Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 December 2003
Issue No. 669
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Close encounter with a US diplomat

US Ambassador in Egypt, David Welch, is a diplomat who does not mince his words. But then, neither do Al-Ahram Weekly journalists -- which made for a lively encounter at Al-Ahram's offices on Monday. Below are extracts from a two-hour round table discussion between Welch and a number of Weekly staff members

David Welch
Hani Shukrallah: We've wanted to conduct this round table for some time now and it happens to come at a very significant moment. We've got so many things going on at the same time, and of course the big thing is Saddam's capture yesterday. We've also got an anti- globalisation/anti-war conference going on at the same time in Cairo. And of course we have Ambassador Welch, who has been a very newsworthy diplomat -- someone very much in the news, who has had very intense encounters with the media. So I think there is a lot to talk about. We will begin by asking the ambassador to speak to us for 10 minutes, and then we will open the floor for discussion.

Ambassador David Welch: Thank you for having me here this morning. I don't propose to say very much. Instead, I think this would be a more valuable session if we speak to each other. And of course I will try to answer your questions.

I read Al-Ahram Weekly all the time, I also log on to your Web site, and I believe that a fair number of people in the US do too. I don't know how much feedback you get on that, but I know that it attracts attention.

I think you made a remark that we are gathered here this morning on a significant day, so perhaps we should speak a little bit about what is significant about these days. With respect to Iraq, the events of the last two days do, of course, represent an important development. But the measure of progress is not the capture of a criminal on any given day; the measure of progress in Iraq is the return of the sovereignty of this country to its people in a situation more stable than they enjoyed before. With the capture of Saddam Hussein, I believe there is an important evolution forward in the progress towards restoring this country to its rightful owners, the Iraqi people.

We have a plan to do that and we can discuss that. This is not going to be an easy process, and I don't believe that we should expect, in the days ahead, everything to be flowers and sweets. It won't be. The president of the US gave the American people an appropriate caution yesterday, when he said the violence has not ended, and it may still continue. We fully expected that would be the case, but again, as we look to the future, there will be two other things happening along with controlling the security situation. One is to provide a better economic future for the Iraqi people, and we now have a substantial appropriation from the American congress [to do that]. There is also a very sizable contribution from the international community, and there are the resources of Iraq itself, and the three things put together offer a lot of means to address the economic situation in Iraq.

'[T]he measure of progress is not the capture of a criminal on any given day; the measure of progress in Iraq is the return of the sovereignty of this country to its people in a situation more stable than they enjoyed before. With the capture of Saddam Hussein, I believe there is an important evolution forward in the progress towards restoring this country to its rightful owners, the Iraqi people.' -- Welch

'I don't know if it's naiveté or just sheer arrogance when you tell us you're building hospitals and schools in Iraq, while we know that this country -- in spite of all of Saddam's crimes -- had the best educational and health systems in the Arab world. You speak about Iraq as if you're speaking about the bush, like they are tribes with bones running through their noses.' -- Shukrallah

There is also a political horizon that will be unfolding in the months ahead, as you've probably seen. The Iraqi Governing Council has been stepping forward more and more to play a political role. There are now active Iraqi ministries; indeed, those ministries themselves are signing licences and contracts with foreign firms. This political process that has been unfolding is also critically important for stabilising the country and getting it in good shape.

The combination of these three things -- controlling the security environment, building the economy of Iraq, and providing a better political future for its people -- should begin to pay off in terms of us seeing a better situation inside the country, and there is a timetable for the political process in particular.

If I may, I will briefly turn to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Here too I think there is -- I always want to be an optimist on these things -- a moment of opportunity. The violence has not ended, but it is clearly at a lower level than it has been for sometime. And in this period, there was a lot of work underway to try and start down the roadmap, first by establishing a security environment that is stable for both Israelis and Palestinians, second by offering some immediate relief to the Palestinian people, and third by an active diplomatic engagement to begin a process that would lead to negotiations. This is what was laid out in the roadmap. The president of the US put out a vision for two states living side by side in peace, the first American president to do so in such priority and detail, and we are still aiming at that point.

There are other ideas now coming forward from both Israelis and Palestinians about final status issues, which is a question to be negotiated towards the end of the roadmap. They don't exclude complimentary efforts.

The government of Egypt is playing a very important, maybe even critical, role now in trying to energise this process, first by starting on security, but moving beyond security to negotiations. We are appreciative of that role and grateful for this support from Egypt and other regional partners.

Our bilateral relationship is good. Like all such relationships, we are constantly trying to make it better. We are dedicated to doing so, and we hope in the year ahead to see progress on a number of fronts, particularly developing the economy, increasing its openness, and providing for freer trade between Egypt and other countries, but also especially between Egypt and the US. We are also looking to partner with the government of Egypt, explore new ways to bolster the development of human resources, and in particular education. I know from time to time that this is an element of political controversy here, in terms of the US role. I hope you ask me some questions about that because I would really like to get our views on this issue out on the table.

We would also like to see the expansion of political participation, civil society, governance and accountability, and this is an area where, with the help of the government and civil society, we try and look at new ways to support people in Egypt as they try and modernise their political systems, and their society.

Finally, we are also keenly interested in the empowerment of women. Girls who are educated tend to make smarter choices in life and when they do, they are better able to provide for themselves and their families. That is an established fact in development economics and we want to look for ways to make this work better in this society. I will pause there, and we can go into any of those areas or into other area you would like to speak about.

Shukrallah: Thank you Mr Ambassador. Ambassador Welch has given us a very concise presentation, which at the same time is very general, and we want to tackle him on specific issues. Let me make one initial comment just to open the door for discussion, specifically regarding democratisation in the region. I think you get two reactions to the American -- especially the current administration's -- rhetoric on this issue. One is that America is out to impose a model upon us that is alien to our political process, tradition, and culture.

Another reaction, which I subscribe to, is that we don't believe the American administration, particularly this one, is interested in genuine democratisation in the region. If we believe that the American administration really wants democracy in the Middle East; that means we have to disregard a lot of things like Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, etc. But even if we believe it, there is a very easy way to do it, and my point is: begin with Israel. Democratise Israel and then you will have a domino effect like you cannot believe. The region will almost immediately democratise.

We are speaking about an occupation that has lasted now for over 30 years. All this talk of peace processes has meanwhile lost the US an enormous amount of credibility. There is no Arab who does not believe the Americans could get Israel out of the Palestinian territories if they want to. I don't think anybody now seriously believes that if America tells Israel to go back to the June 1967 borders and allow the building of the Palestinian state, that it will not do so.

The whole violence argument does not make sense. It is so transparently false because everybody knows that if Israel ends the occupation, the reason for violence will have been removed. People will not go to Tel Aviv if they are able to live in Ramallah the way they want to.

US policy in the region has lost an enormous amount of credibility, even among a lot of the traditional friends of the US.

This is just a general comment, and I will ask my colleagues to add a few more.

Nevine Khalil: And what if there is democracy in the region and the people decide to elect governments that are not friendly to the US? What would you do about that?

Welch: You mean like France? This is a good opening. Forgive me because I am not a very good diplomat and I tend to say what's on my mind and I say it straight. It may at times bother you a little bit, but I don't mean any offense. I just believe in honesty. So I am going to be very honest.

So you are telling me that if there were peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and a withdrawal to the 1967 borders tomorrow, we'd have thriving democracies throughout this part of the world?

Shukrallah: Yes, I believe so.

Welch: Really, on the same time scale?

Shukrallah: Pretty soon.

Welch: Let's get serious. What I find completely illogical about this position is that you cannot believe the reverse -- that democracy throughout the region might help you in achieving peace.

Dina Ezzat: One very obvious pretext for the dictators in this region is the Middle East conflict; they say you cannot do this [democratise], because we are in a state of war.

Welch: If you would excuse me for saying so, one pretext for you journalists is that you don't look at all the options.

Ezzat: How is yours an option?

Welch: We see the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as an essential part of the search for peace and stability in this area. To do that you need certain conditions in place, one of which is an atmosphere in which negotiations can proceed -- and we are trying to have a negotiation that reaches a settlement.

I don't discard your option that it would help the furtherance of democracy in the area to reach a solution in this conflict. Obviously there is a connection for you, but look at the reverse too -- it is quite possible that democratic governments throughout this area would help in the resolution of these conflicts.

Ezzat: But isn't the first proposition more logical because if you want to follow international law -- which you very often like to talk about -- it would be logical to end the occupation.

Welch: UN Resolution 242, the basis of a just solution to the Arab-Israeli problem, was passed in 1967. It took until 1978 for one Arab country to recognise it and implement it. It took another 10 years for the remainder of the Arab countries to catch up to that fact.

Shukrallah: That is a very special reading of the history of the region. I think it took Israel a very long time to accept it. It needed a war, the October war, for Israel to accept it.

But let me get back to the democratisation issue and then move to other questions. The point I was trying to make when I said that Israel is an obstacle to democratisation in the Middle East is that we have a heritage of national humiliation that is extremely profound in the Arab world.

We've had a colonial period that was finishing as Israel was being established, and we've had wars, the tripartite aggression, very hostile American policies in the region biased to Israel, and so on.

So we have that very powerful heritage of profound feelings of national degradation and humiliation that is not limited to the Palestinians, but has spread throughout the Arab world. I am sure you must have noticed how dramatically the mood on the Egyptian street has been changing in the past two or three years. Americans are always asking about anti- Americanism and where it came from? This is a very fundamental problem, the sense of national humiliation that has been added to by the Gulf war, the sanctions against Iraq, the invasion of Iraq, and the total bias of America towards Israel.

You cannot convince an Arab that a suicide operation is much worse than Israeli helicopters and tanks shooting down, bombing and bringing down whole buildings. No way will you convince us that this is better for us, or this is more legal or more moral than the other option.

What I am trying to say is that this sense of national humiliation is an obstacle to democracy. It's what gets you the likes of Saddam Hussein. I was personally happy that Saddam Hussein was captured, but many people were sad. People on the street have no love for Saddam Hussein. Arabs do not like tyrants because they have suffered from tyranny, but there is a sense that Saddam Hussein tried to defy the West, tried to defy the people who have been trying to humiliate and degrade us, and now he's broken down in the most humiliating way.

Welch: Let me stay on the subject and try to be diplomatic. I don't know whether you all know this or not, but I have lived outside of the US most of my life. I've spent the minority of my life inside the US, so I am very familiar with living in other cultures. I am not ignorant about how people feel about us and about themselves.

First, you used the word rhetoric about democracy. It is not rhetoric. We are not describing a situation any differently than anyone else, including yourselves. The majority of countries in the world today are trending towards political participation within a democratic context. The singular exception is the Arab Middle East. This is recognised in your own evaluations, so it is not rhetoric, nor is it rhetoric in the sense of trying to communicate what America values.

America does not covet territories, it does not covet resources, and it does not covet your decision. America does covet ideas, and we believe -- to quote Winston Churchill -- "ideas are the empire of the future". This is where we, the US, have traditionally made a difference. So with all due respect, it is not rhetoric, nor can it be imposed. There are so many different forms of democratic achievement in the world -- parliamentary democracy, American style Republican democracies, constitutional monarchies. Most of democratic Western Europe has a monarchical tradition, and this is their decision to make. It works better when it is their decision. And obviously we would like to encourage your decisions and I do not believe that we will succeed in imposing our own.

Can we be credible on this? I agree with you about the way that our words and actions are greeted. I don't know if I can erase all the theories and speculation about what it is that we would like to do. You could ask me -- Why should you care? But when we face a threat in the US, we don't like to stay idle, and we perceive a threat from an atmosphere that generates the kind of hatred and anger against us, as we have seen in recent years. It is our duty as public servants and my business to try and address that. We don't pretend we have a magic formula, by the way. This is an effort in which we need help, and we hope to get it from the people and the countries in this area.

I happen to believe that despite this sense of humiliation that you talk about, that people are coming around to look at these issues more carefully and are debating them more. Perhaps you don't like it if the debate started with the words that we say, but if you could set that aside for a second, and ask, you know, yourselves, what you want, and how would your future be better, that would help.

With respect to the display of Saddam Hussein, can I be honest with you here? I am stunned that you would say this. I did not see any problem with his treatment whatsoever. What is wrong with a medical examination?

Shukrallah: But why the medical examination on TV?

Welch: Give me a break, folks -- this guy is an unbelievable war criminal. He did not deserve dignified treatment; he did not give any of his victims dignified treatment.

Shukrallah: Torture torturers and assassinate assassins...

Welch: He was not tortured. He is receiving medical examinations. Look at the facts. That was a DNA test. Had he not been put on TV, it would have been said that we did not have him... There was a prominent Al-Jazeera journalist who was on TV yesterday saying it was not Saddam Hussein.

Shukrallah: Still, this does not prove anything. The object seemed to be to just humiliate him.

Welch: He is now a prisoner and he will be dealt with as a prisoner.

Khalil: Then why were the Americans up in arms when the Iraqis showed US POWs on TV? You said POWs should not be treated this way. Why are you doing that now -- isn't he a POW?

Welch: Yes, there is a difference. Look at Saddam Hussein. I cannot believe you guys are defending this guy.

Shukrallah: We don't accept it, and if you've been reading the Weekly carefully, you'd have found out that we never found it justifiable that someone who is arrested for the most heinous terrorist acts in this country should be mistreated or tortured. And if you've read the Weekly you would have seen how much the Weekly has exposed and given coverage to a whole range of mistreatment and abuse.

Human rights conventions are very clear on this. The criminality of a criminal does not justify his abuse and mistreatment by a state, or this would mean that we would say goodbye to all human rights and all due process of law. Americans should hear themselves talking -- you are flaunting the very principles on which the American Revolution was based.

Welch: There is a basic difference in the facts. Implicitly, your position is that we are abusing this person, and I say we are not. So we have a difference of views. You interpret videoing while he's getting his teeth checked as abuse, and I don't.

Nyier Abdou: Whether or not you want to call it abuse, there certainly is a distinction between showing somebody in this manner and showing them in a more dignified way. I think what makes people angry is that the US fails to see how this kind of imagery will inflame people, and that they do it anyway, and that's what really makes people angry. It is a misunderstanding of what is going to convince people.

Welch: I think your moral compass has gone crazy. I think you should be looking at the Iraqi people and their reaction to this. Your reaction puzzles me to be honest. Can we move on because this is boring...

Khalil: Let's go back to democracy. If we eventually end up with democracy and the regimes to be elected are not compliant with US interests, what would the US do?

Welch: But we've had this situation all over the world. There are democratic and elected governments who disagree with us on anything from genetically modified food to Guantanamo. We don't do anything about that except discuss it with them. We have differences with all kinds of governments, and of course with many democracies. Just open up the newspaper on any given day.

Shaden Shehab: But you've said you don't intend to impose democratisation, whereas there are lots of theories about the US imposing on issues like education, religious institutions, and the press. What do you think about that?

Welch: As I said, I don't think this will work if imposed from the outside. I am glad you asked that question because I don't think we're trying to do that, and I would like to clear up any confusion in that respect. How would you measure our intervention, for example, in the area of education, where we do everything from providing assistance for the building of schools, to things that are less straightforward, like the participation of girls in education? For example, we have a scholarship programme that enables young girls to go to school. We translate books into Arabic. I don't know if you consider that an intervention that is unacceptable, but there are ones that are agreed with the government of Egypt.

Shehab: I am talking about intervention like when you said you want to eliminate the atmosphere of hatred and anger in the region, and that could be done via education, especially in the realm of religious courses.

Welch: No, no, we don't do anything in that area.

Shehab: I am not saying you do it directly. But I am saying you are doing it by telling governments what to do.

Welch: We don't interfere in religious instruction in Egypt. Please -- we don't interfere. I don't know anything about what you are asking me because we are not doing it. There are lots of indirect ways to influence education. We are much more interested in things like problem solving, systems, free debate, interaction among students, interaction between the teacher and students, the use of new technologies, ways in which to cut costs. It is indirect and it is influential and probably more successful. There is, I believe, a very strong view here that somehow we are tinkering in religious education. I have tried through the two and half years I've been here to tell people that is not the case.

Shukrallah: We as Egyptians recognise very well what we need to overhaul in our education system. And many of us, I'm sure, around this table and elsewhere see a lot that must be done in terms of democratisation and political reform and so on and so forth. When it comes from Americans, however, you get an overall sense of "This is meddling and we don't want to hear about it if it's coming from you."

The point here is that with this administration you don't get the sense -- at all -- that this kind of reaction gets people thinking; you don't seem to wonder why people say, "We don't want your democracy, you're meddling in our affairs, go away."

And here, really, we have to discuss imperial arrogance, which has become so blatant with this administration. I'll give you one example: I was in Detroit recently for the first Arab-American Economic Forum -- a very good initiative. The Arab discourse in this conference, whether by Arab officials or Arab- Americans, was very conciliatory. "We have political differences, let's put them aside and let's talk about cultural exchange, commercial ties and so on." Secretary Powell addressed the final session of this conference -- and this is the nice guy of this administration. He actually did not talk to us. Amr Moussa was there and so was Ahmed Maher, but we eventually discovered that Secretary Powell was talking to the TV cameras and addressing American public opinion, while we could all go to hell.

And basically, in a speech of almost three quarters of an hour, he was telling us the wonderful things America is doing in Iraq. I don't know if it's naiveté or just sheer arrogance when you tell us you're building hospitals and schools in Iraq, while we know that this country -- in spite of all of Saddam's crimes -- had the best educational and health systems in the Arab world. You speak about Iraq as if you're speaking about the bush, like they are tribes with bones running through their noses.

We don't feel that American foreign policy and American discourse towards the Middle East is at all guided by this kind of sensitivity.

Welch: I get the message. There is a lot to debate about what is going on these days. I can't come to terms with concepts like imperial arrogance. What will happen to your theory of imperial arrogance if we stun you into disbelief by leaving Iraq on 1 July in the hands of an Iraqi government as we say we will? We've told you what our intention is. Here is the calendar we would like to work out with the Iraqi people -- who by the way are divided among themselves on how they will exercise their free choice, a real problem on which I would like to hear your views by the way, since we're talking about democracy. At the end of the day, there is the decision of all decisions, the mother of all decisions for the Iraqi people. They have, for the first time in their modern political history, a genuine choice.

Gamal Nkrumah: They don't.

Welch: Really? Since when did you become Iraqi?

Nkrumah: I'm not Iraqi, but they do not. How could they have a choice when your troops are there? They went in uninvited, when only the UN Security Council can authorise countries to go in. Nobody invited you. So how could they have a free choice if your troops are there?

Welch: Well, setting aside that bundle of assertions, we are where we are right now, and again the question is -- will they have that choice and how do they intend to exercise it? What will we do to help them? Will they ask us to stay or leave?

Nkrumah: Your stooges will probably ask you to stay on. It's obvious, isn't it?

Welch: I don't think it's so obvious.

Nkrumah: For people in this part of the world, it is.

Welch: If you've made up your mind beforehand, I welcome your views, but there is obviously no room for discussion of them.

Shehab: I think your criticism of how the press handles the news, which prompted journalists in the Press Syndicate to accuse you of meddling in their affairs, has a lot to do with the fact that the US is championing human rights and freedom of expression at the same time.

Welch: This is a tough issue to handle, because on the one hand, I have an obligation as a diplomat to advocate my country's policies, and sometimes the advocacy may come across as criticism, or be interpreted as criticism. It's not meant that way.

But perhaps it is new to some members of the press that an American diplomat is going to say what we think. That is not meant to be critical of the press, but it is meant to respond to some of their assertions.

Let me give an example of what I mean. If there is a headline in a newspaper that says the "Americans deliberately targeted civilians", I think that is either a fact or not a fact, and I can decide which of those it is. And then if I say that the editors in this newspaper should only print the facts, they get bothered by that. Now you would have to decide: Do you think it's a fact, or a non fact, and I hope my contribution to this is to encourage you to do so and not simply to look for what I am saying that may sound critical.

Shehab: So you think it's your role to correct this?

Welch: No, I can't correct it, and I obviously have not succeeded in doing so, because regrettably some of these distortions continue to appear. My Egyptian counterpart in Washington does respond to stories in the American press when he finds them unfair about Egypt. I would not be here today to sit with you to have this conversation if I did not have respect for you and your role. I want to hear what you think. One of the reasons why I enjoy these discussions is because it tests me. Do I understand where you're coming from? Why are you asking these questions? How would I respond?

I think that the press institution in any country is critically important to the function of a liberal society in which views are out there that get to be debated. Do I tell people about their right to decide what to write? Now here it's tougher, because we have to feel our way in this problem because there are certain things you would agree that you should not say, even though you may feel them. But you have defined that there is kind of a red line. So you may not write things that incite people. Unfortunately that is not always the case.

Now, this is a judgement call. In the US we have decided that our society is secure enough that we can have a relatively unabridged liberty to say and write what we think. But there are still certain things in our society that people will not say, even if in their hearts, unfortunately, they believe them. That is what I call the area of judgement. That is what editors do -- they have to make judgements about what is appropriate, what suits their mission to inform society, and help society make the right decisions.

That is a murky area and it is somewhat new to be in that area and testing how we can play a role. But I'm not sure that in today's world we should concede it by our silence. As a person I feel very strongly about this. I am revolted when I see, in my own country, a language of intolerance and hate. When it happens in my children's school I don't accept it. I don't accept it on my dinner table and I don't like to read it in other people's writings. This is just my view. If people interpret it as an effort to be an editor for you all, I'm sorry. It's not intended that way. It's just to contribute to what I consider to be the moral debate.

Shehab: You are saying that the most important thing is the war of ideas, but how are you going to change people's ideas if you are not meddling with the press?

Welch: There are a lot of different ways to do that.

Niveen Wahish: First, I'd like to ask the inevitable Free Trade Area question. Last summer Egyptian businessmen were very enthusiastic that something was going to be initiated, and negotiations on a Free Trade Area would soon take place. But then Robert Zoellick came out and said that no such thing is going to take place. Could you tell us what went wrong, and is there anything we can look forward to? Another thing is the $300 million supplemental assistance. At what stage is that, and at what would it be directed to?

Welch: The general principle is that I think the government of Egypt has decided that economic modernisation of your country is best achieved by opening up the economy and trading more with other countries. They recognised that a Free Trade Agreement can be important in that respect by signing and ratifying one with the European Union and that process is being implemented now by Egypt and the EU.

We think Egypt is a big market and we would like to be as competitive in it as possible, so for us there is a very strong commercial interest in expanding our trade relations with Egypt, and we don't want to fall behind the European countries. I think for Egypt the situation is slightly different, because Europe is a bigger trading partner, but nonetheless, America is also a very important trading partner, and they would like to have easier access to our market too.

So our objective remains to have a Free Trade Agreement with this country. The government of Egypt wants to digest how this would happen and what its requirements would be. That is understandable because as you open up trade, there are going to be effects -- some positive, some negative -- but on the whole the long run effect of greater trade is beneficial to everybody. All economists agree on that.

I don't think this is frozen, I think it is being restored in terms of momentum. But I can't give you a date on which we are going to announce that we will have negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement. We are not there yet. Both of us still seek it as an objective; both of us realise that if we have an FTA, it means there are significant changes, such as existing non- WTO compliant trade barriers. If those are not implemented it makes the whole environment for open trade as a vision of a Free Trade Agreement more difficult.

Wahish: Are there particular reforms that you are requesting from the Egyptian government that are not taking place?

Welch: I would not cast it that way. These are things that each government seeks from each other. There are some that the Egyptian government wants, and there are some that we want.

Jailan Halawi: I have two questions, the first about Saadeddin Ibrahim, and aid, I have read many stories, some of which said that he asked, in an unofficial way, for aid to his centre. We also heard rumours about $2 million being deducted from the annual aid package, an extra $1 million to be given to Saadeddin Ibrahim, and finally reports that said he was already granted $1 million for his Ibn Khaldoun Centre. Would you please care to explain?

My second question is about the Muslim Brotherhood. Some diplomats, including Americans and Canadians, unofficially met with figures from the Muslim Brotherhood once, and there were also reports that a second meeting was scheduled, but did not take place. So is there a dialogue, or does the US care to have a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood? And how true are reports about America being interested in funding non- aggressive religious movements in Egypt?

Welch: The facts as I understand them about Congress's action on assistance funding are as follows: in the bill that has been agreed upon by the two houses of the American Congress, there is language that provides an additional $1 million to be used for promotion of democracy through civil society, including to Ibn Khaldoun. Earlier in the legislature process, there were other ideas that were debated on Capitol Hill, but this is the one that I know about now; I presume that the Congress expects the administration to find this additional $1 million elsewhere in our system's programme because it was written in that manner, if you understand what I mean. It's not coming out of the money earmarked for Egypt.

Concerning the Muslim Brotherhood, as far as I know and I believe I should know about these things, the leadership of the Ikhwan does not want to meet with any American diplomats. No staff of mine has met with the Ikhwan. When you say that we are joining Canadians in meetings, I don't think so. I do not know where that comes from.

Halawi: From them. Not from Ma'moun Hodeibi, but from Essam El-Erian, and we reported on this meeting.

Welch: If they have changed their position, or are offering themselves as being available for meetings with those whom they are spending everyday denouncing, then I will take a look at why we want to do that.

Halawi: So you are prepared to do that?

Welch: I did not say that. I said I will take a look at it, if they changed their position. You asked me, "Are we meeting with them?" and I said no.

Shehab: So you are not interested in any dialogue with them?

Welch: I did not say that. I am not waiting expectantly by the phone. Let's put it that way.

Gamal Essam El-Din: I have a question about Egyptian-American relations in general. I am here reflecting the opinion of the street, the Egyptian parliamentarians, and members of the ruling party. Most of the people in these three areas think that there is a crisis in the relationship between Egypt and the US, despite the fact that officials are always referring to the progress being made in these relationships. In your presentation, you said the relations are moving well. President Mubarak said yesterday that his relations with President Bush are excellent. In spite of this, most people think that there is a crisis, and they have three reasons for this: most people think that you always defend Israeli policies, and that some of the comments you said might as well have been said by the Israeli ambassador himself. The second thing are the public announcements made by US officials on democratising the Arab world. You said you are not interfering, but by making these statements you are exerting some kind of psychological pressure on the people here, and they think this is part of the crisis in the relationship.

The third thing you spoke about -- education -- is also a problem area. The most frequently asked question is why the US is so suddenly interested in funding education in Egypt? The US has been giving Egypt money over the past 25 years, but suddenly, after 11 September, you decided to focus on education. So these are the three main issues, and we want your comments on them.

Welch: First, as I said, I do see my role as advocating and defending American policy, and I believe there is a difference between the two. To advocate American policy means that you have to go out and say what we think about something, or what should be done. To defend American policy is to obviously defend it when it comes under criticism. I do not make it my business to defend another government. I represent my government, and if you have looked at my words very carefully, they are not to defend Israel -- though on some issues I would not be ashamed to do so, anymore than I will be ashamed to defend another country. Instead, what I am trying to do is to advocate a position in this debate of ideas. If I may say something that I hope you will not misunderstand -- if every issue is related to the American issue on Israel, then logically it is possible to interpret every American action and position as related to Israel. So in a sense I am almost condemned before I even start to do the thing that you are concerned about. If this is the centre of your universe, then it does not matter what I say or do. I only ask you to read my words when I say them. I have this funny feeling that lots of people here do not read what we say and do not look at what we do; they only hear the views of others about what we have said, or what we have done, despite every effort we make to propagate our views.

I do not know how to address this question regarding the psychological pressure. I think there is a strong current of opinion in this part of the world now that you yourselves need to address some of the problems that you yourselves have identified, and maybe it is not comfortable sometimes to hear others talking about these problems too. Maybe you find that particularly uncomfortable if it comes from foreign political leaders.

Nkrumah: Can you be more specific?

Welch: Look at the public opinion here every time we make a speech -- whether it's me, or my boss Colin Powell, the president of the United States, or others -- about these issues that you are talking about. I think Mr Shukrallah said it himself earlier -- that sometimes those views, even if they are meant to be positive and encouraging, may get dismissed because of where they came from. If you interpret that as a psychological pressure, I'm sorry, but your interpretation is not our intention. Our intention is to encourage, and yes, to promote change.

Concerning education, I tried to do the best job I could to answer this question earlier, and obviously I did not get a 100 per cent result. First of all it might come as a stunning surprise to you, but I do listen to people outside on the street, members of parliament, and to people like yourself, and what I hear from most people in Egypt is that there is an issue with education. Contrary to what you think, we are not the first to propose a greater use of assistance funds in the area of education. This is, in fact, a welcome idea to the government.

Essam El-Din: So you do not think that there is a crisis between Egypt and the US?

Welch: No I don't. Are there differences between governments, and do public opinions have different ways of looking at things? Of course they do.

Abdou: To my mind, especially since 11 September, things are moving backwards in terms of public opinion. Before people were more open to Western ideas, and there has been a radical shift there, because people now see themselves under attack. That's why you see people who are not delighted about Saddam Hussein being upset at the way he was captured and being angry at the US.

Welch: That could well be true for the transitory period, but the subject moves on, and an important part of your job would be to educate people.

Abdou: It is frustrating.

Welch: Yes, but look at the range of responses. You've got most leaders in this area saying responsible things about his capture. You can ask people in the coffee houses and they change the subject to the centre of the universe right away, and you know what I mean. And you've got other people sitting right next to the door to the centre of the universe who can't find a public comment to make, curiously. Saddam Hussein is really a very interesting figure in your history, whatever your history is. For a period of time he could commit mass murder on a genocidal scale with absolutely no response but silence.

Abdou: As well as the US.

Welch: Really?

Abdou: Certainly not an adequate response.

Welch: But it wasn't silence. When the history is written about this man's legacy in this part of the world, as unfortunate as it is, I hope that you will be self critical enough to make a contribution.

Abdou: Absolutely.

Nkrumah: But so should you, Mr Ambassador. You should be self critical about your role in arming him all those years, of using him as a weapon to fight Khomeini in Iran, and that is critically important, and everyone here is aware of that. Who drew the borders of Iraq and Kuwait? It was the British. Who armed Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war? It was your government. These are facts that everyone is aware of here. It seems that the only people who are not aware are the Bush administration.

Welch: Again, I find those assertions contestable, collectively and individually, but that's not the point we are at right now. Even if you accepted that theory, we have been sufficiently self critical to reverse ourselves and go on moving, and that's not a bad place to be at.

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