INTERVIEW - ‘30 June Revolution gave Egypt a stable government; restored its proper place in region’: John Bolton

Abdusamea Al-Dardear, Sunday 2 Jul 2023

On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the 30 June Revolution, which ended the short-lived rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, veteran US diplomat John Bolton shared with Ahram Online his take on the significance of 30 June for the country and the region as well as his views on the prospects of larger Egyptian-US cooperation in finding peaceful resolutions for various crises in the region.

Ambassador John Bolton

Ambassador John Bolton served as the United States National Security Advisor from April 2018 to September 2019 during the Trump administration. He has had an extensive career in government and foreign policy.

Throughout his career, Bolton has held various government positions, including working in the Reagan and Bush administrations. He served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 to December 2006 under President George W. Bush.

Bolton has also been involved in numerous policy organizations and think tanks. He currently serves as a foreign policy senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).

Ahram Online: How would you assess the impact of the Egypt 30 June Revolution on the region's political landscape and stability?

John Bolton: I think it’s very important to say that what happened is that Muslim Brotherhood took advantage as an existing organized force and went to the election that followed Mubarak.

But I think it was clear very early in Morsi's presidency that his philosophy was “one person - one vote: one time” and that he had no intention whatsoever of allowing Egypt to become a full democracy.

Morsi intended to follow the Muslim Brotherhood line and turn it into a theocracy as soon as he could.

Amid all of the opposition to Mubarak, the people of Egypt did not want to trade one autocratic leader for another autocratic leader, especially one who is going to impose his version of Islam on the people whether they liked it or not.

So I think the 30 June Revolution was an important step in making it clear that while the Arab Spring had brought more possibility for self-government into the region, but that didn't mean self-government began and ended with just one election.

The 30 June Revolution, and everything that followed from that, gave Egypt a stable government and restored it to its proper place in the region.

It was an important course correction.

AO: In your opinion, what role did the United States play during the 30 June Revolution and its aftermath?

JB: I don't think it was a very consistent role throughout the period from the whole series of events that led to Mubarak's overthrow to everything that flowed from that including Morsi's election and then the protests of 30 June.

Subsequently, the Obama administration wavered between whether it wanted more democracy or less democracy - or what is it exactly it wanted.

I think that was unfortunate because its lack of support for the people of Egypt gave the misimpression for a time that the Morsi government was acceptable to the United States.

I think the uncertainty from the US point of view may have prolonged the instability, which was not a good thing.

But, I think, eventually, all came out the right way.

AO: Can you discuss the role of Egypt in countering regional security threats, such as terrorism and instability in the Middle East?

JB: Well, Egypt plays a central role in the region, given its geography, its history and the size of its population as well as some of the steps it's taken over the years.

Let’s begin with Israel. Obviously, the peace agreement signed by President Anwar Sadat and Israel is foundational to all the other peace agreements that have been signed since - with Jordan and then recently in the Abraham Accords.

Egypt had led the way there. Without that, I think, the instability in the region could have been much worse than it is.

Now to Libya. I think Egypt has been playing an important role in trying to achieve stability and is trying to find a way to end the chaos in its neighbour to the West.

It has not been totally successful so far. But the Egyptian role under President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi since the 30 June Revolution has been very important to the United States.

I think that's very important for a lot of reasons - not least of which is countering the continued support for terrorism that we see coming out of Iran and obviously its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

AO: How do you assess Egypt's role in mediating and supporting peace efforts in to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the crisis in Libya?

JB: The instability we have seen in Libya since the overthrow of Qaddafi has been troubling to the region and also to Europe.

It has given an opportunity for people who want to exploit the tensions in the region and encourage instability.

Egypt's interest in resolving the Libya crisis should be obvious to everybody who shares a border with Libya.

What happens inside Libya affects Egypt.

President Trump and I, in my capacity as National Security Adviser, had numerous conversations with President El-Sisi and senior Egyptian officials to find a way to break through the deadlock in United Nations negotiations to reach a peaceful resolution that would lead to a stable government in Libya.

That clearly has not occurred yet. The situation remains dangerous potentially.

Egypt has a continuing legitimate interest there obviously.

I don't think the Biden administration has paid enough attention to Libya.

Some of the other countries in North Africa also have a concern about what the situation in Libya might entail for them.

If you look at Tunisia: They may need more help and more support from the outside, which I think the United States should provide. 

In the Arab-Israeli dispute, we may be close.

I do not know whether Saudi Arabia, for example, will exchange recognition with Israel anytime soon but there are a lot of reports which indicate that the Biden administration is trying to broker a new chapter in the Abraham Accords.

I think this will happen inevitably.

One reason for this inevitability is that several of the Gulf Arab states have seen how a peaceful, stable relationship between Israel and Egypt and Jordan can benefit both parties.

If more Gulf Arab states and others around the region recognize Israel then the possibility for economic growth and interchange is enormous.

This had been possible since the 1990s but it didn't come to fruition for a number of reasons.

The opportunity is here and now in part because the Gulf Arabs share with Israel the same strategic assessment of the threat of Iran.

Iranian support of terrorist activities, whether it's Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria or Hamas or whatever the groups may, threatens stability for the Arab governments in addition to posing a threat to Israel.

So there are a lot of possibilities, but I alsounderstand the difficulties.

Here, Egypt, again because of its leadership role, can help by working with other Arab countries that have difficulties dealing with this issue.

Egypt has overcome those difficulties. Arab governments can learn valuable lessons from the Egyptian experience.

AO: I think now we witness reconciliation between Iran and regional powers in the area. How do you view Egypt relations with other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran? And what implications do those relationships have for regional dynamics and stability?

JB: You can call me skeptical about the reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

I think that the Saudis the Emiratis would like to get the situation in Yemen resolved. The principal reason the conflict goes on there is because the Iranians are supplying the Houthis with weapons.

If Tehran complies with its commitment to stop doing that then I think some kind of peaceful arrangement in Yemen might be possible and you could have more stability in the region.

The government in Tehran is going to continue to support terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and throughout the region as long as it remains fundamentally committed to the ideals of the 1979 Revolution.

I think some of what's going on reflects uncertainty about the United States commitment to the region. That's unfortunate. I think this is a byproduct of the Biden administration's mistake and focus on getting back into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

I still think that was a bad deal for the region and the United States. It was a great deal for Iran but not for anybody else.

The dangers and the threats posed by Iran are very significant. I just don't see Iran giving up on its revolutionary guard or its revolutionary ideas over the long term. And that's really the most important part.

AO: How do you evaluate Egypt's effort in promoting economic development and reforms post revolution? And what potential impact do they have on regional dynamics? 

JB: Well, Egypt has huge potential in terms of economic growth given its geographical position and the Suez Canal, and also given the possible discoveries of additional oil and gas resources all around the eastern Mediterranean.

The country’s large and capable population means a great potential for direct investment in manufacturing and a whole range of industries.

I think more economic reform is needed. I was at the US Agency for International Development in the Reagan administration. So I have been very familiar with these issues for quite some time now.

Further steps in economic reform are still needed to break free of economic regulatory constraints and make Egypt the more hospitable place for foreign direct investment.

I think the possibilities are really very significant.

There is a lot of potential in tourism which is a main source of income for the country.

AO: What role should the international community play in supporting Egypt's ongoing political and economic development?

JB: It's very important from the US point of view to encourage it and to do what we can to encourage people to have confidence in the future in Egypt.

Stability in the Middle East needs that the largest country would have a growing economy.

That possibility has been visible for some time but this is a real moment to try and take advantage of it.

I think Israel and the Gulf Arabs need to resolve their disagreements. The US should try and make that clear.  

Imagine the day when the Saudis and the Israelis exchange diplomatic recognition. Egypt is geographically between the two. There's a real opportunity there.

AO: How would you evaluate the progress of democratic reforms in Egypt since the June 30 Revolution and what areas do you believe still require attention and improvement?

JB: Look, everyone works on improving their system of self-government and tries to make it more accountable to the people. I think that's a continuing process.

And I do think economic reform remains a priority, too.

It's easier for the government to undertake economic reform as stability in the region grows.

Instability leads to greater government involvement in the economy and in politics.

The more the region itself becomes stable - the easier it is for the government of Egypt to say we're not so worried we don't have to be so involved. Let's open it up. And progress comes from that.

AO: What are the key challenges and opportunities that Egypt faces in its efforts to attract foreign direct investment and promote economic growth?

JB: I think there's a lot of competition in the region and it's gotten very active if you look at the Gulf oil-producing countries.

They have emphasized more and more - especially in the past five or 10 years - that they want to see the proceeds from their oil revenues invested in their own countries.

They want to build up industrial and other capacity there. They don't want to give the oil revenues to investors to invest all around the world but not in their own country.

I think Egypt needs to understand that they want to improve things in their respective countries.

But Egypt has huge potential to absorb foreign direct investment with it a very sizable workforce.

It is in a perfect geographical position with access to the Suez Canal.

More joint regional efforts between the Gulf oil producers with the intellectual capital coming from Israel and labour coming from Egypt could be beneficial for all concerned.

AO: What steps can be taken to enhance regional cooperation and dialogue among Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, in addressing common challenges and fostering stability?

JB: Well, I think there could be more discussion on strategic stability. We've got a number of outside countries that have caused trouble over the years - the Russians in Syria and around the region or the Turkish government under Erdogan has also contributed to instability.

It goes without saying Iran has been a huge problem.

Anybody who wants to cooperate peacefully engages in trade investment. That's fine.

But this constant clash of competing political ideologies has been detrimental to economic progress in the region.

So I’d say to these countries: "Look, if your interest is purely economic, we're open for business too."

"But if you have some larger agenda: Go pursue it elsewhere because we're concerned about the economic welfare of our own people."

This is especially true for Egypt with its large population and great potential for growth.

AO: Egypt is one of the developing countries that suffered from the impact of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Do you have expectations for how long the crisis will last?

JB: It's hard to say, you know.

The Ukrainian Spring Offensive is underway. As we speak, it doesn't look like they've made a lot of progress. But it's still early.

You know, Russia is a huge country compared to Ukraine, three and a half or four times the population.

And it's a demonstration of what happens when unprovoked aggression goes unchallenged: it tells the aggressors that they can get away with it.

So I think it's very important that aggressors should be defeated here. It's very difficult to predict when that would happen.

AO: What lessons can be learned from the 30 June Revolution for other countries seeking political change or democratic transitions?

JB: I think the region is certainly in transition in a number of different ways. So much has happened over the past 30 or 40 years. But one thing that has emerged as a concern from the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 is the spread of international terrorism.

It looked like instability would be the description of the region as far as the eye can see. It's certainly true that Iran is still fomenting instability and terrorists are still returning to Afghanistan. These issues have not disappeared.

But stability has returned with the 30 June Revolution.

Now is the time to take advantage of it because both political stability and economic growth undercut the threat of international terrorism and the threat of the Ayatollahs in Tehran.

Obviously, we have not reached the end of all of the world's problems. But building on the progress that's been made from 30 June is very important.

AO: How do you envision the future of US-Egypt relations and their potential contributions to regional peace and stability?

JB: The opportunity for enhanced relations is significant. In many respects, Egypt and the United States have a common view of what the region should look like.

It's very much in the interest of both countries to find ways to work together in the region, and really around the world, when problems do arise in their relationship.

AO: How do you view Egypt's approach to balancing national security interests with preserving individual freedoms and human rights?

JB: Well, you know, each country has to find its own balance. I think one thing I give President El-Sisi great credit for is his concern for Coptic Christians and religious freedoms and diversity. I don't think he gets enough credit for that, frankly.

You know, given Egypt's history, we have reason to be optimistic about the future - that security can be preserved and that free and open government can be expanded.

AO: Finally, what message would you like to convey to the Egyptian people on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the 30 June Revolution?

JB: It's a great tribute to the Egyptian people that after getting rid of one leader who had been in power for many years they did not succumb to the temptation of being taken advantage of by the Muslim Brotherhood after just one election, which was not well prepared for.

They didn't give up. They said: This is not what we bargained for and they went back into the streets and protested and they won another chance.

I think that takes great courage and it's a good sign for the future.

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