Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 April 2006
Issue No. 791
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Betting on Egypt

On the eve of his visit to Egypt, French President Jacques Chirac expounds on his vision on developments in the Middle East in an exclusive interview, in Paris, with Osama Saraya, Al-Ahram 's editor-in-chief

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Jacques Chirac with Osama Saraya

Iam very happy to have the opportunity to speak with a newspaper of the calibre of Al-Ahram on the occasion of a trip to Egypt, a country I love and admire and which I do not visit frequently enough. I would also like to express my great pleasure in visiting Egypt again, at the invitation of my friend, President Hosni Mubarak.

I would also like to express my great esteem for the Egyptian people. The Egyptians are a courageous and intelligent people who assume their very considerable responsibilities in the Middle East. They occupy a position astride Africa and Asia and have special responsibility in the general equilibrium of the Middle East, a fascinating but difficult region and the cradle of very old civilisations.

My visit has a two-fold objective.

First, we are keen to give new impetus to our bilateral relations, which are excellent and are cemented by a long history and solid realisations of friendship between heads of state, nourished by frequent, high-level exchanges which are now on the level of global diplomatic consultations. My last trip to Egypt was almost four years ago.

Since then, Egypt has undergone great changes. Faced with substantial challenges, it has chosen the path of modernisation and openness. France is keen to encourage Egypt along this path and my visit is therefore a perfect opportunity to take stock of our cooperation with the aim of revitalising it, in both the cultural and the economic field.

You are well aware of the current international situation, with growing tensions in the region and grounds for misunderstanding between peoples of different cultural backgrounds. Egypt is a great country that makes a crucial contribution to stability, not only in the Middle East but also in the Mediterranean and Africa. It shares many common values with France, based on dialogue and mutual respect. For France, Egypt is a comprehensive and constructive partner, serving peace, stability and development. It is therefore vital that our two countries consult with each other on an ongoing basis. My visit will be an opportunity to compare our views and see how best we can act faced with new challenges."

ON POLITICAL REFORM IN EGYPT: "It is true that Egyptian society has for some time been undergoing a genuine transformation. The economy is modernising and opening up to the world market. It is also revitalising its institutions and in 2005 we saw intense political debate, with reform of the procedures for electing the head of state, followed by the presidential and legislative elections.

These changes, initiated under the leadership of President Mubarak, are very constructive and I would like to promise France's full support in taking them forward. As a cradle of human rights, France sees democracy as a universal value, but it also understands that each country must adopt reforms at its own pace, retaining its own sovereignty and in harmony with its identity. Change is necessary if Egypt is to adapt to the new realities of a world advancing towards globalisation. None of us doubt that this process of reform will continue and develop. What is important is that Egypt decides, democratically and as a sovereign nation, on the paths it takes towards modernisation and the pace at which it proceeds. I believe that this is the intention of President Mubarak in the debate he has proposed at the end of December concerning constitutional reforms in Egypt."

A SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP: "President Mubarak and I have known each other now for more than 30 years. I believe that I met him for the first time when he was commander of the Egyptian Air Force. He is a man for whom I have long had a great deal of esteem. We have enjoyed friendly relations from the beginning and have always been in agreement on all the problems that we discussed. Our meetings have always been meetings between old friends, taking place in a warm and friendly ambiance. We speak very freely of the different problems; he gives his opinion and I give mine on all subjects.

This very close relationship has been nourished by many meetings and frequent telephone contacts. Throughout these years, we have always talked about the great questions of our time, whether this means peace in the Middle East, strategies for combating terrorism or ways of building bridges between the two sides of the Mediterranean. We share the same commitment to peace and stability in the region, grounded in the conviction that armed conflict is never a solution. President Mubarak is a man who possesses the wisdom and experience that the Middle East needs. My discussions with him have greatly enlightened me about the particular sensitivities of this region and we are united by a common vision of the challenges facing this part of the world and the ways in which they can be met.

This vision is first of all grounded in the will to carry on a dialogue as equal partners, respecting the identity and the convictions of both.

We share the conviction that we must act in compliance with international law, which, in particular, implies implementation of the resolutions of the United Nations. In a globalised world, multilateralism is evidently the best framework for organising international relations.

Lastly, we are both convinced that the partnership between our two countries can contribute to fostering the spirit of dialogue, harmony and reconciliation so vital to the people of this region for establishing peace, maintaining stability and promoting development."

ON BILATERAL RELATIONS: "Our economic exchanges are both dynamic and diverse. Today, France is Egypt's third largest trading partner. In 2005 alone, bilateral trade -- imports and exports -- rose by 50 per cent. One of the main contributors to this growth is the liquefied natural gas agreement signed with Gaz de France, the largest contract ever signed between our two countries. Egypt will be supplying approximately 10 per cent of France's annual gas consumption, thereby playing an important role in covering our energy requirements. This is a splendid example of industrial cooperation and it will also contribute to a better balance of trade between our two countries.

France is also very active in the service sector. Our companies are moving into the Egyptian market in a very wide range of activities, including tourism, distribution, transport and IT and financial services.

Last but certainly not least, France has become the second largest foreign investor in Egypt, after the United States, through some 90 companies that employ almost 36,000 Egyptians and investments amounting to close on two billion euros. A growing number of French investors are attracted to your fast-growing country, which is situated at the hub of several free-trade zones, a country that is opening up and deregulating its economy, leading to a rapid transformation of the general business climate.

As concerns concrete projects, I will naturally be talking with President Mubarak about construction of the third subway line in Cairo. French companies have a great many strength in this area and France is willing to make a substantial contribution.

In other words, France is determined to back the winning strategy of Egypt. To support this new momentum, I will be accompanied by a delegation of businessmen with the aim of setting up the Franco- Egyptian Presidential Business Board in the ultramodern "Smart Village" technology centre. Its task will be to strengthen the partnership aspect of our relations. We will also be talking about possibilities for intervention by the Agence française de development (French Development Agency) in Egypt."

ON CULTURAL LINKS: "I am convinced of the need for dialogue between cultures. This is a matter of personal conviction first of all: I love the Middle East and know a little about is history and civilisations. This knowledge of history has quite naturally nourished a respect for people and when one respects people, one understands them better. People see very clearly when they are respected and when they are not.

From this point of view, cultural and linguistic exchanges are in fact essential to maintaining brotherly relations between peoples on either side of the Mediterranean.

In this respect, the official inauguration of the French University in Egypt will be one of the highlights of my visit. This French-language Egyptian university, a project dating back some 10 years and which started up three years ago, has attracted an enthusiastic public and established a reputation for quality teaching. It is the only Egyptian educational institution that teaches in French, as well as Arabic and English. Graduates are awarded diplomas issued both the FUE but also by French universities, making it easier for students to pursue their studies in France or in Europe. Evidently, these diplomas offer important career prospects, particularly in the growing number of French companies doing business in your country. Furthermore, the FUE has rapidly attracted the attention of private sponsors and investors and I would like to pay a particular tribute to them today.

But Egypt and France also enjoy cultural ties of a very special nature and strength which this visit will allow us to reinforce. Egypt has always held an enormous fascination for France. What would our capital city resemble without the obelisk, the gift of Mohamed Ali, in the Place de la Concorde. France too has always given the best of itself to Egypt. By piercing the mystery of the hieroglyphs, Champollion helped the Egyptians rediscover their past. In the 20th century, the French contributed to the industrialisation and modernisation of Egypt in every field, including agriculture, medicine and education. Today, France is still passionately interested in Egypt. Our cooperation in the field of archaeology is unrivalled. This enthusiasm is shared not only by Egyptologists but also by the general public. Some 500,000 French tourists visit Egypt every year and thousands of French expatriates live in your country. All these factors make an essential contribution to the richness of our relations as a bridge between the two sides of the Mediterranean."

THE CLASH OF CILVILSATIONS: "I do not believe that there is hostility between the Arab-Muslim world and that part of the world stemming from the Christian or Judeo- Christian tradition. I do not believe in the inevitability of a war of civilisations or cultures. The doomsayers who brandish this threat are seeking to amalgamate problems that have nothing in common, at a time when the fate of all the people in the world is becoming increasingly interdependent. What we are dealing with here is more of a clash of ignorance than a clash of civilisations. But because this risk of amalgamation exists, we must foster a spirit of tolerance and dialogue, mutual respect, education, and culture, along with an affirmation of humanist values. This is particularly important in that the peoples of the world have not been prepared for this cohabitation of cultures to which globalisation is leading us and we must therefore tread carefully.

Along these lines, I understand that the publication of certain cartoons in Europe was poorly perceived and criticised by many Muslims. At the time of this crisis, I emphasised the fact that freedom of expression, which is one of the foundations of our republic, should be exercised in a spirit of responsibility and should also be founded on the values of tolerance and respect. By the same token, I condemned the violent actions taken against European citizens or diplomatic missions.

France respects all religions and convictions. Islam, which has indeed become the second most- practised religion in our country, has its rightful place in France. Many Muslims living in France also have French nationality. However, France's tradition of religious pluralism requires a particular organisational framework to ensure harmonious co- existence between all religions and beliefs. For this reason, we have chosen the path of secularism, which means the neutrality of the state and its institutions, not for the purpose of denying the reality or the rights of religions, but to ensure that they can live together in harmony. France enjoys an exemplary position in this respect. Muslims benefit from total freedom of thought and conscience and the freedom to practise their religion, like all those who practise other religions, and in particular, the "religions of the Book".

Last, we come to the problem of difficulties in integration encountered by certain people, often those with an immigrant background, living in underprivileged neighbourhoods. This is a complex question that calls for a comprehensive response, the fight against discrimination, where we can point to many successes thanks to determined action -- I am thinking in particular of the High Authority to Fight Discrimination, whose powers were recently widened to respond more strongly to unacceptable discriminatory practices. We must also promote equal opportunity in the field of work, access to housing and education. And at the other end of the chain, we must look at the question of migratory flows, which calls for a concerted response from the countries south and north of the Mediterranean.

On all these themes, I will naturally be listening with great attentiveness to the advice and comments of President Mubarak."

ON THE WAR AGAINST TERRORISM: "Terrorism is barbarity. France has always condemned it in every form, wherever it comes from, since nothing can justify it. Terrorism is an issue with many causes and is found, alas, on many continents. The Muslim world is indeed its primary victim. During the series of terrorist attacks in Egypt in 2004 and 2005, France demonstrated its solidarity with your country and expressed its warmest sympathy to the families of the victims of these inhuman acts. It also supports Egypt's diplomatic initiatives to unite the efforts of all in the fight against terrorism within the framework of the United Nations and at the Barcelona summit. I hope that Egypt will make progress in its turn towards the adoption of the UN comprehensive convention on terrorism."

ON THE MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT: "There can be no solution to this problem of relations between Israel and the Palestinians without an agreement, which can only be reached after dialogue. There has been progress in this respect, followed at times by retreat. We cannot impose a situation on one of these two peoples. We must negotiate an agreement.

It is true that the question of peace in the Middle East is a subject that President Mubarak and I have discussed at great length and we have always enjoyed a great convergence of views. For many years, we have stated that peace in the region depends on the emergence of two states living side by side in mutual dignity and security. France, which is a friend of the Palestinian people and of Israel, hopes that the former will very rapidly realise their legitimate aspiration to create a sovereign state and that the second will be granted the security to which it is entitled.

But we also know that progress can come only through negotiation and that nothing durable can be built on violence. This is why both France and Egypt have always supported the efforts accomplished since the Oslo accords to find a negotiated, and therefore lasting, solution. They have both supported the efforts of the Quartet to promote a just and realistic solution in the framework of the roadmap. They provided constructive support to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, which, leaving aside its unilateral dimension, should constitute a step forward in the implementation of the roadmap. I would like to pay particular tribute to the role played by Egypt in Gaza.

Today, now that the Israeli elections have passed, the international community must once again make a strong commitment to this question. We will very naturally be reflecting on this point together."

ON IRAQ: "The Iraqi people are an old people, heirs to an old civilisation which has traditionally been somewhat divided. The crux of the problem is to emphasise what brings them together and try to avoid that which divides them.

Here again, as elsewhere, a purely security-based approach cannot of itself bring peace. More than ever, I believe that a united, sovereign, democratic and stable Iraq, living in harmony with its neighbours, is essential for peace. Sectarian conflict would have dramatic repercussions, both inside and outside Iraq. But this conflict is not inevitable. The Iraqis can still -- and must -- come together around a national pact that guarantees the integrity of the country and allows all the players to find their rightful place in the new institutions.

To arrive at a consensus between all the different communities in the country, we need a positive commitment on the part of the neighbouring states. The break-up of Iraq would not be in anyone's interests. If these states can collectively play a constructive role to help Iraq preserve its national identity and build a state governed by the rule of law, then, once again, all our hopes become possible.

This is why the reconciliation initiative of the Arab League, fully supported by France, should be encouraged. Just a few months ago, all the Iraqi parties meeting in Cairo agreed on a final communiqué condemning terrorism, but also called for a return to full sovereignty for Iraq. France was the first to encourage this development as soon as military operations ceased, to allow the Iraqis to become, once again, masters of their own destiny.

Although the multinational force was deployed in Iraq in accordance with the United Nations Resolution 1546, this foreign presence arouses the hostility of a section of Iraqi opinion. This question is crucial for the success of the national dialogue I am so keen to see established. Once a timetable has been set for its withdrawal, the Iraqis will be able to embark more easily on a process of reclaiming responsibility."

ON IRAN: "Iran's attitude today is a source of great anxiety in the region and the international community as a whole. Naturally, we do not deny Iran's legitimate right to have access to civilian nuclear energy, on condition that it respects its commitments as concerns non-proliferation and gives objective guarantees of the peaceful nature of its programme. However, the IAEA has observed that Iran has carried out its nuclear activities under the cloak of secrecy. In addition, it is pursuing a missile programme that arouses concern.

When we realised that Iran was violating its commitments, we sought, alongside our European partners, to resolve this problem through negotiation, in the form of the Paris agreement in November 2004 on suspension of conversion and enrichment activities. The Europeans then proposed to Iran a very comprehensive programme of cooperation including, in particular, assistance in the field of civilian nuclear energy. The decisions made by the Iranian leaders, in August 2005 and January 2006, to resume sensitive activities, on a unilateral basis, and against the unanimous resolutions of the IAEA, interrupted this process, which explains the reaction of the international community.

The Board of Governors of the IAEA had widespread support in reporting Iran to the Security Council. The council then asked Iran to suspend sensitive activities involving production of fissile material. In both cases, the international community worked by consensus and the Security Council's decisions were passed unanimously. In addition, France and Egypt succeeded in having the IAEA include a clause noting that the solution to the Iranian issue would contribute to realising the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction and the missiles to deliver them.

I would like to state very clearly that the door is still open for talks to resume, once Iran complies with the demands of the IAEA and the Security Council. More than ever, the decision is in the hands of the Iranian authorities. They must understand that the prospect of an Iran with nuclear weapons is unacceptable to the international community.

Naturally, I attach the greatest importance to the viewpoint of President Mubarak in this matter, which is of vital importance for peace in the region and in the world. I also fully share his conviction that establishing a zone free of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery in the Middle East would contribute greatly to peace and stability in the region."

ON SYRIA: "France, which has historic ties with Lebanon, is committed alongside the international community to allowing the Lebanese people to recover their full independence and sovereignty within their territory. An important milestone was reached with the departure of Syrian troops from Lebanon in April 2005, followed by the organisation of free and transparent elections in June. These are essential and solid milestones.

However, to ensure that the process is taken to its full conclusion, outside interference must cease and the resolutions of the United Nations must be fully applied. We need to investigate the attacks that took so heavy a toll on the defenders of Lebanon's freedom and independence. To this end, France, like Egypt, fully supports the international commission of enquiry headed by Mr Serge Bammertz. Setting up an international tribunal as quickly as possible will ensure that justice is done in an effective and peaceful manner.

As far as Syria is concerned, it can easily improve its relations with the international community by complying with the decisions of the Security Council. These resolutions, most of which were passed unanimously, are very clear. They require Syria to abstain from interfering in Lebanese internal affairs and to desist from supporting forces seeking to destabilise Lebanon.

For Syria, this is an opportunity to establish relations with Lebanon based on equality and mutual respect of sovereignty. The Syrian and Lebanese peoples are bound by historical, political, cultural and economic ties. These ties, which also have a strategic dimension, can be further enhanced in the interest of both states through an attitude of mutual trust and esteem.

Like the international community as a whole, I appreciate the active role played by President Mubarak. We have consulted with each other on a continuous basis. I also know that our policy in this matter has not always been well understood. However, we have never varied in our convictions and our commitment in favour of the sovereignty of Lebanon. Neither do we have a hidden agenda as concerns Syria, which is an important country in the region, and which we hope will resume its rightful place in the normal course of international relations and, in particular, its traditional relations with France.

However, this requires a change in the behaviour of Syria, particularly as concerns its relations with Lebanon, and full cooperation with the international commission of enquiry."

EURO-MEDITERRANEAN CORPORATION: "I would like to moderate your judgement of the Barcelona Process. In 10 years, the Euro- Mediterranean partnership, the only arena bringing together all the Mediterranean countries, has succeeded in establishing a genuine legitimacy. It can already point to a number of achievements. A common area has been created, characterised by rich human, economic and cultural flows, its members discuss matters of security and defence. Association agreements have been signed allowing the first steps towards regional integration and substantial financing means have been implemented. This legitimacy is also based on a specific approach: it is a partnership based on equality and continuous dialogue.

I have also suggested new instruments, such as setting up a joint political secretariat or a reinforced mechanism for political dialogue and mobilising additional resources, in particular through creation, in the longer term, of a development bank dedicated to the Mediterranean. I am also keen to move ahead with our cultural dialogue by launching a "Mediterranean cultural workshop" that would bring together creators, thinkers and decision-makers from our different countries.

On all these issues, Egypt plays a vital role in preserving the originality of the Barcelona Process and reinforcing its effectiveness. The meeting of the Mediterranean Forum schedule in Egypt a few days after my visit, in which France will participate, is yet another example of Egypt's role."

MESSAGE TO THE EGYPTIAN PEOPLE: "We do have a message to convey to a friend! It is a message of respect and confidence. Respect for what the Egyptian people represent and confidence in their future.

Egypt is moving towards progress and modernity, with great energy and intelligence. I am very much looking forward to visiting the "Smart Village", for instance, because it is an excellent example of what the Egyptian people want and what they can do in their determination to become a strong and modern country. Given the huge increase in its population every year, Egypt needs to adapt on a permanent basis.

I am referring to the economic modernity and the power of Egypt, which will be one of the key countries in tomorrow's world. I believe that it is assuming this responsibility with great wisdom."

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