Egypt's foreign policy a year after the revolution

Dina Ezzat, Thursday 26 Jan 2012

The role of the foreign ministry seems to be suffering a setback, but what is keeping Egypt from making its diplomatic mark?

Mubarak & Netanyahu
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, before their talks at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, July 18, 2010. (Photo:AP)

On this day last year, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, the last foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak, and Hossam Zaki, spokesman for the foreign ministry, were categorically denying there was any such thing as a revolution in Egypt.

Speaking to foreign missions in Cairo, to leading world capitals and to foreign media, the two men were firmly arguing that "there is no revolution in Egypt and the Mubarak regime is solid as a rock."

The head of one Western mission in Cairo recalled: "They were telling us that Egypt is not a country to have a revolution and that the demonstrations were the work of some overenthusiastic young men."

A year later, Abul-Gheit is in retirement and Zaki is awaiting a nomination to head an Egyptian mission overseas; the foreign ministry is all but side-lined.

"No I don’t know his name,” says Sobhi, a Cairo taxi driver, as he passes the ministry building, speaking of the foreign minister. “There was El-Arabi; he is now at the Arab League? But did they have anyone after that?"

When Abul-Gheit was removed from the foreign ministry last March, only a few weeks after Mubarak was forced to step down, he was replaced by Mohamed El-Orabi, a former assistant foreign minister, who served his post for only a few weeks, to be replaced by the current foreign minister: Mohamed Kamel Amr, a nearly 70-year-old retired diplomat who had more or less the diplomatic corps some 20 years ago to join an international post with the IMF.

According to one aide, "When assigned the job some five months ago, Amr was all but completely out of touch with the foreign ministry; he has been away for a very long time; he did not know the people and was only superficially aware of the key files."

Among Egyptian diplomats working with Amr, there is a near consensus about this: Amr is a man who likes to take his time to know the people and to examine the files carefully. "He is a slow decision maker,” one of his closest associates says, “because he does not want to rush and make mistakes; perhaps foreign ministry operations are so slow."

Too slow, argue foreign diplomats in Cairo, whose missions represent some of the country’s closet Arab and Western allies. "I was never a big fan of Abul-Gheit,” one says, “but at least during the days of Abul-Gheit we used to have a yes or a no; now you go to the foreign ministry with a proposal and they tell you we will think about it; it is weeks before they get back to you."

Egyptian diplomats have a various set of reasons for the maintaining of the status-quo.

Some argue that Amr knows that he is not a decision-maker and that decisions have to be cleared by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Others argue that Amr is in fact not interested in taking decisions because he knows he is just a keeper of the foreign ministry until the election of a president and as such all he needs to do is to keep things afloat without making potentially disastrous mistakes.

A third group argue that Amr is trying to serve one objective only, which is to give the impression that Egypt is going through a smooth transitional phase during which no major changes in its foreign policy are being made.

"There are no major changes – or maybe there are no changes at all," said a senior Egyptian diplomat. "We are maintaining a careful alliance with the leading Arab and Western states (especially Saudi Arabia and the US); we are still in good cooperation with Israel; we are nowhere near normalizing relations with Iran; and we are keeping a close eye on relations with the Nile Basin countries."

According to this and other Egyptian diplomats, these parameters will remain more or less in place during the term of the next president and the one after that. "The theory of the key zones of interest for Egypt remains the same; they were the same under Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak – with some changes here and there depending on the character of the president," says one assistant foreign minister.

Yet during the days of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the leading figure in the 1952 military coup, Egypt maintained close relations with the Arab countries and helped the liberation movement in several of them – despite tension with Saudia Arabia, which Cairo declared anti-progressive at the time.

Under Sadat, who shifted the alliance from the USSR to the US, the tide shifted in favour of closer relations with Washington's own Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia. Under Mubarak, Sadat's policies were kept and eventually accentuated as the toppled president was trying to promote the succession of his younger son Gamal Mubarak to the Arab world and the key Western capitals.

Come the new president, several Egyptian diplomats suggest, Egypt will seek to focus on its relations with Arab countries who also ousted their authoritarian rulers, the Nile Basin states who are now challenging Egypt's annual share of the Nile waters and developing economies who could make suitable development partners.

Relations with Israel will remain peaceful, those with Iran will remain careful and ties with the US and key European states will broaden, according to the assessment of the same diplomats.

The volume of activity in the foreign ministry – which is part of a wider foreign policy apparatus – will depend on the next president, as diplomats suggest. If Amr Moussa, Egypt's foreign minister from 1991 to 2001 and the former Arab League Secretary General for the following decade, is elected president, then the share of the foreign ministry might be more visible than if some of other key candidate is elected.

But at the end of the day, diplomats at the foreign ministry and in the Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad agree that once a new president is elected the foreign ministry will be hard at work to re-establish the status of Egypt, which has suffered an unmistakable setback, not just during the lull that followed the end of the Mubarak regime on 11 February 2011 but also during the past few years of the regime when Mubarak himself was said to be disinterested in pursuing initiatives.

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