Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Tuesday,24 October, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Open up to the world’

Former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the only Egyptian or Arab to have held the post, spoke to Seheir Kansouh Habib and Hedayat Abdel-Nabi in an exclusive interview on issues of concern in Egypt

Ghali
Ghali
Al-Ahram Weekly

Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former deputy prime minister for foreign affairs, served as UN secretary-general, the highest international civil servant position in the world, from 1992 to 1996. During his tenure, the UN faced severe crises, including the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and the Rwandan genocide.

In 1996, ten members of the UN Security Council sponsored a resolution backing Boutros-Ghali for a second five-year term. They were led by three African members of the United Nations — Egypt, Guinea-Bissau and Botswana. The United States vetoed the resolution, however, allegedly because of Boutros-Ghali’s reluctance to follow American instructions.

From 1997 to 2002, Boutros-Ghali was secretary-general of the Francophonie, an international organisation of French-speaking nations. He served as chair of the Intergovernmental South Centre, a research organisation for developing countries created by Julius Nyerere, the former president of Tanzania, from 2003 to 2006.

From 2004 to 2012, he chaired Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, of which he is honorary president. He was one of the original signatories and supporters of the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly launched in 2007.

In a message to the Campaign, Boutros-Ghali stressed the need to encourage the democratic participation of citizens at the global level. Since 2009 he has been a member of the jury of the Conflict Prevention Prize, awarded by the Fondation Chirac in France. He continues to occupy international positions of the highest distinction and is president of the Curatorium, the scientific board of The Hague Academy of International Law.

Boutros-Ghali is also honorary president for life of the Association of Former UN International Civil Servants in Egypt (AFICS-Egypt). His exclusive interview with the Weekly was conducted in Arabic at his office at the National Council for Human Rights. A translation is presented below.




With Al-Ahli recently winning the Confederation Cup, is sport a unifying factor for Egypt?

Encouraging sports and sporting competitiveness with other nations helps open up the country to the world. I fear and oppose the closure of the country. One of the major problems with religious fundamentalism is that it imposes restrictions on access to the world, sending the country back 700 years. Opening up to the world and participating in world affairs are essential to benefit from globalisation and avoid its negative effects.



The acquittal of ousted former president Hosni Mubarak may have given rise to new divisions. Can they be overcome?

In my view, we should not overestimate such divisions. The court pronounced its verdict in accordance with criminal law. A political trial is another procedure. I believe any divisions will not last. We need to focus on Egypt’s problems and look forward to the future.



Major problems continue to affect people’s daily lives, such as the traffic chaos in many cities. What is the way out of these problems?

We must continue to address such issues. But we cannot expect problems to be solved in a couple of days. With regard to the traffic chaos, we need at least two years to see the results of the implementation of the modified roads law. We should also learn from successful experiences elsewhere, such as in the countries of Latin America and Central America.



How do you view the criticisms of the 25 January Revolution made by certain media channels?

They prove there is freedom of expression. Let people talk.



What is the role of civil society and the UN in Egypt?

In general, I strongly encourage openness to the world, whether through civil society, political parties or international organisations. What I strongly recommend is avoiding closure and taking advantage of the world’s brainpower.

But NGOs fear their role will be limited.

Integrating NGOs is far less dangerous than casting them aside. For example, some foreign embassies may represent threats to a country’s national security, yet their presence in such a country is nevertheless necessary. Cooperating with NGOs may require being alert with regard to those that are politically oriented or that are believed to have hidden agendas. Ignoring them would be far more dangerous.



Is there a specific role the Ministry of Foreign Affairs should play with regard to opening Egypt up to the world?

Opening up to the world is not the monopoly of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It has to do with culture and with the economy. It means accepting foreign expertise, opening up to other cultures, languages and other peoples’ traditions.



Why is it that up to now we have not recognised Buddhism in Egypt?

If we do not recognise it as a religion we should nevertheless accept it as the conviction of 350 million people, or six per cent of the world’s population. In this case there is unacceptable mental closure.

...Openess existed before the 1952 Revolution. “Pasha” was a merit title granted to the cultured elite [of Egypt] who had received their higher education in France or England, and in recognition of achievements in public service. It was equivalent to the title of lord in Britain. Over time the title lost its distinction, when it became common for it to be granted to anyone who could pay LE5,000, an enormous sum at the time. This is when closure started.



We accept a foreign trainer for the Al-Ahli football team, but we deny the usefulness of foreign expertise in other fields. Why?

The might of the United States lies in its absorption of human resources from abroad. If a person is talented, he or she is awarded American nationality in next to no time. Look at the number of foreign experts in New York. The top cardiologist in Paris was offered work in the United States. Though the Korean Peninsula is divided, South Korea has become one of the leading industrial nations in the world because of its openness. These are examples of how we can also prosper.



What about the steep deterioration of standards of education in Egypt?

We have to reform education, foster cultural development and adopt openness.



How long will that process take?

It could be a fast process, or it could be a slower one that could take a number of years. One solution would be to link university admissions to merit through competency tests, as is done in France for Grandes Écoles. In Egypt, school grades have been the only criteria for admission over the past 62 years. We have ended up by having 2,000 new graduates a year who either have no jobs or work as taxi drivers.



You prefer the French system of testing?

Yes. Those who do not pass a competency test before admission can repeat it again the following year. Should they fail again, they need to take a different course. Possessing a degree does not necessarily lead to work either.

However, a chef in France can earn as much as the prime minister. Most Egyptians believe that a government job means routine, comfort and security. You don’t need to work hard to get paid, unlike in the private sector.



Besides education, our healthcare system also needs reform. What can be done to improve it?

Family planning and stopping internal migration are important. Two million people are added annually to Egypt’s population.



Why have we not closed the gates of Cairo, whose population has increased from two million to 20 million?

With this ongoing trend Cairo will have 30 million inhabitants in a few years. You can’t solve the problems of a capital that has 30 million people. Creating a new capital, as other nations have done, is a must.

But China, the most-populated country on the planet, has managed to advance.

China enforced a one-child policy. In Egypt, we should introduce an incentive system to reduce family sizes, such as by providing free education for the first two children only. There seems to be no serious commitment to address this problem. Undertaking a five-year mega-project will not satisfy the needs of a population that would have increased during the same period by 10 million. We don’t have enough water to expand, and upstream Nile riparian countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda and Sudan have also been experiencing population explosions. All of them will increase their dependence on the Nile for irrigation. This will affect the amount of water that comes to us.



There are pessimistic views regarding the return of embezzled funds to Egypt. Do you have any comment?

I don’t think Egypt will be able to get these funds back. Switzerland has an interest in using them for another 20 or 30 years. There is also a climate of distrust towards Egypt, including pressure from the United States and Western capitals fearing terrorism on their territories. France receives 80 million tourists annually. If a bomb explodes in Paris that figure will be halved. Tourism will not return to Egypt as long as there are terrorism threats, and we have not reached stability. At present five million Egyptians earn their incomes from tourism, but foreign tourists now use travel agents who will not choose Egypt. Furthermore, there is a communication gap: we are cut off from most of the world from Friday to Sunday while a country like South Korea works daily with only one day of rest per month.



Are there ideas or concrete steps that can help Egypt escape the current turmoil?

I have watched experiences in Latin and Central America and in Cambodia and Laos

from which Egypt can learn. The processes there took from five to ten years. Our population grows by 10 million every five years, however. Concrete steps depend on circumstances.



What role should the UN play in today’s world?

The UN and UN specialised agencies are facing crises because the organisation was established in 1945 and we are now in 2015. There is a need to revitalise it. It will have no value otherwise. The UN was created when there was only one player: the state. Today there are many players, but the International Labour Organisation (ILO) is the only UN agency that has a tripartite structure of government, employer and worker representatives.



How do you assess Egypt’s performance in Africa?

We lost momentum in Africa as we did not move when we should have. I used to call attention to our need to develop ties with the south and the east, with Africa and with countries like India and China. But everyone was looking north to the US and Europe. No one was listening, but perhaps things are changing now.



Does Egypt have a role in the Francophonie?

Yes. When I was head of the Francophonie (1997-2002) I played a major role in restructuring the organisation and enhancing Egypt’s role. I helped establish the Senghor University in Alexandria and used the organisation to enhance Egypt’s relations with French-speaking African countries. I created the Undugu [the Swahili word for brotherhood] Group to unite the Nile basin countries, for example, and with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs I contributed to the formation of the League of African Democratic Socialist Parties headed by Leopold Senghor. But despite my repeated calls for sustainable action, there was no follow-up.



Do you see the Palestinians reaching their goal of statehood in the next three years?

This is bound to happen when the Arab citizens of Israel, the holders of Israeli passports, become 50 per cent of the country’s population. They are currently 30 per cent. When these Israeli Arabs become 50 per cent of Israel’s population, the country cannot be called an exclusively Jewish state anymore.


Seheir Kansouh Habib is a retired UNDP policy adviser and the founder of AFICS-Egypt and its publications Beyond and Mabad. Hedayat Abdel-Nabi is the deputy chair of AFICS-Egypt, president of the Press Emblem Campaign and editor of Mabad.

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