Wikileaks: the good, the bad and the inevitable

Dina Ezzat , Friday 17 Dec 2010

Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, sees both good and bad in Wikileaks revelations. But for better or for worse, the days of secret diplomacy are nearly over



Nabil Fahmy is currently the dean of the American University in Cairo’s prestigious School of Public Policy. Before assuming this post in 2009 he was Egypt's ambassador to the US for some eight years; these were mostly the very years that the Wikileaks released State Department cables dealt with.
And of what has come out, Fahmy says, "there was nothing that surprised me". He promptly adds, "Not yet; because it is important to keep in mind that everything has not come out as yet".
Speaking to Al-Ahram Online at his AUC office, the seasoned Egyptian diplomat was unimpressed by what the released cables have had to say on Egypt, or Egyptian-US relations.
Fahmy's term of service in Washington coincided with one of the tensest periods in Egypt-US relations, during which former President George W. Bush declared his post-9/11 “war on terror”, and declared “democratizing the Greater Middle East” a top US policy priority.
The cables released so far, however, are not high security-level documents and include mostly the routine daily reporting or recommendations that embassy staff – in this case, US embassy staff in Cairo – would offer to their state department ahead of official talks between representatives of the two nations, says Fahmy.
According to Fahmy, similar cables are to be found in the files of the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Egyptian Embassy in Washington staff reporting on domestic US developments and suggesting outlines for planned talks between Egyptian and US officials.
"I have not seen anything that I would consider overly sensitive, so far".
Neither have the detailed accounts in some of the cables coming out of the US Embassy in Cairo on alternative scenarios of succession to President Hosni Mubarak unfazed Ambassador Fahmy. He insists that it is only natural for the US to keep an eye on the domstic situation in Egypt – a leading regional state and a good ally of the US.
Those recent batch of cables on the matter of succession simply indicate that the US Embassy in Cairo was doing its work of following up on the issue, he argues. "I saw this in Washington when I was there in 2005, ahead of the previous (presidential) elections in Egypt… the Americans were extremely interested, and they were very keen to know if President (Hosni) Mubarak had decided to run".
Asked about the contradictory assessments of the succession issue, by US ambassadors to Cairo, what with the former ambassador being convinced that the succession of Gamal Mubarak, the younger son of President Hosni Mubarak, to the presidency was all but done deal, while the current ambassador seemed much less certain of the inevitability of this scenario? Fahmy answers, that this is fundamentally an expression of "different perspectives of different individuals, and of the time factor and the changing situation" in Egypt.
"And when I was in Washington I was following the US elections".
In the cables he sent from Washington to Cairo on the US elections, Fahmy says that naturally, he too was offering his views on the alternative scenarios, and his assessment of which result would be better for US interests, as well as from the perspective of Egyptian interests.
Fahmy was unwilling to spend too much time on the complaints some of the cables voiced regarding the performance of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. This, he says, is merely a traditional US perception of Egyptian diplomacy. "For years they have complained about the role of the Egyptian Foreign Ministry … These complaints go back to 1973", he added.
Fahmy admits, however, that he is still closely following the Wikileaks-released cables on Egyptian-American relations.
Is he waiting for some particular material that he would rather be kept in the classified and hopefully protected archives of the US State Department, to be released only after 30 years, in accordance with US Freedom of Information Act? Fahmy offers an enigmatic smile – this is not a question he is willing to answer.
Instead he chooses to examine the overall content of the Wikileaks cables and their impact on how diplomacy is exercised. On this subject he offers two conclusions – one is good and another is bad.
The good news as he sees them is that “diplomats now know that whatever they say could come out at any time, which imposes some constraints on the discrepancies between what they say in public and what they say behind closed doors.”
The bad news, as he sees them lie in the "illegal" breach of classified information, which is bound to constrain, “in the short, rather than the medium and long terms, the confidential exchanges between diplomats, that are absolutely necessary for disagreements to be overcome, and for some agreements to be negotiated, away from public scrutiny and pressure.”
He explains, "think of those (Palestinian and Israeli) negotiators who concluded the Oslo Accords (back in 1993); If they felt that everything they say or suggest could be released (almost instantly), you would not have seen the Oslo Accords concluded.” The same, he adds, goes for the secret talks that helped bring an end to the Vietnam War or those that allowed for the US-China rapprochement.
But diplomats today, Fahmy concedes, do not have much of a choice. "We live in a translucent, if not a transparent age," he says.
Before, he states, it was New York Times and the Washington Post journalists who had to convince someone to give them access to the actual hard copies of the cables, now it is Julian Assenge who managed to get someone to download these cables for him.”
Speaking to Al-Ahram Online as Assenge was being released from his London prison on bail, Famhy adds that if was not Assenge, it would be someone else, and if it is not the US State Department Cables, then it might some other cables, from some other foreign service.
"It is an issue of globalization… of a different international paradigm," he says.


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