In his first days in office as Egypt's foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, an acknowledged diplomat with an impressive net of international relations, has been holding a sequel of meetings to help the country re-emerge as a regional power.
He has met with state officials and members of the foreign ministry to conceptualise a quick scheme for action to help end what is qualified by many foreign and Egyptian diplomats alike as a 'tough decline,' not just in Egyptian foreign policy management, but in Egypt’s regional and international status.
Fahmy has been meeting with the army top brass, top intelligence and top government officials, including the newly-appointed economic group ministers. He has also been soliciting the views of his top assistants at the foreign ministry and demanding a comprehensive review of all the desks to assess the current state of affairs in Egyptian foreign relations with an eye on immediate rescue missions that need to be executed promptly.
"It is a very tough challenge that Fahmy is facing; our foreign policy has been on the decline for a while. It did not start with [ousted president Mohamed] Morsi. It has been this way during the last few years of the rule of [previously ousted president Hosni] Mubarak," said a senior Egyptian diplomat who asked to remain anonymous.
Fahmy's last foreign service post was as ambassador to Washington from 1999 to 2008. He returned to Egypt three years before the ouster of Mubarak in 2011 and has served as the dean of public policy school at the American University in Cairo until this Wednesday when he was sworn in. Prior to this stop in his diplomatic career, he was a political advisor to Amr Moussa when he served as foreign minister and ambassador to Japan.
According to diplomats and government officials alike, the choice of Fahmy as foreign minister for this tough interim phase, which should end in 9 months with presidential elections, is essentially related to his ‘Washington experience.’
"He has an amazing network of relations in the US; he knows how to talk to the Americans and they do trust his judgment; in fact, during the few days following Morsi's ouster, Fahmy was very helpful in offering advice and help to appease the US worry over the ouster of Morsi," said the same senior diplomat.
The US, who had shown a great deal of appreciation’s for Morsi or rather the Muslim Brotherhood’s tight control over the anti-Israeli activities of Hamas in Gaza, had been at least disappointed with his removal. The US had lobbied through its embassy in Cairo to deter Egypt's armed forces from any intervention to secure the public call for early presidential elections and an end to the one-year rule of Morsi. Washington had tried to keep Morsi as ‘a symbolic president’ pending an agreement over early presidential elections and has been since demanding the release of Morsi, who had been kept under house arrest along with a group of aides, since his removal on 3 July.
This week, US Secretary of State John Kerry skipped Cairo from the itinerary of a Middle East tour to keep the pressure on Egypt. Diplomats and officials, who had attended the talks conducted earlier in the week in Cairo by US Assistant Secretary Bill Burns, said that Washington has accepted ‘the new political reality in Egypt’ and that the US is no longer in the ‘coup or not coup’ mindset but rather in the ‘what will you do next mood.’
"Bill Burns wanted to listen at great length on how things would move from here onwards, and he was very precise in stressing the need to release and integrate the Muslim Brotherhood leadership in the political process along with the leadership of other Islamist trends," said an official who attended one of Burn's talks in Cairo.
Egyptian diplomats, who are aware of the inroads of Egypt-US relations, said that bypassing the ‘Morsi phase’ would take some time, but it could eventually work. The real challenge today is not about Morsi himself because, in the words of one, "Morsi is part of the past; it is over with that story," they added.
The same diplomats suggested that a key issue now is about securing a transition with minimum hiccups to deny the Islamists any reason for legitimate complaints.The most important of all is for Egypt to reassume its regional status, they stressed.
"Nabil Fahmy likes to talk about Egypt as a regional power," said an old aide of the recently-appointed foreign minister.
The need to reassume status, regionally first and then on the international scene, would also help with easing the tension that Egypt has been facing with some leading European partners following the ouster of Morsi. In Cairo this week, EU Foreign Policy Representative Catherine Ashton shared detailed concerns with the Egyptian officials she met, including the newly sworn in Fahmy. Her concerns included the fate of Morsi and his aides and that of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and their rank and file members that have been sharing in sit-ins in Cairo and Giza to demand the return of Morsi as president.
According to sources who followed her meetings with Egyptian officials, Muslim Brotherhood figures, political activists and intellectuals in Cairo on Wednesday, Ashton like Burns requested for the prompt release of Morsi and a fair legal process for the litigation of any Muslim Brotherhood members or leaders involved in allegedly inciting violence. She also requested for the integration of Islamists in the democratic political process. Ashton tried to to start a dialogue between the new government and armed forces on one hand, and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership on the other, but her attempt was declined by both sides.
In the analysis of Egyptian diplomats, the very fact that Ashton was in Cairo trying to mediate between Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt's interim government in a direct way – an action that was repeatedly done by the now controversial US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson – is in itself a sign that Egypt has become a weakened state.
"Under Mubarak, the US Secretary of State would come and complain, at times aggressively, about the intimidation of the opposition and might even make some tough press statement, but we were not at a point of mediation offers," said one of the Egyptian officials who followed Ashton's meetings in Cairo.
It will not be easy or necessarily fast, diplomats assess, for Cairo to move beyond the Morsi file. In the assessment of some, a clear and fair litigation process has to be initiated against anyone facing charges, not excluding Morsi. In parallel, there has to be efficient and quick movement to restore ‘the positive image of Egypt’ across the world, they added.
The West is not the only worry for Egyptian diplomacy today. Africa is a big concern due to the unfortunate management of a dispute over Nile water with East African countries and the suspension of Egypt’s membership in the African Union following the ouster of Morsi in a fashion that awakened the deep African fears over the coup d’etat scenario.
Africa is expected to be on the top of the list of priorities of Fahmy's overseas missions, said foreign ministry sources.
Arab countries that have for the most part turned its back on Egypt, due to the unease over the removal of Mubarak, his trial, and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, are equally crucial. Following Morsi's ouster, some Arab countries have been forthcoming with good intentions and prompt economic aid, especially the United Arab Emirates, which is hosting several members of the Mubarak regime, and Saudi Arabia, which has also requested to host Mubarak since the day he was removed.
However, Egyptian diplomats insist Egypt needs to resume its much diluted status as an Arab leader. It would require "a lot of work" to close the distance between differences and to re-introduce Egypt as a country that has a serious political influence – irrespective of its economic hardship, they said.
In the words of one Egyptian diplomat, by the time the next Arab foreign ministers meeting, in the first week of September at the Arab League, Fahmy should have conferred independently with all his Arab counterparts and eased most of the tension.
September is a key month also for Egypt’s international relations, with the expected participation of Fahmy at the United Nations General Assembly in the third week of the month. By this month, Fahmy and the rest of the Egyptian government should have progressed enough to be able to tell the world forum, the podium of the United Nations that the military intervention to induce political change in Egypt, upon the will of wide masses of people, has managed to bypass its possible side effects of falling under military rule. They should also be able to say that a new consensual and inclusive political movement is in the making.