A big fan of Egyptian history and culture, Belgium’s Sibille de Cartier is one of the most active ambassadors residing in Egypt, always participating in special celebrations of culture and antiquities or organising an event in those areas.
De Cartier, who took up her post in Egypt in 2016 and is married with two children, studied political science and foreign relations before beginning her diplomatic career about 18 years ago.
She served in three countries -- Rwanda, Kenya and Austria -- before her arrival in Egypt. She was also an advisor to the Belgian foreign ministry on Middle Eastern affairs.
Ahram Online sat down with her to discuss ongoing cooperation between Belgium and Egypt, the success of Egypt’s economic reforms, and her passion for the country’s ancient civilisation.
Ahram Online: What is your assessment of the development of the relations between the two countries? What are the most important areas of cooperation?
Sibille de Cartier: Egypt and Belgium have a very diverse and long-standing relationship which has continued to develop in recent years at all levels.
Politically, there was a meeting this year between President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel. With regard to culture, an agreement was signed in the context of a debt swap, in which Belgium pledged to waive Egypt's debts in return for channelling these debts into a project, which allowed us to contribute to the restoration of Baron Empain Palace in Heliopolis.
On the economic level, the trade exchange between the two countries has reached significant levels and is developing for both sides, rising on the Egyptian side and rising on the Belgian side. So I can describe relationships as balanced.
In the field of transport, several months ago I held talks with the minister of transport and identified several points in which we can benefit from the Belgian expertise in this field and I am confident that there will be future cooperation in this area.
At the EU level, there was an initiative called “Environment Day,” during which several initiatives were launched to protect the environment.
AO: How do you evaluate Belgian investments in Egypt and the trade exchange between the two countries?
SC: They are very important investments, and the diversity in the fields of Belgian investments in Egypt reflects the strength of bilateral relations between the two countries. The fields include the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, construction, and so on. There is an active trade exchange between the two countries, where Belgium imports fruits and vegetables from Egypt and exports chemicals and everything related to factories.
AO: What is the role of the Belgian Embassy in Egypt as a NATO representative, in developing relations with NATO?
SC: At present, the Embassy of Belgium represents NATO in Egypt, a temporary situation, because NATO has no representatives abroad, so it chooses a country to represent it. For Egypt, Belgium is the representative of NATO in Egypt. The embassy was renewed for two years until 2020. Our role is to facilitate relations, arrange exchange visits and highlight the role of the alliance. For example, NATO is now sponsoring a project to facilitate the discovery of mines left over from World War II buried deep in the desert sands, because there are technical difficulties in locating them.
AO: What do you think Egypt has achieved so far in terms of economic reforms?
SC: Egypt has made significant progress in macroeconomic terms. It started in 2016 with the right decision to float the pound, and we can see this in several areas, but it is expected that the impact of these reforms will be reflected in the terms of the microeconomic, and ordinary citizens will feel it. This will take time.
We can take the decision to float the pound in a day, but we cannot reform the entire economy within several days. There is still work to be done in reducing bureaucracy and economic transparency, which will help Egypt move forward. In the end, I can say that we are halfway.
AO: By monitoring the reality of events in Egypt, how do you see the development of the situation of Egyptian women?
SC: This is a big question; I see a certain desire of the government to achieve equality, but this area needs deep reforms because it concerns other problems such as early marriage and female circumcision, as well as respect for women's freedom in public places.
There are many priorities of the government with regard to women, but it will take a lot of time to be reflected in everyday life because changing conceptions takes time. But it is not possible to ignore the strong representation of women in Egyptian politics at present, whether in parliament or in the government, who have assumed many responsibilities.
AO: What is your country's position on regional issues such as Sudan, Libya, Syria and Yemen, and what is your view on solutions?
SC: I am also non-resident ambassador to Sudan so I have a special interest in Sudanese affairs and I try to visit the country regularly. There is a great hope for the Sudanese transitional period, which can be described as largely peaceful, but there is still a lot to do and Sudan needs a lot of support and patience to pass the next stage.
Regarding Libya, I believe that the only message that can be addressed to the parties of the conflict there is; there is only a political solution.
For Syria, Belgium has worked for two important considerations since the beginning of the conflict. First, the emergency factor; allowing humanitarian access, because it was a problem throughout the Syrian conflict, was a priority for Belgium, to allow humanitarian assistance to help people within conflict zones gain a reasonable level of life. The second factor is a political solution to the conflict.
As for Yemen, I can send the same message: to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. We support the existing UN efforts. I think there is an opportunity for a solution and a window is about to open for a political solution to the Yemen crisis.
AO: How do you view the political movements in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran?
SC: I think that people send a political message that must be listened to. These people have demands to listen to and take political steps to respond to them. I believe that these movements must remain peaceful, because the people of these countries will not benefit if events take a non-peaceful turn. And I hope that the demands of these peoples will be heard and dealt with politically.
AO: You are known for your passion for Egyptian antiquities. Did this passion began before or after your position in Egypt, and did you visit Egypt before taking office? Do you intend to return after the end of your mission?
SC: Like all Belgian students, I studied Egyptian civilisation in school. It is included in the Belgian school curriculum because it is one of the civilisations that established humanity. I have made the most of my presence in Egypt and participated in many occasions and visited many archaeological sites, including Coptic and Islamic sites, which contains treasures that are not widely known. Indeed, I visited Egypt several times before starting my duties and was a regular visitor to Egypt before. I will definitely come back to visit after the end of my duties.
AO: There is a fruitful cooperation between Egypt and Belgium in the field of archaeology since 1907 and so far there are about four Belgian archaeological missions in Egypt. What are the latest results of this cooperation, and please highlight the Belgian role in the construction of the Grand Egyptian Museum.
SC: We have missions that carry out research on various eras of Egyptian civilisation and publish this research to confirm what the archaeological missions found. For example, they found many pottery remains in Luxor and conducted research and found very interesting Coptic correspondence. There have been many discoveries in a previous period, but now research is being conducted at many sites, because the most important now or at present is not the discovery of treasures or monuments as far as understanding the content of the discovery, history and sequence of events. There is no doubt that our missions have contributed greatly to the understanding of the history of Egyptian civilisation in various eras.
As for the Grand Egyptian Museum, it is a Belgian company that constructed the building, in conjunction with one of the biggest Egyptian construction companies. We are proud of this great project.
AO: The Belgian people have a good culture regarding Egyptian civilisation. Do the numbers of Belgian tourists to Egypt translate this interest? Or do the numbers still not reflect it?
SC: Indeed, there has been a big rise in the number of Belgian tourists coming to Egypt. The Belgians never left Egypt, but the numbers decreased in the past during the time of the travel ban to some places. The number of Belgian tourists in Egypt in 2018 numbered about 140,000, and there is an increase in that proportion during the current year.