Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1313, (29 september - 5 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Flexible diplomacy

Cairo is pursuing diplomatic choices to advance its regional and international roles and, the government hopes, to push the government hopes, reports Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian diplomats speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly say the same thing, that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who attended the United Nations General Assembly last week and the G20 summit earlier this month, and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri, are both keen to address “matters” that have negatively affected Egypt’s international relations.  

The diplomats argue Cairo faced two major hiccups in its international relations in the last year, one with Italy and the second with Russia. The problem with Italy centres on the case of Giulio Regeni, the Italian researcher brutally murdered in Cairo, and the failure of the authorities to identify the culprits. With Russia problems came to a head with the downing of a Metrojet that crashed in Sinai with over 200 Russian tourists on board in October but also include “confusion” and “misunderstandings” over planned cooperation on the bilateral and regional fronts. 

At the G20 Summit in China Al-Sisi met with his Russian counterpart Valdimir Putin. The encounter, says one highly placed diplomat, “allowed for the two leaders to break the ice” over a number of issues.

“For the president relations with Russia are crucial. Right from the beginning of his mandate as minister of defence he has been determined to reach out to Moscow,” said the diplomat.

“I think the meeting in China laid down the groundwork for picking up the pieces of cooperation from where they were left last year.”

It is not just about tourism, adds the diplomat, though this should pick up — “even if slowly” — before the end of the year, but also about energy cooperation and coordination on “matters related to facing the challenges posed by terror groups on the ground in the region”.

It was determination “at the highest level” to spare Egyptian-Russian relations from any further hiccups that prompted intervention to stop “what was turning into an new issue” — Egyptian imports of wheat from Russia — from escalating.

“The decision to reverse plans to suspend imports of wheat because of the presence of the ergot fungus was a political one,” says the diplomat. And Moscow reciprocated by reversing a tit-for-tat plan halt imports of Egyptian oranges.

While he predicts “possible new bumps on the road” Cairo, according to the diplomatic source, is determined to invest in its relations with Moscow, “especially given we see almost eye-to-eye on key regional issues, including the need to support the state in Syria and to face radical Islamic groups in Iraq and Libya”.

Egypt is also working closely “and more constructively”, according to informed European sources, with the Italian authorities to reach what Egyptian diplomats qualify as “an end to the Regeni story”.

Sources in Cairo and Rome tell Al-Ahram Weekly that the meeting held by the Egyptian prosecutor with his Italian counterpart in Rome two weeks ago was “productive” and “showed a change of attitude on the Egyptian side”.

The prosecutor was scheduled to return to Italy within days for another round of meetings, including one with the family of Regeni.

“For the first time the Italians say they are receiving serious information,” says an Egyptian source who was in Rome earlier this month.

Concerned Egyptian officials are confident the Italian authorities want to see the file closed, not least because Rome and Cairo share economic and strategic interests that for the most part are being managed independently of developments in the Regeni file.

Cairo remains concerned, however, that Rome has yet to dispatch a new ambassador to Egypt.  In April the Italian government recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations over the Regeni case. Since then a new ambassador has been named by the Italian government but no date has been set for his arrival in Egypt. Nor have arrangements been finalised for a new Egyptian ambassador to take up the post in Rome when current ambassador Amr Helmi’s term ends. Helmi is expected to return to Cairo at Christmas by the latest, according to a Foreign Ministry source.

“To move forward the Egyptian government has to provide accurate and solid information on who killed Giulio — who actually did it,” said an Italian source in Rome. He added that neither the authorities in Rome nor the family of Regeni will accept “nonsensical accounts like the earlier blaming of a group of thugs”.

Egyptian and Italian sources say Cairo is moving closer towards accommodating direct Italian accusations of police involvement in the death of Regeni though it is not yet willing to accept Italian accusations of an orchestrated abduction, torture and release of the body on high-level orders.

Improved relations with Russia and Italy are key to the resumption of tourist flows from what were, until recently, major markets, and for generating greater levels of foreign direct investment.

A source at the Ministry of Finance says Cairo must pursue all possible tracks to activate direct foreign investments and increase tourist numbers as it seeks to secure a $12 billion loan from the IMF.

“Critics keep saying we are too focused on loans but our policy is to use these loans to activate the economy,” he said. “This is why we are investing a lot to improve the infrastructure”.

Egyptian officials are on record as saying that securing the IMF loan will require financial assistance to begin the process of currency devaluation. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, major financiers of the political transition in Egypt in 2013, have promised help but diplomats agree any help will involve an element of give and take.

“I think we will be expected to lend political support to both countries in different ways and we are willing to do so,” said one.

He denied suggestions Saudi Arabia is making its financial help conditional on the handover of the two Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir. “This is a matter that is being discussed between the two countries but that doesn’t mean we can condition the full volume of Saudi support on these two islands,” he said.

European diplomats insist that for their governments to encourage future investments in Egypt Cairo needs to help. 

“Help us to help you is what we keep telling our Egyptian interlocutors,” said one Cairo-based European ambassador.

The kind of help European states are looking for from Cairo includes more streamlined investment regulations and a better international image of Egypt.

One European diplomat speaking to the Weekly referred to the “bad news” that keeps coming from Egypt, including the “massive arrests of activists” and “antagonising of the young”.

 “Acting to devalue the pound and to cut red tape are essential measures but they are no substitute for an image of political stability,” added the ambassador.

So how much is Cairo willing to give on this front?

Answers may vary from one official to the other but there appears to be a growing realisation on the part of the authorities that they need to be more flexible when it comes to freedoms and their dealings with civil society.

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