Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 March - 6 April 2011
Issue No. 1041
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Foreign look

The change of style and content of Egyptian foreign policy might be limited but is sure to be significant. Dina Ezzat reports

Less than a month has passed since Nabil El-Arabi took office as foreign minister following six years of Ahmed Abul-Gheit. However, signs of change are already showing.

Egypt has already announced its intention to pursue new lines of foreign policy, dropping previous taboos and engaging in a new sense of initiative.

Among the obvious signs of change is a decision taken, one that will shortly be implemented, to relax the tight measures of operation on the Rafah crossing point, the only non-Israeli controlled link that the besieged Gaza Strip has to the outside world.

With a long history of diplomatic and legal practice, El-Arabi has often objected to the restrictions imposed by Egypt on the Rafah crossing point as a violation of Egypt's obligations according to international law which clearly demands neighbouring states give civilians under occupation access to movement and goods, especially in times of war.

El-Arabi managed to persuade the Supreme Military Council that some sort of change is well in order, not just in line with the need for Egypt to better observe international law but also in the spirit of the 25 January revolution.

"He argued his case and he got the green light to announce the introduction of some changes. Within a few days changes in the operating system on the Gaza borders should be introduced," said an Egyptian diplomat.

According to this diplomat, however, "nobody should expect that the border would be completely open. This is not the plan".

The borders will still be monitored but the regulations for the entry and exit of Palestinians would move from the limited context of pressing humanitarian and political cases to a "regular" operation.

The details of the regular operation are still being finalised by the national security departments concerned. They should be finalised soon "to make access the norm and the reduction of entry and exit through Rafah the exception," said a national security source.

The defining line on the mode of operation of the Rafah crossing point would continue to take two main issues into consideration, diplomatic and national security sources agree.

The first is that Egypt would not create a situation in which Israel would make Cairo responsible for the besieged, impoverished and much devastated Gaza Strip.

"This is out of the question and when Abul- Gheit used to say this, he was not bluffing or acting hawkish against Hamas. This is a serious issue," said the Egyptian diplomat. He added that Hamas officials in Gaza have been clearly informed of this matter.

The second concern is that the Rafah crossing point will not turn into an access point to any illicit trafficking in arms, drugs or human beings.

Meanwhile, Egypt is opening up to all Arab countries. This is what El-Arabi said during his first participation in an Arab League meeting on Libya just a few days after he was selected foreign minister.

"Much of the tension that marked Egypt's relations with say Syria or Qatar was due to lost chemistry between the Egyptian leadership and the leadership in these countries. This is no longer the case," said another Egyptian diplomat. He added that Cairo's plans to open up to Damascus was "conveyed and reciprocated."

However, the current home front developments in Syria might delay an official process of consolidating Egyptian-Syrian relations.

El-Arabi has been in touch with several Arab foreign ministers to send clear messages of readiness to consolidate relations and overcome past disagreements.

This said, Egyptian diplomats caution that there should not be expectations of an overnight mending of all differences, especially that some of these divisions are based on strategic differences and not just bad chemistry.

An equal sense of caution is advised on the future of relations with Iran by diplomats who have worked on the bilateral ties between Cairo and Tehran. It is true, they say, that El-Arabi meant to send a goodwill message to Tehran when he said on Tuesday that Egypt sees Iran as a friendly nation. However, they add, it should not be expected that Cairo and Tehran will normalise relations soon.

"There are still matters that should be addressed: security issues and political issues that we need to streamline," said one diplomatic source. He added that El-Arabi's message is already being "very well received in Tehran.

"The Iranians are keen to work with us on improving bilateral relations and hopefully on re- normalising relations but this is going to be a process," added the same diplomat.

It is Sudan and the Nile Basin countries that Egyptian diplomacy is fully geared towards at the moment. Sudan and the rest of the Nile Basin countries, many Foreign Ministry sources agree, take precedent over any other file.

The visit of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf along with El-Arabi and six other cabinet ministers to Sudan earlier in the week "is just the beginning of intensive diplomatic cooperation that we will pursue," suggested a source from the Sudan department at the Foreign Ministry. He added that Egypt is determined to maintain good relations with the north and south of Sudan, to pursue joint development projects with both sides and to launch wider cooperation that would include other Nile Basin states.

"This is not just about the very crucial issue of the Nile water dispute and our commitment to regulating this problem but also about an Egyptian commitment to re-establish its traditionally good ties with the Nile Basin states and with Africa in general," stated the same source. He added that "some good work was already done during the past year but the drive will be expanded."

What El-Arabi did not say but his overseas diplomats are already talking about with a considerable sense of pride is what one called "the new posture of Egyptian foreign policy." This, they explain, means that nobody is taking Egypt for granted anymore.

"The tone of demands has already changed significantly," said a Washington-based diplomat. "I think it is clear to Washington that we remain very good allies. This will not change and Minister El-Arabi said as much during the visit of (US Secretary of State Hillary) Clinton to Cairo" recently.

What has changed, according to this diplomat, is the expectation in several political and diplomatic quarters in Washington that Cairo is immediately in line with what the US offers.

It is not clear how long El-Arabi is planning to stay at the head of the Foreign Ministry. There is a possibility that he might be selected Arab League secretary-general which means that he would need to move offices within a few months.

However, Egyptian diplomats argue that even if El-Arabi goes to the Arab League, the new parametres of the country's foreign policy are already set.

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