'Hard days ahead'
As a military campaign against Iraq grows daily more likely and fears grow throughout the region over Washington's real intentions, Al-Ahram Weekly played host to John Sawers the United Kingdom's ambassador to Egypt, who spelled out the position of America's closest ally in a roundtable discussion. Omayma Abdel-Latif sums up the salient points
The past year has not, says John Sawers, British ambassador to Egypt, been an easy one. Arriving in Cairo shortly after the 11 September attacks, Sawers was confronted with "crisis after crisis".
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"This is not a colonial era where a Western army comes in and takes control of the assets and throws a few pennies to the natives. It is about an independent Iraq, having the capacity to rebuild its own country using its own natural resources"
"It was either bad or very bad all the time I have been here, and I don't expect much of the coming 15 months to be quiet either," Sawers said at the outset of the roundtable discussion held at Al-Ahram. On the agenda were the impending war on Iraq, the fate of America's war on terror, the alliance struck between Britain's Labour government and Washington's right-wing administration, the failure of the propaganda campaigns launched by the West, particularly the US and Britain, designed to "win Muslim and Arab hearts and minds", the Arab-Israeli conflict and the state of the Egyptian economy.
The discussion lasted more than two hours during which Sawers -- according to a foreign office source "a rising star in the FO and a faithful Blairite" -- fielded questions that reflected the darkening mood in the Arab and Muslim world over the fate of the region should there be Western intervention in Iraq.
The discussion was held on the day the Foreign Office issued yet another document on "the ills of Iraq", this time cataloguing human rights abuses under Saddam Hussein. The issue of the pamphlet provoked the first set of questions, which focused entirely on Iraq.
Many people, not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, find it hard to swallow the rhetoric currently emanating from London and Washington about acting against Iraq in defence of human rights. Did Sawers understand their scepticism?
The British ambassador defended the publication of the Foreign Office document insisting that this dossier was "different".
"We have done this because sometimes it is hard to understand just how appalling life is for those who want to voice an opinion, or have their own ideas in modern day Iraq, or who just happen to belong to the wrong ethnic group in that country. It is a further indictment of Saddam's regime and it is a further expression of sympathy and support for Iraqi people who have suffered more than any other people in the world of late, with the possible exception of the Afghan people."
The West's sudden concern about Iraq was, Sawers argued, due to two reasons, the breakdown of the policy of containment and the change of the nature of the threat posed by international terrorism after 11 September attacks.
"For seven or eight years after the Gulf War the combination of sanctions and inspectors did mean that Saddam was unable to redevelop those weapons that had made him such a feared leader in this part of the world, feared by his neighbours and feared by anyone within range of his terrifying arsenal. Four years ago, before the absence of international monitors and the breakdown of the sanctions system, Saddam was, for example, acquiring around $500 million, maybe $700 million of income from his illegal oil sales. Last year, though, we reckon that figure had reached 3 billion and the bulk of the money is going to re-equip and re-build his military capabilities."
Though the British ambassador acknowledged "there is no formal or established link between Al-Qa'eda and Iraq" and only "a few circumstantial ones", he insists that "the threat exists".
Sawers did not offer a direct answer on the relationship between Iraq and international terrorism after 11 September, but instead pointed out that one of the mistakes in the 1990s was "ignoring the problems posed by the fact that Afghanistan was a free country to drug producers, terrorists, arms smugglers... It was a free zone for any anarchist who wanted to pursue their own agenda and that was something which came back and haunted the US and all those who are victims of Al-Qa'eda tyranny."
In the view of the British government it has become doubly important that Iraq's weapons programme be removed because, as Sawers pointed out "we know from what was discovered in the hills of Tora Bora that central elements of Al-Qa'eda, the leadership group, were doing what they could to acquire biological, chemical and even nuclear weapons. Maybe some of this is far- fetched, the idea of them having nuclear weapons is pretty far- fetched, but the idea they could acquire chemical and biological toxins is very real. And the source that they are most likely to get them from would have been a friendly provider who might find it useful for his own purposes within the Arab world. It is important that people understand what sort of person we are dealing with and I think the booklet we produced today on the human rights situation on Iraq is one which -- you may not want to print -- includes ghastly accounts of just how systematic and brutal Saddam's regime is and I urge you to inform members of the public to read it."
But why, the questions persisted, this sudden concern with human rights now. The perception in this region, argued Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of the Weekly, is that "you were silent when Saddam was your friend and are outraged when he is made the enemy. The war against Iran was fully backed by the West, Saddam was developing his weapons of mass destruction in very strong co-operation with French and German companies. Did Saddam only become a threat last year? On the human rights record, we all know that human rights abuses exist not only in Iraq but in other parts of the region. And here Israel stands out flagrantly. There are people who have been killed, illegal weapons have been used, torture, occupation and above all a nuclear programme which escaped international inspection. This makes of your credibility -- i.e. the credibility of the West -- something that is doubted."
"Why is it," asks Sawers, "that our arguments are not carrying conviction in this part of the world? I think in this country it is different. The perspective in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia is rather different from the perspective here. There is no doubt that the Palestinian question is a burning issue for Egypt, much more so than what happens on the other side of the Arab world in Iraq and I think it is true to say that many events in the world are viewed in Egypt through the prism of what is happening in Palestine which I agree is a problem of occupation."
"I think the pain in Egypt is that you have achieved your own peace on fair terms some 25 years ago, while those who are most affected by the Israeli occupation have not achieved their fair peace. There is a sense of responsibility here about that and so it is not surprising that events elsewhere in the region and around the world are viewed through this prism."
On the Israeli nuclear programme, the British ambassador acknowledged that "there is a problem with Israel's nuclear programme just as there is a problem of India, Pakistan and probably North Korea acquiring illegal weapons. They -- the Israelis -- some 30 or 40 years ago developed their own nuclear weapons programme. They did it because they felt under threat and I don't justify it. I don't think it is a justified reason but in the long run the interest of all countries in the region is to have a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, free of all these weapons of mass destruction."
But, argued Sawers, the Iraqi case is unique in that "there is no way in which one can engage with the Iraqi regime to constrain it from the most extreme acts.
"Saddam is in a class of his own as a tyrant... He is alone among the present regimes in the world to have systematically used those weapons against his own people... He is willing to use any means whatsoever to remain in power."
"We are working for the removal of the Iraqi WMD programme to be achieved peacefully. We have been active in arguing toughly with the Americans that those who want to ignore the UN route, those who think that the right answers to this is simply to use force, are mistaken. I think we made some progress. It is not just us, there are many people in America who feel that every effort has to be exhausted to find a peaceful solution to this. But at the end of the day, as we all know from Saddam's record, we have to present him with a choice between complying voluntarily or being forced to comply."
Having produced a file on human rights abuses in Iraq, does this mean the Foreign Office will be tracking down other cases of human rights abuses which exist on a massive scale in countries with which the West is on friendly terms.
"We don't always produce the same reports about human rights abuses elsewhere, particularly in countries which are friendly," Sawers said. "And I think that is a fair approach in the modern world. If you have got concerns and if you want to make arguments about them then it is better to use all the failings and atrocities committed by this regime in order to advance one's argument."
The ambassador was less forthcoming on any projected morning after scenarios.
"I genuinely do hope that Saddam complies," he said. The worst outcome, he believed, would be "to leave the British and American generals to determine the future of Iraq and this is why the Egyptian contribution would actually be quite important. What Iraq needs is a political dispensation and a quality of governance it has not had since 1958."
But isn't the whole thing really about oil?
"These are not the motivating reasons. The motivating reasons are about making the world a safer place and making the Middle East a better place for people to live in."
"Of course Iraqi oil is a huge economic asset but I cannot envisage any circumstances in which this oil belongs to anybody except the people of Iraq in the same way that Saudi Arabia's oil belongs to Saudi Arabia and Egypt's oil and gas belong to the people of Egypt. So if it works out that Iraq is freed of sanctions, which could happen in two ways, either by complete compliance with UN obligations or if there is a new regime in Baghdad which complies with the UN obligations, then sanctions will be lifted, Western and Arab investments pour into Iraq to rebuild Iraq's oil producing capacity."
"There will not be a change of ownership and the people who would benefit the most are the people of Iraq. I do not disagree that oil is an important factor but I do disagree with you that somehow this is a Western grab for oil because it is not like that. It was never like that and it will never be like that... This is not a colonial era where a Western army comes in and takes control of the assets and throws a few pennies to the natives. It is about an independent Iraq, having the capacity to rebuild its own country using its own natural resources."
While no one is suggesting that the Americans and British intend to siphon off Iraqi oil surely Sawers would concede the legitimacy of concerns over the motivation to control those supplies?
"Do you think then that America has control over the Saudi oil supply?" he asked in return.
Well, if you have a military presence and a friendly government, you definitely have some control over pricing, supplies and production, said Shukrallah.
Concerns over the impact of a possible attack on Iraq on the Egyptian economy brought another set of questions to the fore. Sawers admitted that should a conflict break out there is likely to be an impact on the Egyptian economy. Recovery will not be impossible, he said, but "what will be more difficult is attracting investments across the economy as a whole."
"There has been good investment in oil and gas with companies such as BP, Shell, British Gas and other British investors having medium or large size operations in Egypt. My job is to help those investors make good business and extend it to other parts of the country. This will lead to internationalising the Egyptian economy and the way to do it is to invite foreign companies to invest in Egypt and Egyptian companies to invest overseas."
"It is about climate creation. The fact is investors -- when they come -- may have to deal with a very bureaucratic government, impossible customs arrangements, dispute resolution procedures which drag out for years in a legal system which they are unable to rely upon in the way they would like to. This country has to introduce the customs procedures it wants to introduce, so that things are cleared in 48 hours rather than the 48 weeks they take at the moment, introduce more transparent tax and dispute resolution procedures. There are some economic issues which need to be addressed by the Egyptian government which frankly have been sat on for too long."
On the anti-terror campaign launched by the United States and its Western allies a year ago, the British ambassador stressed that Al- Qa'eda was not an all-knowing, all powerful, seamless organisation.
"Al-Qa'eda is a loose network with lots of groups in different parts of mainly the Islamic world using its methods and inspiration to pursue national goals. What Bin Laden wanted to achieve is to overthrow the regime in Saudi Arabia in order to get back at those whom he feels have led his own country in the wrong direction and he uses whatever argument to achieve that."
And what of regularly voiced accusations in the West that it is Arab regimes that are responsible for the creation of terrorists?
"I don't think this is the case. I don't think it is Arab regimes that create terrorists. I think it is a combination of unaddressed grievances, very poor education system, encouragement of fundamentalism not extremism, institutionalised such as it is in Saudi Arabia. I think it is to do with the space created in Afghanistan where these people were allowed to operate and I think there is an element of grievance and when I say grievances I don't just mean the Palestinian question but also the fact that people feel they don't have a voice in their own countries."
But perhaps one of the major concerns for the Arabs and Muslims is what they perceive to be an identification of policies and views between a Labour government ruling in Britain and an extreme right-wing administration in the US.
Britain, Sawers argued, had sought to act as a moderating influence on the wilder schemes put forward in Washington.
"Our record with the Americans is that whatever the issues, whatever the disagreements, if you work closely with them, support them in public but have your tough argument in private, you are exercising pressure. It is not always easy because you get people who say that you are America's poodle, you are doing what the Americans say, you are the 51st state of America. In my last job -- I used to work in Downing Street for Tony Blair -- I used to have more discussions with Sandy Berger about everything under the sun than I did with the French, the German and the Russians put together. We used to argue about everything but when we got to a common view we supported one another. We felt that we had more influence that way and contributed more to the long- term good than we would have done had we highlighted those differences and stood apart in public. Sometimes we had a radicalising force, particularly on Russia."
"I do ask people sometimes to not always look at where Britain agrees with America, sometimes look at where America agrees with Britain."
Britain, too, he said, has frustrations with the Americans.
"The one area where we have not succeeded with this administration is the one which is dearest to your hearts, namely the Palestinian question. We are continuing to press the Americans that for their own sake, for the sake of justice in the region, and for the sake of long-term interest of Israel and the Palestinian people, and for the sake of the stability of the region, the Palestinian question must be addressed and resolved. Our argument is if negotiations have failed and violence breaks out, you have got to put the lid back on violence and go back to the negotiation table again. The only solution that we can envisage is a peaceful solution for two states in the same strip of land representing the two peoples."
"I think the Palestinians have made many mistakes in pursuit of their liberation and their state and I think they are still making many mistakes. Israelis are making many mistakes about their own future as well. The solution to that, as recognised by every body who has an interest in this case, is very clear -- it is two states side by side; a secure Israel and a viable Palestine in a small strip of land. The whole question of nuclear weapons is a complete irrelevance because it is not the central issue, the central issue is to end the occupation and to allow a viable Palestinian state to be achieved."
The concluding question brought the discussion back to square one: How aware are you of intensifying feelings of anger and outrage in the region and a sense of humiliation at former colonial masters, an imperial power behaving with total disregard for international law? The growing sense of anger and frustration is not something any of us feels happy about but there is anger and no means to express this anger positively or creatively.
The ambassador chose to conclude with a rosy picture of a future Middle East where "Saddam's regime will be defeated, if it chooses conflict, in a matter of weeks and the people of Basra, Baghdad and Mosel will be out in the street to celebrate. With a new Iraq and a peace solution in Palestine, which I don't think is unachievable because I firmly believe that the majority of the Israeli people want peace and don't care much about the settlements and certainly don't want to occupy the West Bank -- if they can find a voice and rebuild the peace camp then the perspective in Palestine can change rapidly. So the future of this region is very promising but you have got a few years of real difficulty to go through."