The basic principles governing Egyptian foreign policy over the last century, says former Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Al-Orabi, are respect of international law and charters, non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other nations, and establishing balanced and diversified relations with other states.
Egyptian decision-making, explained Al-Orabi, has always prioritised the national interests of the homeland.
“Egypt’s foreign policy has been attentive to whatever poses an external threat and has aimed to present plans and strategies to the political leadership on how to confront such threats in a way that preserves national security,” he said.
While the principles may be unchanging, actual policies need to be responsive to shifting circumstances. Egyptian diplomacy has weathered many difficulties: Al-Orabi gives, as examples, the defeat of 1967, the severing of relations with Egypt by Arab states following the Camp David peace accords, and the situation that prevailed following 30 June Revolution.
Changes in the leadership’s leanings are inevitably reflected in the way the ministry works, says Al-Orabi. As president Gamal Abdel-Nasser promoted pan-Arabism, so the Foreign Ministry worked to consolidate relations with Arab states. Under president Anwar Al-Sadat, relations with Arab states regressed, and Arab states severed relations with Egypt as a result of its signing a peace agreement with Israel, resulting in a different kind of diplomacy.
“Back then, the ministry worked to limit the losses to Egypt of the Arab boycott and had an important role in confronting attempts to oust Egypt from the Arab League and the Non-Aligned movement,” said Al-Orabi.
He identified the attempt to negotiate shifting alliances as a permanent challenge.
“The Soviet Union, for instance, tried to put Egypt under its influence by providing aid and military facilities, but Egypt managed to resist. Even after signing the peace treaty with Israel, Egypt managed to strike a balance in its relations with Russia, the US and other Western states,” he said.
Egypt, according to the former foreign minister, is used to dealing with changes in the balance of power in the world which seem to occur at intervals of a decade. The ministry dealt with the repercussions of the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the fallout from 9/11 in 2001, and the reverberations of the Arab Spring in 2011.
The current challenges, however, are different, says Al-Orabi.
“We are facing major changes that have a trans-boundary effect. Covid-19 has been followed by the challenge of climate change, and finally the war in Ukraine.”
It is impossible, he continued, to isolate behind your borders and not bother about global developments.
The most pressing challenge at present, Al-Orabi believes, is climate change, and he expects the COP27 summit that Egypt will host later this year to be seminal moment in tackling its impact.
On Egypt’s role within regional and international organizations, Al-Al-Orabi says Cairo’s contributions have always been instrumental. played an important role in establishing the UN when Minister Abdel-Hamid Badawi signed the UN charter in San Francisco, in forming the Arab League during king Farouk’s reign, and in setting up the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor to the African Union.
“Egypt’s presence and the role it plays in these organisations gives it weight and reflects its focus on achieving stability, peace, and development across the Arab world, the African continent, and indeed globally.”
He pinpointed the ways in which Egypt has helped other nations pursue development, saying “any wise country in Africa should espouse such an approach and refrain from taking actions or unilateral decisions that do not conform with the charter of the African Union.”
Egypt also enjoys a considerable amount of soft power, largely due to its venerable culture, and to the influence of its art and cinema.
Al-Orabi recalled that during his tenure in Israel a local television channel used to broadcast a black and white Egyptian film with Hebrew subtitles every Friday, and that many people were keen to watch it. He also recalled that during his service in Berlin, Germans showed enthusiasm for any manifestation of Egyptian culture and civilisation.
Al-Orabi includes the Diplomatic Institute, which is affiliated to the ministry, as a tool of soft power given its role in training diplomats from Arab and African countries.
Soft power was essential, Al-Orabi argues, in presenting the picture of a stable Egypt following the upheavals that followed the 2011 Revolution.
“Some countries declined to deal with Egypt immediately after 30 June, but are now happy to establish good relations as a result of the picture of a stable country that we projected to the world,” he said.
He concluded his review of a century of Egyptian diplomacy by calling on young people to consider a career within the ministry.
Al-Orabi joined the Foreign Ministry in March 1976, alongside former foreign minister Nabil Al-Arabi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. He was deputy chief of the Egyptian mission in Israel from 1994 to 1998. He also served in Kuwait and in the United Kingdom, and as foreign minister Amr Moussa’s chef de cabinet in 2000. He was Egypt’s ambassador to Germany from 2001 to 2008, was subsequently appointed assistant foreign minister for economic affairs. He replaced Al-Arabi as foreign minister in June 2011, only to resign the following month.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.