INTERVIEW – Indonesia and Egypt forge ahead as close partners in diplomacy, trade, culture: Ambassador

Amr Yehia , Tuesday 18 Jul 2023

In an interview with Al-Ahram Online, Indonesian ambassador to Egypt Lotfi Rauf emphasized that Indonesia has always viewed Egypt as a close and reliable partner and a strategic hub in the region.

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Ahram Online: How do you see the level of bilateral political and diplomatic relations?

Ambassador Lotfi Rauf: We always see Egypt as our close and trusted partner in the Middle East and North African region. Given the long history of our relations, we just commemorated the 75th anniversary of our diplomatic relations last year.

Politically, our bilateral relations are currently having a positive momentum, following the visit of Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, to Jakarta in March last year, which resulted in the signing of MoUs on the establishment of the Joint Bilateral Commission and Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development Cooperation. Indonesian Vice President, Ma’aruf Amin, also attended COP27 and met with the Egyptian Prime Minister in Sharm El-Sheikh last November.

Furthermore, there were also visits by the Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament as well as the Speaker of the Egyptian Senate to Indonesia last year to attend parliamentary events. Such an exchange of high-level visits is a great testament to the progress we have achieved in our bilateral relations. Now we are trying to transform the bilateral modalities that we already had so far into concrete cooperation. As an ambassador, it is my duty to always explore ways and means to improve our relations in all areas of cooperation.

AO: From your point of view, what are the common strengths between the two countries that can be built upon to develop bilateral relations?

LR: Indonesia and Egypt share many similarities. Both are like-minded countries since a long time ago. We stood against colonialism and imperialism in Asian-African countries in 1955. We co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement with a shared belief that our two nations should not become objects of proxy wars between superpowers during the Cold War. Both countries are leaders - economic powerhouses in their respective regions.

In terms of culture, far before the diplomatic relations between the two countries, Egypt has been the homeland of more than 12,000 Indonesians, most of whom are students at the University of Al Azhar in Cairo. Al Azhar has long become the most preferred destination for Indonesians to learn Islamic studies. These students have become ambassadors of Indonesian culture to the people of Egypt. After they graduate, they also became ambassadors of Egyptian culture and products to the Indonesian people and the world.

AO: What are the priorities in your diplomatic agenda in Egypt?

LR: The two countries already have the foundation for a great bilateral relationship. My priority now is to intensify and deepen our relations through more joint programmes and activities. Among the important agenda items, on 15 May 2023, Zulkifli Hassan, Minister of Trade of the Republic of Indonesia, together with Ahmed Samir Saleh, the Minister of Trade and Industry of Egypt, signed a MoU on the establishment of a Joint Trade Committee.

The agreement will serve as a platform mechanism to increase economic and trade cooperation between the two countries by identifying ways to increase and discuss any opportunities and challenges that will bring more mutual benefit to both countries. The MoU is projected to serve as a medium to accommodate the aspirations and inputs from both Indonesian and Egyptian business communities.

Furthermore, we are also trying to connect not only at the national level but also at the local government level. In November 2022, the Governor of East Java Province in Indonesia and the Governor of Alexandria signed a Letter of Intent on the establishment of Sister-Province Cooperation. This year we are trying to identify concrete programmes that we can collaborate on and formalize them in the form of a MoU between East Java and Alexandria.

We are also exploring the possibilities of establishing a similar centre as The Al Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism in East Java Province, hoping this pilot project will later be replicated in other provinces in Indonesia. Through this project, we want people to see the great role of Al-Azhar as a beacon of moderation of Islam, not just in Egypt, but in the Middle East and our region as well.

In the trade and economic sector, both countries have shown a promising trend, which is indicated by the positive growth of trade despite the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in my opinion, we should not be satisfied with just the current results as there are many possibilities to be explored and developed, especially considering Egypt's strategic position as a hub in the region, which can be utilized to distribute products to other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and European markets.

AO: What about the vision regarding issues of common concern at the regional and international levels?

LR: As I already mentioned, we are like-minded countries. We share a common vision on international issues. In the Russian-Ukrainian war, Indonesia underlines the importance of highly respecting the state's sovereignty and territorial integrity. We call for all parties to end the war and find a peaceful solution through negotiation. We also highlight the importance of building a climate of strategic trust where all countries have the responsibility to contribute to creating an environment that is conducive to the peaceful settlement of disputes.

Egypt shares a similar position as well, which we hear from the statement by Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, during his meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister, affirming that Egypt called for resolving the crisis through dialogue and diplomatic means with the aim of reaching a political settlement. On Palestine, Indonesia and Egypt also stand together in solidarity towards our Palestinian brothers and sisters. Both countries support the resumption of the peace process according to internationally agreed parameters with the purpose of achieving a two-state solution.

AO: Egypt had made great efforts in making a success of COP 27, in what ways can Indonesia cooperate with Egypt in the climate change challenges and sustainable development?

LR: The COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh last year was a breakthrough for at least two reasons. Not only did COP27 adopt several important decisions, such as Mitigation Work Programme, Global Goal on Adaptation, and Cover Decision, but the participating countries could also finally agree on funding for Loss and Damage. The agreement to provide a 'loss and damage' fund for vulnerable countries affected by climate disasters is also a step forward, considering discussions on funding to address the impact of climate change on communities whose lives and livelihoods are affected have been ongoing for a long time.

For Indonesia, the agreement on Loss and Damage funding is progress in the efforts to implement the Paris Agreement, especially since Indonesia already ratified it through Law No. 16 of 2016. Through this funding, it is hoped that it can assist countries, especially developing countries that are vulnerable to hydro-meteorological impacts and disasters. In this regard, in March 2022, during his visit to Indonesia, the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs signed the MoU on cooperation in the field of Environmental Protection and Sustainable Development with the Indonesian Minister of Environment and Forestry. With this MoU, the two countries have agreed to cooperate in several technical areas such as climate change, renewable energy, pollution control, as well as environmental education and awareness. This MoU also recognizes the significance of sustainable development in the protection and enhancement of the environment.

AO: How do you see the economic cooperation and trade between the two countries?

LR: Despite the pandemic, the total trade value in 2021 recorded an increase of more than 50 percent for both Indonesia and Egypt compared to 2020. The Ukrainian and Russian conflict, which preludes the current global economic condition, has affected the performance of bilateral trade between Indonesia and Egypt. Nevertheless, in 2022, the total trade between Indonesia and Egypt is still recorded at over $1.5 billion, the highest in North Africa and the fourth largest in the Middle East. Indonesia exported mainly palm oil, coffee beans, wood fiberboard, vehicle tires, and yarn to Egypt. While Egypt exported phosphates, dates, citrus, molasses, and olive oil.

The commodities traded between the two countries, which are mainly agricultural commodities, indicate that Indonesia and Egypt are complementing rather than competing with each other. The cooperation in the area of investment between Egypt and Indonesia is still yet to reach its maximum potential. According to the General Authority for Investment and Free Zones (GAFI), the value of Indonesia's investment in Egypt ranked 52 for inbound investment to Egypt in various sectors such as commodity, service, construction, and ICT. On the other hand, Egypt's total investment in Indonesia during the period from 2010 to 2022, according to the Indonesian Ministry of Investment's report, has reached more than $6 million. Egyptian investment in Indonesia is spread across a number of sectors, including plantation and livestock industry, paper and printing, trade and repair, and other services.

AO: In what ways can both countries increase economic cooperation to achieve common interests?

LR: Both countries must work harder to explore their cooperation potential by exchanging information regarding regulations and identifying potential sectors of cooperation that need to be encouraged. The Indonesian embassy in Cairo is more than happy to facilitate these efforts. The MoU on the establishment of a Joint Trade Committee will serve as a platform mechanism to increase economic and trade cooperation between the two countries by identifying ways to increase and discuss any opportunities and challenges that will bring more mutual benefit.

AO: Egypt is witnessing great progress in urbanization projects, including smart cities, infrastructure, agriculture, etc. How do you see such achievements and in what ways Indonesia can take part in these projects?

LR: It is great to see that Egypt is currently undertaking infrastructure development in cities, which is a necessity for supporting its economic growth. We noted several significant development projects such as upgrading ports, airports, transportation networks, and smart cities. The most notable one is the development of the New Administrative Capital, visited last year by a delegation from the Ministry of National Development Planning. During the visit, there has been an exchange of information regarding the development of the New Capital since currently Indonesia is also building a New Capital of Nusantara on the Island of Kalimantan.

AO: How do you see Al-Azhar Al-Sharif's role in developing bilateral relations?

LR: Historically, the deep-rooted relations between Indonesia and Al-Azhar were founded in the 18th century, a long time before Indonesia's independence in 1945. This relationship was marked by the presence of the first student (santri) who studied at Al-Azhar in 1850, Abdul Manan Dipomenggolono, the founder of Tremas Islamic Boarding School in East Java. Such a very close relationship is also proven by the existence of Ruwaq Jawi in the Al-Azhar Mosque.

Al-Azhar aspires to be the world leader in providing true Islamic thought based on moderation, tolerance, and humanity. Al-Azhar is known as a centre of knowledge for the world's Muslim community, including Indonesia as the country with the largest Muslim population in the world.

The determination of Al-Azhar in holding the principle of 'Wasatiyyah' and justice has inspired the concept of Islamic education at various levels, starting from public and private educational institutions, including Islamic boarding schools in Indonesia.

Given the fact that the relations between Indonesia and Egypt, especially Al-Azhar, have been established for a very long time, it is my duty and responsibility on behalf of the Indonesian government to maintain and improve this bond. In my humble opinion, there are many ways and means to improve these relations. Among them are sending Indonesian students to Al-Azhar.

Every year we send around 1,500-2,000 new students to Al-Azhar. Currently, the number of Indonesian students is around 12,000. This number is the largest compared to other countries from the region of Southeast Asia, which constitutes about 30 percent (with a total number of 40,000) of all international students at Al-Azhar. Several universities and provincial governments in Indonesia have cooperated with Al-Azhar in the field of education, such as the Syarif Hidayatullah the State Islamic University Jakarta, the UIN Malang, the Indonesian Islamic International University, and the East Java Province, just to name a few.

The Indonesian Cultural Centre in Egypt teaches Indonesian language as a second choice at the Faculty of Languages and Translation at Al-Azhar University. This programme has been running for four years with a total number of students around 30. In the future, we do hope that the Indonesian language will become an independent study programme at Al-Azhar University. Meanwhile, Al-Azhar has sent around 35 envoys to Indonesia every year to provide Islamic teachings at Islamic boarding schools and universities. Even the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr Ahmad El-Tayyeb, has visited Indonesia twice, namely in 2016 and 2018. Therefore, taking this opportunity, I would like to express my highest gratitude and appreciation to His Excellency the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar for the generosity, concern, and assistance given to the Indonesian government, especially students who are currently studying at Al-Azhar.

AO: The cultural relations are of particular importance, what are the latest activities?

LR: The Indonesian embassy established the Indonesian Cultural Center (PUSKIN) in Dokki-Giza in 1987 (35 years ago). At PUSKIN, Egyptians learn Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian Language), Indonesian martial arts (pencak silat), and traditional Indonesian dance and music.

The teachers are Indonesian students who are currently studying in Egypt. Egyptians are very enthusiastic about taking courses and training at PUSKIN, among others because Indonesia and Egypt have similarities in terms of culture. Moreover, all PUSKIN activities are provided for free. Every year, more than 1,000 Egyptians study Indonesian culture and language at PUSKIN, and particularly in 2022, there are 1,608 Egyptians who are actively studying at PUSKIN.

In the first trimester of 2023, there are already 300 Egyptians who are enrolled and actively studying at PUSKIN. One of the main activities to introduce Indonesian culture at PUSKIN is martial arts. Until 2023, there have been around 4,200 Egyptians learning pencak silat through PUSKIN. The Indonesian embassy in Cairo also initiated BIPA (Indonesian language for foreign speakers) classes. Currently, there are two BIPA centres that have been running and are getting high interest among Egyptians, namely the BIPA centre of the Suez Canal University and Al-Azhar University.

The Indonesian embassy in Cairo has regularly participated in a number of festivals in Egypt, including the Samaa International Festival, the International Drum Festival, the Ismailia Festival, the Aswan Festival, the Saharat Ramadhaniyah in the Cairo Opera House, and a number of other festivals in Egypt. Additionally, the Indonesian embassy has also regularly organized independent cultural promotion events with the theme of Indonesia-Egypt Day in several governorates. Egyptians love Indonesian cultural performances, especially dances with a fast and upbeat rhythm.

AO: Egypt and Indonesia have great potential in the field of tourism; how do you see that?

LR: Egypt and Indonesia mainly share similar tourism features, namely historical tourism and nature tourism. The differences in geographical conditions between the two countries are factors that could make the tourism sectors of the two countries complement each other.

Egypt has a Middle Eastern climate and culture, while Indonesia has a tropical climate and Eastern culture. In addition, the two countries share one similar potential, namely religious tourism.

Egypt is famous for many of its Islamic historical relics and is an attractive tourist destination for Muslims in Indonesia. Meanwhile, Indonesia is also currently developing its Halal tourism, which is expected to attract tourists from the Middle East, including Egypt.

Starting in the middle of 2022, Indonesia has reopened its doors to foreign tourists, including from Egypt. Until now, foreign tourists have returned to Indonesia's main tourist destinations, Bali and a number of other major areas. Based on data from the Statistical Bureau of Indonesia, even though Indonesian tourism was only opened in the middle of the year for Egyptian tourists, 5,758 Egyptians visited Indonesia, up 842 percent from 2021, when they were only 611 tourists because in 2021 Indonesia enforced very strict regulations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of Indonesian tourists visiting Egypt is still not as high as before, and we hope to see more Indonesian tourists in this lovely country of Egypt.

 

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