Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2008
Issue No. 920
Special
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On the eve of the US elections all eyes are focussed on foreign policy scenarios to be adopted by the next US president. Assem El-Kersh, Dina Ezzat, and Gamal Nkrumah interviewed Nabil Fahmi, Egypt's ambassador in Washington for the past nine years, and Margaret Scobey, the US ambassador in Cairo

Principles and partnership

How do partners determine the guidelines of a healthy relationship? Al-Ahram Weekly asks Ambassador Margaret Scobey

Margaret Scobey

Partners, but what are the parameters and who defines what the parameters are? And, how do partners determine the guiding principles that conduct their unique relationship? These are pertinent questions that have long occupied both Egypt and the United States. Al-Ahram Weekly sounded out Ambassador Margaret Scobey, the chief envoy of the US to Egypt.

"In Egypt, the US has found a reliable and consistent partner that promotes peace," Ambassador Scobey muses sanguinely, as we settle in to a long, freewheeling exchange. With this chipper slogan, Washington's chief envoy hit the diplomatic nail on the head. Egypt is a key component of America's arsenal in its peace offensive.

Scobey is not an ambassador making her debut in this part of the world. She is a seasoned diplomat who has served in various capacities in Arab countries for two decades, and is acutely knowledgeable of and sensitive to the challenges facing the Arab world.

What does the US want from Egypt? This is no time to play the long game. The country, the world's wealthiest and most powerful, is about to make an unprecedented decision that might alter the course of its political and economic future. Scobey, however, strongly believes that America is America, and that constancy, rather than change or radical transformation, is the overriding characteristic of her country. "I think there will be a great deal of continuity from one administration to the next," she stressed. "The anchor that Egypt has been in the region to many US policies will carry us forward to the next 30 years and beyond," Ambassador Scobey divines.

Here is a happy vision from the most important diplomatic envoy in all Egypt. She is upbeat and optimistic. "Egypt is an invaluable ally of the US in the Arab world. Egypt wears many hats, and this particular characteristic has been the country's traditional strength and trademark. The mixture is a potent one. Egypt is in a different order of magnitude altogether. Egypt is in a different order of distinction incomparable to any country in the region. Egypt is Islamic, Arab, African, Mediterranean, and has the largest Christian [predominantly Coptic Orthodox] minority in the Middle East and North Africa."

Like any other relationship, that of Egypt and the US is subject to ups and downs. Egypt has been the second largest recipient of American assistance after Israel for the past four decades. Why this is so is no mystery as far as Scobey is concerned. "In addition, given Egypt's contributions to the region, the US has always wanted to be a good partner in the promotion of Egyptian economic development. Partly because it is the right thing to do, but we also believe it is in our national interest to see our friends and their societies prosper," she extrapolates.

A more prosaic explanation is in the offing. And that is where the trouble starts. America needs Egypt, but for all the wrong reasons. This is a view commonly held by many influential Egyptian pundits and, privately, by some political heavyweights. It is a pessimistic perspective, however, that Scobey summarily rejects. "Societies that are prosperous, that are making progress for their people, turn out to be good trading partners and turn out to contribute more fully to what we believe are our joint interests," she elaborates.

In short, Egypt and America need each other. And they can still do much together. According to Scobey they have done a great deal and are currently still doing an awful lot of good. So what will happen to Egyptian-US relations when the next US president is elected? "The role played by Egypt would continue to be highly respected." Egypt and America may not fully agree on a wide range of subjects, but they can make common cause against poverty and backwardness.

The foundations of the relationship are solid and reliable," Scobey reassures the Weekly. Take the "robust military cooperation, for instance," she ventures hesitantly. Scobey has no qualms about defending the utter necessity of the Egyptian-US military collaboration. She sees Egypt as a partner not only in the economic and political sense, but in the military context as well.

"My role is to advance good communication and dialogue, increasing understanding on both sides," she shifts the onus of the conversation a little towards the personal. Egypt was a close and indispensable ally in the First Gulf War that saw the Iraqi invaders kicked out of Kuwait. During the Second Gulf War Egypt was less compliant. In fact, Cairo opposed the US-led aggression against Iraq and the subsequent occupation of the country.

So when to call the soldiers home? That is a question that will weigh heavily on the next US president. Scobey shies away from direct answers to such pointed questions. She is, after all, a diplomat.

Peace with Israel has always been a vital component of the Egyptian-US relationship. Why this is so remains a puzzle and a source of much aggravation for many Egyptians. Many voices resent what they see as Washington's double standards. The US appears to be inexplicably biased towards Israel. Moreover, as far as the Arab world is concerned, Israel is neither democratic nor egalitarian. It is an aggressive regional power that oppresses its own Arab citizens and the Palestinians in the territories it occupies. It is because of this and other differences, that Scobey believes there is plenty of room for fruitful dialogue. The US is Egypt's most important trading partner. The two countries have vested interests in cementing mutual ties. "We've sought dialogue, we seek dialogue with Egyptian thinkers."

Scobey is aware of the undercurrent of tensions between the reforming elements and the counter- reformers. America is seeking like-minded partners. She is also aware that America is seen by some not as an equal partner, but rather as a dominant and somewhat oppressive bully. Still, she has faith in Egypt as a trusted partner.

This presents a paradox. Egypt is among the closest political allies of the US in the region. Tetchy subjects strain the otherwise close relationship that characterises the long-standing friendship between the two countries. There are certain sticking points such as Iraq, for instance, cause a certain amount of consternation. It is a question of when and how US troops are to leave Iraq. Egypt has never been terribly enthusiastic about the US aggression against and subsequent occupation of Iraq. But Scobey can do little to address these concerns.

Much fuss has been made about the precise nature of the government in Iraq, whether it is a democracy, theocracy or a dictatorship subject to America's whims. Egypt, like other Arab states, is keen to salvage what little remains of Iraqi sovereignty. Both Washington and Cairo deal with Iraq as a sovereign nation, but Egyptian critics of the US believe that the US treats the Iraqi government as its stooge and Iraq itself as an American fiefdom.

***

Getting down to the nitty-gritty of US-Egyptian relations, the past eight years has made it clear that the US priority in the region -- "democracy and good governance" -- leaves Egypt rather cool, it being seen as blatant interference in Egypt's internal affairs. Unsurprisingly, it is atop Scobey's priorities, though she is careful to nuance her approach. "From my experience in the region no two countries are the same," she notes pensively.

However, there are signs that a democratic culture is on the make. Scobey noted that sensitive issues are "treated fairly by the Egyptian media" and she is uplifted by the increased activities of human rights activists in Egypt in the past few years. "I am impressed with the degree of energy, arts and culture in the country," Scobey concedes. America, of course, has not a little degree of leverage in both promoting Egypt's democracy and human rights.

Not so long ago Scobey testified before a special hearing of the external relations committee of the US Senate. Scobey said that she would seize any opportunity to support and defend the progress of civil and political rights in Egypt. What that means on the ground, we must wait to see.

There are those in the US who are highly critical of what they view as Egypt's poor human rights record. They already succeeded in withholding some US aid on the grounds of human rights concerns. Successive US administrations have toyed with the idea of going even further. None has put the threat to the test yet.

Economic questions are also prickly enough. Scobey does not underestimate the strategic importance of this resource-rich region that holds a third of the world's oil and natural gas reserves, nor America's enduring energy interests here, which drive its political agenda. Scobey did find win-win aspects to our economic relations, however, hailing the success of the US-sponsored Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) programme, between Israel, Egypt Jordan, which helped create 100,000 jobs and which has resulted in increased exports.

Military matters are thornier still. The American military is increasing its active role in training and equipping the Egyptian armed forces. The US defence representative in Egypt, the Office of the Military Cooperation, is the principle military adviser to the Ambassador and a critical component of the embassy's intelligence and security operations. Even though Egypt helped assemble the international coalition and deployed 35,000 Egyptian troops during the First Gulf War -- the Egyptian contingent was the third largest after the US and the UK -- there are conflicting views about the nature of future Egyptian military cooperation with the US.

Egypt hosts the joint US-Arab military exercises Operation Bright Star. US 6th Fleet warships are frequent visitor to Egyptian ports. Egypt has been persuaded to substitute obsolete Soviet military hardware with "modern" US hardware. Under the Foreign Military Financing Programme, the US has furnished Egypt with supposedly state-of-the-art aircraft -- of course, nothing as sophisticated as the surveillance aircraft heaped on Israel. "Yes, there are major disagreements, but the foundation of our relationship is solid," Scobey insists.

Cultural exchanges are a no-brainer, of course, and the ambassador enthuses about how vital they are for deepening Egyptian-American relations. Personal and community interactions are a high priority to Scobey, who is knowledgeable in Arabic, and she is determined to increasing the number of Egyptians studying in the US in spite of the upsurge in more stringent security investigations concerning them. Presumably she would like to see more young Americans come to Egypt to learn Arabic as well.

"The US seeks to support an Egyptian agenda," Scobey avows. Even though at times it appears that there is no coherent Egyptian strategic vision for the future. Even though there are certain national American issues which clearly dictate foreign policy priorities in the region. "Egypt is a long-term stable partner of the US and poses no threat to US national security." Scobey seemed to imply that countries such as Iraq, Iran and Pakistan are far more worrying as far as US national security issues are concerned. She insisted that "Iran is a big challenge," one of the many times she plopped the "I" word into the interview.

The US keenly follows issues of religious freedoms in the world. Egypt, Scobey concedes, is a country that is overwhelmingly Muslim. "More than 90 per cent of the population is Muslim," she observes. The majority of Egyptians do not face discrimination because of their religion, Scobey notes. She spoke of the "broad standards shared by Egyptians" in positive terms. She obviously holds Egyptian public opinion in high esteem. She even showed a startling appreciation of the positive power of Islam. "In 60 years or less perhaps there would be a Muslim president of America," she divined.

Concerning rumours that US politicians had undertaken confidential talks with leading representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, she quickly insisted, "We don't have a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood. We meet with all parliamentarians, the MBs included." "We follow accounts," Scobey conceded, but insisted, "No one in this embassy is meeting with MBs individually, not in their capacity as the MB per se."

Moreover, she refuted charges that the rapprochement with the MB and various Islamist groups in Egypt and the region is a calculated gamble. The US wants to see democracy enshrined in the region. "The US places a high value on living up to its promises." She acknowledged that "certain mistakes were made" in the past.

"The US and Egypt must work through our problems and move forward," Scobey said with a clear sense of optimism about the future. "We are historic friends," she asserts. "There are some areas that we don't agree upon, but we must move forward," she reiterates her roseate take on the future of Egyptian-American relations. "We must continue to re-evaluate our relationship and improve the quality of the relationship." "I've not been asked yet to make a recommendation. If history is any guide there is a great deal of continuity." Scobey once again paid tribute to the "anchor that Egypt has been in the region." She lays great faith in what she termed "the 30-year partnership".

Concerning the US presidential elections, Scobey stresses her non-partisan position. She explained that the state of the economy, safety, national security, the confrontation with terrorism and nuclear proliferation top national concerns and foreign policy. Scobey stressed the interrelated global climate issues that the newly-elected president would have to face. She pointed out that there is continuity in American foreign policy, that it's immaterial who wins.

While issues of human rights, political reform and democratisation sour relations between the two nations, the relationship between Washington and Cairo is seriously strained over differences of opinion with regards to both the future of Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. They both could have very bad consequences for Egypt and the entire region. But, there is little that Scobey can say to calm these troubled waters.

Trying to square the circle, she stressed that the US "stands second to none" in its unwavering support for the Palestinian cause. She defined the Arab-Israeli peace process as an "ongoing process" and pointed out that it needs "intense effort". Nobody, she noted would be satisfied until a comprehensive peace settlement is achieved. When pressed on whether terrorists such as Al-Qaeda benefit from what Arabs see as lopsided support for Israel when it is oppressing the indigenous Palestinians and continuing to steal their lands, she demurred. "I am not sure of the link between Al-Qaeda and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." Frustrating this, for Egyptians, for whom this relationship is as clear as day, unlike the supposed relationship the shadowy terrorist group had with the hapless Saddam Hussein, which was as clear as day only to the US government, including Scobey's former boss, the former secretary of state Colin Powell.

Defending America's beloved Middle East ally, she asserted, "Israel acts resolutely to protect its people," without showing any apparent need to qualify her support. Concerning world opinion that the US should acknowledge the fruits of democracy whatever they may be, and recognise Hamas as the Palestinians' legitimate representative, she took recourse to double negatives. "The absence of violent activities is never a bad thing. The US is never going to condone organisations dedicated to terrorism. We chose not to engage in organisations such as Hamas," she resurfaced for a breath of air. She said that most Americans would be angry if the US taxpayer would unsuspectingly or inadvertently send funds to terrorist organisations. "We still view Hamas as a terrorist organisation," she lapsed into a coughing fit.

On another foreign policy issue of concern to Egypt, Scobey said that she had discussed Sudan with Colin Powell recently. "I think Egypt is playing a very prominent role in Sudan to protect the population in Darfur. Scobey noted that both the African Union and the United Nations proclaim that Egypt has a strong role in Darfur.

On Iraq, her views were emphatic. "We did not fully anticipate how much Iraqis would need our assistance," Scobey reflects. "President Bush has earmarked additional resources to Iraq." Again, her enthusiasm is as infectious as it is astounding. "We have made remarkable progress in Iraq." Other regional Arab countries, determined to reassert their influence there, have resumed diplomatic relations with Iraq, a development enthusiastically supported by the US. Egypt is one of these, and Scobey praised Egypt's plans to open full diplomatic relations soon.

"There is broad international consensus on Iran. Iran is a destabilising factor in the region," Scobey warned, aware of Egypt's plans to open full diplomatic relations with Baghdad's nemesis, Teheran. Her parting advice as our stimulating discussion wound down -- "Listen to each other and work on common ground" -- clearly was not intended for President Ahmadinejad.

"It is a challenge for any ambassador," she confesses, by "it" meaning her current posting. She notes that what is needed are more summit meetings, more meetings between high and middle-level officials and an enhanced relationship. Worrying about the future is a futile exercise. Yes, there are differences in interpretations of foreign policy between the State Department and the White House. Yes, there is nervousness over Iran's quest for nuclear power -- there's the "I" word again. What is needed is continued dialogue to address such problems.

Ambassador Scobey impressed with her knowledge of Egypt, Islam and Arabic. Egypt could do much worse as a choice for a sympathetic American ear.

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