Thursday,20 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))
Thursday,20 September, 2018
Issue 1276, (31 December 2015 - 6 January 2016))

Ahram Weekly

A lifetime in diplomacy

Former Egyptian foreign minister, Arab League secretary-general and founder of the Congress Party Amr Moussa explains his views on Egypt’s domestic situation and international role to Mohammed Hamdy, Moguib Rouchdy and Hedayat Abdel-Nabi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Amr Moussa, a legend of Egyptian and Arab diplomacy, is a master of words and is known for his sound bites that have circulated around the world. When he was Arab League secretary-general he said that “peace has died between Egypt and Israel.” In the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq he said that “the gates of hell will open, harming first and foremost the United States.”

Many young diplomats have graduated from Moussa’s school of diplomacy and engagement in public life. He has influenced many over the half century of his career through his elegant conduct and his diplomatic performance. He spent ten years as an ambassador, ten as Egyptian foreign minister, another ten as secretary-general of the Arab League, and five in public life in which he led the nation to endorse a new constitution for the future.  

Today, he immensely enjoys the songs of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, but while he was foreign minister he was praised by popular singer Shaban Abdel-Rehim for his policy with regard to Israel. Following the release of Abdel-Rehim’s song, Moussa’s popularity skyrocketed in Egypt. According to reports, he was given the position of Arab League secretary-general by the political leadership at the time to move him away from the internal Egyptian scene.

Moussa answered questions from Al-Ahram Weekly on his views of Egypt’s domestic politics, its foreign policy, and pressing international questions such as the situation in Palestine.

Moussa first answered questions about the results of the Congress Party in the recent parliamentary elections, taking into account the fact that he founded the party and was its leader at its inception.

 “Though I am not currently the leader of the party, and I left party politics some time prior to assuming the leadership of the constitutional drafting committee, I am in constant touch with the leaders of the party as well as party members. I understood from the leadership that they were satisfied with the outcome of the elections, given the money and other factors that weighed on them,” Moussa said.

Responding to the question of why he had abstained from running himself, he said that “I issued a statement last summer explaining my withdrawal from the elections, but not from politics, because it seemed to me that there was confusion looming. However, I am still in contact with many players in the field.”  

Regarding the new parliament and his wishes for it, Moussa said that “we want a parliament that can live up to the two revolutions that have taken place in Egypt, that of 25 January and that of 30 June. We want a parliament that will implement the roadmap, will be the first after the passage of the new constitution, and will be the first in the new era of reconstruction in Egypt.

“The parliament has a very important role to play, a historic role in fact, and the members of the parliament must note that they are acting in the eyes of history. Either they succeed in their dual legislative and supervisory roles, and thus play a historic role, or they lose, in which case they will have missed a huge chance to reassert their role, as well as the overall role of parliament during the current dangerous circumstances facing the country. The new parliament will affect the democratic process either positively or negatively, and it will move the country forward or push it back.

“We have suffered from cosmetic parliaments for decades even during the period before the 1952 Revolution, with the exception of the Wafd Party-led majority parliaments that reflected the will of the people. The history of Egypt has seen many examples of such cosmetic parliaments that did not play a proper legislative role. The new parliament has a chance to prove that it can participate in Egypt’s renaissance.”    

In response to the question of whether he would be a candidate for the post of speaker of parliament, Moussa said he was not a candidate and had not looked into the candidates who were standing. “When I announced that I would not run for parliament this entailed also not running as the speaker of the parliament,” he commented.

Responding to the question of whether the new speaker could be an appointed member of the parliament, Moussa said it would be preferable if he was among the elected members, but both appointees and elected members had the same rights and duties in line with the constitution.

On changes to the constitution, especially article 146 that is said to curb the powers of the president, Moussa noted that nothing stood against amending the constitution. Some constitutions, he added, among them that of the US, had been amended over 20 times. But any amendments to the constitution could only be introduced after it was applied in the first place, he said. Any talk about amendments at the outset, as had been circulated in the media, ran the risk of exacerbating instability.

 Some parties with limited representation had announced that they would work to amend the constitution, Moussa said, adding that this was strange since responsible citizens elected to parliament should respect the constitution as it stood. During the present difficulties, Egypt needed integrity, wisdom and national feeling in tackling the issues facing the country, Moussa said. There was no need to amend the constitution at an early stage, or as a first parliamentary task, without the people first understanding why.

“This could create instability,” Moussa said. “I see it as important not to open this topic during the first two parliamentary rounds. Then, if there is a real need, amendments could be discussed. The constitution does not curb the powers of the president. It is a democratic constitution and a reflection of the 21st-century environment and not one reflecting the 1960s, 70s, 80s or 90s. The constitution makes the president the person responsible for the country. The constitution accords full respect to the presidency and the president.”

Women and young people: In response to the question of whether women parliamentarians should lobby for a set percentage of women in the next parliaments as they have been a driving force in every major political event since the 30 June Revolution, Moussa said that women would make up 25 per cent of local councils, based on the decentralisation written into the constitution.

This was important, he said, as there would be 54,000 members of local councils, 25 per cent of them women, 25 per cent young people under the age of 35, and 50 per cent peasants and workers.  

Because of growing political awareness and the two revolutions which had included the major participation of young people and women, the latter were now well represented in the new parliament with 73 elected members, Moussa said. “The figures should have been even better, but this is a good beginning,” he commented. “Women represent half of society, and there is total equality as far as men’s and women’s intellectual capacities are concerned and as citizens dedicated to their country. There is no difference between men and women or between Muslims and Christians, and this is guaranteed by the constitution.”  

On the relationship between the mass media and advertising, he said that “we are in a national brainstorming period, but there have also been attitudes that have lacked nationalism and professionalism. However, it is natural to pass through such times after two revolutions and the fall of two regimes. The constitution deals with such issues in articles 211 to 213 and those items must be implemented as soon as possible.”    

On young people, Moussa said that according to the constitution they will hold 25 per cent of local council seats, or more than 13,000 in total, and these will be the launch pads for any future parliamentary membership. Such young people would eventually move from the capital of their governorates to the capital of the nation, he said. “They will be experts in their governorates. This is how nations are built, and the mechanisms for it are outlined in the constitution,” he added.

Young people are also well represented in the new parliament. They represent two-thirds of Egypt and must be well prepared to tackle the important issues of education and health as well as other matters. “It is a matter of training young people in how to deal with the problems of the country at crucial times. Our problems are deep and difficult and call for seriousness and sound minds,” Moussa said.

“We must straighten out the situation in the country. We, all of us, all 90 million, are responsible for making such moves, and we must not allow a repeat of what happened over past decades. The road is clear to a true consensus among the citizens and the authorities to eliminate corruption, and the place for the elaboration of such commitments is the parliament. A new dynamic will emerge,” he said.  

Foreign relations: On relations between Egypt, Turkey and Iran, Moussa said that “this is a huge topic that calls for comprehensive discussion. Turkey is an important country, as is Egypt, but mistakes have happened and I tried to discuss the matter with the Turkish president, whom I know quite well, some time ago. However, this was in the presence of Arab dignitaries, and when there is a difficult atmosphere you cannot discuss. Relations are not likely to return to where they were in the near future.”

“Iran and Turkey are major states in the Middle East, where the Arabs nevertheless represent the majority of the overall population. How we deal with each other will set out the future of relations in the Middle East. Following the nuclear deal with the US, Iran did not take an appropriate path towards the Arabs. We must, and they must, think of a way to return matters to a peaceful path. When I was Arab League secretary-general we created the joint Arab-Turkish Relations Council in 2005. The council met many times, and relations were good on the Arab level and the Egyptian level.”

“Concerning Iran, there are difficulties and sensitivities here that are different from those with Turkey. Iran should be aware of the importance of good relations with the Arabs and should work positively for the reconstruction of the Middle East to achieve security and stability. The nuclear deal with the US must not be a way towards regional chaos, Iranian clashes with the Arab world, or the search for different areas of influence. The chance is there, and everybody must seize the opportunity, not only the Arabs, but also Iran and Turkey, to put in place a positive framework and a solid basis on which to build relations that will lead to development, mutual respect, and security for all in the Middle East.”  

Will outside elements play a negative role in such ventures? Moussa said that “there are those who don’t want this to happen, but the countries of the region shoulder a special responsibility, including Iran and Turkey. 100 years have passed since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 that led to the division of the Arab world, and the question now is whether the outside world or the major powers are once again attempting to rearrange the Middle East. Are they looking for new arrangements for the next hundred years?”

“A century ago we were in a deep sleep, not aware of such arrangements. Now, things are different. We are wide awake, and we must not allow any new rearrangement of the Middle East to take place behind our backs. This is why when I was secretary-general of the Arab League I called for Arab participation in the five plus one talks between Iran and the major powers on the Iranian nuclear programme. Today, there are top officials in the West who are speaking about the division of Iraq and Syria, while others are talking about the division of Libya. Some are talking about the division of Yemen, and others about the re-division of Sudan. Where is our role? We are the majority in the region, but have we met to discuss the unfolding developments? Are we really participating in them?”

“The western countries and major powers are discussing all these matters. I have called for serious brainstorming sessions to take place that would include our leading experts, and we must tackle such questions. What if there are intentions to divide Iraq, Syria, Yemen or Libya? We need to develop an Arab point of view that will set the tone for the new regional system in the Middle East.”

On the disaster when a Russian plane came down over Sinai in October, Moussa said that British Prime Minister David Cameron should have declared that the UK would wait at least until the early results of the investigation were known before taking action and that the UK should cooperate with Egypt against terrorism.

“Some commentators believe that the reaction had to do with Russian policy in the region. Are we going to suffer from new wars in our region? Will we pay the price? We have to raise our alert level to the maximum. I don’t think that tourism in Egypt will suffer a devastating blow as a result, however. Tourism will continue even though it has been affected at a crucial time. Terrorism is a catastrophe for Russia and France, and it is also a catastrophe for us.”  

Asked about his interpretation of western coordination, especially between London and Washington following the tragic Russian plane crash which looked as if it had been orchestrated between the intelligence services, the politicians and the media, Moussa said there seemed to have been a lack of an objective appreciation of the challenges facing Egypt.

“The terrorist groups must not be allowed to feel victorious. This would mean a victory for terrorism and a defeat for stability. It is in everyone’s interest to support the state of Egypt and not help the terrorists. I call upon all countries to take a clear stand against terrorism and against what has happened and to declare that they will stand by Egypt. Recent events prove the validity of such a posture.”

Asked about Egypt’s membership of the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member, Moussa said this was an important development as Egypt represented Africa on the Council. During its four periods of non-permanent membership, Egypt had already played an important role and would now continue to do so. Membership of the Council meant that Egypt was part of the leadership of the world on issues of war and peace under the UN Charter, he said. The important thing was to have an effective Security Council and not one that was at a standstill as it was now.

The Palestinian question: Responding to a question on the solution to the Palestinian question, Moussa stressed that in his view the only solution was a one-state solution, but indicated that this was not yet Egypt’s position.

“The two-state solution is not progressing, and we have to find an alternative. One state, international status for the holy places and the rights of Arab citizens in Jerusalem, and overall rights of citizenship are the answer,” he said. “The Al-Aqsa Mosque and its vicinity must be under the administration of Muslims. Other issues like the Temple of Suleiman underneath the Al-Aqsa Mosque have been fabricated, since if the Temple were there it would have been found earlier by scientific investigation.”

Could the Arab Defence Pact be revitalised? “It is possible,” Moussa said. “What is in the air now is the creation of a unified Arab Defence Force. But we have to understand that such a Force is not designed to undertake military campaigns but is a Force for peace and stability and to defend the Arab countries, the members of the Force, against aggression. However, the details are still under discussion — and the devil is in the details.”

Turning to the issue of whether Egypt needed an “ethical revolution”, Moussa said “we need a revolution in administration, as we have a serious problem here. Concerning ethics, yes regression has taken place which has led to corruption and other ills. Education is an important element, as is the rule of law and the eradication of poverty. Maybe we will not be able to eradicate the latter, but the government has to work on its reduction, as when you reduce poverty you also reduce the reasons that trigger violence and extremism. Poverty and ignorance and the feeling that the state does not care about its citizens are main problems facing the Arab world, along with a lack of good governance.”

“The latter phenomenon has lasted for more than half a century, though there have been moments of hope and creativity. Part of the lack of good governance is the inability to plan for the future. We have to plan today for an Egypt of 100 million people. Good governance means tackling the issues and problems of today and tomorrow. We must look into the future over two decades, or three decades, or even half a century. We cannot wait until we have a population of 150 million and then act.”

“Egypt must be an icon of welfare and progress and not of poverty and backwardness. This is the responsibility of our generation towards the next,” he said.

Where does Egypt go from here? According to Moussa, no one wants to see Egypt weakened. “To keep Egypt intact is in the interest of the international community. It is a regional and Arab interest as well as an Egyptian responsibility. This includes the rebuilding of Egypt’s role in the region, which includes soft power issues in general. I believe that implementing the new constitution will help to achieve the atmosphere necessary for Egypt to regain its role.”  

During the interview, Moussa was also asked some personal questions about his private interests and hobbies. “The most rewarding post I have held was that of an ambassador representing my country and promoting its interests,” he said. “I like to have time to learn new things and spend time with my family. I enjoy walking and swimming, but I have become negligent these days. As far as music is concerned, my wife loves western classical music and I love oriental music, but when she listens to her favourite music I join her and vice versa. My favourite singer is the classic Egyptian singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.”

In the future, “I will continue to play the role of a good citizen while not looking for or seeking any posts,” he concluded.

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