Egyptian foreign policy, new names for an old game

Dina Ezzat, Saturday 5 Mar 2011

Among those suggested as Egypt's new foreign minister are Nabil El-Arabi, Nabil Fahmi and Sameh Shukri. Egyptian foreign policy, however, is not expected to change

foreign minister
From Left to right, Nabil Fahmy, Sameh Shoukri and Nabil El-Arabi.

The next foreign minister would have to make sure to secure a quick but steady change of posture. "I think people are waiting to see a more rigorous style of diplomacy and I think that the nomination of the next foreign minister will take this issue very much into consideration," said a source close to the Supreme Military Council.

The names suggested so far include veteran and retired diplomat Nabil El-Arabi, who is also a former judge at the Internaitonal Court of Justice, prominent diplomat Nabil Fahmi, who headed Egyptian embassy in Washington during the tough George W Bush years, and Sameh Shukri, Egypt's current ambassador in Washington.

"Shukri might have a problem having served as a close political advisor to Mubarak but he is still a candidate; El-Arabi is being considered as an Egyptian nominee for the post of the secretary-general of the Arab League, and Fahmi is the most likely choice," said an informed official.

El-Arabi is 75, Fahmi is 59 and Shukri is 58. Neither were answering their mobile phones. Shukri was in Washington up until Thursday night (Cairo Local Time), El-Arabi was planning an overseas trip up until Friday afternoon and Fahmi's whereabouts were hard to track.

Egyptian relations with the US, Israel, and the European Union will largely remain the same though.

Egypt's determination to keep the quasi-leader status in the Arab world will also remain as is. So would the half-hearted pursuance of closer relations with Third World countries, especially in Africa.

This is the assessment of several Egyptian diplomats who spoke to Al-Ahram Online following news of the resignation of the cabinet of Ahmed Shafik  - with the subsequent end to the tenure of Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit whose diplomatic posture has entertained considerable concern and at times harsh criticism.

"The underlining basics of Egyptian diplomacy are unlikely to be changed – in fact they have not changed much since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty," said an Egyptian diplomat.

Having served with Abul-Gheit and his two predecessors late Ahmed Maher and Amr Moussa, this diplomat is convinced that "in the final analysis" the policy was "pretty much the same". The posture, however, as he agrees was "considerably different under each one of them". He hastens to add "but in diplomacy, posture is quite a serious matter".

Since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in 1979, Egyptian diplomats agree, Cairo has never thought – not once some say – of severing relations with Tel Aviv or of considering a new war.

"It never occurred to anyone – not in the military, not in the Foreign Service and not in the presidency that our relations with Israel should be subject to any tension," said a retired presidential source. He added that the same goes for Egypt-US relations. Even during the years of "high sensitivity" between former President Hosni Mubarak and former US President George W Bush it was not a question of "rocking the boat".

Egyptian diplomats with over 20 years at the foreign service say that there were always redlines that Egyptian diplomacy does not cross. These included a public fallout with Washington, high tension with key European capitals, suspending peace relations with Israel and severing relations with an Arab capital.

"In this respect Abul-Gheit was like Maher and Moussa," said an on-leave Egyptian diplomat. However, he added, unlike both Abul-Gheit and Maher, Moussa was more willing to push the line. "So he would give Israel a hard time for a while but he would never go too far in actually ensuing tension," he added.

According to the same diplomats the change in posture was not a choice made by either Maher or Abul-Gheit as much as it was the choice of former President Mubarak. In fact, they add that Mubarak's decision "to get rid of Moussa" and to introduce Maher and then Abul-Gheit was indicative of the change of posture at the highest level.

"It was always easier to criticize Abul-Gheit rather than Mubarak but the fact is that the change of posture was decided by Mubarak himself," commented the retired presidential source.

Now in the post-Mubarak era, it is the resumption of this better-posturing and give-and-take that seems to be in order.

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