Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Egypt can take the lead’

Amid widespread regional upheaval, veteran diplomat Nabil Fahmi believes that the very ‘minds and souls’ of the Arab world are at risk, and that Egypt has a key role to play in making things right. Dina Ezzat reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

It is hard to understate the challenges that the Arab and Middle East region is facing, and equally hard to see a peaceful and fair resolution to any, if not all, of these challenges without having Egypt as an immediate “fireman” and direct interlocutor for conflict resolution.

This is the main argument that prominent diplomat and former foreign minister Nabil Fahmi put forward in interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. He was speaking during a week of important regional events, including the trip of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to the World Economic Forum in Davos, the opposition takeover in Yemen and the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.

Fahmi led diplomatic efforts, promoting Egypt at a very challenging moment, following the ouster of Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013. He is well aware of the foreign policy challenges that are still facing Egypt, even though it has managed “during the last year and half” to regain some of its regional and international profile, built on recognition of the process of political transformation in Egypt.

Fahmi ponders the map of the Arab Middle East and lists the top challenges that its countries are facing. He insists that in almost every case there is a role for Egypt to play, “at times with like-minded Arab countries and at times on a larger scale across the region and beyond,” to help resolve or at least contain the escalation of conflicts.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo, the prominent diplomat underlined his conviction that no matter the price he paid in the game of internal power politics before and after the 25 January Revolution, and the 30 June developments: “There is a direct linkage between domestic and foreign policy.”

This linkage is still there today, Fahmi says, as it was in 2014 when “we started to shift gears from explaining and defending domestic developments” following 30 June 2013, into a situation where Egypt regained its role in the Arab world, Africa and in the international community.

Fahmi orchestrated and executed the reversal of the post-30 June African Union decision to suspend Egypt’s participation. He argues that, in the face of “existential regional challenges” Egypt should move forward and be at the forefront of responses to the challenges of extremism, terrorism and friction between national and ethnic or faith identities, “even while Egypt would still be working on handling tough domestic questions.”

“Egypt has no small domestic task, but it has to deal with a region that is clearly at risk,” Fahmi said. He added that there is no time for Egypt to waste and that, “despite the many challenges it is facing, the greatest role and responsibility of Egypt today is to lead the Arab world into the future.”

In doing so, Egypt would be effectively promoting resolutions for existing conflicts and proposing a vision for development and democratisation — an inevitable demand in all Arab nations.

Said Fahmi, “What is at stake are the minds and soul of the Arab world — not only problems of security or material needs.” He is also convinced that despite the many contributions that each country could put forward, there is “no other country but Egypt that has what it takes in cultural depth, historical weight and political sophistication” to address the task.

Egypt, Fahmi said, is and has always been “the central state with the most central policies. Leading the Arab world at this fateful time is a matter of destiny. “We can rise to the challenge if we pursue policies — both at the domestic and regional and even international fronts — that take into account the three parameters of body, mind and soul,” argues the former foreign minister.

“In essence, what I mean by ‘body’ is immediate material matters, including security, goods and services, and what I mean by ‘mind’ is rational thinking and strategic planning for the future, because we do not live in isolation from the rest of the world, nor can we just be reacting to developments or the choices of others.”

By “soul”, he added: “Here I mean that we have a responsibility to provide equal rights and equal opportunities for our own people and to promote [equitable] foreign relations.”

But how can this outlook be effectively applied to countries that have all but gone astray after they tried to join the Arab Spring call for democracy? Fahmi answers that we must first acknowledge that it was inevitable for any democratic transition to be a taxing labour.

“I am very surprised by the fact that people are taken by surprise with the development of the Arab Spring. It is as if some had expected an immediate bloom of democracy, and it is as if we forgot that in the Arab world, spring is a particularly tumultuous season. In fact, spring in our region is not a very common season, as we usually go from winter to summer without having to go through nature’s forces of change,” he said.

What is happening in Yemen, Libya and Syria, according to Fahmi, is only the inevitable course of change that “we are making more difficult by having assumed that it would succeed more quickly.”

“That being said, I applaud the Arab Spring and I am convinced that change has happened and that it will continue to move forward in the Arab world, driven by the youth,” Fahmi argued. Transformation will come, he added, “and it is not a question of if, but rather how long, and what cost before we can reap the benefits.”

He argued that a good part of the problem in the troubled countries of the Arab Spring is the conflict in which domestic, regional and also international forces have been engaged since almost the onset, “certainly with some trying to take political or other advantage of the turbulence associated with the Arab Spring.”

The case of Syria, Fahmi says, is an example of “domestic turbulence that evolved into a geopolitical chess game where the US and Russia have competed, as did Iran on the one hand and Arab states on the other.”

Fahmi sees a certain similarity in the case of an increasingly troubled Yemen. The former foreign minister is convinced that the contradicting perspectives of the Yemeni political forces and the influences of the Arab Gulf countries — at least some — and that of Iran played a role in the way things have been developing since the beginning of the first calls for freedom and democracy.

“In the case of Libya, the previous regime had already [stripped the country of] any semblance of governance or state institutions,” Fahmi said. But then again, there are intersecting political powers, both national and foreign. “The country has become a theatre of war with [the involvement] of non-state parties, including criminal and terrorist organisations, along with the influence of a number of regional states — Arab and non-Arab — whose aggressive support is playing a key [and unfortunate] role in promoting different stakeholders.”

In the final analysis, Fahmi suggests, in Libya as in other Arab Spring countries going through a tumultuous phase of change, the true revolutionaries have been denied the chance of positive participation in rebuilding their countries on the basis of democracy and equality.

In the cases of these three troubled countries, as in all other cases of the Arab Spring, Fahmi argues, there are criminal and violent elements that need to be addressed as one of the key challenges to stability. These, he argued, are matters for direct intervention by the military and security apparatus.

He continued, “A new political reality needs to be created,” adding that this new reality should include the creation of “a new political leadership both on the governing and opposition sides. Libya, Yemen and Syria cannot be governed the way they were governed before.”

That said, he hastened to add that it is “of paramount importance to preserve and safeguard the national cohesiveness of the state in each of the three countries.”

Said Fahmi, “It is important, therefore, to have a strategic dialogue about the new Middle East among of the countries of the Arab world — or at least the most prominent of them.”

According to Fahmi, Cairo should act to help formulate a largely consensual Arab vision to resolve these and other problems, “and it should be discussed with the major international players, Russia, the US, the EU and China, as well as key neighbouring states, which might be Turkey or Iran or some sub-Sahara African countries, depending on the case at point.”

Resolving regional problems will be a long and hard task, Fahmi said, in almost every case — and especially in the cases of Yemen, Syria and Libya. “There are no immediate answers for any of these three cases. That said, we don’t have the luxury to waste time and to leave these countries to possible disintegration, which will lead to more instability throughout the region,” he argued.

But is it possible for Egypt to go about regional conflict management when Cairo is at odds with the key capitals of Ankara and Doha? Fahmi said it is important for Egypt to articulate its vision for the 21st century confidently, and to do so it should engage as many partners and players as possible.

 “We could do that independently, but we could also do it after consultation with prominent Arab states,” Fahmi said. He argued that the right point of departure is to secure sufficient Arab support for this vision and to present it as a vision that has the support of Arab countries — at least like-minded Arab countries to start with.

 “On the basis of our vision we should be speaking with others, including Iran and Turkey,” he added. “We need to present our suggestion for how to move forward, but without engaging other players, especially at the international level, to give more weight to our position and to strengthen the chances for resolving the problems at stake.”

He firmly added: “Let me be very straightforward: neither Turkey nor Iran could lead the Arab world, but they are for sure important players for years to come — each in a particular part of the region.

 “My opinion remains that Egypt is the most qualified among all Arab countries to lead the debate about the future of the region, and it is essential to have a consensus of prominent Arab countries.”

Answering the Weekly, Fahmi argued that the possibility of Iran reaching resolution with the international community over its nuclear programme this year would make Tehran more willing and capable of engaging in regional conflict management, should the Iranian leadership opt for statesmanship rather than a more aggressive foreign policy. “This debate continues within the Iranian body-politic,” he said.

Once Iran is no longer politically isolated, Fahmi said, Arab countries would have to decide on what to do with the new development. A first step, he added, is for Arab countries to underline that they would continue to refuse interference in their internal affairs and insist on the preservation of their security interests.

Meanwhile, Fahmi also agreed that a relatively peaceful transition of power in Saudi Arabia could leave Riyadh more capable of pursuing its regional influence and promoting regional stability.

Developments on the Iranian and Saudi fronts, come what may, should not, in Fahmi’s opinion, hamper Cairo’s démarche to pursue the promotion of its vision for the future of the region, which he again asserts should recognise the rights of all Arab citizens to freedom and development according to national, but never ethnic or faith, affiliation.

The promotion of an Egyptian vision for the future of the region should also be shared and supported across North Africa — a zone of great interest to Egypt. Working closely not just with neighbouring North African countries but also with all African countries, whose trust was regained by Cairo during the ministerial tenure of Fahmi, is a key factor in promoting an Egyptian vision for regional stability, Fahmi said.

The challenges are so many, he added, and working to resolve them will require a lot of work and resources. Above all, it requires an internal strength that can only be secured through solidifying the national front.

But is Egypt ready with a vision to offer its neighbours and the world? Said Fahmi: “We will have to have some concrete suggestions, I agree.” He added that it should be a vision that receives the support of as many countries as possible, if it is to actually influence regional developments.

 “Don’t forget that when the US acted to liberate Kuwait from the Iraqi invasion it built an international coalition, and that when Egypt pursued the launch of NAM [the Non-Aligned Movement] with Yugoslavia and India [it did the same],” he reminded.

In the course of engaging wider interests, Fahmi said, Egypt will need to listen to others and maybe incorporate their views into a wider vision. There are particular staging points, Fahmi said, whereby Egypt could assert its vision and assume its regional responsibility.

A first stop is the Arab Summit, due to be hosted and chaired by Egypt in eight weeks. “This would surely be an opportunity for President Al-Sisi to lay out a vision for the Arab world and to engage with all Arab leaders in order to set the principles that govern the rights of citizenship in the Arab world.”

For example, Fahmi argued, this new vision should offer a formula for regional security, Arab economic cooperation and speak to the future role of the Arab League, now approaching its 70th anniversary.

The vision that Fahmi is hoping to hear at the Arab Summit should include a workable formula towards the liberation of the occupied Palestinian territories and other Israeli-occupied Arab territories, and should include an outreach scheme to establish solid ties across all neighbours in the Arab world.

There is another opportunity for Egypt that Fahmi is certain will come in 2015: assuming a non-permanent two-year seat in the UN Security Council. “Egypt will certainly get the seat,” Fahmi asserts.

As he explained, the rules and procedures of the UN allow a seat for an Arab country once every two years. The rotation is done between the Arab countries in Asia and North Africa. This time the seat is designated for a North Africa Arab country.

 “There are no other candidates but Egypt, so it is coming our way and we should be ready with a vision to share with the world on our regional issues and on international security. This is the real challenge. It is not one of getting the seat, but rather one of making the best of having the seat.”

Fahmi is inspired by the success he argues Egypt had in the last year and half in getting the world to see its point of view post-30 June — especially that the threat of extremism and terrorism is never a strictly domestic issue for one country, but rather a transnational challenge.

He said he is confident that Egypt is up to the task of returning to its central role as a regional player in international relations. He argued that it is in the interests of everyone that Egypt fills the political and strategic vacuum that opened since Cairo became consumed with domestic affairs.

 “I think it is self-evident that Egypt faces serious challenges with extremism, as with the economic demands of a largely youthful 90-million population that has for a number of years been denied basic economic growth and job creation,” he said.

The “new Egypt” that the world is hoping to see, Fahmi argued, is one that is capable of living up to these challenges, “on the basis of the rule of law and equality of citizenship,” while at the same time engaging the world with ideas for the future, particularly the future of the region.

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