But the real call is for diversifying options, not replacing the United States. In this day and age, the issue of replacing one state with another is illogical, ineffective, and undesirable. 

Al-Hayat:  Why was one of your first foreign visits to Moscow?

Fahmy:  In the first press conference I held after assuming my responsibilities as foreign minister, I said that I would protect Egypt's right to diversify its options. I am broadening my relations with many states, not as an alternative to the relationships that are already in place, but to support Egypt's decision making, given the emerging importance of Egypt's strategic relationships, especially with neighboring states. I first headed to Sudan, then to Ramallah, then my first visit outside of the region was to Moscow.

In fact, I had requested to visit a number of states and Russia was quick to respond with a time that was suitable for both sides. This is an important message, but not a message indicating a historic shift. The message is that we want to rebuild ties, or increase the level of ties, with Russia. This is true, without the slightest doubt or shame. But this does not mean that we will go to the east at the expense of the west, or south at the expense of the north. 

Al-Hayat:  Did you agree with Russia on any arrangements concerning economic or military ties or agreements?

Fahmy:  Both sides are moving slowly. The "Russian bear" is moving slowly, and the Egyptian state — with its 7,000 years of history — is moving slowly. What I can say very clearly is that we have agreed to develop relations in various fields, meaning that there was no rejection of any request. No field was excluded. Politically, we held consultations; economically, we are discussing additional projects; security cooperation will continue; military cooperation will continue. We will continue to develop ties in all these fields, all of them. 

Al-Hayat So you are working on two parallel tracks: the American track and the Russian track, in security cooperation. Or is there coordination between the two?

Fahmy:  No, I am working on 192 tracks.

Al-Hayat Let's limit it to these two tracks for now.

Fahmy:  These are two tracks, but my philosophy is that I am determined to diversify Egypt's options and not rely on any single party. 

Al-Hayat Relations with small states differ from those with the United States and Russia, let's focus on this for a bit.

Fahmy:  There will be relations in the military sphere, for example, with the United States and a number of Western European countries, as well as with Russia. 

Al-Hayat Let's talk a little about your relationship with Britain. When you were in Paris you wanted to visit London, yet they did not agree to your visit. Has Egypt's relationship with Britain deteriorated to such a degree? What do you think about them not agreeing to meet you?

Fahmy:  This is not true. I said a moment ago that I had requested visits with a number of states according to a program that suited me, and suited the other side. I was not thinking about visiting London in September, the plan was to visit after October. 

Al-HayatTies are not good between Egypt and Britain?

Fahmy:  This has nothing to do with a visit being refused. I did not request a visit.

Al-Hayat:  You were in Paris; there's only a short distance between Paris and London. 

Fahmy:  The distance to Brussels or Rome is also short. I did not request to visit London at the time. The idea was to visit London in late fall or early winter. 

Al-Hayat:  And how is the relationship?

Fahmy:  Frankly, there was some confusion in the relationship, as a result of the positions taken by the British side in organizing a number of meetings. But the confusion was corrected through direct consultations between me and the British Foreign Secretary last week. 

Al-Hayat:  What did you agree on? How was this corrected?

Fahmy:  This page has been closed. 

Al-Hayat:  Let's talk a little about relations with the United States, or the revision of US economic aid to Egypt. We know, of course, that the United States took action and froze the delivery of four F-16 aircraft and canceled the Bright Star joint military exercises. It has been said that the Americans are restudying the aid program to Egypt. What is the status of this issue? Have you agreed on anything with US Secretary of State Kerry, or are things still pending?

Fahmy:  There are two things. First, with regards to reviewing the aid program, we in Egypt are reviewing aid with all countries of the the world. With respect to this particular issue — US aid — what you referred to was not a freeze but a postponement. However, this is an appropriate question. They, specifically in the White House, are currently studying how to deal with Egypt in the coming period in light of the developments that have occurred in the Egyptian arena. There are several speculations about what they will decide, but so far we haven't been informed of anything.  

When I met with the US secretary of state in Paris — and I met with him again on Sept. 22 — we talked about relations in general. We did not get into the details of aid specifically. Each side clarified that the bilateral relationship is important for the other, and that, in light of the changes, we must find a more suitable and efficient way to deal with the current situation, which as we mentioned is troubled given the changes. I also made it clear that Egypt's political decisions would not be influenced by any decision regarding aid from the American side. 

Al-Hayat:  Excuse me, but Egypt is in need of aid and relations with major countries. You economic situation is really weary. 

Fahmy:  The economic situation is without a doubt difficult. But, in the framework of Egyptian-US economic relations, economic aid amounts to $250 million, no more. In the Egyptian economic system, $250 million is not a considerable amount at all, that's the first thing. The total US aid to Egypt, in its two parts, is beneficial to Egypt, without a doubt. However, Egypt's sovereign decision making is at stake in the period we are going through. If we were talking about a normal period, then we could say we need this amount. Yet, when we talk about the identity of the state, no amount of foreign [aid] can affect decision-making. 

Al-HayatLet's consider a specific example to illustrate what I'm talking about. You took a position against the principle of a US strike on Syria. This certainly affects your relationship with the United States, but how does it affect your relationship with Saudi Arabia, which wasn't against the strike, and was even ready to participate in such a strike? Here, of course, I'm talking about the huge amounts of money Saudi Arabia is now pumping into Egypt. 

Fahmy:  This is an excellent question, and is in itself an answer to the question. Relations between countries are not only about aid. There are many aspects involved, and these relations are linked to history and events that impose certain measures. They are linked to a strategic vision toward the future. This is undoubtedly true with regards to Egypt-US ties, and with Egypt-Saudi ties, despite the big difference between the two relationships. 

Al-HayatWhat is the difference? 

Fahmy:  The difference is very big. The Egyptian-Saudi relationship is one of identity. No matter how much we agree or disagree regarding part of this relationship, it's a relationship of identity. But the Egyptian-US relationship is one of interests, regardless of our work it is not a relationship of identity. Egyptian national security is directly linked to Saudi national security, and vice versa. Whether we agree or disagree, national security in the two countries is linked. Egyptian-Saudi ties today are excellent, despite, as I mentioned, our position against the use of force [in Syria], while Saudi Arabia was in support of it. 

The same thing is true for the US. In all honesty we agree with them, in the sense that we thank them for any assistance. But Egypt's decision making cannot be bought. One more important thing: Egypt is a medium-sized country that has wide influence in the Middle East, and is trying to play a role internationally. Our only ally when it comes to protecting our national security is an international system of international law.

Thus, when I make a decision today, it is imperative that I take into account what has happen in the past and what could happen in the future. What assures me is that there is an international system with fixed rules, including not using force except in accordance with certain procedures and methods. Within the international system, this should be in accordance with certain standards and procedures. What I have today, I may not have tomorrow. 

Al-Hayat Do you think that the relationship between Egypt and Qatar threatens Egyptian national security? 

Fahmy:  No, I don't think so. 

Al-Hayat The relationship between Egypt and Qatar is so tense that you accused Qatar and Al Jazeera Live Egypt of interfering, according to many, in your affairs. Moreover, you returned $2 billion to Qatar. What is the problem then? 

Fahmy:  You ask a question and then change it. You asked me whether the relationship between Egypt and Qatar threatens national security. I'll say again that the relationship between Egypt and Qatar is a relationship of identity. Second, there is the background of the existing disturbance between us and Qatar. The Qatari side says that this disturbance is based on a misunderstanding, and that they were not supporting the Brotherhood, but rather were supporting Egypt, beginning with the Military Council's rule following the Jan. 25 revolution until now. 

Al-Hayat:  What have you said so far in this regard, officially?

Fahmy:  The Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Khalid Al-Attiyah reminded me that it is not true that they support the Brotherhood. He said, 'We supported the Military Council, and then the Brotherhood.' There is some ambiguity regarding this, and this ambiguity has not stopped. So, how do we deal with this ambiguity? We deal with it in deeds. My relationship with Sheikh Khalid is a direct relationship. We talk frequently and I hope to see good ties.

I want to add that what you said is correct, Al Jazeera isn't the only reason, but it's one of the most important reasons behind the bad relationship — or tense relationship — between Egypt and Qatar. What Al Jazeera publishes is completely outside the framework of professionalism. This isn't about a professional error or professional balance, these are oversteps. And the general impression is that Al Jazeera reflects the Qatari position, or that the Qatari government is capable of influencing the channel to be more professional and clear in its position. Once again I'll say there is some ambiguity, but we share a common identity and it is our hope that there will be a good relationship between us. 

Al-Hayat Let's talk about relations with two important countries in the region: Turkey and Iran. There seems to be resentment of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and some believe that he intervened in your affairs. How is the relationship with Turkey now?

Fahmy:  There is absolutely no relationship with Erdogan. The Egyptian people repudiated Erdogan's position

Al-Hayat:  What do you mean? 

Fahmy:  By repudiate, I mean they rejected it. This word is stronger than rejection. Why? Because Erdogan took a position that was not against the Egyptian government, but against the voice of the people. The people decided that they no longer accept their president, and they decided to remove the president for the second time in 2-1/2 years. Erdogan decided that the people did not have the right to do this. Then, he overstepped in statements that included the Sheikh of Al-Azhar. It went beyond him criticizing a particular policy. This resulted in strong societal pressure, so we cut ties with Turkey. 

Al-Hayat Did you cut ties or just summon the ambassador? 

Fahmy:  There was and still is a lot of popular pressure to cut ties with Turkey. We haven't done this yet. We recalled the ambassador, stopped maritime cooperation with Turkey, and refused an increase in the number of members of the Turkish Embassy in Egypt as a result of the policies Turkey adopted that infringed on Egyptian sovereignty. We are following the situation closely and waiting. 

Al-Hayat Will you take further action, and subject to what?

Fahmy:  For every action there is a reaction. 

Al-Hayat:  Iran seems to be in a very good position, as it pursues a strategy of attracting friends. How is the current relationship between Egypt and Iran? 

Fahmy:  The relationship now is at the level of chargé d'affaires. There are no ambassadors, but rather chargés d'affaires with a lot of experience. We, as a revolution government, are concerned with restoring Egypt's role in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere, based on the premise of national security interests, without regard to ideology. We are interested in dialogue with everyone, and for these reasons, for example, we decided to create the post of assistant minister of foreign affairs for neighboring countries. 

But there is a difference between dialogue and reconciliation. Reconciliation requires positions. The new Iranian government has given some positive messages and a good impression, but we need to see specific steps. And when I talk about Egyptian national security, I'm not only talking about the Egyptian border, but about strategic relations and relations based on identity, which I've repeatedly referenced. Thus, national security in the Gulf is linked to Egyptian national security. This does not mean alienating others, when I talk with Iran, the situation in the Gulf is a top priority.

Al-Hayat It appears, or there is at least an impression, that the Syrian issue led to a kind of victory for the axis that includes Russia, China, Iran, the Syrian government and Hezbollah. In your opinion, is this a failure of Gulf diplomacy? Is this a permanent victory? Are we in the process of making a big deal? What do you have on your end? You met in Paris with many of the actors. What do you know? 

Fahmy:  First, when a state is forced to give up an entire weapons system, it is difficult to interpret this as a victory. In fact, it's a strange victory, especially because they did not get anything in return. The only thing they got was not to be subject to a a strike. To convey this as a victory is an exaggeration. 

Al-Hayat Isn't staying in power a victory in itself? 

Fahmy:  This subject is not yet finished, but it can be considered an achievement for Russian diplomacy. Whether the Assad regime stays in power or not is linked to the Geneva II conference, not to a strike, or the use of chemical weapons by either side. The problem in Syria is that there are more non-Syrian groups fighting than Syrian ones. It has become a geopolitical issue, going beyond the Syrian revolution and the Syrian regime. Thus, the collapse of the Syrian state — if we reach that degree of tragedy — will have an impact on the Levant and the Gulf, and this impact may even extend to Egyptian interests. What worries me most is that the conflict will end with a division of Syria on a sectarian basis. This would mean the Middle East is redivided in a manner similar to the division that occurred under the Skyes-Picot agreement. 

Al-Hayat:  If we consider the chemical weapons settlement to be a small deal, are we truly heading toward regional understandings, which may be at the expense of the Arab Gulf side or many include them?

Fahmy:  I do not see a quick solution to the situation in Syria. I don't believe that the Geneva conference will be held quickly, or solutions will be reached in a matter of weeks. The political conflict will extend for months, if not a year or more, because there are many factors involved. I do not see a solution without a major deal, and this will take time. 

Al-Hayat How much time? 

Fahmy:  I can't speculate, but there will not be a solution between now and the new year. We will not see a Syrian solution this fall. Why? Because it requires a major deal, and a major deal requires many balances that involve many parties. The Arab Gulf side must be included. Its absence would mean that the deal comes at its expense. Interests and goals must be specified, taking into account what is possible, not just what we want. The past few weeks showed that international parties have put their priorities ahead of the priorities of regional countries. 

Al-Hayat Where are things now in your relationship with Hamas?

Fahmy:  There are many problems regarding Hamas' relationship with the old regime and the relationship between Hamas — or other Islamic Palestinian parties — and terrorist activity in the Sinai. We do not accept suffocating and torturing Palestinian citizens in Gaza, but we will impose sovereignty and law in the Sinai with full force, especially near border crossings, until it becomes clear who is involved and who is not. Without a doubt there is currently tension in this relationship. 

If Hamas demonstrated through deeds, and not words — and unfortunately there are many negative indicators — yet if it proved its good intentions by deeds, they'll find that Egypt will make their commitment to Palestinians a priority and protect the Palestinian side. Yet if we feel that there are parties within Hamas, or other parties, trying to infringe on Egyptian national security, our response will be harsh. Frankly, will will not accept infringement on Egyptian national security or Egyptian sovereignty. 

Al-Hayat Is the Rafah crossing completely closed now? 

Fahmy:  It is closed these days, but there is not sovereign decision to close it indefinitely. 

Al-HayatIs this part of the options you referred to as a harsh response?

Fahmy:  These are military and security decisions. They are note aimed at subjecting Palestinian citizens to suffering. 

Al-Hayat Let's go back to the domestic situation. Have you become a government based on security, whereas you were once characterized by a revolution of change? It has been said that you've become isolationists who govern based on security, and that you don't have a road map based on coexistence, and you want to eliminate the Brotherhood or pretend they don't exist on the ground.  

Fahmy:  The road map that has been put forward is a road map based on building democratic institutions. This means drafting a constitution, then parliamentary elections, then presidential elections, then handing over the government to elected figures. This is the road map to an integrated Egyptian democratic system, and it requires time and practice. In the current climate, as a result of what we're seeing in terms of terrorism, violence and the polarization of the Egyptian street, there is a party that feels that, despite all its mistakes, it has not been given sufficient opportunity. This is the Islamist party. And there is another party — which I belong to — who feels that the Islamists have refused to come together as Egyptians in the stage of handing over power. It is because of this — not incompetence — that they lost credibility and the right to practice politics.

If the problem was inefficiency, we could wait for this to be solved, but it's about rejecting non-Islamic citizens. And, following the June 30 revolution, the Islamists do not have the right to represent me. Thus, we are working to build a civil state that includes everyone. However, we witnessed an assassination attempt against the interior minister, and arson targeting churches, mosques and hospitals. This undoubtedly affected average citizens. Many of the liberal parties that always defended freedoms are now calling for the exclusion of the Brotherhood.  

Al-Hayat: The liberal currents also accuse you of using excessive force in exclusion, and that exclusion was used as a reaction to exclusion.

Fahmy:  Even some of the liberal currents calling for democracy have called for excluding the Brotherhood. This is a mistake. And there are liberal currents, as well as Islamic currents, that say that the government institution is trying to impose security. We are in fact trying to impose security, in the military and security sense, not politically. The committee of 50 is the best proof of that. 

Al-Hayat: Are you going to dissolve the Brotherhood? 

Fahmy:  There are a number of things to consider. First, the term "Brotherhood" has become prevalent in the press, and it is being used improperly. There is the group, the association and the party. 

Al-Hayat:  Are you going to dissolve the group, the association or the party? Or all three?

Fahmy:  The group was disbanded in the days of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and has basically been gone since the 1950s. The association has a license from the Ministry of Insurance that imposes certain practices and transparency in funding. If they do not abide by these conditions, as others must, then we will cancel this license, just as we would with any other [association]. There is no relationship between [the association] and the party. And if such a decision were taken in the end, it would be taken in the framework of the law — namely the law on associations. [Editor's note: on Sept. 23 a decision was issued to dissolve the association.]

Al-Hayat:  How can Egypt achieve stability if the Brotherhood once again goes underground?

Fahmy:  If they don't come back? They had a party, the right to peaceful exercise and opinion, and they were invited to join the government. 

Al-Hayat What are you going to do about the Brotherhood leaders who are currently detained? Will they stay in prison and for how long? 

Fahmy:  All of these arrests were carried out at the direct orders of the public prosecutor. They are all subject to civilian courts, not military tribunals. Thus, after investigations are complete, the public prosecutor will either release them or refer them to the courts. For clarity, if we look at the past two years, we see that the vast majority of those officials from the Mubarak era who were charged were found guilty, and then the vast majority were acquitted. 

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