INTERVIEW: Demarcation agreement paves way for developing relations between Egypt, Greece: Egypt's Ambassador to Greece

Eman Youssef , Tuesday 20 Oct 2020


The agreement to demarcate the maritime borders between Egypt and Greece, which was signed last August, opens the way for further developing the historic relations between Cairo and Athens.

The depth of relations between Egypt and Greece is not limited to economic and political issues, but according to ambassador of Egypt to Greece Ismail Khairat, it also extends to cultural cooperation, which is one of the most important areas of cooperation between the two countries.

During his 35-year diplomatic career, Khairat worked at the embassies of Greece, New Delhi and London, and he was also the ambassador of Egypt to Thailand and Japan, before serving as ambassador to Greece. The ambassador was also head of the Egyptian Media Office in New York, and held the position of president of the State Information service. He also worked as director of United Nations Affairs and he held the position of assistant minister of foreign affairs for financial and administrative affairs.

What were main outcomes of the recent visit by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to Athens? What are the other upcoming visits from both sides?

Shoukry met with Greece’s president and prime minister, as well as Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Senior Greek officials were keen to get acquainted with the Egyptian vision regarding the latest developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, and they discussed a number of other international and regional issues of common interest.

Senior officials and ministers from both sides are keen to exchange visits and communicate continuously, whether at the bilateral or trilateral level between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus. Tariq Al-Mulla, Egypt’s minister of petroleum and mineral resources, visited Athens late last year, and he is constantly in contact with his Greek counterpart to coordinate positions related to cooperation projects in energy and natural gas.

What are the main issues currently being discussed between Egypt and Greece?

One of the most important issues is the defining of the maritime borders between the two countries. Egypt and Greece signed a partial agreement to demarcate their common maritime borders on 6 August 2020. The Egyptian and Greek parliaments have completed the procedures for ratifying the agreement, and jointly submitting its registration with the United Nations. The importance of the agreement is providing opportunities for the two countries to start allowing different companies to explore and search for natural resources in the region. There are also a number of other important issues such as the Libyan crisis and the refugees’ problem.

How would you describe the Greek government’s handling of the coronavirus? How did the Egyptian embassy deal with the pandemic?

Although Greece has recorded low daily infection rates compared to a number of other European countries, the Greek government did impose precautionary measures including a full two-month lockdown from March to May 2020. The government has also taken a number of steps to help citizens and companies overcome the difficulties and economic repercussions resulting from the closure.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Greece, the Egyptian embassy has set up a 24-hour emergency number to respond to inquiries from the Egyptian community and those stranded in Greece. The embassy also translated the instructions issued by the Greek authorities into Arabic and published them on its social media accounts. The embassy has also provided a special plane to return stranded citizens.

Currently, what are the most prominent issues that Greece faces? How does Greece deal with Turkey’s provocations?

Greek-Turkish relations have witnessed tensions over the past period because of the escalation of Ankara’s policies against both Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. Both European and international parties have made continuous efforts to contain this tension, including Germany, who has acted as a mediator. Moreover, efforts have been made by NATO to build confidence and initiate dialogue between the two countries, who are both NATO members. As a result of these efforts, Greece and Turkey have reached a preliminary agreement to resume the exploratory talks, (which stopped in 2016), during the coming period.

Both Egypt and Greece reject Turkish interference in Libya. What are the developments regarding the Libyan crisis?

Egypt’s stance has been clear since the beginning of the Libyan crisis, rejecting any foreign intervention inside Libya and the exporting of weapons and mercenaries to the country.

It is worth noting that Egypt is communicating with all Libyan parties to reduce tension and escalation and stabilise the current situation and the ceasefire, which paves the way for negotiations to resume between all Libyan parties.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi previously announced the red line in the Sirte and Jufrah region, which we will not allow to be crossed, east or west, to preserve Egyptian and Arab national security. Through the Cairo declaration, the president also called for an immediate ceasefire between the two sides and the holding of negotiations.

What is the volume of trade between the two countries and the most prominent joint projects?

The volume of trade between Egypt and Greece during the year 2019 amounted to around 1.8 billion euros, of which Egyptian exports are worth 842 million euro, an increase of 32 percent over 2018. The imports are around 942 million euros, with a decrease of 18 percent. The deficit in the trade balance has decreased to 100 million euros, compared to 500 million euros in 2018. As for the most important Egyptian exports, these are vegetables, fruits, citrus and chemicals. The most important imports are food, tobacco and oils. The total volume of Egyptian investments in Greece in 2019 reached 9 million euros in 2019, while the volume of Greek investments in Egypt of around 149 Greek companies exceeded more than 600 million euros, according to the Greek Investment Authority. These investments vary from the sectors of energy, building materials, food industries and household appliances. Now, we are working on raising the trade exchange rates and supporting joint investments.

The role of cultural cooperation is very important. What are the current cultural activities between the two countries?

The Library of Alexandria organises many cultural events with Greece in order to highlight the unique cultural relations between the two countries. For example, the Egyptian-Greek Cultural Month event, as well as the Cavafy forum, which focuses on the work of great Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. Cafavy lived in Alexandria, and his house was turned into a museum, which is of great importance to Greek tourists visiting Alexandria. Egypt also hosts Greek schools in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the two cultural centres in Cairo and Alexandria. Currently, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is making efforts to restore and renovate the Greek Museum in Alexandria, which will be officially inaugurated by the end of this year. It will be a unique international museum that includes a collection of rare Greek and Roman artefacts.

Foreign Minister Shoukry participated in the first meeting of the Ancient Civilisation forum, a Greek initiative which was supported by Egypt, taking into consideration that Egypt was one of the main founding countries of the forum in Athens in April 2017. The forum brought together Egypt, Greece, China, Italy, India, Mexico, Iran, Peru and Bolivia and Iraq, which represent more than 40 percent of the world's population.

What are the most important results of the trilateral summits?

The aim of the trilateral cooperation between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus in 2014 was establishing a mechanism that combines political consultation between the leaders of the three countries periodically in order to discuss international and regional issues of common interest. It also aims to strengthen cooperation in energy, agriculture, investment, tourism, transportation and ports, information technology, and others. From 2014 to 2019, the seven trilateral summits succeeded in reaching agreements and signing of memoranda of understanding in different fields such as the environment, tourism, education, and cooperation between small and medium-sized companies, besides the launch of the joint research centre for entrepreneurship in Borg Al-Arab for cooperation in communication technology. Currently, officials of the three countries are discussing the implementation of an electricity grid between Egypt, Cyprus and Crete.

What are the main aims of the “Return to the Roots” initiative?

President El-Sisi launched the initiative during the trilateral summit held in Nicosia in November 2017 with the aim of celebrating the foreign communities that lived in Egypt, starting with the Greek and Cypriot communities. It also aimed to promote tourism in Egypt through the event, which was held in Alexandria in the presence of the heads of the three countries, along with international media coverage.

The initiative’s objectives also include promoting relations between the expat communities of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.

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