NEW YORK — Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stressed that his country always looks forward to “a close relationship with the US” on the political, economic and military levels and at the level of “political coordination to face the challenges in the Middle East.”
In an interview with Al-Hayat in New York, he denied that the United States has proposed to Egypt that Arab countries postpone their Security Council draft resolution setting a timeline to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories until after the Iran nuclear agreement is completed. He said that there is no link between the Security Council draft resolution and finalizing the agreement with Iran.
Regarding Libya, he said that the Egyptian efforts have made a “partial achievement” in persuading the Security Council to put in place a mechanism that speeds up the approval of the Libyan government’s requests for weapons. In response to a question, he said that “there is no reason at all for an Egyptian land intervention in Libya.”
On Syrian affairs, he said that the opposition inside and outside Syria deserves to be a party in the political equation “as long as it is a national Syrian nationalist opposition that reflects the Syrian people.”
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Hayat: You will meet with the US and Jordanian foreign ministers, John Kerry and Nasser Judeh. What is the primary focus of the meeting? Is there an agenda of various subjects or will you focus on a particular subject?
Shoukry: The meetings and contacts with the US secretary of state are frequent and dense by virtue of the close relationship between Egypt and the US. We often discuss regional and international issues of common interest. The two countries are working to contain the many challenges in the region. [We also] discuss bilateral relations and work to restore them to what they were traditionally, in various respects.
Al-Hayat: What is required from you in the bilateral relationship and what are you asking from the American side?
Shoukry: This question should be directed to the American side. About the Egyptian side, I can say that [Egypt] always looks forward to a close relationship with the US. The latter has its international position and its political and economic capabilities in the areas of military cooperation. We always strive to improve this relationship because US investments are important to the Egyptian economy, in addition to the political coordination facing the challenges in the Middle East.
Al-Hayat: On what are you coordinating now?
Shoukry: On the issue of terrorism, the Syrian crisis, the Libyan crisis and, of course, the peace process, the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and the process of establishing a Palestinian state. We coordinate and exchange views on all topics of regional interest.
Al-Hayat: Let us start with the fight against terrorism. Are you an active part in the international coalition against the Islamic State?
Shoukry: Egypt, of course, has been a party since the beginning of the formation of the coalition at the meeting held in Jeddah and then in Paris. [Egypt] plays an active role, within the framework of the mechanisms that have emerged from the coalition, in intelligence-sharing and in putting in place the proper mechanisms to dry up the funding sources, and in changing the religious discourse through the effort being made at the level of Egyptian religious institutions. All of these are fundamental means enriching the joint international action to combat this phenomenon and eliminate it.
Al-Hayat: You also face internal problems on the terrorism issue. Has it become a threat to Egyptian national security or can it be contained?
Shoukry: The internal terrorist threats are criminal acts affecting the safety of the Egyptian citizen. Explosives are being placed near innocent civilians. The security services are making a major effort to detect these attempts and eliminate them before they harm the citizens. [The security services] are operating with competence and with the help of citizens to [catch] the criminal circles doing these acts.
Al-Hayat: I understand that in the tripartite meeting between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the US, there will be a request to slightly delay the draft resolution setting a framework for the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in the Security Council until the US administration completes the nuclear deal with Iran. What is your response to that?
Shoukry: We are still working. The committee on ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories has met and examined the efforts and mechanisms that the committee can use to continue supporting Palestinian rights and work to end the occupation. [The committee] is coordinating with influential countries that have initiatives or that plan to propose initiatives, or with the US in the framework of [Egypt’s] long [history of supporting] direct negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Al-Hayat: When will a draft resolution on a framework solution to the Palestinian issue be submitted?
Shoukry: This is not Egypt’s decision, but it is in the framework of the Arab League and what the Palestinian National Authority decides in this regard. And therefore, the timing depends on an integrated vision and on an estimate regarding the best timing to obtain the required international support, so that the decision becomes the subject of implementation and activation.
Al-Hayat: The US wants to defer action on this resolution, or not even raise it, until after the nuclear deal with Iran is achieved. Do you agree?
Shoukry: The Palestinian cause is not linked to any other issue — not the situation in the region, the issue of terrorism or the issue of Iran. The Arab countries, Egypt in particular, are dealing with the Palestinian issue as a priority in the framework of supporting the Palestinian people and by working by all means to secure their rights.
Al-Hayat: So do you not agree to the US proposal, which calls for postponing the draft resolution on Palestine in the Security Council?
Shoukry: There has to be something being asked from me before I can comment on it. [No one has asked me such a thing in the first place].
Al-Hayat: What do you think of it?
Shoukry: When it is proposed, I would be able to give my opinion. But if you want a theoretical opinion, I say to you, there is no link, but we are always working to push forward the Palestinian cause to establish a [Palestinian] state as soon as possible. If we could do it today or tomorrow we would do so. But this depends on an international framework and a regional framework that the Palestinian Authority and the major actors would have to consider.
Al-Hayat: What are you doing on the subject of the Syrian crisis? Are you still looking for an [alternative] formula or an alternative Syrian opposition?
Shoukry: Not at all. The goal is not to find an alternative opposition, but to have all opposition elements adapt and show their ability to represent the Syrian people so that [the opposition] can interact to achieve a political solution.
Al-Hayat: Russia is insisting that the Syrian opposition consists of both the external and internal oppositions together. Do you agree? Do you coordinate with Russia?
Shoukry: Of course. The opposition is internal and external. As long as it is a national Syrian nationalist opposition that reflects the Syrian people then it is worthy to be part of the political equation. We are monitoring Russia’s efforts and coordinating on what we think helps resolve the Syrian crisis. But Russia’s actions and its [efforts to hold] meetings in Moscow, are made by Russia itself.
Al-Hayat: Do you coordinate the efforts with the Russians on the subject of the proposals?
Shoukry: There is an exchange of information. Each side informs the other on the effort done and on the follow-up to this effort. But there is no coordination in the sense that the two efforts are integrated.
Al-Hayat: How is Egypt trying to distinguish itself from the efforts of the United Nations, Geneva, envoy Staffan de Mistura and the Russians?
Shoukry: There are also efforts by Saudi Arabia, and all these efforts complement each other whereby they support the opposition.
Al-Hayat: What efforts?
Shoukry: The efforts of Saudi Arabia, of Russia and of the envoy.
Al-Hayat: Do Saudi Arabia’s efforts include a proposal?
Shoukry: Yes, of course there is a proposal. Meetings have been held. And there has been coordination with the Syrian opposition. Continuous meetings and contacts are being considered.
Al-Hayat: You said meetings are being considered. Where?
Shoukry: In Egypt, in the UK and in Russia. There are many efforts being exerted by countries concerned about Syria. And these efforts have the same goal, [which is to] produce a unified position and a uniform vision for the Syrian opposition in a way that contributes to engaging in political action, whether it is driven by the UN envoy or by the ideas of any of the parties in order to find a political solution to the crisis.
Al-Hayat: Some say that the UN envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, is on the verge of achieving [an agreement]. Will this happen or do you have other information?
Shoukry: The information is about what has been proposed and how much the various parties have accepted it. There is now an agreement on several topics in the framework of a solution that was crystallized. We know that this will not reach a final agreement or a unified view of all the parties. We seek to support his efforts and coordinate with him until he is finished, and [until there’s a] national unity government that cares for the interests of the Libyan people.
Al-Hayat: Are you still trying to revive the idea of lifting the ban on the Libyan government despite the opposition from international and Arab parties?
Shoukry: All [parties] should evaluate whether this [policy] is acceptable or effective. But certainly, the continued presence of terrorists on Libyan territory — and its latest result is the deaths of many Ethiopian brothers — once again confirms that we were right in trying to find direct support for the legitimate Libyan national army so that it can confront the extremist currents and protect Libya and foreign citizens from such abuses and crimes. The lack of adequate and full support by all parties for this army and for the resistance to terrorism is considered a dereliction by the international community and thus terrorists will continue arriving to Libya and other countries.
Al-Hayat: Under what circumstances would Egyptian [ground troops] enter Libya?
Shoukry: We will take no such action in the foreseeable future. There is no reason at all for an Egyptian ground intervention in Libya.
Al-Hayat: Do you mean that the matter is not at all on the table in Egyptian calculations under any circumstance?
Shoukry: Hypothetically, everything is on the table under any circumstance. But we are not talking about hypothetical matters.
Al-Hayat: But so far, this decision has not been taken by Egypt. Have you intervened on the ground in Libya? Or in Yemen?
Shoukry: No, we have not intervened on the ground in Libya or Yemen.
Al-Hayat: You are a key element in the Arab coalition on Yemen. Why did you move from Operation Decisive Storm to Operation Restore Hope so quickly?
Shoukry: The change was due to conditions related to military action. The results achieved led to changing the approach to another method. This is not linked to a schedule.
Al-Hayat: Is it true that Egypt has refused to provide troops to the Arab coalition because of Egypt’s previous experience in Yemen, an experience that Egypt does not wish to repeat?
Shoukry: Egypt’s participation in this operation came in the framework of the operation’s special needs, according to technical military estimates concerning how the target is identified.
Al-Hayat: Of course, you have a role in the naval blockade and in the raids. Some people inside and outside Yemen now say that a naval landing, not a ground intervention, is necessary. Do you think this will be useful or useless and not doable?
Shoukry: I don’t understand the difference between a naval landing and a military presence on the ground. They’re the same thing. And as long as things haven’t reached the point of increasing the military action according to the alliance’s rules, then there is no need to deal with this or that hypothesis.
Al-Hayat: Do you expect the military operations in Yemen to continue for a long period and at a slow pace?
Shoukry: This is difficult to predict because the matter is being evaluated amid changes and circumstances on the ground and related to the implementation of the Security Council resolution.
Al-Hayat: Egyptian-Saudi relations, as well as Egyptian-UAE relations, are strategic. [Egyptian-UAE relations] are qualitatively new, in the framework of coordination at the strategic level. What do you think about the possibility of signing a nuclear agreement with Iran and about the [quality] relationship between the US and Iran? What preparations are you making?
Shoukry: Are you asking about the Egyptian-Saudi Arabian-UAE strategic relationship? Or about the reaction of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE regarding the Iranian nuclear deal with the five countries? I can only answer about the matter regarding Egypt. Egypt is looking at this agreement because of its importance. [Egypt] is not familiar with all its details. But [Egypt] hopes that [the agreement] will ban all nuclear weapons in the region and not lead to a nuclear arms race in the region.
Al-Hayat: Is there not coordination in this important strategic relationship?
Shoukry: There’s coordination regarding securing the region, the Arabian Gulf and Arab national security in light of all the developments and changes. [There is coordination] regarding this agreement — which we would review when it is finalized — as a factor that may impact the power balance in the region. [The agreement should] prevent the presence of nuclear weapons in the Gulf region.
Al-Hayat: For years, you have been calling for a resolution making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone. Do you have anything new to propose about the qualitative development in the Iranian nuclear issue?
Shoukry: We will continue to seek to create a mechanism that allows all countries in the region to develop a binding treaty that creates a zone free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
Al-Hayat: How can that be done while Iran is about to get international approval to postpone and not end its nuclear capabilities? [Iran] says "you will not prevent me."
Shoukry: Where is the contradiction between anything connected to this agreement? [The agreement] would put international guarantees that there will be no [military] nuclear program in Iran. And Iran has for many years always supported the establishment of a zone [free of nuclear weapons]. I see no contradictions between establishing the zone and any efforts related to Iran’s relationship with the six countries, or the agreements that may be concluded. Conversely, a nuclear deal may enhance the establishment of the zone.
Al-Hayat: You are making efforts to mobilize support for the nomination of Egypt to the Security Council for the years 2016-2017 and some countries believe that [Egypt] is [suppressing] the Muslim Brotherhood and abusing the use of the justice system against their leaders. Are you confronting those who talk to you this way?
Shoukry: No one is talking about this. It is known that a state joining the Security Council does not allow other countries to interfere in its internal affairs. Security Council members have specific responsibilities related to the state’s ability to preserve and maintain international peace and security. This mixing has not been raised in any way.
Al-Hayat: How are the reactions so far? Have you gathered support?
Shoukry: The reactions are positive. There is appreciation for Egypt’s role … for Egypt’s support in the peaceful resolution of disputes, and for its involvement in the work of the African Union and in the framework of regional cooperation with influential countries to address regional issues to achieve stability and security.
Al-Hayat: Is anyone challenging you for this post or is no one challenging you for this nomination?
Shoukry: Absolutely not. The North African countries support [Egypt’s] nomination and the African Union supports the nomination and the Arab group supports the nomination.
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