Casting light on Egypt’s diplomacy

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 13 Dec 2022

Doaa El-Bey interviews Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former foreign minister, on the challenges facing the country’s foreign policy regionally and internationally



Nabil Fahmy, a career diplomat, served as Egypt’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2014. He is also the founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. While foreign minister, he formulated a strategy to reorient Egypt’s foreign policy, ensuring that Egypt had numerous foreign policy options both regionally and globally. He was a member of the Egyptian delegation to the 1991 Madrid peace conference to revive peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israeli. He also served in Egypt’s permanent mission to the United Nations and was Egypt’s ambassador to Japan (1997-1999) and the United States (1999-2008). He is the author of Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace, and Transition (Palgrave, 2020). Fahmy talked to Al-Ahram Weekly about the importance of having a balance in foreign relations.

Egypt’s foreign policy has always aimed at diversity and balance. How far did it maintain that balance in the last decade and what are the challenges facing that balance?

As a medium-sized state, we need to have relations with a multitude of parties to ensure that we have the best options. At the same time, we have to be cautious not to be overly dependent on any one party, friend or foe. There always has to be a diversity of options.

Egypt is a net importer of food. It gets its water from abroad, it tries to attract foreign investments and its national security capacities are purchased from abroad. It is situated on two continents, and overlooks two seas. Having a constructively proactive foreign policy is not a luxury. It is an imperative.

Egypt needs to be 30 per cent dependent on its own resources, and 30 per cent on regional resources. If you do not have balanced regional relations, then everything from the flow of goods and services to security and stability will be affected. Dependence on the international community should not exceed 30 per cent so if there is some instability, a third of your needs will be affected.


What are the options available for Egyptian policymakers in dealing with the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)?

This is not an issue that is going to go away but it is one where a solution is available if prepared for properly both in assertive diplomacy as well as in being more visionary in our scope.

Even the best proposals have to have the proper environment to be able to look at them carefully. And I do not think that that environment exists today between the three countries.

This is not an issue that Egypt can forego or wash away. We have water shortages, and they will increase over time given population growth and climate change.

I do not think that the problem is insurmountable, but I do not see the present environment between Ethiopia and Egypt conducive to comprehensive solutions and that is something to be concerned about because water demand will increase, and you never know when a crisis situation could emerge.

For example, the third filling has occurred, which is obviously illegal. The real problem here is that it is being done unilaterally not by mutual agreement among the parties. If there is a surplus, then water management will be easier but what would be the case if there is a drought? A water management agreement is imperative and without that, there would be a crisis.


The situation in the Arab world is not stable and the future prospects are not reassuring, especially in light of the recent developments in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, in addition to the interference of external parties. Is there a way to create inter-Arab relations that help build a new Middle East that is aware of the changes happening around it and trying to adapt to it?

We are not going to solve all our differences if we do not talk. A more pragmatic realistic Arab approach in dealing with issues is imperative. Furthermore, Arab diplomacy must be energised. You cannot and should not leave regional conflicts to foreign powers or to non-Arab regional powers.

This is the case from Libya to Syria to Yemen and Iraq. More Arab activism is required.

This shift will take time because there has been an Arab vacuum for long periods of time and that vacuum has been filled by non-Arab countries in the region.

But starting the process of re-engaging as Arab countries in dealing with these regional states would be a good first step for many reasons. First because it makes sense; it is our region. Also because nobody has a solution to these conflicts and many countries around the world are looking for a regional party to play this leadership role. Otherwise, you will have these counterbalancing foreign forces and surrogates being managed from afar.

I hoped that the Arab League summit [held last month in Algeria] would have had some more concrete outputs. They had not met for a long time, and just the fact that they met was useful because that attitude of not meeting even if there are no problems is frustrating.

They will not be able to solve all the problems in one meeting, but it reflected the responsibility.

I would have likeed to hear during the summit Arab visions about how different Arab countries would like to see the Middle East in the next 25 years.

Sixty-five per cent of our youth are below 30 years of age. Unless we help them reach their future, we will be making a huge mistake and paying a serious price because non-Arab countries in the region are already talking about the future of the Middle East.


Egypt has always been keen to promote a political settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli struggle. How do you evaluate the current status of the peace process?

We don’t have war, but we don’t have peace either if people are under occupation for 70 years suffering on a daily basis.

I do not agree that the option is a two-state solution or a one-state solution. I understand the diminishing potential of efforts to establish a two-state solution because of trends in Israel. A two-state solution means two national identities and two distinct pieces of land. The one-state does not solve the issue of identity or the issue of land. The one state is a one state reality and it will be a one state with continuous tensions because Palestinians will be treated as second-class citizens at the most and it will be a regime of inequality.

I cannot speak today of a serious peace process between Arabs and Israelis. It was bad with the previous Israeli government where you had extreme right and extreme left. Now, it is even worse with two versions of the right; one very bad version and one very racist.

I am not optimistic about this process, and I think the Palestinians and Arabs need to continue to highlight and codify their right to a nation state in international forums. They need to highlight and codify Israeli violations in different international legal bodies. They need to continue to raise the banner of the Palestinian issue among young generations of the world.

The false narrative that Israel is a weak country living in a threatening neighbourhood was not true in the past and it is not even credible now in the West. And there is a growing empathy towards Palestinians because of the mistreatment they receive from Israelis over the years.


The US and Russia were supposed to start their meeting in Egypt to discuss the New Start nuclear arms control treaty late last month. Why was it abruptly cancelled?

They are not going to talk to each other on important bilateral matters when they are presently in a conflict crisis situation.  

In the post-World War II era that was called the Cold War era, we had adversaries but there was no heated war, therefore, they could talk to each other. It was during that period that they did most of their disarmament work. In a period when the Russians are accusing the West of encroaching near their borders and the West accusing Russia of occupying territory of a different country, they are not going to talk about arms control.

The idea that they are going to simply ignore all this and talk about another topic was a bit surrealistic. It surprised me when they announced it and I was not surprised when it was cancelled.


Addressing the issue of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament in the Middle East is of paramount importance and urgency. Is establishing a region free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East a feasible target?

Either we find a way to solve and deal with that issue or it will get worse. When you are looking at strategic weapons like nuclear weapons, you cannot expect asymmetries. It has to be an equality in obligations because they are make or break existential weapons and I cannot calculate based on whether that government in this or that country is good or bad.

So, either we find a way to break out of this conundrum or you will see more states trying to get the balance through acquiring weapons.

I am a strong supporter of creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. The Soviets and the Americans in the past used to claim that their concept of mutual assured destruction created a balance and deterrent against either side using the weapons. So, you might end up with a Middle East adopting the same bizarre concept. As long as you cannot solve it peacefully, we just solve it by being as strong as the others.


How have recent global developments affected Egypt-US relations?

Relations with the US are important. There is a lot more in common in our goals but there are differences. And no one issue should be used as proof of or challenge to this relationship.

America has and will continue to be a prominent player in the international community. My argument has always been to remain engaged with America so you can manage relations and consequences before it acts regionally. But you should not be overly dependent because in good and bad times it is a global power that has global priorities rather than regional ones.


How do you view the occasional threats of cuts in aid to Egypt?

We were initially given aid as pioneers of the peace process and for supporting America in the liberation of Kuwait. They gave us support then because they saw the value of our actions and position.

Over time, new leaders come and go and the new leadership in the administration of congress revisited the circumstances and wondered whether they are still getting a return.

I think the Americans have generally been generous in their aid package over the years. As much as we appreciate aid, it is important to decrease our dependence on it as new generations of American leaders ask something in return for that aid and we will become less comfortable with their request as time goes on.


How do you assess the outcome of COP27 and how will that outcome impact the pressing issues related to climate change?

It [COP27] was held in very difficult international circumstances: political tensions, shrinking economy, a lack of dialogue, all of which go against the desired inclination of people to get them to cooperate with each other. Nevertheless, dealing with climate change is not a choice. It is an imperative and it cannot be postponed. The target of 1.5 degrees Celsius cannot be postponed.

Nevertheless, there were achievements. The principle of having loss and damage paid to developing countries is a new principle that had not been accepted in previous COP meetings for 30 years.

Having that added to the agenda was a positive, and having the Europeans agreeing to create a fund for that purpose was also a positive development. However, it is a mere “agreement in principle” as there are no figures, no time frame and no commitment to finance the fund yet, and there is a history of lack of fulfillment of past commitments.

The active substantive evaluation of COP27 in terms of its content will be closer to the end of next year, closer to COP28. From COP27 to COP28 we will be able to see if there are a series of commitments in terms of funds and also other countries that focus on CO2 emissions will be able to see if the international community is serious in pursuing this.


What are the messages you send in your recent book Egypt’s Diplomacy in War, Peace, and Transition?

First, it is very important for countries like Egypt and major powers to understand that the international order is facing a perfect storm; it is being shaken to the roots. And I would argue that the regional order in the Middle East is facing the same thing. And that makes it imperative for a country like my own to regionally help set the agenda for how we define things looking forward in the region.

Secondly, we need to become more vocally engaged in what the tenants of the new international world order should be over the next decade or so.

The post-World War II order of 70 years ago is not relevant and not sustainable and has not fulfilled the expectations of developing countries. The major powers still have a major role, but it is imperative to move towards a more equitable order.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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