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Egypt's FM dismisses notion of possible Russian military intervention in Sinai

Sameh Shoukry also discussed Ethiopia's controversial Grand Renaissance Dam, Egypt's stance on Syria, and other key issues in a television interview

Menna Alaa El-Din, Sunday 22 Nov 2015
Sameh Shoukry
File Photo: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (Photo: Reuters)
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In an interview with privately-owned CBC TV station, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry dismissed the notion of possible Russian military intervention against terrorists in Sinai who Moscow says brought down a Russian airliner over the peninsula in late October.

Shoukry said that Russian and Egyptian cooperation in the fight against terrorism would continue and take several forms, including the exchange of intelligence.

The interview comes nearly a week after Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will act in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, which permits countries who are attacked to defend themselves in a direct way.

Shoukry also brushed aside reports that Russia sent security personnel to secure the Russian embassy in Cairo. 

“Egypt is a sovereign state. Article 51 does not apply to a country that enjoys sovereignty, has a legitimate government, and has a security apparatus that is able to fulfill its mission responsibly," he said.

"When Egypt hit Islamic State positions in Libya [following the execution of 20 Egyptians in February 2015], it acted upon the request of and in coordination with the Libyan government.”

Shoukry denied reports that Russia, the UK, and the US provided intelligence to the Egyptian state that confirmed the Russian plane was ripped apart by an improvised explosive device.

"Egypt still took this possibility seriously and therefore carried out the necessary security procedures to protect airports accordingly," he said. Shoukry added that Egypt’s investigation needs to be provided with any intelligence to help the inquiry. 

The foreign minister said that Egypt understands why friends, including the UK, suspended flights to Egypt’s Sharm following the crash, explaining that Cairo respects their concerns for the safety of their citizens.

“We have therefore took an initiative by inviting our friends to share their expertise in helping us secure our airports,” Shoukry said.

On 4 November, in a precautionary move, Britain suspended all flights to and from Sharm El-Sheikh because of concerns that the Russian plane that crashed over Egypt’s Sinai may have been downed by a bomb.

The UK’s decision to suspend its flights and bring nationals home from Sharm was announced during President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s first official visit as president to Britain, a move portrayed by some as "embarrassing" to the Egyptian side.

Shoukry said that the timing of Britain’s decision was not embarrassing to Cairo, adding that the visit gave he El-Sisi a "chance to explain the Egyptian position regarding the crash and to assure UK citizens of the security procedures that are currently being undertaken, and were taken 10 months ago as well."

“A cancelation of the visit wasn’t going to bring any benefit to Egypt, but it would have created tension, while all indications from the British side were welcoming,” Shoukry said.

The Egyptian side was informed of the British decision to suspend flights as soon as El-Sisi arrived in the UK, Shoukry said. 

“David Cameron expressed his regret over shortcomings related to the accident due to media concentration on the crash and terrorism. He explained the political justifications [for cancellation of flights], affirming that the decision did not reflect on the UK’s desire to support and push forward the Egyptian-UK relationship,” Shoukry said.

Russia, Ireland, the US, France, and Germany are all conducting their own investigations into the crash.

Shoukry said that the Egyptian investigation, which supercedes all other inquiries, according to international regulations, takes other countries’ efforts into consideration, while safeguarding Egypt’s own sovereignty.

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam

Shoukry said that there is still no progress on the technical assessment of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, based on the joint March 2014 Declaration of Principles signed by the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in an effort to put an end to a four-year dispute over Nile water sharing arrangements among Nile Basin countries.

Shoukry added in a meeting between the foreign ministers and irrigation ministers of the three countries concerned will be held to decide next steps.

“Every state has ‘pressure cards’ or an ability to influence. However, in this situation, there is a shared desire for close cooperation and a new relationship that is built on collaboration, good will, and the mutual recognition of the three countries’ interests.”

He added that Egypt will not make accusations that would complicate relations.

“The goal that El-Sisi and Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn set was a principle of acknowledgement of Ethiopia’s right to [economic] development while safeguarding Egypt’s interests."

The tenth round of talks on Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam, originally scheduled to take place on 21-23 November, has been postponed until the end of the month.

“We cannot possibly keep going around in circles. We will deal with the issue realistically, relative to other countries’ interests as long as they also show the same willingness,” Shoukry said.

Sudan

Shoukry also played down signs of an emerging crisis between Egypt and Sudan following Khartoum’s concerns after media reports suggested that a Sudanese citizen was tortured in an Egyptian police station.

He said he had met with the Sudanese ambassador in Cairo to affirm Egypt’s keenness on good relations with Sudan.

“I reassured him that there was no [intentional] targeting [of Sudanese nationals]; instead there is care and attention provided to our Sudanese brothers in Egypt. If there was any kind of violation, it would be an isolated incident,” Shoukry explained.

He asked the ambassador to deliver his message to the Sudanese parliament, which has expressed anger over the case.

Syria, Iran, Qatar

On Egypt’s foreign policy towards Syria, Shoukry said that the whole situation became about a "nation that is in agony, and not about a specific person leaving or staying," referring to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“Egypt cannot tolerate seeing this happen to Syria, a country with a high status among Arab nations and [centrality] in Arab national security; a state half of whose population has fled, with a quarter of a million killed,” Shoukry added.

The foreign minister said that there is an international consensus that the only way out of the crisis is through a political framework. This political solution would lead to the formation of a transitional government, which would include the national Syrian opposition; this government would fight terrorism and pave the way to elections that would be representative of the Syrian population's wishes for the future.

When asked whether Egypt’s stance on Syria could be considered vague by some participants in the Vienna negotiations, Shoukry said the Cairo’s position is the only one that is "devoid of self interest and has never changed from the start.”

“Egypt is working with all sides, but with no interests but the interests of the Syrian people,” Shoukry clarified.

The foreign minister added that Egypt’s position on the Syria crisis has not caused any problems between Cairo and Riyadh, one of Egypt’s most important allies and a firm advocate of the ouster of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

“Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia coordinate with each other on the Syrian crisis. All of Egypt's stated viewpoints on Syria followed talks between both countries,” Shoukry said.

However, the Egyptian foreign minister indicated that there will not necessarily always be a unified and consistent vision between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on all matters.

“The goal is shared, but if there are [different] focuses from one country to another; this does not create conflicts among us,” Shoukry added.

On Iran, Shoukry said there was no intention of restoring diplomatic relations with Tehran, adding that Cairo has made its vision clear [vis-à-vis Iran’s] on regional cases, including the protection of Arab national security, Gulf States, and situation in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria.

On Qatar, Shoukry repeated President El-Sisi’s assertion that the relationship between Cairo and Doha has "not improved." He dismissed reports of any mediation efforts to bring the two countries together.

Qatari-Egyptian relations soured after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, a close ally of Doha. Egypt has accused Qatar of continuing to support the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

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