Cairo and Baghdad to link
Egypt is slowly, if hesitantly, inching closer towards Iraq, Dina Ezzat
Cairo may not be yet ready to re-open its diplomatic mission in Baghdad, but is it willing to at least nominate a symbolic head of diplomatic mission? This is the main question currently taxing decision-makers who acknowledge the need for Egypt to inch closer to Iraq. Indeed, Egyptian officials admit that by keeping relations with Iraq proscribed within their current scope, Cairo is at risk of compromising its interests in the territorial unity of Iraq, and in its Arab identity, increasingly influenced by non- Arab currents.
Since the beginning of this year, Egypt has participated in and hosted a series of meetings that addressed political, security and socio-economic developments in Iraq. The conclusions that Egypt took from these meetings were disturbing. Iraq, it is feared, is facing disassociation with its "natural Arab milieu" and growing signs of territorial disintegration, enhanced by miscalculated or ill-intentioned intervention.
As such, Cairo now accepts the need to overcome the phobia that has haunted Egypt's policy towards Iraq since the assassination of Egyptian Ambassador Ihab El-Sherif, in July 2004, and the consequent exit of the Egyptian mission in Baghdad. Moreover, Cairo also feels that the failure of the Iraqi government to delegate an ambassador to head the Iraqi Embassy in Egypt, despite the welcome offered to all nominees proposed by Baghdad, needs to be countered by "encouraging moves" on the Egyptian side.
According to Assistant Foreign Minister Hani Khallaf, Egypt is planning to visibly demonstrate its "keenness on the interest of Iraq". Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Khallaf said that Egypt is aware of its responsibility in helping Iraq out of its current crisis, and that Egypt is also aware that there are certain Egyptian interests at stake, especially in relation to the maintaining Iraq's territorial unity.
Khallaf said that to promote its objectives Cairo is planning to press upon the next Arab foreign ministers meeting, scheduled for the first week of September at the Arab League's headquarters, to push more intensely on the front of Iraqi reconciliation. "Egypt is really keen on the process of reconciliation. President Hosni Mubarak himself took part in the reconciliation conference that was organised by the Arab League last year," Khallaf said.
According to Khallaf, to enhance its chances of arguing the case and urgency of reconciliation, and to maintain bridges with "that important Arab state", Egypt intends to upgrade the pace and quality of "people-to-people" contact with Iraq. While unable, for obvious security concerns, to allow Egyptian delegations long visits to Iraq, especially to Baghdad, Cairo is planning to encourage short but effective visits by members of syndicates and unions to communicate with their Iraqi counterparts. "These would be very short visits under highly guarded security measures, but they will carry a very important symbolic message to many Iraqis. It is a message of solidarity and sympathy that we want to send," Khallaf said.
Aware of the limitations imposed by security concerns on diplomatic representation, Khallaf said that Egypt is examining alternative measures of coordination that may take the shape of joint-committees similar to those established between Egypt and other Arab states. Such committees do not necessarily have to convene at a high level, but could entail regular meetings to address issues of common Egyptian-Iraqi interests, ranging from political coordination to future economic cooperation. Such committees, once established, could oversee certain projects that Cairo is reportedly keen to pursue with Baghdad, especially the preservation of Iraqi cultural and archaeological heritage.
In and out of the Foreign Ministry, Egyptian officials who handle the Iraqi file seem to be keen on the joint- committee formula that they say could even address issues of security cooperation. Due to serious security concerns, ranging from the inability of the Iraqi government to secure any potential diplomatic mission in Iraq to the unacceptably high risk of sending Egyptian security units to protect any potential diplomatic representation in Iraq, security bodies in Egypt say that for now "it is simply improbable" for Egypt to opt for diplomatic representation in Iraq beyond the one person mission that is currently in Baghdad to route urgent communications and provide some assistance to the few thousand Egyptians in Iraq. Meanwhile, politicians add that the current Iraqi government has not demonstrated what Cairo qualifies as "sufficient keenness" to connect with the Arab states.
However, there is a growing awareness in Egypt that there are two obvious channels that could be pursued to better enhance connections between Cairo and Baghdad. The first is Al-Azhar -- reputedly the most prestigious Sunni religious institution in the Muslim world with a history of dialogue with Shias. The second is the Iraqi community in Egypt, that includes a considerable number of academicians and politically motivated individuals. Several seminars including Iraqis in Egypt have already been hosted by prominent Egyptian think tanks, including Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
According to Egyptian officials, plans are under consideration regarding enhancing the role of Al-Azhar in hosting Sunni-Shia dialogue considered crucial for Iraqi reconciliation. "We are well- aware that this is a very long-term objective, but we can start on a limited scale, as a contribution," commented one official.
As for the Egyptian community in Iraq, Cairo knows that it has little chance of counting on them as a bridge to enhance its rapport with Iraq. Assistant Foreign Minister Ahmed El-Qusseni admits to the Weekly that despite its "intense efforts", Cairo has not been able to establish the expanse of this community, or keep in close touch with it. This failure is not just an outcome of limited Egyptian diplomatic representation in Iraq, but rather a result of the fact that the vast majority of Egyptians in Iraq are carriers of Iraqi nationality. "We are now talking about second generation Egyptians in Iraq, or rather Egyptian- Iraqis," El-Qusseni said.
El-Qusseni added that his ministry is doing all it can to look after the interests of these Egyptians. "But we are talking about a very fluid situation and about a set-up where non-Iraqis who have resided in Iraq for decades prefer to hide their original identity for fear of being targeted on the basis of this non-Iraqi identity," he said.
As Egypt works on solidifying relations with Iraq, it hopes it will be better positioned to access whatever information the Iraqi government may have on the Iraq-based Egyptian community, especially those imprisoned or charged with common crimes or politically motivated crimes.
Egypt is also hopeful that through closer ties with Iraq it will be able to attend to the concerns of many Egyptians who fled Iraq in 2003 leaving their belongings behind. Above all, while having no plans to force repatriation on Egyptian nationals in Iraq, or to subject them to unwanted attention, Egypt is hoping that by pursuing closer cooperation with Iraqi authorities it can help Egyptians seeking an exit out of Iraq, especially in view of recent assassinations of Egyptians in Iraq. "Some of these accounts have been verified and some have not, but we want to minimise the risks," El-Quessni explained.
Egypt has set a few red lines, mainly security oriented. The first is limiting the volume of the Iraqi community in Egypt. The current number of 100,000 Iraqis is unlikely to increase significantly. Egyptian officials say that any increase would lead to insupportable pressure on national infrastructure. It would also lead, they add, to a harmful increase in real estate prices in neighbourhoods favoured by the Iraqi community, to the disfavour of Egyptian residents. "We do not want to end up with a situation where Egyptians would be blaming Iraqis for a hike in the price of houses and services; that would create unfavourable anti-Iraqi sentiment," said one official, who requested anonymity.
Egyptian officials also stress that the vast majority of Iraqis who have fled Iraq to the predominantly Sunni countries of Jordan, Syria and Egypt are Sunni. This, they say, presages a disturbing change of the demographic constitution of many parts of Iraq.
Egypt also limits the volume of the Iraqi community for fear of civil strife being transferred from Baghdad to Egypt. Incidents, security reports suggest, have already been noted where Iraqis in Egypt were on the verge of clashes against the background of Shia-Sunni clashes in Iraq. "Egypt cannot afford to have Sunni-Shia strife on its territory -- not even in the name of giving due refuge to Iraqis who are forced by strife away from their country," the official insisted.
As such, Egyptian authorities have not been very receptive to the demands of some members of the Iraqi Shia community in Egypt to build Shia mosques and centres. "This is not an anti-Shia position that we are taking. It is just a matter of rule and order. If permits were to be issued to establish a mosque for a particular sect or group then this would have to apply to all sects, and there are so many sects within the Sunni and Shia groups of Iraq," one concerned official stated. The official added that this decision is not about an Egyptian concern over any potential attraction of Egyptians to the Shia sect, as suggested by some Iraqi Shias. "This is simply a security red line: no transferal of ethnic and sectarian strife to Egypt. Iraqis who want to live in Egypt would have to be just Iraqis, not Sunni Iraqis nor Shia Iraqis, or for that matter any other type of Iraqis," the official affirmed.
The most prominent red line for Egypt, however, is keeping the same distance from all political groups in Iraq. Egyptian officials say that it is not at all Cairo's intention to favour Sunnis over Shias, even when Cairo is fully aware that some Iraqi Shias are close to Iranian interests that might clash with overall Arab interests. "At the end of the day we trust that the overwhelming majority of Iraqi Shias would not be turned into pawns in the hands of the Iranians. This simply runs counter to the high sense of pride Iraqis have in their own identity," one source said.
Meanwhile, the same officials admit that they favour certain types of Iraqi politicians over others: the traditional suited politician to the robed cleric. This preference remains latent, however: "We deal with whoever the Iraqi people call a representative. As such we deal with politicians of all backgrounds, including those of a religion-oriented background," commented the same source.
Egypt has been very careful, officials say, in according equal hospitality to Iraqis of all backgrounds. At the political level, Egypt has been mindful to diplomatically stress what it perceives as a need for the current Shia-led Iraqi government to address the distribution of oil revenues and to re-examine the fairness of de-Baathification rules that left so many Iraqis unemployed.
"We have our views that we carefully and tactfully convey, but we are not being assertive, because this is a very sensitive moment for all Iraqis," commented a senior Egyptian diplomat.
He added that while trying to pursue closer relations with Iraq, Egypt would be very sensitive to address itself to all Iraqi groups and sects. "We intend to exclude nobody," he said, with the caveat that Egypt would not deal with any group that works against a united Iraq. Maintaining the territorial unity of Iraq, he stressed, remains Egypt's top priority.