|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
'It's that warmth'The past three and a half years, during which Daniel Kurtzer served as US ambassador to Egypt, have not been the best of times for Egyptian-American relations. Before leaving Cairo for Washington next week, Kurtzer spoke exclusively to Aziza Sami
Since day one of his tenure, US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer has inspired heated controversy, triggered by everything from his religious identity (would the fact that he is Jewish affect his outlook on the Middle East peace process? was he here to represent the interests of the US's powerful Jewish lobby?) to his comments in various public fora on Egypt's civil society, the press and domestic economy. His time in Cairo also coincided with a turning point in the Middle East peace process, as the prospects for diplomatic negotiation diminished precipitously. Kurtzer, who lived in Egypt previously as a member of the US diplomatic mission, has spent almost seven years here overall. His next post, it is rumoured, will be as US ambassador to Israel, but he refuses to comment on the record, since the move has not been officially confirmed by the US administration.
Photo: Randa Shaath
In the first interview you gave as ambassador to Egypt, you said your mandate was to advocate US business interests here. Do you feel you have succeeded in this respect?
If I look back over the past three and a half years, I think I have been happy with the degree with which I have been able to advocate the US's business interests here. I am not entirely satisfied, though, with the degree to which there have been a lot of successes.
The question of where the Egyptian economy is going is not divorced from the larger one of how international business interacts with domestic economic activity. Across the board, there's been, in fact, a very mixed picture. I arrived -- it was right after the Luxor terrorism tragedy. I think that Egypt suffered some very severe economic impacts as a result of that. There was a period of dislocation in which the entire economy tried to adjust and cope. I think you are still trying to recover. There were import decrees which many believe violated international obligations. There has been a liquidity problem. There were problems related to the exchange rate, and the value of the Egyptian pound relative to the dollar. These have been major issues which the government has grappled with and all business and investment was involved.
As I leave Egypt, I still believe that there are inherent strengths in this economy which should be allowed to grow and to prosper. I think this will need some continuing bold decision-making to allow those strengths to develop. They are not easy decisions. Any decisions taken, for example, on customs regulations or on the promotion of international business are going to have an impact on some sector in the Egyptian economy. They will be positive, but will also have some negative implications. The government will have to weigh whether or not the positives will justify [such measures]. We think that they do, and that careful introduction of these changes will enable Egypt to grow at a much faster pace and create many more jobs [than is the case at present].
Have you not been too outspoken, for instance when you announced you had invited pharmaceuticals multinationals to come here and persuade the Egyptian government to implement patent laws immediately, even before the GATT-ordained grace period ended? This caused the Egyptian government some consternation.
I think not. I think I tried to measure my activities to be appropriate to what is required. Much of my time is spent in very quiet discussions. There are times when the representative of a foreign country, and in particular the US, which has a bigger relationship with Egypt, needs to make clear publicly what it is that we stand for, and what it is that we do not stand for. That job will be easier to do if there is a better appreciation generally of what the US is trying to do.
Sometimes I have perceived that perhaps the public does not quite understand why it is we are doing what we are doing. That does not justify every single comment, or every single interview. But [certain issues] have been carefully thought out as part of a larger strategy, and certainly promoting our national interests. That is what I am here to do.
You also said then that you hoped Egypt and the US would engage in a political and economic strategic dialogue. Yet this has not happened in any structured manner. Why?
We actually did launch the strategic dialogue. We held a formal session at the ministerial level, then another at the sub-ministerial level, and then did not resume.
I think that it had more to do with scheduling and pace of activity. The reality is that we have a strategic dialogue every day when I see the foreign minister or the defence minister or other officials. What we were trying to accomplish in the 'strategic' dialogue was to be able to stand back from the daily issues and look at long-range trends: what is the future of energy policy in the Middle East as the Caspian Basin starts to develop, what are the impacts of long-term stability in the Gulf, on the Fertile Crescent? Is there a way to integrate Egypt better not only into Europe's economy, but also into the economies of its neighbours? This is one of the issues we talked about, as well as inter-regional trade.
We thought that by structuring a strategic dialogue we could stand back from today's Arab- Israeli conflict, from today's Sudan and today's Libya policies and look at some of these issues. I still think it is a good idea.
During the three and a half years of your tenure, where would you say there was tension in US-Egypt bilateral ties, and where was there an understanding?
Looking back, I think the three most serious issues we faced were first -- at the beginning of my tenure -- a result of our differences in view on Iraq. We had some very difficult times that required a lot of discussion and, frankly, involved a change in the role. I would say that where the US is today results largely from a cumulative dialogue with a country like Egypt. But also where the Arab world is today results from its cumulative dialogue with the US and others on this matter.
What it has taken quite a long time to understand is that there is no difference of view on Iraq with respect to the threat it poses to its neighbours, its weapons of mass destruction, etc. We have learned to focus on what kind of policies we can change so that the Iraqi people do not suffer as a result of their regime's activities. What is unfolding now is an effort to do away with the traditional sanctions regime, and try to put in place some financial controls that will be very clearly the responsibility of Saddam Hussein, but will also relieve some of the pressure on the population. It took a long time for us to articulate these issues, and come to a better understanding. Whereas it started out as one of the major problems, since I've been here, now we are on much better standing and have very much narrowed our differences.
The second issue was the ups and downs in the peace process. We've had many more ups and downs; one of the most difficult periods was immediately after Camp David, where Egypt quite properly claimed that it was not consulted. The US felt frustrated that it did not make much progress. It was a couple of weeks of some tension. Here too, a bad patch was followed by consultation, where from August till February the US and Egypt worked more intimately on the peace process than they had ever done, maybe in 10 years. That tells you that you don't necessarily have to stay in a problem situation.
The third, which is still with us to this day, is the shared tragedy of EgyptAir, which, I want to emphasise, was a shared tragedy. More Americans were on that plane than Egyptians, in fact. Our hearts still go out to the families. What happened immediately was this difference of view between the agency of the American government which is investigating this, and the Egyptian authorities. And that has tended to obscure the fact that we still do share this tragedy as two peoples. I think at some point this will be put behind us. A report will be issued. There will be a difference of view, but we will move on. The real problem is that the families of those lost would like to find out what the cause was. If it was a human error, there is a way to fix that, if a mechanical one, there is a way to fix that. The effort has to be focused on preventing a future tragedy.
Has the Middle East conflict "gone back to square one" as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put it? How can a middle ground for negotiation be regained, and how do you assess the impact that the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative along with the Mitchell recommendations could have within this context?
There is very considerable consensus on what needs to be done. It is found in the Sharm El- Sheikh agreement of last October, in the Egyptian-Jordanian initiative, and in the Mitchell report. What it really requires is a combination of activities. Everybody agrees that the violence must stop. The expression of disproportionate force must stop. There must be a resumption of the spirit of cooperation between the two sides. There must be a way back to negotiations. What is surprising is that if there is a consensus why can't we get people to actually [implement it]? This gets more into the area of political will, rather than steps to be taken. There is very little disagreement on what constitutes the agenda.
What we need to see is much stronger political will by everybody, on all sides, in order to put together some of these things into some coherent approach.
Will the change in the Foreign Ministry portfolio, with Ahmed Maher now at its helm, signal, in your view, a change in the manner of conducting Egypt's foreign policy?
This is not our business, just as Egypt accepts the people that the US appoints to senior positions. We worked very well with Amr Moussa for 10 years, and we expect to work very well with Ahmed Maher for the next 10 years. So whatever the style and the substance, we will deal [together] in the best way that we can.
The speedy announcement upon the Bush administration's accession that the US-Egypt partnership and Presidents' Council as we know them no longer exist was a surprise even to their American members. What guarantee is there of continuity in the way economic matters are negotiated?
The Bush administration said it would like to have much more conventional interaction empowering ambassadors and conventional forms of diplomacy, rather than a lot of different kinds of activities, or a lot of special envoy positions.
All of the so-called partnerships around the world, as far as the Bush administration is concerned, are kind of external to its form of diplomacy.
That said, much of what we were doing under the partnership is going to continue. President Mubarak during his visit to the White House did announce that he wanted to continue the private sector-based Presidents' Council. We have just begun a dialogue with the Foreign Ministry on structuring a new form of economic interaction. Whether we call it partnership or something else, much of it will look like what we did in the past, but with the stamp of this administration.
USAID remains the most substantial form of economic interaction between Egypt and the US. Has appreciation of its benefits been undermined by its political nature and the fact that it is integrally related to the Camp David peace accords, and relations with Israel generally?
This is a very sophisticated country and a very sophisticated people. USAID extended to Egypt is not that related to humanitarian phenomena like famine or disasters, which is provided no matter what the politics are. It is the kind of aid that is part and parcel of a country's foreign policy, and there can be no separation here between the assistance relationship, and the overall politics.
Nevertheless, we have tried to develop a better partnership with Egypt, where we do not necessarily have to agree with one another on everything. Last year, for instance, we successfully engaged in dialogue on the non-proliferation treaty, where before there had been differences on the matter.
USAID has also been used in a carrot and stick approach. For instance, the American journalist Thomas Friedman, who is close to political circles in Washington, publicly intimated that aid to Egypt would be cut off if it pursued certain policies or actions the US does not favour.
I am not going to comment on what an American journalist did, just as I am not going to comment on what an Egyptian journalist says.
Some of the dialogue in our respective media distorts our relationship and does not really help. In fact, we have a much more sophisticated and coherent dialogue privately, than we do publicly, and are able to resolve a lot of issues. This is one of the busiest US embassies in the world, not only because we have a large aid programme, but because we have a good dialogue all across the board, and in a very progressive way.
We need, though, to do better in the public reiteration of our respective policies.
Some critical observations you made about the Egyptian press were also interpreted as instigating a clamp-down on press freedom.
We as a country and I as an individual have an overall interest in strengthening the integrity and independence of the press. It is a very important part of our kind of system, and I think it will become an important part of other countries' systems as they move towards [more open environments]. So my comments have always been directed at those two issues, integrity and independence of the press.
What I tried to do here -- and even my remarks in this respect have been misquoted, misinterpreted and misunderstood -- is to have a dialogue with the press about those two issues. Is it the right kind of media that carries scurrilous images of anybody, be it a neighbour of yours or a country in any part of the world? Does that enhance the standing of the press, or does it diminish it?
Unfortunately, when I said these things, people said the ambassador wants the government to clamp down on the freedom of the press. And I have said time and time again, absolutely no, that is not what I have said. I don't want the government to clamp down on the press, because that would intrude on its independence. But the press itself has to determine how it covers events and relates to people, how it pushes events that are designed to hurt people, whether there is a difference between what happens in the news pages and what happens in the editorial commentaries.
I have tried to raise these issues. I think that unfortunately many of these discussions have been misinterpreted and misunderstood. I regret that. I do hope that it will stimulate an internal discussion within the media, about its own role and professional standards.
We had a USAID project a couple of years ago, which is in fact ongoing, to work with the capital markets. Egypt having built up a stock market, and stock exchange, the issue raised by the Egyptian side was the impact the press can have on the financial markets, if it does not understand the issues. Now we know that in the US, the newspaper story in one of our leading papers about a company can kill that company's stock immediately. If it is done by a journalist who understands the workings of a company and of the market then fine, this is what a journalist is supposed to do. But if it is done by a journalist who does not understand, or who has some axe to grind, then you have a dangerous situation. So Egypt has been interested in this particular area of upgrading the professional qualifications of journalism to handle a very sensitive issue.
I would think that this is [true] across the board: the peace process, legal issues, military and security issues, all require professional standards. This is something I hope that the Egyptian press will look at itself. I am not saying that the US is [playing the role] of judge in these matters. It is part of the dialogue that we have.
What have been your personal impressions of Egyptian political leadership, political parties, NGOs and civil society?
We have had one of the great bilateral relationships for more than two decades. What that reflects is the fact that Egypt's political leadership has been strong, determined and focused, and that society is vital.
I know there is a debate here as to how far the NGO law should or should not go, or whether political parties are strong enough, after the last election. The electorate sent some very interesting messages to the leadership of these parties.
The fact that there is debate within the society [on these matters] -- we are not part of that, the US watches that as a foreign country -- is a healthy thing.
One point of tension between Egypt and the US is the case of AUC professor and sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, because of the pressure the US tried to exert on the Egyptian authorities not to have him put on trial.
Let me clarify, very carefully and strongly, that the interventions I made had nothing to do with Ibrahim's status as an American citizen. He happens to be an American citizen, but he did not ask for intervention on behalf of his status. The only thing that impacted our work is the fact that we were allowed to see him in jail.
The concerns I expressed had much more to do with his role in civil society, and freedom of speech and expression issues. That is really where I focused. Every society has people who will say things, even if these things are unpopular, [challenging] the establishment. We have found in our own country that it is much healthier to allow that, rather than to try to stifle it.
My discussions were very much focused on [the implications] for civil society.
Another controversy was triggered by the US State Department's criticism of human rights-related issues, and those related to Egypt's Coptic citizens. This was interpreted inside Egypt as undue intervention by the US. How do you see future interaction on such issues ?
We have two pieces of legislation in the US that require our embassies all over the world to report on the human rights situation and religious freedom in every country. We are very much basing our reports on the international obligations [of these countries], international treaties and conventions related to human rights, as well as religious freedom and activity.
We are not trying to hold up a US measuring stick here. This is not a question of how somebody does relative to the US, but how somebody does relative to international standards. This is of interest to us, this is an internal document that the US Congress has passed, and so we do it in Egypt as we do it elsewhere in the world.
I think our reports stand for themselves. We spend a lot of time trying to make sure that they reflect as much reality as they can. We discuss everything with civil society activists, interest groups in the society and the government. All these things are reflected in these reports. Both reports indicate that work is to be done.
The fact that Egypt works to reach the standards of human rights and religious freedom on which it has agreed to support international conventions does not make it better or worse than anybody else in the world. It does not make it better or worse than the US. We have our own human rights and religious freedom issues that we have to grapple with. It is just something that our Congress would like to see us do.
Prior to the political fall-out resulting from the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Egypt harboured Muslims, Christians and Jews in a society where discriminatory practices were not predominant. Have you felt that you were resented in Egypt because you are Jewish?
I think that at the beginning there was a great deal of questioning as to why the US had sent an ambassador who is a Jew. Some of it came out in rather unfortunate ways in some newspaper articles. But I never felt anything at all in our inter- personal relationships. In fact, we were welcomed very warmly and very hospitably.
I think that is the Egyptian character. I think in fact that it is out of character, here, to say nasty things about Jews in general. The Egyptian character is cosmopolitan, and certainly open to the People of the Book. That is what I take with me from Egypt. I don't take this kind of nonsense that sometimes appears in the press.
There is a lot of resentment of the US in the Arab world. Can you understand why?
I understand it intellectually. I think that part of it is more a misunderstanding by other people of what the US stands for and what it is trying to accomplish.
The US probably needs to evaluate some of its policies. But I am frankly very proud of our system. We are open to a certain amount of criticism and reflection about what we do. We don't always change, but at least we think about it.
Over time, it will help if there is a pluralistic approach to these issues on the part of everybody. If people reached out, whether in the Arab-Israeli context or on other issues, tried to understand what the other side is thinking, and what its motivations are, which is something that we have tried to do, then maybe this would reduce some of the negative perceptions, and the resentment.
What is the basic insight you have gained here?
We did have a lot of our friends and family visit us here. One of the most important things, which has really come across from them, even in the week or so they spent here, and which my wife and I certainly felt, is that the degree to which you think you know about a country and a people is absolutely nonsense until you have come to live in it.
Every sixth-grader in the United States has studied about Egypt, but it is Ancient Egypt, its pyramids and Pharaohs. There is a very warm feeling about Egypt, but if you ask most high-school pupils anything beyond, they think it is a place where people ride around on camels, and everything is a pyramid. But then you come here, and find that it is a multi-faceted society -- a mix of tradition and modernity, a religious and social mix, and a pervasive sense of warmth.
I think that if you ask both my wife and me, what is the one feeling that we take away with us, having spent almost a third of our marriage in this country: it's that warmth.
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